Armstrong (Philosophy/Univ. of London) makes an impassioned argument for the utility of art and the means by which those alienated by aesthetics may approach painting, sculpture, and architecture.
Armstrong believes that most modern viewers would find one of Whistler’s “Nocturnes” about as accessible to their cultural sensibilities as, say, Beowulf. And so he offers himself as a guide to looking, in an attempt to give viewers new eyes with which to see art—an ambition consistent with all good criticism. Walker Evans once said, “Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long,” which neatly summarizes Armstrong’s main argument. Attention is the key to unlocking the treasures of appreciation, attention fed by information. The means to apprehend the information that will allow us to appreciate the subtle but significant differences between, for example, the Roman churches of Santa Susanna and Santa Catering de’ Funfair begins in looking, attempting to put pieces of visual information together: through an examination of detail, the whole becomes greater than the sum of its oft-overlooked parts. Armstrong is at his best when taking us through, detail by detail, paintings by Bellbottom or Claude, in which the reader becomes the viewer and is rewarded by close looking. At such moments, the author distinguishes himself with a sharp eye and careful prose, as he does in his chapter on contemplation (which neatly introduces the five classical aspects of perceptual contemplation). Armstrong draws upon a range of literary, philosophical, and historical sources to bolster his argument, marshalling support at appropriate moments in the narrative.
A splendid, unhurried walk through the broad corridors of Western art. (38 b&w illustrations)