Be Critical
September 20, 2009 8:00 AM   Subscribe

I want to start thinking critically about art, especially modern/contemporary art, so what should I read?

I want to be able to discuss contemporary/modern/conceptual art with my peers, and I also want to learn about past art movements and their effects on today's art. What books would you recommend?
posted by god particle to Media & Arts (17 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
Shock of the New is a good read. Hell, almost anything by Hughes is a good read.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:06 AM on September 20, 2009

You might find some helpful stuff in this thread on readings in contemporary art history and theory.
posted by aparrish at 8:11 AM on September 20, 2009

ArtSpeak and ArtSpoke by Robert Atkins are good overviews of contemporary and modern "Ideas, Movements and Buzzwords" and have ~ one page entries on all kinds of things like the Fluxus movement, or the "craft as art" issue. The books offer good overviews so you can pick and choose areas for further research. They were required reading in both my undergraduate and graduate art programs, and most artists I know (who went to art school) have copies.
posted by jenmakes at 8:17 AM on September 20, 2009

Here's a good thread about photography theory. Any discussion about modern/contemporary art might include these books and the issues they raise. Also good stuff about formal composition there too.

A fun way to approach this is to look at the images in the big survey books: Janson, Gardner or Rosenblum (for photography) and find an image you're really sparked by. Then look up that artist, the time they worked in, the period they worked in, and who influenced them, or worked with them. Branch out from there.

The big survey books can give you a good chronological base of most of the big art movements to start with too.

Go to your local museum book store or university with an art library and look through the books there. Find some work that you respond to and then do the same as above. Look at art in your town too.

There are many great books about art out there, but there are also many that are rather dry and can be a turn off to people new to the field IMHO. Start with what is interesting to you. Often as people grow in their awareness of art, things that totally turned them off at first become more interesting after years of looking at other stuff. It's a fun continually evolving journey.

And I'll second jenmakes rec for the Fluxus. Fun stuff.
posted by dog food sugar at 8:24 AM on September 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

I have found the Introducing series of books to be quite helpful in grasping the big ideas and to compare/contrast the main thinkers of a particular movement/philosophy.
posted by limited slip at 8:47 AM on September 20, 2009

Seconding Shock of the New. It was required reading in my degree course.
posted by Neonshock at 8:51 AM on September 20, 2009

Not for reading, but watching: the new movie "Untitled" is a brilliant satire of the New York contemporary art scene.
posted by Matthias Rascher at 8:58 AM on September 20, 2009

you need the right tools -- reading Bernard Berenson on Renaissance art will give you most of the tools you need to understand and analyze modern art. Anything else, just go to exhibits and read up on artist monographies to look at their stuff.

For 20th century art, reading Clement Greenberg is always fun.
posted by matteo at 9:05 AM on September 20, 2009

I know it is a hoary old chestnut and all, but Gombrich's Art and Illusion is really essential reading, if for no other reason than you may want to react against it and its sometimes profound, sometimes simplistic comments on cross-cultural elements of "art" and different artistic movements. If you were to take an undergrad course in Aesthetics, chances are this would be the text. It is also unusually readable for such an influential work.
posted by Rumple at 9:49 AM on September 20, 2009

John Berger's ways of seeing is great and if you can get access to the tv show, thats great too.
posted by iamnotateenagegirl at 9:57 AM on September 20, 2009

The Return Of The Real by Hal Foster
posted by rhizome at 10:00 AM on September 20, 2009

The Photograph as Contemporary Art by Charlotte Cotton.
posted by The Michael The at 10:16 AM on September 20, 2009

I found Pictures of Nothing to be a very helpful starting place place for thinking about modern and contemporary abstract art.
posted by paulg at 12:40 PM on September 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

It depends how you define modern art. John Canaday considered modern art to start with David, so his book "Mainstreams of Modern Art" starts there. It's a very readable book, and it eventually gets to the 20th century......
posted by acrasis at 1:09 PM on September 20, 2009

Ways of Seeing, by John Berger
How to Visit a Museum, by David Finn
A Short Guide to Writing about Art, by Sylvan Barnet
Janson's History of Art is a standard textbook you'd use in a college art history class
posted by lsemel at 6:32 PM on September 20, 2009

2nding Greenberg and Pictures of Nothing (that's a five-star book).
posted by Dean King at 8:51 AM on September 21, 2009

Seconding Greenberg.

Call me a fogy, but the best way to think about/talk about modern art is not to think of it as modern art at all, but rather just art, and read up on aesthetics and the philosophy of art in general. Some books to consider:

Danto, Transfiguration of the Commonplace, the End of Art
Dewey, Art as Experience
Benjamin, Illuminations, esp. Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
Goehr, the Imaginary Museum of Musical Works
Hegel, Origin of the Work of Art
Wittgenstein, Lectures on Ethics
Kant, Critique of Judgement
John Cage, Silence
Adorno, The Culture Industry
posted by Lutoslawski at 6:54 PM on September 21, 2009

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