At the risk of sounding like a shill for Google, I will dedicate this post to Google Books. Actually, it’s now
called Google Play, but I’m old and find this concept confusing, so I’m going to ignore it. I suggest you do too. It is possible to purchase contemporary titles from Google Books and read them on your device, but so what? Everyone sells digital books. You can even check them out from the library. What I find most compelling about Google Books is the access to periodicals, old ones that I’d never encounter on my own. Admittedly, I’m pretty infatuated with old magazines. I bought 54 years of Gourmet off eBay, co-edited the New Art Examiner anthology, and interviewed Bad at Sportser Meg Onli for Art 21’s Centerfield post. Onli is currently working on a project about Black World/Negro Digest. She’s accessing all of her material through Google Books. I realize people use Google Books all the time, but I want to reframe it from just another place on the interweb trying to part me from my money, to an invaluable tool for artists.
Google calls all text, books, even magazines, even pamphlets, so keep that in mind. A simple search on “art” and restricting the results to free, yields only 47 titles, but what interesting titles they are. The first hit is The Art of the Moving Picture…: Being the 1922 Revision of the Book First Issued in 1915. Well, there’s just so many curious things about this book, I hardly know where to begin. The Art of the Moving Picture makes some excellent assertions, that still ring true. For instance that the pace of the “action photoplay” leaves no room for “full grown personal passion” (12). Think Die Hard or Con Air. Some things have not quite stayed the same. For instance “when a moving picture house is set up, the saloon on the right hand or the left declares bankruptcy” (207). I wonder what the author Vachel Lindsay would think of today’s upscale brew and views?
Because it’s Google, you are able to search within individual titles. Starting with magazines, restricting results to free, and searching “art” brings crazy random articles like this one from Vegetarian Times, called “Vegetarianism in Art.” There are more popular periodicals as well–hundreds of issues of Life. A browse of December 28, 1936, reveals a story about the first panda coming to the US and workers for the WPA’s Chicago theatrical arts project striking at the Merchandise Mart. The American Art Directory Volume IX (1911) has advertisements for art galleries on its forepages, is lousy with statistics, and names of artists and curators of the moment. And in case you didn’t know, back then all the high-end Chicago galleries were on South Michigan and admission to The Art Institute was twenty-five cents.
Besides book and magazines, you can also find other, more sundry reading material. There are many museum and exhibition catalogues, gallery brochures, bulletins from art organizations, but these charmers are a little more shy and require quite a bit of coaxing. Perhaps a bottle of rose and a bouquet of peonies would help.
Obviously, there is little contemporary art represented here, at least not for free. “Modern” in Google Book world lingers somewhere around 1912, which is kind of fun because searching a word like “sculptress” yields dozens of hits. Be warned, there are serious issues with meta data. Clicking on “Magazines” does not bring you to all of their magazines, it brings you to items scanned as individual issues. Most of what I read comes from bound volumes, that although look quite bookish, aren’t. Most of these are classified as books, though they’re still just magazines. Don’t expect the date Google gives you be correct, because it often isn’t. Read the title page. Even with these limitations, I still recommend spending some time on Google Books and exploring what these old magazines and books have to offer.