Book Reviews on Understanding Art
Over the past year or so, I’ve been reading a lot of books on how people define art and how the contemporary art world works. Here are some reviews of what I’ve read (plus one I read a few years ago, and some documentaries), in order of how strongly I felt about them; the books I loved or hatest the most are at the top of the list. Several of the books came from a Twitter thread of recommendations about how to explain contemporary art.
See this post for more discussion about how confusing it is to try understand the goals of some of these books, and this post with my current understanding of contemporary art.
The Art Instinct, by Denis Dutton
This book argues that we are evolved to make art, and does so clearly and persuasively. This isn’t one of those lazy “just so stories;” he builds up the argument and evidence carefully. Along the way, he provides a “cluster concept” definition of art that he and colleagues developed that provides one way to define art, and generally does an excellent job (unlike every other book I’ve read) in clarifying the space of what he means by art and how to categorize it. The author was a philosopher, but he seemed to have a good command of the basics of both evolutionary theory and contemporary art as relevant to his argument. Like most evolutionary psychology, it’s hard to see how these hypotheses could be tested or verified, but I nonetheless greatly enjoyed this and found that it influenced my thinking considerably. (This is the first book on this list that I read, and it’s the exception in that I read it more than a year ago.)
The Art Question, by Nigel Warburton
A compact survey of different 20th century approaches by philosophers to defining art. I found it very helpful for understanding the basics of modern theories and their proponents, and thorough in presenting the merits and drawbacks of each theory. If you want to understand “what is art” from a philosophical, definitional point of view, as opposed to understanding what’s going on in contemporary art, this is a fantastic book to read.
The five chapters survey five main approaches that would correspond well to how a modern reader might approach the question. For example, if you think art is about expressing emotion, then chapter two, which focuses on R. G. Collingwood’s writings from the 1930s, is for you. I appreciated the rigorous writing but it is not a very casual read. It’s worth it, if you’re interested in this topic.
Playing to the Gallery, by Grayson Perry
This book came highly recommended as an accessible introduction to modern art, and the reviews online, and the whimsical illustrations, the casual, accessible writing style, and the large print all gave me high hopes. The author is a Turner-prize winning artist with a very unpretentious public persona. But I found this book maddening: it promises simple explanations but instead was contradictory, confusing, and useless. For me, this book embodies the very worst of this kind of “art world for dummies” book. He offers wisecracks and stray observations as if they formed a coherent thesis.
He begins with “I want to ask—and answer!—the basic questions that might come up when we enter an art gallery…” But he does not do this; he seems to assume that the reader already deeply appreciates contemporary art. Nowhere does he even acknowledge the confusion that average viewers might feel entering a gallery room that contains nothing but, say, a pile of candy wrappers. Perhaps the UK audience is more sophisticated than the American one?
He also makes this endearing promise: “I want you to take away [the message] that anybody can enjoy art and anybody can have a life in the arts—even me! For even I, an Essex transvestite potter, have been let in by the art-world mafia.” But he does not give any insight as to how. It seems that his most important step was—surprise!—to attend art school.
Most vexing is the chapter which promises to explain “What is art?” with a list of rules. These just end up as scattered heuristics, like “the handbag-and-hipster test” for spotting cool galleries: are hipsters and ladies with handbags attending the opening? I couldn’t really tell which of his comments represent his real beliefs about art, versus snarky asides about the art world, or, really, what was the point to any of this.
How to Write About Contemporary Art, Gilda Williams
It might sound dry, but this instruction book for aspiring art writers delighted me, page after page. This book is clear, concise, and sparkles with wit. It’s the sort of writing that inspires you to write. Some of the advice echoes my own experience in technical writing, and I’d not seen it written down before.
Much of her advice contains wisdom about the art world hidden within. Her recipe for good articles about art has three parts: What is it? What might it mean? What is the broader significance to the world? Which, in a way, is a guide to some of the things that matters in a work of contemporary art: execution, meaning, and relevance.
This is not just a masterclass in writing, it is a masterclass in writing about writing. Even the typesetting and layout perfectly serve the goals of the work by connecting important concepts to the examples in the text.
Seven Days in the Art World, by Sarah Thornton
This book is a fascinating tour through some of the fanciest and wealthiest parts of the art world. It gives the feeling of mingling with and asking probing questions of many big players at many significant events. One gains a certain kind of insight just from meeting and mingling with the players and insiders, and this book offers a form of that experience.
Most of the negative reviews I’ve read of it came from people expecting something different or something more comprehensive. She clearly focuses on an ethnographic outside, stating in the introduction that this is her background and her approach. A fairer criticism, made in an example in Gilda Williams’ book reviewed above, observes that it focuses solely on the most exclusive and wealthy high-end parts of the art world. It is hardly comprehensive or critical, nor is it meant to be.
With the right expectations, it is well worth reading, perhaps after watching one of the documentaries below.
“Blurred Lines:Inside the Art World” (Netflix) and “The Price of Everything” (HBO)
These two documentaries cover the same topic: the role of money in the high-end art world, and the sense that the art world suffers from a hype bubble of fictional prices and valuations. (Or, at least, it did.) Both offer views into the workings of the world of collectors, dealers, and musuem.
The documentaries differ in their approaches: “Blurred Lines” has an axe to grind, arguing that dealers and auction houses inflate the apparent value and prestige. “The Price of Everything” is more thoughtful and ambivalent. It’s a better movie: more enjoyable to watch, showing more empathy for its subjects, and conveying a more ambiguous attitude toward the topic. “Blurred Lines” makes a more coherent argument. Both movies are worthwhile.
This is Modern Art, by Matthew Collings (book and BBC show)
This book is over 20 years old, yet I found it to be an excellent overview of Modern Art. Many of the artists he covers are still big names today. Most importantly, it was really valuable to see how he describes, evaluates different artists and movements in the context of their times. I appreciate his casual tone and ability to acknowledge the difficulties in appreciating modern art, to recognize, for example, that a work might not be that special had it not been shown in an art context, but then to explain what made it special in that context. This makes one much more sympathetic to the works he presents than a writer who presumes the genius in conceptual works is self-evident and unassailable.
I also watched the first episode of the BBC series (on YouTube) which this book is based on. The BBC series does a better job of discussing a few core artists, with a more sustained and visual presentation, but at the expense of the detail of the book. I appreciated the extra detail of the book, though I wish it was more concise, organized, and more willing to commit to a point of view and explain it, rather than going back and forth between “maybe this famous work was great, maybe it’s pretentious, well maybe a bit of both”. The book could have used some editing and I ended up skimming the last two chapters.
Still, despite its age, this is the most thorough book I’ve read that purports to answer the question “what is modern art today”.
How to be an Artist, by Jerry Saltz
Good, punchy, high-level advice about making art, clearly written. Probably the best book of this particular kind I’ve read.
What Artists Do, by Leonard Koren
Short and poetic; not comprehensive in any sense, but a nice set of studies in different ways that contemporary artists artist operate, and how to appreciate what they’ve done.
Who’s Afraid of Contemporary Art, by Kyung An and Jessica Cerasi
This seems like it might be the best short introduction to the contemporary art world today. It’s succinct and covers a lot of the main things you should know about how things work and why. However, I found it after I’d already read all of the above books and spoken with various artists etc., so it didn’t make much impression on me.