When I was a girl, I liked browsing through my parents’ books about famous art museums — the Hermitage, Louvre, Prado, etc. These books illustrated the best works of Western art, but they didn’t cover anything modern. When I grew older, I began attending art exhibits. Some of them I liked, some I didn’t. Still, the art that attracted me rarely progressed beyond the first half of the 20th century. So I was intrigued when, recently, I ran across two books by British sociologist of culture Sarah Thornton.
The first one, “Seven Days in the Art World” (W.W. Norton & Co., 2008), is a fascinating view of a world that is often shrouded in mystery. To reveal its substance, Thornton approaches this world from different points of view. She travels to places where art is taught, created, discussed, exhibited and sold – seven destinations in all. She talks to artists, dealers, collectors, art critics, museum curators and art students, and she attends auctions, exhibits and art classes. Thornton doesn’t limit herself to examining art esthetics only. She explores art world economics, too, since endorsements and promotion – through art dealers, gallery exhibits, media coverage, shows, etc. – are no less important for the artist’s success than the work itself. So, how do we know what is a genuine work of art and what’s nonsense? “Sometimes you don’t,” Thornton says, “but often you feel it in your bones.”
Thornton’s second book, “33 Artists in 3 Acts” (W.W. Norton & Co, 2014), opens with a quote from Marcel Duchamp, “I don’t believe in art. I believe in the artist.” Duchamp, often called the father of conceptual art, also famously declared that anything can be art, and it’s a prerogative of the artist to make it so. In the true spirit of this idea, Thornton delves deeper into the inner lives of individual artists – from Chinese rebel Ai Weiwei to pragmatic American Jeff Koons, from African-born artist and sculptor Wangechi Mutu to Yugoslavian-born performance artist Marina Abramovic and many more. The book’s three parts, Politics, Kinship and Craft, are designed to give us a broader perspective on the people we often perceive as unique, to give us a sense of their originality and values, and, hopefully, to come out with a better understanding of what constitutes contemporary art and its artist.
If you, like me, enjoyed “The Girl With a Pearl Earring” (Dutton, 1999), by Tracy Chevalier and “Girl in Hyacinth Blue” (MacMurray & Beck, 1999), by Susan Vreeland, you’ll appreciate “The Last Painting of Sara de Vos” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016), by Dominic Smith. This book also takes readers 300 years back to the Dutch Golden Age. Yet unlike those titles, its heroin is a ficticious female painter, Sara de Vos. The book goes back and forth between 17th century Netherlands and contemporary art scenes in New York and Sydney. Eleanor Shipley, a lonely art student living in New York, counterfeits the only known painting by Sara De Vos. Years later, as an established art historian and expert in 17th century female Dutch painters, she’s about to face both the original painting and her own fake. Smith’s somewhat melancholy book is a lyrical contemplation of art and the moral choices people make in art and life.
Interested in art history? Let Camille Paglia, American academic and social critic, lead your way. Her book, “Glittering Images” (Pantheon Books, 2012), describes 29 works of art — from paintings found in Egyptian tombs to images in George Lucas’ Star Wars. Paglia, whom some perceive as “brilliant and nutty,” does her best to explaine the value of art to the general reader. And, even if you disagree with her choices and opinions, those with children should listen to this advice: “All parents who can afford it should have at least one art book lying around the house for children to encounter on their own.”
Readers who like mystery and suspense will enjoy “The Art Forger” (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2012), by Barbara A. Shapiro. This is the story of a down-on-her-luck painter who makes her living by painting reproductions. Lured by an opportunity to have her own exhibit at a prestigious art gallery, Claire embarks on a project of doubtful virtue. Fast-paced and intriguing, this book gives readers a taste of the technical side of painting (and forging), and it reveals a cut-throat art world, where morals and dignity can be compromised for the sake of status and personal obsession.
Speaking of obsession, if you feel tired of pre-election politics, books about art and its disciples may be just the thing that will give you respite and pleasure. For, as Pablo Picasso put it, “The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.”
Literary Links, compiled by library staff, appears monthly in the Ovation section of the Columbia Daily Tribune. Each article contains a short list of books on a timely topic.