Dana Arnold’s book may be short, but the breadth of art and art philosophy encompassed here is stunning. In less than 200 well-illustrated pages she brings together cave art with Picasso, and takes us from an Ottoman mosque to the classical museums of Rome and the white cube spaces of 21st century Britain.
One moment she gives us the Mona Lisa and the next she deals with Damien Hirst’s shark and will find parallels in their reception and fame. Arnold tells us that the now historic hype surrounding the YBAs is an example of deconstruction and she brings in Derrida, Kant, Wittgenstein, Nietzsche and Hegel to her pithy tome with the lightest of touches.
The structure of the book is simple and the six chapters of perfectly digestible length. Arnold has themed her art historical survey around Looking, Materials, Mind, Devotion, Power and Sex. But these categories are elastic, so that civic duty makes it into the chapter on devotion and Sex is a premise to discuss gender. Female artists are championed at every turn and you sense the loss which society has brought about by restricting artistic opportunities for women.
However, things are not quite as bad as they might appear. Arnold notes that no women made the cut for Vasari’s celebrated The Lives of the Artists. In fact the 16th century text extols the virtues of several female artists and dedicates a chapter to Properzia de’ Rossi. Another glitch occurs when the author refers to Picasso as a Catalan artist; though I’m sure Barcelona would like to claim him he spent his childhood in Málaga.
Perhaps the inaccuracies are inevitable, a few facts were always going to go astray in this format. Arnold’s accessible book is only as scholarly as it needs to be. And it shuttles back and forward in time and hops across borders with real élan. It is as satisfying to dip in from the contents, as it is comb through from beginning to end. And the further reading is none too intimidating. Since Arnold is a Professor in Architectural History she has done well to render her subjects so accessible.
She will tell you, if you need to be told, that Jackson Pollock (for example) would paint drip by drip, pour by pour. She will tell you he laid his canvas flat on the ground. But elsewhere she will assume a certain familiarity with, say, Pavel Althamer and list his somewhat obscure collaborators as if well known to everyone.
All of which means A Short Book About Art is a good read for both newbie and aficionado. In her way, Arnold makes newcomers of us all. Whether you want a short introduction or a reintroduction this book will hold your attention.
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