Walter Pater was one of the most honest critics to ever have lived. In his book The Renaissance, this Victorian scholar says something subtly disturbing to many people who love the arts. The purpose of criticism, he argues, is to identity and understand the particular types of pleasure that works of art can give us.
Pleasure! This is something few critics have ever been prepared to be so open about. Art, in a philistine world, is forever fighting its corner. Arts administrators resisting cuts feel obliged to insist on the deeper value of art, its use to society, its ennobling purposes. Artists themselves, when interviewed, also want to come across as serious people doing something of immense political and cultural importance. Only rarely does an artist reject the idea of social and spiritual purpose – as Bob Dylan does in the 1967 film Don’t Look Back, when he sneers at journalists asking him to explain his “message”.
Pater was art’s bravest whistleblower. He said frankly that works of art exist to give us pleasure, just like wines, or divans, or tobacco, or whatever else filled the archetypal Victorian aesthete’s boudoir.
It’s time for me to come clean, too. The reason I write about art is because it gives me so much pleasure. I delight in art. It is a drink, a feast. And this is the true reason why, much of the time, I choose to stress the great paintings and sculptures of history. This isn’t some cliched juxtaposing of figurative art and conceptualism – just a recognition that if you are looking at and writing about art every day you may as well explore the headiest flavours, the richest recipes. If you were a professional food critic, would you want to write about crisps – or haute cuisine? Great paintings that have stood the trust of time are like wines that have matured for centuries.