A gentle guide to armchair art for the hungover

The Intimate Philosophy of Art by John Armstrong (Allen Lane, £16.99)
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The Independent Culture

John Armstrong's book is a self-help manual for art-lovers that offers advice on how best to conduct oneself in the presence of artworks. Written in a disarmingly nonchalant style, it is full of valuable and provocative insights that go against the grain of many contemporary assumptions.

John Armstrong's book is a self-help manual for art-lovers that offers advice on how best to conduct oneself in the presence of artworks. Written in a disarmingly nonchalant style, it is full of valuable and provocative insights that go against the grain of many contemporary assumptions.

Armstrong begins by noting that we are often disappointed by so-called masterpieces, and that our disappointment may be due to the criteria used to judge artistic value - such as price, age or historical influence. By the same token, he takes issue with art historians who study artworks as though they were forensic scientists at the scene of a crime, seeking evidence of ideological failings and contradictions.

Armstrong believes such information does not usually foster affection. Rather, we need to draw on what he terms "our own history of impassioned looking", and our own powers of visual synthesis and reverie. Here he cites Ruskin's claim that his love of art was rooted in his childhood experiences of landscape.

Armstrong's plea for a revaluation of the 19th-century notion of the "innocent eye" is eloquent and timely. But the argument is compromised by his highly selective notion of the passions involved in art appreciation. Although he mentions that there are artworks, such as Michelangelo's The Last Judgement and Picasso's Guernica, which are disturbing and distressing, he is almost exclusively concerned with non-confrontational viewing.

This approach is bold and unfashionable - no Caravaggio, Goya or Van Gogh here. But there is a high price to be paid for pacifism in aesthetics. Too often, Armstrong presents us with art-viewing scenarios that lack intensity and modulation. His ideal seems to be a limbo where a bland viewer casually scans a bland artwork.

In the discussions of architecture, the emphasis is on finding old buildings comfortable, while "charming" is the highest praise for pictures. Thus a Renaissance church near Florenceis "the kind of space in which to recover from carsickness or a hangover... it makes no demands of effort upon us". The façade of a small Mannerist church in Siena is good for a "lazy lingering look" and "an ideal setting for early evening drinks".

Elsewhere, the "relaxed enjoyment" of driving near Florence "can be recruited" to the enjoyment of a townscape by Bernardo Bellotto - a painter with whom we can feel "familiar and friendly". Armstrong must be the first person able to relax while driving a car in Italy.

This dilettante, feelgood philosophy recalls Matisse's celebrated contention that he dreamed of an art which has "a soothing, calming influence on the mind of the businessman... something like a good armchair which provides relaxation". This statement has always fuelled criticism that his work is superficial, decorative and hedonistic. Armstrong does not quote Matisse, but he does discuss and reproduce a languid reclining nude from 1936.

Armstrong's discussions centre on domestically scaled easel paintings, and this suggests he favours armchair art. Frescos, altarpieces, sculpture, and virtually all 20th-century art, are conspicuous by their absence. Duchamp is dismissed with the assertion that although he may be important historically, it is a moot point whether what he did was "humanly important, or more narrowly, important to me". This is curious, for modern artists like Duchamp have drawn our attention to the active involvement of viewers in creating meaning.

Duchamp stressed that the creative act is not performed by the artist alone, but in tandem with spectators. The spectators' acts of interpretation "complete" the work, and their opinion determines whether it will survive. The very idea of an intimate philosophy of art is inconceivable without such developments, for they allow that artworks can stimulate an astonishing variety of feelings in viewers - from love through to indifference and even hate.

James Hall is the author of 'The World as Sculpture' (Pimlico)

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