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Art Literature

By: Mike Watson - Updated: 21 Aug 2012 | comments*Discuss
Art History Art Theory Reading List

Successfully collecting art – that is to say both enjoying your collection, whilst standing a chance of making a good investment – involves having a comfortable grasp of both art history and art theory. ‘Art History’ as an academic discipline attempts to categorise art chronologically, drawing comparisons between artistic movements and historical events that parallel them. Like ‘History’ in general, Art History tends to conceive of a progression running through art, as if the development of art were a line running from ‘A’ to ‘B’, ‘A’ being the beginnings of art and ‘B’ being a point of artistic perfection yet to be achieved. This viewpoint, however, is becoming increasingly unpopular (see related article: Post-Modernism), as contemporary artists tend to borrow ideas, methods and forms from artists throughout history.

‘Art Theory’ as a discipline is concerned with the ideas that surround art –both those issuing from the artists and those issuing from philosophers, the art market and the public. Art theory is less concerned with specifically categorising individual artworks (as Art History does) and more concerned with categorising ‘art’ as a phenomenon in itself. Art Theory is often applied as an umbrella term incorporating Aesthetics (the branch of philosophy dedicated to art) and Critical Theory (a branch of philosophy concerned with applying the theories of Mark and Hegel to cultural phenomena).

Learning about Art History and Art Theory

As the majority of Art Theoretical and Art Historical musing is committed to paper (it is, apart from the occasional television programme a written form) the best way to learn about them, aside from visiting a gallery is to approach the literature first hand.

Art History and Art Theory are steadily growing fields of interest and, as such, books on these subjects are readily available in high-street bookshops, though you may wish to try the internet for more obscure titles.

As well as those books directly concerned with Art History and Art Theory there are those that have had a quite definite impact on art and its historical and theoretical development. For this reason, provided below is not only a list of useful art-historical and theoretical references, but also some purely theoretical texts, such as those by Sigmund Freud and Freidrich Willhelm Nietzsche.

Books to Read

It is not necessary to read all of these books, or even the whole of any single one of them, but to have them to hand is a good thing if you are to develop a serious interest in the arts. The following reading list is ranked by their direct relevance to the arts and their accessibility to the reader:

  • Various - The Art Book (Phaidon). An A-Z of art. Very accessible and ideal for picking up whenever you have a spare moment. See also the 20th Century Art Book.

  • John Berger – Ways of Seeing. An overview of issues pertinent to the Modern Artist and their audience, with a strong focus on the relationship between the collector and the artist.

  • Alex Coles – DesignArt. An identification of the emergence during the 20th Century of a form of art that crosses over between the boundaries of design and art. Set to become a highly collectible form in the future, this book charts its emergence as a collectible commodity as well as credible art form.

  • Charles Harrison and Paul Woods, Editors – Art in Theory: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, 1900-2000.

  • Emile Zola – The Masterpiece. Fiction, based upon the life of Zola’s good friend Cezanne, this book closely explores the relationship between the artist and the collector in way that is still relevant nearly a century and a half later.

  • Charles Baudelaire – The Painter of Modern Life. A contemporary of painter Delacroix, Baudelaire wrote widely on the lives of mid 19th Century artists.

  • Frank Auerbach – Robert Hughes. A well written overview of the working methods of one of the U.K’s most significant post World War Two painters. See also ‘Goya’ by Robert Hughes.

  • Theodor Adorno – Aesthetic Theory. A difficult read, yet fast becoming one of the texts central to our understanding of art in relation to economics and wider society. Adorno explores art both as an autonomous object and as collectible commodity. See also ‘Adorno’ by Simon Jarvis.

  • Sigmund Freud – The Interpretation of Dreams. Freud examines the centrality of dreams in understanding our consciousness. This book was to have a profound impact on artists leading to the development of ‘Surrealism’ and being central to the emergence of Abstract Expressionism.

  • Freidrich Willhelm Nietzsche – Twilight of the Idols/The Antichrist. This double volume concerns Nietzsche’s most contentious proclamation – the ‘death’ of God. Hugely influential on philosophers, artists and psychologists since the late 19th Century, Nietzsche’s belief that man must make of himself what he can gave art and the sciences a new impetus. Also see ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’.
Though this list is by no means comprehensive, it gives a wide range of varying approaches and a good start from which to start your reading around the subject of art, the production of art and its ownership. Collecting will be much more rewarding once you have developed an understanding of Art History and Theory, and have settles upon a stance of your own.

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I couldn't understand the concept of modern art so I started reading more and more about it, about modern techniques and compared with old classical art. I've come to the conclusion that a lot of really modern/abstract art simply isn't as good from a talent point of view. It seems to be all the interpretation. Surely that's more about psychology then.
ArtNovice - 21-May-12 @ 7:11 PM
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