Friday, 19 October 2007

the critical eye

In her splendid Cambridge Paper, which should open the eyes of philistine Christians (as it has done for me) everywhere to the value of 20th century painting (even the stuff that doesn't look like anything!), Margaret Wilson draws on Italian art historian Guido Ballo's 1966 classic, Occhio Critico, 'The Critical Eye'.

The work is subtitled 'A new approach to art appreciation', but it might more accurately be described as 'a new approach to classifying and showcasing bad art appreciation', presented alongside titbits from the good, critical approach (which Ballo was hardly the first person to advocate, describe or model). He is incredibly rude about 'the ordinary eye' - a non-critical reaction to art conditioned by prejudice and sentimentality. The list of stock phrases used by 'the ordinary man' (pp.71-4) are painfully funny - sometimes I see myself in them, and sometimes I wonder whether Ballo is being a little harsh.

His discussion of the 'Categorical Eye' - a dogmatic approach to art that speaks from only one valid aesthetic position regardless of the art in question is also interesting - he suggests that this kind of single-minded dismissal of whole swathes of styles and movements is characteristic of some of the best artists (though none of the best critics) who are forced to innovate and stretch art in 'their' direction in reaction to the other directions and modalities that have been tried.

Much of the book enacts the critical eye's take on art, in vignette form, and under topics (rather than chronologically, as in Gombrich's superlative History of Art). The critical eye is that which seeks to understand the art against its historical context, the varying purposes of different sorts of art, and in the light of certain important things that art should always be doing - Ballo seems to suggest that good art always has 'rhythm', for example. Like much art and music crit. it struggles with words, and is not always successful in being really substantial in its particular comments and analyses. Nevertheless, in opening up to the reader various ways of understanding appreciating that art that seems foreign and difficult, it is invaluable.

Great piccies, too!