Anyone is free to regard a work of art in a subjective manner, according to his own tastes and criteria. But it is also possible to have an objective procedure and to approach the work leaving aside one’s own tastes and criteria or those of such and such an art critic. The first scenario is the most general, certainly the most comfortable. The second requires a great effort of abnegation, abstraction, experience and a great cultivation; it is rarer. There is even a third way, that of intuition; the person has not really made and effort of abstraction, of abnegation, and does not have immense cultivation, but possesses an accurate intuition.
The perception of a work of art
For Joukhadar, if a person does not perceive the value of a great work of art, it is often due to indifference or to prejudice. Now a person who is not interested in a work of art cannot be judged to be insensitive to art; the person might even have a remarkable artistic sensibility without being aware of it. Others might manifest a great interest, which in reality is only mundaneness and hypocrisy. Still others might be touched and interested without wanting or daring to show their interest, in particular if they are going against the current of art criticism.
How, then, can we agree on the real merits of a work? Let us suppose that we are witnessing the fairly pompous opening of an exhibition which has benefited from great media coverage. The name of the artist is written in large letters at the entrance of a prestigious place. The visitors enter this place respectfully, saying to themselves more or less consciously: “I don’t understand what I’m seeing, but this should have some value.”
In reality, they were not really trained in interpreting a work of art. They do not have the capacity or the criteria of comparison, of analogy. They receive information but have received neither the methodology nor the visual reference that would allow them to judge the artistic value of what is presented to them. Their subjectivity comes primarily from their lack of training.
The specialists themselves are often not well trained. For example, such and such a specialist writes about the famous theme of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony: “We have the impression that this theme evokes destiny that knocks on the door …”. Is he conscious that he is repeating groundless clichés, thus giving a simplistic and superficial view of the work? A musicologist with a specialized training could nevertheless offer a vision and an intelligent reading of this symphony; he would begin by eliminating accepted ideas by putting the work into its context. This becomes interesting and telling when one discovers that the famous theme of the Fifth Symphony is taken from a symphony composed by an obscure French composer of the Revolution! In reality, Beethoven pays homage to the ideals of the Revolution, in which he believed. If the musicologist is doubled by an exceptional composer, his approach will be even more accurate and profound, of course on condition that he is totally free from prejudice and jealousy.
Questioned by one of his friends, Ravel surprised him by responding that the music he would love for his burial was Prelude for the Afternoon of a Faun, by Debussy. Ravel explained that this piece had attained perfection. In fact, no note is one too many, and no passage suffers from a lack of inspiration. Ravel further explained to his friend that all composers had learned to fill in certain passages of their compositions with all sorts of artifices to fill and mask voids where inspiration was lacking. These are artifices to which even the greatest have resorted. It goes without saying that one must be a seasoned composer, someone of the trade, so as not to be duped by these artifices.
But it is not enough to be an accomplished artist to be an excellent art critic. For Joukhadar, one must show objectivity and abnegation, which is not the strength of the majority of artists, too concerned about their bitter battle for the limited places at the top. It is also necessary to have received a solid training and especially to have a huge “data bank”. This was the main asset of the great art critic Zeri: a prodigious memory. In reality, a good art critic must have the profile of a member of the championship or competition jury: in general, an exceptionally skilled person with rigorous standards, criteria and methods to judge candidates with accuracy and objectivity.
The lover of art or music could wonder with a hint of despair: ‘So whom should I believe and how can I find my way in all of this?’ In reality and with the previous criteria, the art lover makes a huge step by avoiding following completely and blindly some other authority in the matter, thus exercising his free will.
For Joukhadar, the second necessary element, both for the specialists and for an amateur, is sensibility, that is, the ability to perceive minute nuances. Since it is a matter of seeing and perceiving, a lack of sensitivity and discernment is a serious handicap; the fundamental difference between a banal object and a work of art lies in the richness of the nuances that distinguish the latter. Otherwise, what would be the difference between a plate purchased at a supermarket and a Ming dish, a commonplace armchair and one designed by Boulle?
This capacity to see nuances can be innate and very different from one person to another. But it can also be the object of a long effort of development and refinement which generally begins under the tutelage of an experienced person, or by means of books and documentaries. Personal effort and research then take over. The person begins by developing a sensitivity and intelligence towards an infinity of nuances of colours, learns to give them a name, discovers the materials, discerns the infinite possibilities of a form, its place on a canvas and the relationship of a detail to the total, and so on. This long apprenticeship, with its accumulated knowledge, generates a kind of entity at once intelligent and sensitive, but unfortunately fragile and vulnerable.
For Joukhadar, the characteristic of this sensitive intelligence being open-mindedness, it can be permeable. Nowadays, a refined sensibility is continually invaded and attacked by images and sounds, through the media but also in all public places, champions of visual pollution. As one loses in refinement, little by little without realizing it, by frequenting vulgar and coarse persons, it is the same for the quality of discernment and sensitivity of sight and hearing. Such sensitivity should be protected as would be a person of great importance.
Joukhadar notes the extraordinary interaction between the different senses and faculties, because the beauty that manifests in different forms is finally one. The sensitivity developed and refined in one area excels at the same level as in another.
This was an interaction that had once pleasantly surprised him, following a documentary on Maya Plisetskaya. He was absorbed in watching her in Swan Lake, hypnotized by the grace and aesthetic refinement of the movement of her arms undulating like the water of the lake.
Right after the documentary, he was surprised, listening to a piano piece played by one of the greatest performers, to perceive imperfections that he had not discerned until then. He understood that his sensitivity had been refined by contact with this extraordinary dance, and he felt much more exacting, even in his hearing.
Sensitivity is intimately linked to culture, to pure, cerebral intelligence, and also to a question of heart. A person may be insensitive to a work of art but feel a great sensitivity after a painful experience. Human experience is beneficial to sensitivity, as long as it is not invasive and enriches it.
Joukhadar cites the example of Leonardo, who had an extraordinary mind for nuances, distinguishing him from other artists such as Raphael. Leonardo’s excessive sensitivity enabled him to distinguish what is essentially beautiful in an object or a person, and to make it stand out from the whole. A great connoisseur or art critic must develop this sensitivity to the minute differences that make great works.
In the case of the presentation of a work of art, it is less a matter of convincing than of demonstrating value. An expert at Christie’s or Drouot evaluating a stone or a jewel would be able, at first glance, to decide on the difference between a banal jewel and a piece of jewelry, an emerald bought on a market in Burma and a precious stone of great value. For works of art, there are deceptions that only an expert eye can detect.
In conclusion, the appreciation of a work of art can only be done from a cultural background and a competence intimately linked to an intelligent development of sensitivity.