When he described The Resurrection by Piero della Francesca as “the best picture in the world” Aldous Huxley threw down a gauntlet for the future. This was in 1925, long before the advent of mass tourism turned great paintings into celebrities. Today nobody stands contemplatively in front of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre or Van Gogh’s 1889 Self-Portrait in the Musée d’Orsay, savouring the smallest nuances. Anybody who entertains such desires has little chance of pushing through the crowd and holding their ground for more than a few seconds.
For most people it’s enough to have seen the famous work, if only for an instant. The ideal result is to grab a selfie with the picture – just as you would if you suddenly ran into Kim and Kanye walking down the street. It’s exciting to be in the presence of a celebrity even if you’re not exactly clear how he or she got to be famous.
“Celebrity” is most expediently defined as “the state of being well known”. To be a celebrity you don’t have to have any special genius or be a good person. Celebrity may be conferred by looks, wealth, notoreity or just dumb luck. Most celebrities are quickly made and just as quickly forgotten.
So when did works of art become celebrities? When did we decide that a visit to Paris necessitated a quick visit to the Louvre to take a photo of the Mona Lisa? It has a lot to do with the progress of the smart phone and social media, which have diminished our attention spans and made us into curators of our own lives. Nowadays if experiences are not photographed, posted and archived electronically, it’s as if they had no value.
It could be argued that the opposite applies. Rather than storing precious memories we are adopting a ‘file and forget’ approach to reality.
Celebrities are recognised yet rarely analysed, unless it’s by an expensive shrink, but great works of art have achieved greatness by those qualities that compel sustained attention. When we take a glance at a famous painting and snap a photo, we are hardly seeing it at all. If art historians have been able to write entire books about a single painting that’s because such works are infinitely suggestive.
Many people go to see famous works of art out of a sense of duty, in the same way people with no religious feelings might plod along to church on Sundays. It’s the thing one does. But if this is the only motivation for visiting a museum one would be better off staying home and looking at images on-line.
For those with a genuine passion for art the pleasure resides not in ticking items off a list, but in entering imaginatively into another world and another time. Huxley makes it clear that the contemplation of a painting such as Piero’s Resurrection is also a form of self-examination. In looking long and hard at a work of art we discover our own tastes and ideas. When we return to look at the same work over a period of years we can chart the changes in ourselves.
It’s unusual to like the same things in middle age that one loved in one’s teens. Those schoolchildren who had a poster of Salvador Dalí’s The persistence of memory (1931) on their bedroom wall may come, as adults, to see those melting clockfaces as the apogee of vulgarity. Those who at first saw nothing in Giorgio Morandi’s paintings of jugs and bottles on tabletops, might evolve into fervent admirers.
It’s the same for music and for literature. The things we listen to, the books we enjoy, are constantly changing over time. Our life experiences exert an influence on our tastes while our experiences of art, music and literature exert a counter-influences on our personalities. I have a friend who has read Anna Karenina eight times and says she always finds something new to take away.
The important point is that these deep experiences will be different for every individual, while the shallow experience of mass culture is the same for everyone. This is what Huxley was telling us in 1925 when he described The Resurrection as “the greatest painting in the world”. He acknowledges this as a “ludicrous” claim because – self-evidently – the appreciation of art is not a science. Even the greatest experts have their guilty passions and their blind spots. It wouldn’t make much sense to say Pollock’s Blue Poles is better or worse than Poussin’s Et in Arcadia ego. There are virtually no common standards of evaluation.
Huxley’s claims for Piero’s painting are unashamedly subjective. “Great it is, absolutely great, because the man who painted it was genuinely noble as well as talented. And to me personally the most moving of pictures, because its author possessed almost more than any other painter those qualities of character which I most admire and because his purely aesthetic preoccupations are of a kind which I am by nature best fitted to understand. A natural, spontaneous and unpretentious grandeur – this is the leading quality of all Piero’s work.”
We may object that the 31-year-old Huxley is presuming too intimate an acquaintance with an artist who died in 1492, at the age of 76 or 77. He infers Piero’s “nobility” and “qualities of character” from a few scraps of information in Vasari’s Lives’ and the internal evidence of the paintings.
It’s absurd, but he embraces this absurdity, asserting by a kind of reverse logic that the only ‘truth’ of art appreciation is a subjective one. The rhetoricians call this antiphrasis – a way of saying something in a manner that implies the opposite of the literal meaning. So when Huxley says The Resurrection is “absolutely great”, he is denying the value of absolutes. What he really means is: great for me.
Piero’s intellectual concerns, his “natural, spontaneous and unpretentious grandeur” are precisely those qualities to which Huxley aspired in his own work. He was modest enough to accept that he rarely succeeded, but this was no reason not to set goals for himself, or ask what qualities were most congenial to his own taste and temperament. As opposed to those who believe that the best picture is the most famous or expensive one, or the one that wins a prize, Huxley speaks for those prepared to spend contemplative time with works of art. If I am one of those people, my best picture will always be the best picture. I’ve got mine. What’s yours?
Aldous Huxley’s essay, ‘The Best Picture’ in Along the Road: Notes and Essays of a Tourist, Chatto & Windus, London, 1925
Piero della Francesca’s The Resurrection (c.1460s) may be seen in the Museo Civico, in the artist’s home town of Sansepolcro, Tuscany.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 2 May, 2020