Saturday, June 21, 2008

Essays by art critics and art historians

Art of the Twentieth Century: A Reader, edited by Jason Gaiger and Paul Wood.

From the blurb on the back cover:

"Art of the Twentieth Century: A Reader is a collection of writings by critics and art historians on the major themes and debates that have animated the practice and interpretation of art over the last hundred years. [. . . ] Key themes and topics include: canonical modernism and the questioning of the principles of modernism; the role of the avant-garde; photography in art; the pivotal moment of the late 1960s; the shift from modernism to postmodernism; gender and the performance of identity; and the globalisation of art. Art of the Twentieth Century: A Reader is a free-standing volume that will be of interest to the general reader and student alike. It is also a companion volume to the Open University art-history course of the same name. Jason Gaiger and Paul Wood are both lecturers in art history at the Open University."

I've only read a couple of the essays so far, so this is a first impression rather than a review, but it seems like a worthwhile purchase. A point in its favour is that the essays are directly about visual art topics, and the topics covered would not generally be found in art history textbooks, or at least not in as much depth. This makes the book more relevant to the visual artist than "cultural studies" texts which tend to be more about philosophy, aesthetics and political theory.

Even so, I have a level of caution about writings by critics and art historians, who are often not themselves artists and who may or may not have a sufficient grasp of the practical issues that affect the making of art. But I'll be keeping an open mind and am looking forward to reading Clive Bell and Roger Fry, who I've been hearing about for years; also John Szarkowski's extract from his renowned book, The Photographer's Eye, and Jeff Wall's essay, Marks of Indifference. Some of the essays I've read before (e.g. Greenberg's The Pasted Paper Revolution, and Meyer Schapiro's The Nature of Abstract Art). Others such as Craig Owens are new to me, surprises in store, I hope. Only time will tell.

I couldn't wait, however, to read Paul Smith's long essay, called "How a Cubist Painting Holds Together", commissioned specially for this book and written in 2002. Would my own analysis of cubism survive this carefully researched academic paper? I read it with trepidation, more than twenty-five pages consisting partly of detailed analysis of specific cubist paintings and partly of explanations of the science of how we see. On reaching the end I hadn't come across anything, fact or opinion, that flat-out contradicted my findings, which was a major relief. In fact, when Smith notes in the last paragraph the cubist painting's "refusal to solidify into a static image, even though it is otherwise coherent", that "coherence" is consistent with my view.


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