April 22, 2003
On "knowing" about art

I'm only now getting around to commenting on this piece in the electric Sun, which Alice Bachini linked to last week. It's about how Saddam Hussein liked paintings of fantasy heroes battling snakes and monsters, and impressing scantily clad blondes.


Alice quotes the Sun approvingly for reporting that "experts" reckon that the pictures Saddam liked show that he knew nothing about art. Says the Sun's Sally Brook:

Experts also reckon they show he knows NOTHING about art.

The basis of Alice's complaint about these pictures is that she didn't like all the people she once knew who did like them. Fair enough. Don't tell my friend Chris Tame, the Director of the Libertarian Alliance. He loves this sort of stuff, as, I would surmise, do quite a few other libertarians.

But what interests me is this notion of "knowing" about art. Who says that in order to enjoy art you have to "know" about it? Liking paintings like this would prove that you "know nothing" about art, only if included in this "knowledge" is the knowledge that art such as this is completely worthless. But how can any such thing be "known"?

As I've said here earlier, somewhere, at some time or another, Tom Wolfe's book The Painted Word is a key Brian's Culture Blog text. This is because this book nails a certain sort of modern art which only has any meaning or value at all because of what those who like it "know" about it. What would otherwise have been regarded as mere items of refuse or of at best trivial decorative value become, because and only because of the theories by which art critics surrounded these objects, "important" objects.

You can see why critics – why "experts" - would love this sort of art, because it puts them right at the centre of the story. No critical "theory", and you have no "art". Just bits of junk.

And at the opposite end of the artistic universe you have paintings like these ones that Saddam Hussein stands accused of liking. Paintings that are "of " something, and what is more, of something exciting and glamorous and stirring to the imagination. These are paintings you can enjoy, if you enjoy this sort of thing, without "knowing" any more about them then you can see by just looking at them.

There is, of course, plenty that one might know about such paintings as these. There might be published stories to know about, of which this painting is an illustration. There might be other paintings to know about, by the artist who painted this one. And so forth. So I'm not saying that art "knowledge" is worthless and pointless. But if you have to know things for a work of "art" to be of any value at all, or to mean anything at all, well, that's something else again. Something else again from art, I would say. If it is art, then it is art of a very silly sort.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:54 PM
Category: Painting