Art Writing, not Fart Writing.
January 6, 2012 4:16 PM   Subscribe

I'd like examples of great down-to-earth art writing.

I love (visual) art. I love reading nonfiction. Help me combine the two in a way that isn't grating and pretentious.

I really like the idea of reading - and writing - about both contemporary art and art history. But so much writing on the subject is... douchey. Or overly academic, obfuscating, or simply dull.

Does anyone have recommendations?

Writing/scholarship wise, I adore just about everything Simon Schama has ever done, and remember enjoying Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling as well as Alexandra Lapierre's novel about Artemisia Gentileschi several years ago (though right now I'm looking more for non-fiction). I'm getting more into writing on music and film.

Some art loves: Caravaggio, Bernini, Vermeer, Rothko, Basquiat, Cy Twombly, Richard Serra (OK I like minimalism), Gaugin, Duchamp, Kate Beaton, Louise Bourgeois, probably others I'm not thinking about at the moment.

Outside of art/art-history subject areas, I already read lots of nonfiction about the humanities. So theoretically this is something I should like. I used to be part of a contemporary art collective in New York and am more arts literate than the average bear, but I'm not an insider by any means. Ironically, this probably is why I set the bar so high. I'm intimately familiar with all the ways the art world can be full of pretentious assholes.

I'm particularly interested in shorter forms like essays, blogs, or reporting/interviews/reviews, but books are also fine. I'd be open to biographies of artists. Humor or anything that doesn't take itself super-seriously would be appreciated. High and low culture are both fine. I'm not interested in coverage of the art market. The most important thing is that the writing itself should be compelling.
posted by Sara C. to Media & Arts (23 answers total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
Dave Hickey is pretty fun to read, though I imagine some people might find him grating and pretentious.
posted by gyusan at 4:30 PM on January 6, 2012

Response by poster: Oh, and yes I have read Patti Smith's Just Kids, wherein she talks about the art world of the late 60's and early/mid 70's via her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. In fact that should have been in the list of art writing I have enjoyed in the past, to the extent that the book is an example of art writing.
posted by Sara C. at 4:53 PM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Svetlana Alpers is accessible, and useful in thinking about Baroque Art.
posted by Francolin at 4:57 PM on January 6, 2012

I think Pepe Karmel's writing is smart, elegant, and clear, and a number of his interests should be right up your alley. (Disclaimer: he's contributed to two books I've edited, so I've worked with him a little over the years. On top of everything, he's also a hell of a nice guy.)
posted by scody at 5:13 PM on January 6, 2012

I don't know if this would interest you, but as someone with only a mild interest in art history, I really enjoyed reading it - Art & Physics by Leonard Schlain.
posted by mannequito at 5:15 PM on January 6, 2012

Best answer: I enjoyed Sarah Thompson's Seven Days in the Art World.
posted by The corpse in the library at 5:50 PM on January 6, 2012

Best answer: I'm not super art literate, so these are a fairly haphazard set of recommendations but:

The Shock of the New by Robert Hughes is a really, really readable guide to modern (20th Century) art.

Also, there's a reasonable chance you may hate Ways of Seeing (Wikipedia | Amazon) by John Berger, but you may also love it. I've not read it for a dozen years, and it may be outdated now and yadda yadda, but I found it pretty aces.

Also, I'm currently reading The Lost Battles: Leonardo, Michelangelo and the Artistic Duel That Defined the Renaissance which is really fun and pacey introduction to the Renaissance.
posted by Hartster at 5:54 PM on January 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

I read Neo-classicism by Hugh Honour and David to Delacroix by Walter Friedlaender in the past couple years and was struck by how un-dry they were. Honour, especially, was very lively and engaging. FWIW, I go to museums a lot, but hadn't read much/any art history before.
posted by Bigfoot Mandala at 6:37 PM on January 6, 2012

Best answer: A Hedonist's Guide to Art: crap title, but some of the many short bits–there are about ninety I think–are fun
Leo Steinberg's collection Other Criteria is a classic collection of essays.
PS Sarah Thornton, not Sarah Thompson
posted by londongeezer at 6:51 PM on January 6, 2012

Waldemar Januszczak - I've read his pieces in the Sunday Times and he's had a couple of documentaries broadcast in the last few years that were worth watching.
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 6:52 PM on January 6, 2012

Argh. Yes. Sarah Thornton, which is a family name of mine and I have no excuse, thank you.
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:12 PM on January 6, 2012

Best answer: Seeing Through Clothes by Anne Hollander. You will never look at naked people the same way again. (She writes a lot about the clothing naked people wear in paintings, too.)

Seconding Ways of Seeing by John Berger. You can get a feel for the book from the (dated-looking) tv series, which is completely available online. Berger has a pretty posh accent which may or may not grate on your ear.

Momus has a blog (the source of the WoS links above). You might like him.
posted by maudlin at 7:31 PM on January 6, 2012

Response by poster: I read Ways of Seeing in college, by the way. It's continued to be a huge influence on how I look at art/culture/people/the world. Which implies, to me, that these are all going to be great suggestions! Keep 'em coming!
posted by Sara C. at 7:33 PM on January 6, 2012

Another vote for "The Shock of the New".
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:21 PM on January 6, 2012

Best answer: 'What Painting Is' by James Elkins. Very clear prose style essentially using alchemy as a metaphor to explore the physicality of painting.

My favourite essay on painting is 'After Modernism' written by composer Morton Feldman in the very early '70s about Modernism's endgame.

Here's a fascinating essay by British art historian Julian Stallabrass on Jeff Wall, a key founder of photo conceptual art and one of the most influential artists of the last 30 years. I mention this because Stallabrass deals with some pretty complicated ideas about art in a very straight forward non artspeak way. Yes, it is possible.

And, Peter Wollen's 'Raiding The Icebox', a collection of essay's tracking modernism and it's discontents over the last century or so.
posted by Phlegmco(tm) at 11:52 PM on January 6, 2012

Regarding art music, this is a great introduction to cutting through the crap and actually listening to difficult or unfamiliar music.
posted by idiopath at 1:07 AM on January 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Caravaggio, you say? You want David Hockney's Secret Knowledge. It's a completely practical analysis of the techniques of old masters, and specifically Caravaggio. There's significant resistance to his theory that some of them used optics (almost entirely from people who don't actually paint, I notice), but for the price on Amazon it's worth it as a great picture book if nothing else.

*Successfully resists rant about the uselessness of criticism and misguided role of historians*
posted by cmoj at 7:32 AM on January 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I really like Peter Schjeldahl's art criticism essays in the New Yorker, which I see have been compiled into a book. He was also kind enough to write back to a friend of mine years ago, so I like him in general. Then there's Calvin Tomkins, who has a raft of books; all I have read is Off the Wall, which I loved enough as an art student in the 80s to read several times over. And, what the hell, in art humor, even though it's fiction, there's always The Horse's Mouth - the book is a bit much, but the movie is hilarious and great.
posted by mygothlaundry at 1:16 PM on January 7, 2012

Best answer: Also on Caravaggio, you might want to look at Andrew Graham-Dixon's Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane - the Google Books link should give you a flavour of what to expect.
posted by davemack at 1:50 PM on January 7, 2012

Best answer: 'Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: Thirty Years of Conversations with Robert Irwin' by Lawrence Weschler

I'm not aware of too many artists who have something insightful to say about art. Robert Irwin is a huge exception. Francis Bacon is another exception and his interviews are worth reading as well, but Weschler's book is fantastic, not only insightful but inspiring. Reportedly a number of folks decided to go to art school or become an artist after reading it. Irwin comes across as an incredibly cool guy. I'd love to grab a Big Gulp and go for a ride on the freeways in Southern California with him.
posted by BigSky at 10:07 PM on January 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Anything by Andrew Graham-Dixon - particularly Caravaggio: A Life Sacred and Profane as suggested by davemack. It's a very dense book though, full of lots of historical info for context, so not a light read.

Anthony Bailey is very readable. You could try Vermeer: A View of Delft which is well-written, informative and quite touching in places.
posted by Intaglio a go-go at 11:25 AM on January 8, 2012

Best answer: Commonplace book, a blog about the politics of recent films is a really good example of direct and accessible writing about art. (brought to you via this metafilter post)
posted by beerbajay at 2:43 PM on January 14, 2012

Response by poster: Hi everyone!

Sorry it's taken me so long to come back here and wrap this up.

Since I hold down a full time job and am not a speed reader, I haven't read much of these suggestions, yet. But almost all of them are full of potential. I've marked things that seemed especially interesting and/or were easily accessible via amazon (especially ebooks) as "Best Answers", but really everything here is fantastic.

Thanks so much for your great suggestions, everybody.
posted by Sara C. at 1:48 PM on February 6, 2012

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