Lord David Cecil? I hadn’t heard of him either until I found this little book in the British Library ten years ago. All of 44 pages and first published in 1949 – thank goodness it’s still in print even though its Amazon ranking is a depressing 3.4 million. But it’s a book that another writer could have written with 400 pages and still does not tell what this one tells.
The Fine Art of Reading (Souvenir Press, 2001) is astonishing because Lord Cecil (1902-1986) had distilled his lifelong experience of reading, writing, and teaching – and no small amount of contemplation – into this treasure trove of wisdom. Wisdom that I think applies to visual art, or fine art; particularly in today’s conceptual and ‘anything goes’ environment: That pile of rubbish on the floor, it’s art?
Why is art useful? How does it make us more imaginative, more tolerant?
It does so by making us humble to examine another point of view different from ours – thus widening our perspectives and seeing more possibilities.
“He who aspires to be a man of taste should suffer from a sense of failure if he does not enjoy them all [great writers]. To do so, however, may mean subjecting himself to a stern course of self-discipline and self-effacement: he may have to learn to subdue his tenderly cherished prejudices, silence his garrulous self-important opinions if he is to attain to that receptive state of mind in which he can freely and spontaneously surrender himself to the book which he has chosen to study.”
“[Some critics] take their first raw instinctive reactions as axiomatic: and instead of striving to widen their sympathies and correct their taste, spend their energies in constructing a philosophy of aesthetics to justify these first reactions.” *
Can I just enjoy what I like personally?
Yes, but you enjoy more if you can see a wider range of good art. And even Picasso made some bad art while many little known artists make excellent art.
“Of course, human beings are of their nature imperfect: and our temperamental inclination will, whatever we do, always impair in some degree our capacity for appreciation… In fact, we can broaden our aesthetic sympathies far more than we expect to, when we start to try. The taste grows supple and flexible by training…”
“… Greater breadth of sympathy makes us more detached, less partisan, readier to recognize that even our favourites are fallible…”
What kind of art will be remembered in history? Who will be the Leonardo and the Michelangelo of tomorrow?
Yes, you can sense it, by refining yourself to be receptive to genius. Here Cecil quotes Walter Pater (British, 1839-1894, literary and art critic) and then adds a caveat:
“’The critic [or critical viewer] will always remember that beauty exists in many forms. To him all periods, types, schools of taste, are in themselves equal. In all ages there have been some excellent workmen and some excellent work done. The question he asks is always: ‘In whom did the stir, the genius, the sentiment of the period find itself? Where was the receptacle of its refinement, its elevation, its taste?’ ‘The ages are all equal,’ said William Blake, ‘but the genius is always above its age.’” [If Leonardo were alive today, he may well be making virtual art]
“…All this should put us on our guard against starting to read any book [see any art] with a preconceived idea of what it ought or ought not to be like. For this reason rigid systems of aesthetic law – rules of design and composition and vocabulary, and so on – are to be viewed with suspicion. No doubt all good works of art have certain common characteristics, like unity, pattern, style. But these can be achieved in many different ways. For, since each work is the record of a new vision, it must to a certain extent evolve its own new form and explore its own new subject-matter…”
Is art a good source of factual information?
No. The artist may start with some actual observations or facts but then he can go off in unexpected directions and we learn something else that may not even be expected by the artist.
“Art is not like mathematics or philosophy. It is a subjective, sensual and highly personal activity in which facts and ideas are the servants of fancy and feelings; and the artists’s first aim is not [factual] truth but delight.”
What is art? What is good art, and good science?
Good art is authentic art which comes from an artist’s unique response to a deeply felt emotional experience. Even Picasso or Shakespeare did not always respond strongly to all experiences. And this uniqueness and un-repeatability also sets art apart from science. Scientific experiments must be validated by being repeatable by others and cannot involve emotions or false facts.
“[Art] is the result of two impulses. First of all, it is the result of a personal vision. Some aspect of the artist’s experience strike him with such freshness and intensity that he feels impelled to communicate it to other people…People do not become painters simply because they want to paint some particular object. They do it because they like painting; because the creative instinct in them finds fulfillment in constructing a pleasing pattern in line and colour… This double impulse – to express the individual vision and to work in a particular medium – actuates every true artist. It is the union of the two that produces the phenomenon that we call a work of art.”
“A unique phenomenon: the result of an unprecedented and unrepeatable fusion of subject and personality and form. It is just this uniqueness which is the object of our appreciation. For in it resides its vital virtue, its aesthetic quality; only so far as it possesses it does it exist as a work of art at all. And our task is to discern this quality and respond to it… Our first aim must be to see the work as it is.”
These are just random passages but every sentence from the book is quotable. And I can read it again and again and discover new thoughts – not because the book changes. It’s because I have been changed by each reading.
* In this era of how many followers does my blog (comment, show, column etc.) have? And I am the authority because I have a firm conviction of aesthetics (or whatever) – one forgets that the man of truth seeks knowledge and wants others to do their own thinking. One last quote from a Confucian classic,The Great Learning: “There are four things from which the master was entirely free. He had no foregone conclusions, no arbitrary pre-determinations, no obstinacy, and no egoism.”
NEWS & UPDATES:
11/9/2014 See here what Leo Tolstoy, Pablo Neruda and Oscar Wilde think what art is. They are remarkably similar to what Lord Cecil described.