Passions run high as the joy of art is laid bare

December 2, 2005

Our monthly guide to some of the conferences taking place around the world

Harriet Swain discusses visual thrills with organisers of a conference that offers controversial bitesized ideas

When Malcolm Bowie, master of Christ's College, Cambridge, tells people that much of his job involves reading French novels, their response is, "Get serious, get a day job". Similarly, he says, many lab-based academics find the idea of going to a Titian exhibition for work absurd.

And maybe they have a point. He has long thought that art is a strange thing to pursue at university.

In an attempt to make sense of academic study that involves, as Bowie puts it, "a lot of individual delectation", the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (Crassh) in Cambridge is holding a conference next month on Why Art Matters .

The conference is very much Bowie's baby, bringing together colleagues, protégés and others who have sparked his interest over the years to discuss their specialist takes on music, the visual arts and literature.

It is born out of the project New Languages for Criticism, which was launched in 2003 to explore the way critical language is used in different fields of the arts and how this affects interdisciplinary studies. Previous events include a study day looking at evaluating music in a similar way to literature, a conference on writing about dance and an afternoon discussing Adorno and the artistic avant-garde.

Ludmilla Jordanova, director of Crassh, says that in light of new thinking about the ways the public experiences the arts, it is time to address tensions over how accomplished people need to be in a particular art form to criticise it effectively.

Art historians and musicologists in particular tend to stress the graft needed to appreciate their subjects, says Bowie, who argues that this ignores the pleasure that art provokes.

"There is a certain extreme dryness in various academic departments in talking about art," Bowie says. "They talk about it in all sorts of ways other than the fact that it is fun."

This is one reason why speakers at December's conference have been told to keep it brief. Gillian Beer, who co-directs the conference with Bowie and Beate Perrey, senior lecturer in critical musicology and analysis at Liverpool University, says the idea was to get together a large and dynamic group of people to discuss art's significance from a personal point of view, while leaving enough time for a crossover discussion.

Hence Jacqueline Rose, professor of English at Queen Mary, University of London, will tackle Proust and Palestine; Rachel Bowlby, professor of modern English at Imperial College London, will give a talk on Baudelaire and Freud; and Marian Hobson, professor of French at Queen Mary, will address the language of texture and subject in Antonio Canova's sculpture - each in 15 minutes.

Passion - and controversy - will be encouraged. One of the things that drives the New Languages for Criticism project, Perrey says, is the desire to explore a kind of writing "that doesn't try to negate the emotional side of things - the emotional engagement we have with art. That's something that doesn't happen much with academia."

But no one should get carried away by emotion, suggests Peter de Bolla, author of Art Matters . Taking as his theme the various ways in which Wordsworth's short poem A Slumber did my Spirit Seal has affected him in 15 years of reading it, he will argue that the experiences stimulated by works of art have a cognitive dimension that can be analysed effectively.

And Brian Hurwitz's paper will explore the possibility that art matters in practical ways. Hurwitz, professor of medicine and the arts, has worked with artist Deborah Padfield on a project involving patients suffering chronic pain. With the help of one group of pain sufferers, Padfield developed a series of visual images depicting different kinds of pain and another group of patients was asked to use these as the basis of discussions in National Health Service pain clinics.

By contrast, young writer Adam Thirlwell will suggest that art may not matter very much at all - or perhaps only "in the same way chocolate matters". Taking as the title of his talk "In praise of flippancy" he will concentrate on writers such as Nabokov and Flaubert, who claimed to regard art as simply a game. He will explore the contradiction between this attitude and the fact that they would spend days perfecting a sentence.

From this diverse set of themes and speakers thrown so intensively together, Beer hopes the conference will achieve "a fuller sense of the presence of art in all our lives".

Why Art Matters takes place on Monday December 12 at West Court, Clare Hall College, Herschel Road, Cambridge.

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