Move Closer: An Intimate Philosophy of Art
By John Armstrong
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
196 pgs. US$27.00

Revealing the soul

Reviewed by Steven Martinovich
web posted January 29, 2001

Move Closer: An Intimate Philosophy of ArtCanadian-born philosopher Leonard Peikoff once wrote that when it came to the universe creation business, the artist is the person closest to having the power of gods. It's a comparison that has some merit as both art and religion conduct their rituals in the open, yet both are deeply personal experiences. The problem for adherents of both has always been figuring out if they had the proper tools to understand what they were experiencing.

Providing people those tools to understand art - and religion for that matter - has been a minor industry going back to Greek philosophers. John Armstrong's "Move Closer: An Intimate Philosophy of Art" is the latest candidate which attempts to help cultivate the resources one needs to "move closer" to a piece of art. Like all other efforts before Armstrong's, the book suffers from almost insurmountable obstacles.

Armstrong opens his book by counseling us to avoid expecting too much from any one piece of work, good advice since dramatic gratification is a rare thing. To avoid what he calls "art-disappointment," Armstrong takes the solid approach of urging people to take a more personal approach to art and ignore the star power - or lack thereof - of a piece and concentrate on attempting to build a relationship with a particular piece. Armstrong demands that art patrons ask themselves what they must do to get the most out of a piece of art and what is the importance of any piece of art to them.

To do that, Armstrong touches on six broad and interrelated areas: affection, information, resources, reverie, contemplation and investment. Using three dozen works ranging from architecture to paintings from various centuries, Armstrong explores the various techniques that a person uses when moving closer to art and how those techniques can be used to appreciate what they are seeing. His approach is to concentrate on a person's reactions and their likes and dislikes.

Click for larger image of 'Ecstasy' Click for larger image of 'Flaming June'
Maxfield Parish's Ecstasy and Fredrick Lord Leighton's Flaming June are two of Martinovich's favourite works. (click for larger images)

Although it is a worthy effort, Armstrong's work fails on two related counts. As the subtitle of his book suggests, he is largely interested in the personal - or more accurately emotional - response to art. By constantly emphasizing that emotional response, Armstrong leaves himself open to the danger of appeal to majority. If many people like a certain thing - dogs playing poker comes to mind - does that make it good art? By appealing only to a person's emotions, a work stands a good chance of failing to convey the ideas behind it.

Armstrong's second failing is more problematic. Although his appeal to the individual's perceptions of a work could be confused as individualism, it is far from it - not all together a surprise given that his longest chapter is devoted to Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Schiller and Georg Hegel - philosophers who won't be confused as friends of individualism. By arguing that art is largely a subjective experience, Armstrong undercuts any notion that it is the communication of concepts that is the root of great art.

Perhaps rather than argue that a viewer of art give themselves up to a hazy free association, Armstrong would have been better served to point out that art is what Ayn Rand referred to as "a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value judgments," or in simpler language: a work expresses what an artist thinks life is - or isn't. To do that, a more effective argument would have been that the artist must translate their value judgments into objective terms - a concrete reality.

Art is, after all, a metaphysical mirror that depends on the philosophy a viewer brings to it to form an image. To quote Rand again, "When one learns to translate the meaning of an art work into objective terms, one discovers that nothing is as potent as art in exposing the essence of a man's character. An artist reveals his naked soul in his work" as does the reader's response. Armstrong's approach may produce a picture, but it likely is an indistinct one.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.

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