The history of art is not the same thing as the history of taste, but the two may be conceived as existing in an elegant helical arrangement, intertwined with a third history—the history of perception itself. For it is demonstrable that the majority of the information that passes within our field of vision remains unanalyzed and unattended to, until we acquire a motive to attend to some part of it. We may scan the trees for signs of a high wind, feel glad when they turn green and sorry when they lose their leaves, without ever stopping to examine the shape of a leaf or fruit, without ever inquiring into their common or scientific names. We may live in a city built in the grandest Beaux-Arts style, without ever pausing to look at the carved details of the façades, the allusive stonework we see every day. We expect no profit from such squandering of the attention.
Then one day things change. We need to learn the names of the trees. Our curiosity is piqued, and we want to know the sources of the style that surrounds us. We pull away a hardboard partition, and find an ornate fireplace concealed. Or, as happened the other day in England, a complete tiled interior, whose existence had been utterly forgotten, is brought to light in an old railway restaurant. We wonder: Why was all that covered up? The answer is: because our parents or our grandparents hated it with a venom. But why are we free to adore it? Because it no longer oppresses us, because it is now rare and not ubiquitous, because ornament is no longer a crime…for any number of reasons, but because of history, in short.
And now we live as if in a differ-ent city, where the trees have their names and their distinguishing leaves, and their contrasting colors and their habits at leaf-fall, and where we find, on the façades of the newly interesting houses, the carved names of architects and sculptors long since forgotten. And all this ornament, which once seemed such an irrelevance, begins to speak to us more clearly, but we are aware that it was always there, always speaking, however little we cared to listen.
For years we were in the habit of visiting the galleries, and searching out the works of the artists who appealed to us, without ever asking, or thinking it important to ask, how it was that this particular painting made its way into our daily lives. Then for some reason things change, and we find ourselves glancing at the accession numbers and the brief indications of provenance. Suddenly we lose the illusion that the only thing that counts, when we look at a picture, is our instinctive, unlearned response. We are not beings born out of time, gazing at objects of art sub specie aeternitatis. The fact that this gallery…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.