To what degree does contextual knowledge (of the life, times, intentions, conditions, formal and technical processes, character etc) of the artist really deepen, or even distort, our appreciation of the actual art form itself?

Does our knowledge of the author of an artwork and its historical context affect our judgment of its virtues? Should a work of art essentially speak for itself and suggest its own significance to a reader, viewer or listener without needing a supporting commentary to unravel its meaning? If this is the case does it assume that art can only be fully appreciated by the initiated or those who are previously informed with background information.

D.H.Lawrence reckoned that relevant background context was of the utmost necessity to appreciating his work. In the Preface to his Collected Poems Lawrence wrote:
Even the best poetry, when it is at all personal, needs the penumbra of its own time and place and circumstance to make it full and whole. If we knew a little more of Shakespeare's self and circumstance, how much more complete the Sonnets would be to us, how their strange, torn edges would be softened and merged into a whole body!
(taken from the article 'In My View' by Bernard Richards in The Sunday Times, May 1989)

Factors influencing our reaction to pictures (or other works of art) context,anecdote,personal feelings and mood,the environment in which the work is placed or listened to, knowledge or ignorance of allusions, history, the placing of a work, the effect the lifestyle of an artist may have on us (ie Wagner's anti-Semitism). It is strange how people change their reaction to a piece of music or a drawing if they are told midway that it is a composition by the 8 year old Mozart, 12 year-old Rossini, the 14 year-old Durer, the deaf Beethoven. Would we adjust our opinions of the paintings of Churchill and Hitler if we were only later made aware of their authorship? Personal symbolism can be employed in pictures which may be lost in the fullness of time (ie portraiture, locations and objects only familiar to the artist who made the picture and perhaps to his cronies and family, or scholar etc.). Does awareness of symbolic allusions really help or sharpen our understanding?

The Intention of the Artist

How important is it to understand the underlying intentions on the part of the creator?
Fakes and Forgeries If we are told that a painting that we had previously derived much pleasure from was a fake, does our response to it change? Do we no longer accept it as the painting we once loved merely because it has been ascribed to someone else? Do we modify our feelings about it because we feel we have been cheated about its authorship? While the painting itself remains physically exactly the same, can our minds really be affected by such things as authenticity?Is it the change of value in money terms that we are really worried about? What happens to our feelings about a hitherto ascribed fake painting suddenly being found by scholars to be genuine after all?
The personal value of photographs in family albums rests more with the delight in knowing that the people in them are your very own ancestors rather than the quality of the photographic image itself. If it were possible to see authenticated photographs of life on earth hundreds of years ago we would probably be fascinated by the content of the image more than its quality.
Part of the meaning in narrative illustration is implied in its connecting text. Are the titles and narrative backgrounds to the stories of some of the Old Masters essential to our better appreciation?
Should the image speak for itself?

In the main the viewer reading the forms in a picture should be able to follow the underlying intentions of the image's creator without recourse to possessing an instruction kit. This is not to say that an image is stuck with only one expected interpretation. Most images offer wide interpretation and appreciation by viewers on many levels, some of which might never have been consciously considered by the artist. (consider the degree to which an image may have wide interpretation).
Appreciation and Understanding
Surely we are able to appreciate things without understanding them. You don't have to be an entomologist to appreciate the wings of a butterfly, nor a botanist to appreciate the petals of a flower. Making a connection with a work of art is perhaps a form of understanding it.
To appreciate something is different to understanding it; the one is valuing and feeling grateful for its existence through a recognition of its qualities; the other is the comprehending the nature and meaning underlying it. We may be able to value and feel grateful for an image's existence by certain qualities it may possess, without necessarily entirely comprehending its nature, meaning or intended significance.
Appreciating something without properly understanding its form, or how and when it is was made, does not surely mean that one is appreciating the artifact at a lower level than those who understand it more. We may appreciate 'Old Masters'' paintings without actually knowing that some of their compositions may have been based on geometrical grid structures using 'golden section' intervals or other proportional divisions. We may appreciate a Seurat painting without being aware of his systematic use of scientific colour theory.

Some of the symbols employed by artists may allude us as to their meaning. We are able to appreciate a landscape without a knowledge of its topographical location or if it is indeed a specific place at all. Identification of actual personages in pictorial matter is unimportant to us when it comes to our appreciation of a portrait. A knowledge of history, artistic theories and manifesto may deepen our appreciation of the underlying context, content and artist's intention but doesn't the 'art' really speak for its self ultimately. Do we really need to absorb the catalogue text of an exhibition or read the programme notes prior to attending a concert to reach towards ultimate or quintessential appreciation? Do we really need to know about or be aware of key signatures, beats in the bar, counterpoint, fugue form, or the fact that J.S.Bach introduced the musical letters of his own surname (B A C H = B flat, A, C, B natural) as a counter subject in the last fugue, in order to gain full appreciation when we are listening to his Art of Fugue? How important is it for us to know that it was written in 1749 as Bach's last composition, written in his mid sixties and left unfinished at his death? In other words do we need to be a botanist to be able to fully appreciate the beauty of a rose? Is our delight in a landscape impoverished if we are ignorant of geography, geology, botany and topography?

Picasso has written -
'Everyone wants to understand art. Why not try to understand the song of a bird? Why does one love the night, flowers, everything around one, without trying to understand them? But in the case of painting people have to understand... .People who try to explain pictures are usually barking up the wrong tree.'
Pablo Picasso, Artists on Art ,edited by Robert Goldwater and Marco Treves (see p.53 in The Macmillan Treasury of Relevant Quotations )