Contemporary Art History and Theory
June 28, 2009 11:44 AM   Subscribe

Help me learn as much as I can about the history and theory of contemporary art. I would at this point, love to take up a full time course for two years on the above, but for several reasons I cannot do so. I can however, spend 3-4 hours daily to read and study. I also spend almost three months of the year travelling to various biennales, museums and collections around the world to up my knowledge. But while I am fairly up to date with what is going on today, I need to get myself a proper history so i know the context of what I am seeing. So if someone could provide me with a systematic syllabus of what I need to read, it would be appreciated. An actual syllabus from a top notch program would be the best. A great book I read on the subject was "Shock of the New" by Robert Hughes.
posted by tusharj to Education (16 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
Ideally, you'd just audit an intro Art History course, but there's always Art History for Dummies.
posted by Sys Rq at 12:03 PM on June 28, 2009

I'm a visual arts graduate (just about a week ago) and I come from an art school that is completely based on conceptual art more than technical art. I think before you study conceptual art, you need to learn the movements before those (i.e. dada, modern art and postmodern art). marcel duchamp is a good artist to start with. Every art movement begins with an extension of the previous movement.

I am currently not able to go write a list of books that you should read, but i can do that for you later, if you'd like. For now though, I would suggest you get this: Phaidon is a good place to start with.

I will check back here later with a list for you.
posted by joni. at 12:06 PM on June 28, 2009

"The Photograph As Contemporary Art" by Charlotte Cotton is a superb survey/history of contemporary photography.
posted by conrad53 at 12:11 PM on June 28, 2009

I took Marina Zurkow's "Site-Specific: augmentation, affinities and frames" while pursuing my masters degree. To use a metaphor from RPGs: I feel like I levelled up in knowing what the hell I'm talking about when it comes to contemporary art. (Especially locative, interventionist and installation-based stuff).

Especially recommended readings from that syllabus: Sculpture in the Expanded Field; Another Pavement, Another Beach: Skateboarding and the Performative Critique of Architecture; the chapter entitled "Walking in the City" from de Certeau's The Practice of Everyday Life, Bourriaud's Relational Aesthetics.
posted by aparrish at 12:15 PM on June 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

"Theories of Contemporary Art" by Peter Selz and Christine Stiles is a compendium of artists writing about their work. Caveat, though, it fairly American/Western Europe, and the Contemporary art dialog is much broader these days.

Also, Herschel B Chipp, a tome on Contemporary art isn't bad.

For my money, Christopher Knight also does some nice reflection on American art in a contemporary political context. He adds in the history of gay art, women's art, people who are not white art, etc, and doesn't expect artists to be completely glib, ironic, and non-political(like, say, Dave Hickey or David Pagel), yet he is not polemical in his analysis.
posted by effluvia at 12:20 PM on June 28, 2009

"Clement Greenberg is, internationally, the best-known American art critic popularly considered to be the man who put American vanguard painting and sculpture on the world map. . . . An important book for everyone interested in modern painting and sculpture."

Greenberg basically popularized Jackson Pollock and other abstract expressionists, and he also writes intelligently on the origins of modern art. His essay "On Modernist Painting" is my favorite piece of art criticism.
posted by martens at 12:48 PM on June 28, 2009

Frederic Jameson's book Postmodernism is a really good snapshot of where things stood with respect to contemporary art in the 1980s. There's a lot of other stuff, but he focuses pretty heavily on visual and video art.
posted by nasreddin at 12:50 PM on June 28, 2009

Best answer: Quick suggestions:
Harrison and Wood's Art in Theory should be on your shelf already, but if it's not you'll soon find yourself using it every day, if only for a doorstop.

Walter Benjamin's Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction is a must. You'll also want to trace the rise and fall of Greenberg's influence. Hughes should be a good guide for that.

Barthes and Baudrilliard will get you into postmodernism. I recommend Image Music Text by Barthes and The System of Objects by Baudrilliard.

Dick Hebidge is often passed over in survey classes, but he pretty much founded the study of subculture in Subculture: The Meaning of Style

Don't read Derrida. Read about Derrida.

Max Eastman, the editor of The Masses, successfully predicts the major problems of Postmodernism and contemporary art in general in Journalism Versus Art in 1916, but I doubt that you'll find him on any reading lists. Read it read it read it.

You should be aware of the major history of the following groups, who was involved, and what happened to them: cubism (though most writing about it is crap, see my final link), dada, surrealism, futurism, the New York School (often just called abstract expressionalism, but what about Guston?), op-art, pop-art, modernism, and anyone who defined themselves as a post-modernist. You can do that the way you would study any historical topic.

General advice:
If you live near a good art school or university, they should have reading guides for each of their courses at the library. I'd send you a copy of mine from the Glasgow School of Art, but it's packed away with the rest of my "I just got kicked out of Scotland" papers, and I can't seem to find one online. The GSA library has DVDs of the powerpoints from most of its major lectures, as I would imagine most good art schools would too. So in your months of traveling, check out the various school libraries you might be near and see what each one has to say about the history of contemporary art.

Major Caveat:

You cannot get a proper history. Read James Elkins' Stories of Art. Then read Elkins' On Pictures and The Words That Fail Them, and then read Elkins' Why Art Cannot Be Taught. Then read Singerman's Art Subjects, then go back to Elkins and read What Happened to Art Cricicism. Then, with a grain of salt, read Stalabrass's Art Incorporated. or Wu and Rectanus's Culture Incorporated. Then maybe take a vacation in a cabin somewhere for a few months.

You can easily become aware of the (mostly western) artists of the last century that museums, universities, and influential private galleries agree on, and Hughes will get you most of the way there. If you just want to know who sells, who art students emulate, and who the press pays attention to, it won't be hard to find out if you are curious and follow through on references and links. If you need to feel like you have a "complete" enough picture of the actual history of contemporary Western art and theory, check out all the For Beginners books that feel relevant and go deeper into the original text when you think it's necessary.

But if you want to know the context of contemporary art, that won't really do it.

The authors I suggested first and the criticism that surrounds them will take you further, but, honestly, there's a contradiction inherent in relying on the foundational texts of postmodernism. (Though its one that might not reveal its shallow irony until after you've plowed through all those foundational texts.)

If your goal is to develop an informed method of critical thinking about contemporary art for either professional or personal reasons, start with Elkins and read whoever he references that piques your curiosity. Also read Zizek, starting with his essay "The Universal Exception." Janet Wolff wrote a very dry and almost completely unknown study called Aesthetics and the Sociology of Art that will probably change the way you look at art. If you want an idea of what might come next and a powerful rubric for how to look for interesting new art as opposed to recently-made art that looks like interesting art of the past, read this.
posted by nímwunnan at 12:54 PM on June 28, 2009 [12 favorites]

ha ha, I consistently misspelled Baudrillard. I hope he appreciated that. (also, seconding Styles and Selz, Cotton, and Jameson).
posted by nímwunnan at 12:57 PM on June 28, 2009

"The Photograph As Contemporary Art" by Charlotte Cotton is a superb survey/history of contemporary photography.

Ooh, seconded. It puts most of its emphasis on style and content, rather than slavishly listing the movements and periods; that aspect can be just as useful when you apply it to non-photography.

Something that does just the opposite (i.e. it does go through the -isms, which are important to understand), is Concepts of Modern Art, ed. by Nikos Stangos. It basically goes through the 20th Century more or less chronologically, detailing all the big movements, and, importantly, explaining how they relate a) to one another, and b) to world history.

Speaking of World History: You should probably get a firm grasp on that, too. It's an extremely important aspect of art, particularly in the 20th Century.

(On preview... Unless you're composing a Master's thesis, you may happily leave Barthes and Benjamin where they belong: In the footnotes.)
posted by Sys Rq at 1:36 PM on June 28, 2009

On preview... Unless you're composing a Master's thesis, you may happily leave Barthes and Benjamin where they belong: In the footnotes.

Barthes, Ok, but not Benjamin. At least read Mechanical Reproduction. We're still dealing today with issues he raised in that essay.
posted by nímwunnan at 3:10 PM on June 28, 2009


Conceptual Art: Arts & Ideas
This gave me the basic knowledge and foundation for conceptual art. Still one of my favourite books.

Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology
Incorporates a lot of art philosophy. Also focuses on specific artists and their theories, includes interviews.

The book by Charlotte Cotton is definitely a highly suggested book, which is obvious since everyone else is mentioning it.

Looking at the conceptual art article on Wikipedia, it seems like a pretty good guide for you to start doing research on some of the artists that are being mentioned there.
posted by joni. at 5:44 PM on June 28, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for your suggestions.

Some other resources I have come across that have been excellent:
Hans Ulrich Obrist: Interviews, A Brief History of Curating
Art Since 1900
Conceptual Art and the Politics of Publicity
posted by tusharj at 5:31 AM on June 29, 2009

Where are you based? You may have the syllabus and the books, and time to trael as an art tourist, but if you want to experience and osmose the art, I recommend familiarising yourself with the best galleries nearest you and going to see the work a lot.
posted by lalochezia at 1:02 PM on June 29, 2009

I would strongly recommend you take a survey art history course (or two: I. ancient to medieval and II. renaissance to present). Barring that, you should definitely get some foundation in 20th c. art before trying to understand contemporary work. You might consider a college survey text like Arts & Ideas or Gardner's.

Kirk Varnedoe's Pictures of Nothing provides a really accessible look at abstract art, which is one area many people find particularly difficult.

More than anything, I would suggest you check out the PBS television series Art: 21 - Art in the Twenty-first Century. They also have a fantastic website.
posted by safran at 6:26 PM on July 23, 2009

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