A book that proves art is not just for the initiated and those who pretend to be

November 02, 1997|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

Dozens - thousands - of marvelous things have been written about the meaning of art. One of my favorites is Emile Zola's declaration in "My Hates" (1866): "A work of art is a corner of creation seen through a temperament." Another is Henry James, writing in "The Middle Years" (1893), "We work in the dark - we do what we can - we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art."

For all those wisdoms, and more, faced with most of the writing about art that I have read, I find myself going back to celebrate the doctrine of W. Somerset Maugham, in "The Summing Up" (1938): "There is nothing but art. Art is living. To attempt to give an object of art life by dwelling on its historical, cultural or archaeological associations is senseless."

Yet art must be written about. It is deeply disheartening that it is so seldom written about well - in clear, unpretentious, straightforward and helpful words and sentences.

So welcome and celebrate the arrival on the American market of "Paper Museum: Writings About Paintings, Mostly" by Andrew Graham-Dixon (Knopf. 384 pages. $35).

In his brief introduction, Graham-Dixon presents a brief and memorable distillation of why art matters: "Habit, [William] Hazlitt once wrote, is the enemy of life, because it deadens us to the infinite variety of experience. For that same reason art is one of the great revitalizing forces at work in the world. ... It allows us a way (many ways) out of our own egotism and, in the process, it makes better and larger selves of us all."

Art not only for the elite

Such quotations - while brilliant, glittering - are just that. The real work of understanding or celebrating or presenting art is a whole lot more complicated. Yet - as Graham-Dixon consistently demonstrates - that need never be opaque or posturing or impenetrable.

Graham-Dixon, associate professor of the history of art at the London Institute, is the regular art critic for the Independent, a distinguished national daily newspaper based in London, and this book is comprised of his reviews and essays there.

Much is about classic art, a lot of it more or less modern work. Most of the artists are recognizable, in name at least to even the relatively casual museum-goer. But, having said that, I must insist that a major strength of the book is the accessibility of the artists.

All the pieces are blessedly, digestibly short - once-and-a-half to twice the length of the column you are reading now. Every paragraph in the whole lot could be clearly understood by any reasonably literate person, even someone who lacks a strong curiosity about art.

Graham-Dixon is very funny, but never unkind and never fatuous. He recognizes the important, celebrates the magnificent, and puts in its place work that is neither. Is there a kinder truly insightful estimate of a failed artist than Graham-Dixon's assessment of the late work of James A.M. Whistler: "Why Whistler should have stopped painting his most interesting pictures just when they had become most interesting is a mystery that can never be solved. ... Once his preoccupation became an obsession, it seems he felt compelled to abandon it. We cannot know what made him live his life in such strong and almost continual fear. I think his mother probably knew. But of course it is only a theory."

His explorations are informed by an impressive but unintrusive awareness of the context of the painters' lives and times. The clarity of his language, his splendidly disciplined and imaginative eye, and a rich personal cultureimmensely strengthen the work. Blessedly, he never descends into the swamps of "culture theory" that make political polemics out of so much contemporary writing and lecturing about art and things art-ish.

Try as I did, I could not find a single phrase of the artspeak - the dreaded blather that poisons so much writing about painting and sculpture, the coined academic and trade-catalog phrases that reek of pedantry or hollow pretentiousness. One of my only quibbles is that the book would have benefited from inclusion of more pieces on the more avant avant. This is an argument for a second volume some day.

Thoughtful immediacy

From a purely personal point of view, the most exciting and gratifying thing about Graham-Dixon's essays and this collection that they are an overpowering testament to the fact that art can be written about intelligently and clearly and thoughtfully, and yet with immediacy.

Joy is a vital part of that. Take the very last sentences in this collection, in which Graham-Dixon has been writing about an exhibition of the work of Pierre Bonnard:

"This exhibition reminded me of the young Delacroix's description of how he felt when he saw Gericault's Raft of the Medusa for the first time. He tried to walk home but found himself instead running and whooping, like a madman, with involuntary and unconfined delight."

There are a hundred ways and more for the nascent enthusiast to undertake a broad self-education about art - lots of books prepared as texts, plus a plethora of videos and coffee-tablers. The best known, I suppose, is "The Story of Art," by E.H. Gombrich (Phaedon. 688 pages. $29.95 softcover), but an hour browsing any reasonably civilized bookstore will bring several others to the eye; trust love at first sight.

But if nothing else intervenes, I would strongly suggest that anyone who is suffering with the famous art dilemma of curiosity combined with fear could to very well to buy and read, even quite swiftly, Andrew Graham-Dixon's collection.

Pub Date: 11/02/97

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