I’ve been trying to isolate the source of our disagreement, and I’ve formed a hypothesis: I think we disagree about which varieties of “understanding” matter to art appreciation. (Let me know if I’m misinterpreting your views!) The following example — of understanding a war — might help explain what I mean.
I can understand a war in a historical sense if I know its place in history: if I know which sociopolitical forces caused it to occur. (There might even be a beauty to the way these historical forces interact.) But for all that I might not understand the war in a moral sense at all: I might not see any morally defensible reason for the war to have occurred. (The war itself isn’t beautiful in any sense.)
Together with the two varieties of understanding go two notions of “greatness.” The war might be great historically: it might have had a huge impact on the rest of history. For all that, it might have been truly awful morally: it might cause the death of millions of people and have no good consequences at all.
I think — or maybe I just hope — that there is aesthetic or artistic understanding and greatness just like there is moral understanding and greatness. When I fell in love with impressionism as a child, I wasn’t falling in love with art history—only with the special experience that some paintings give me. That experience can certainly be enhanced by art-historical knowledge, but it shouldn’t be replaced with such knowledge. In the case of modern art, I worry that we’re not appreciating artworks anymore, only their place in history.
I can understand Duchamp’s “Fountain” in the historical sense: I know which features of the artistic climate of 1917 made it possible for Duchamp to “create” it. I agree that it’s “great” in the sense that it’s been hugely influential. For all that, I think it doesn’t merit the attention it’s been given. I think it has pushed art in directions that aren’t worth my time and effort. It may be as bad aesthetically as a war is morally.
I understand “Fountain” as a product of art history; I don’t understand it as an artwork. Art appreciation isn’t just history appreciation — at least, not for me.