To what degree does contextual knowledge (of the life, times, intentions,
conditions, formal and technical processes, character etc) of the artist
really deepen, or even distort, our appreciation of the actual art form
Does our knowledge of the author of an artwork and its historical context
affect our judgment of its virtues? Should a work of art essentially
speak for itself and suggest its own significance to a reader, viewer
or listener without needing a supporting commentary to unravel its meaning?
If this is the case does it assume that art can only be fully appreciated
by the initiated or those who are previously informed with background
D.H.Lawrence reckoned that relevant background context was of the utmost
necessity to appreciating his work. In the Preface to his Collected
Poems Lawrence wrote:
Even the best poetry, when it is at all personal, needs the penumbra
of its own time and place and circumstance to make it full and whole.
If we knew a little more of Shakespeare's self and circumstance, how
much more complete the Sonnets would be to us, how their strange, torn
edges would be softened and merged into a whole body! (taken
from the article 'In My View' by Bernard Richards in The Sunday Times,
Factors influencing our reaction to pictures (or other works of art)
context,anecdote,personal feelings and mood,the environment in which
the work is placed or listened to, knowledge or ignorance of allusions,
history, the placing of a work, the effect the lifestyle of an artist
may have on us (ie Wagner's anti-Semitism). It is strange how people
change their reaction to a piece of music or a drawing if they are told
midway that it is a composition by the 8 year old Mozart, 12 year-old
Rossini, the 14 year-old Durer, the deaf Beethoven. Would we adjust
our opinions of the paintings of Churchill and Hitler if we were only
later made aware of their authorship? Personal symbolism can be employed
in pictures which may be lost in the fullness of time (ie portraiture,
locations and objects only familiar to the artist who made the picture
and perhaps to his cronies and family, or scholar etc.). Does awareness
of symbolic allusions really help or sharpen our understanding?
The Intention of the Artist
How important is it to understand the underlying intentions on the part
of the creator?
Fakes and Forgeries If we are told that a painting
that we had previously derived much pleasure from was a fake, does our
response to it change? Do we no longer accept it as the painting we
once loved merely because it has been ascribed to someone else? Do we
modify our feelings about it because we feel we have been cheated about
its authorship? While the painting itself remains physically exactly
the same, can our minds really be affected by such things as authenticity?Is
it the change of value in money terms that we are really worried about?
What happens to our feelings about a hitherto ascribed fake painting
suddenly being found by scholars to be genuine after all?
The personal value of photographs in family albums rests more with the
delight in knowing that the people in them are your very own ancestors
rather than the quality of the photographic image itself. If it were
possible to see authenticated photographs of life on earth hundreds
of years ago we would probably be fascinated by the content of the image
more than its quality.
Part of the meaning in narrative illustration is implied in its connecting
text. Are the titles and narrative backgrounds to the stories of some
of the Old Masters essential to our better appreciation?
Should the image speak for itself?
In the main the viewer reading the forms in a picture should be able
to follow the underlying intentions of the image's creator without recourse
to possessing an instruction kit. This is not to say that an image is
stuck with only one expected interpretation. Most images offer wide
interpretation and appreciation by viewers on many levels, some of which
might never have been consciously considered by the artist. (consider
the degree to which an image may have wide interpretation).
Appreciation and Understanding
Surely we are able to appreciate things without understanding them.
You don't have to be an entomologist to appreciate the wings of a butterfly,
nor a botanist to appreciate the petals of a flower. Making a connection
with a work of art is perhaps a form of understanding it.
To appreciate something is different to understanding it; the one is
valuing and feeling grateful for its existence through a recognition
of its qualities; the other is the comprehending the nature and meaning
underlying it. We may be able to value and feel grateful for an image's
existence by certain qualities it may possess, without necessarily entirely
comprehending its nature, meaning or intended significance.
Appreciating something without properly understanding its form, or how
and when it is was made, does not surely mean that one is appreciating
the artifact at a lower level than those who understand it more. We
may appreciate 'Old Masters'' paintings without actually knowing that
some of their compositions may have been based on geometrical grid structures
using 'golden section' intervals or other proportional divisions. We
may appreciate a Seurat painting without being aware of his systematic
use of scientific colour theory.
Some of the symbols employed by artists may allude us as to their meaning.
We are able to appreciate a landscape without a knowledge of its topographical
location or if it is indeed a specific place at all. Identification
of actual personages in pictorial matter is unimportant to us when it
comes to our appreciation of a portrait. A knowledge of history, artistic
theories and manifesto may deepen our appreciation of the underlying
context, content and artist's intention but doesn't the 'art' really
speak for its self ultimately. Do we really need to absorb the catalogue
text of an exhibition or read the programme notes prior to attending
a concert to reach towards ultimate or quintessential appreciation?
Do we really need to know about or be aware of key signatures, beats
in the bar, counterpoint, fugue form, or the fact that J.S.Bach introduced
the musical letters of his own surname (B A C H = B flat, A, C, B natural)
as a counter subject in the last fugue, in order to gain full appreciation
when we are listening to his Art of Fugue? How important is it for us
to know that it was written in 1749 as Bach's last composition, written
in his mid sixties and left unfinished at his death? In other words
do we need to be a botanist to be able to fully appreciate the beauty
of a rose? Is our delight in a landscape impoverished if we are ignorant
of geography, geology, botany and topography?
Picasso has written -
'Everyone wants to understand art. Why not try to understand the song
of a bird? Why does one love the night, flowers, everything around
one, without trying to understand them? But in the case of painting
people have to understand... .People who try to explain pictures are
usually barking up the wrong tree.'
Pablo Picasso, Artists on Art ,edited by Robert Goldwater
and Marco Treves (see p.53 in The Macmillan Treasury of Relevant Quotations
JOHN VERNON LORD