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A connoisseur argues for art as a form of life

Painting as an Art, by Richard Wollheim. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. 388 illustrations, 30 in color. 384 pp. $45. In ``Painting as an Art,'' philosopher Richard Wollheim has done the improbable: He's argued well for connoisseurship as the most profound mode of art history. Connoisseurship involves attributing paintings to painters through analysis of style. It creates the hierarchy of values reflected in the canons of art masterpieces.

In our relativistic age, connoisseurship is in bad odor. And yet, today museum visits are up, and paintings by masters are fetching unheard-of prices. Today we are asking: Is art really so valuable?

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In making the case for painting, Wollheim is not simply trying to shock the art professors. He is not a reactionary. He is following up an insight he had 20 years ago and wrote about in ``Art and its Objects.'' In this austerely logical essay, Wollheim attacked the main clich'es about art. He argued that art is a ``form of life.'' It's neither a mirror of life nor a set of arbitrary conventions. Art is art. It is what tradition says it is: something that endures, that survives its ``consumption,'' that is apprehended by the eyes and ears, that has internal organization, that is inherently valuable, and so on.

Wollheim wants to clear the mind of common errors. He rejects the fashionable skepticism of the historicists, on the one hand, and the scientism of semiologists on the other. His book bears eloquent, sometimes astringent, witness to his belief in ``a common human nature'' as displayed in pictures. Wollheim clearly loves pictures - not just art, but specific pictures, among them those he discusses so perceptively in this book.

He says he sits in front of a painting for hours. He feels that ``often careful, sensitive, and generally informed, scrutiny of the painting will extract from it the very information that is needed to understand it.'' He's not saying we don't need historical information about the artist, the materials, the society, and so on. In ``Painting as an Art'' he draws on all the historical information he can get. But he argues that the value of such information depends on its usefulness in understanding paintings. Historical information must be tested by the eyes. His book is full of demonstrations of this kind of testing.

Early in his argument, Wollheim points out that looking, or scrutiny, is a repetition of the act of the artist. In general, he says a work of art must be appreciated in terms of the intentions of the artist. He feels a painting reflects the mind and mood - beliefs, dispositions, experiences, conscious and unconscious - of the artist.

Pointing to Vincent van Gogh's self-portrait in front of his easel, Wollheim comments that the observer or spectator is really just doing what the painter did in creating the work: facing the painting ``with his eyes open and fixed upon it.'' He notes that as he paints, the artist is ``keeping the painting on track.'' He compares it to someone driving a car. This activity is an activity of the eyes as much as of the mind. Then the brilliant distinction. ``Like the driver, the artist does what he does with the eyes. Unlike the driver, he also does it for the eyes.''

Along with painting, Wollheim says he loves socialism. His concern for the human condition is obvious. He is not so much ideological as interpretive. Discussing the odd, abstracted look on the faces of many of Manet's subjects, he points to the portrait of Clemenceau. Physician, journalist, leftist, ``The Tiger'' is nevertheless ``captured'' in a moment of ``absence,'' of dense, self-contained, fitful, perhaps pointless brooding. According to Wollheim, the ``mood'' of Manet's Clemenceau goes back to the mood of the mind that created it, linking it to the mood of the beholder of the painting.

Wollheim's defense of connoisseurship - of identifying and appreciating the painting in terms of the painter's unique humanity - is thick with perceptions. It's really a defense of common practice, the ways painters paint, the ways we see what it is they try to do. After the introductory chapters, Wollheim treats special problems of seeing art in terms of certain painters.

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The range is impressive, the teaching masterly. In ``The spectator in the picture,'' he discusses paintings by Friedrich, Manet, and Hals; in ``Painting, textuality, and borrowing,'' paintings by Poussin, Manet, and Picasso; in ``Painting, omnipotence, and the gaze,'' paintings by Ingres and (again) Picasso; and in ``Painting, metaphor, and the body,'' paintings by Titian, Bellini, de Kooning, and others.

His discussions of certain works can be revelatory. He opened my eyes to the beauty and power of Poussin by going against another great connoisseur, Lawrence Gowing, who has argued that Poussin was a stoic. Wollheim shows that the foliage of Poussin's heroic landscapes celebrates instinct, natura naturans, as Coleridge would say: nature being nature, not nature as law, but nature alive, flourishing, and man - diminished, perhaps, in his own eyes - in its lap.

By connecting the essence of a painting with the identity of the painter, ``Painting as an Art'' reveals the humanity in great painting. The connections are solid. Wollheim writes with sinew and nerve. He has rescued the practice of connoisseurship from effeteness. By demonstrating that art is ``a form of life,'' Wollheim has set an example: Art history, like philosophy, can be a form of the love of wisdom.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

In the review of Richard Wollheim's book ``Painting as an Art,'' which ran on this page Dec. 16, the Poussin critic was incorrectly identified. He is Anthony Blunt, not Lawrence Gowing. The Monitor regrets the error.

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