Art Theory for Beginners (For Beginners Books)

arttheory-header.jpgThis latest primer in the For Beginners series offers a flyover view of art theory with a heaping helping of historical context.



192 pgs., B&W; 14.99

(W : Richard Osborne, Dan Sturgis; A: Natalie Turner)

If you like looking at art but find yourself intimidated by the jargon some people throw around when discussing it—bricolage, semiotics, the male gaze and such—and want to remedy that condition with a quick overview of the major theories of art from cave paintings to today, Art Theory for Beginners may just fill the bill. It won’t teach you how to look at a painting but gives you an overview of the major art theorists and brief summaries of what they had to say on the subject.  In no time you’ll be talking like the guys from Kicking and Screaming (Noah Baumbach’s film, not Jesse Dylan’s) and at $14.99, it’s way cheaper than an Ivy League education.

The first 40 pages or so are devoted to establishing a context for discussing art theory followed by a flyover view of art theory from the Paleolithic era through the Baroque. It’s centered on Europe with brief forays into art in the Islamic, Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian traditions so if your interest lies in the High Middle Ages or non-Western art, this is not the book for you. But if you agree with the authors that the ways we practice and experience art today have their foundation in the European Enlightenment, then you’ll find Osborne and Sturgis offer a quick and readable introduction to the major philosophies and art movements from the 17th century onwards with about half the book dedicated to the last 100 years or so.

Click for a larger image.There’s a definite "he said—he said" quality (the theorists and artists included are overwhelming male and white, presumably because that’s mostly who has been invited to the table to discuss weighty questions such as "what is art?") to Art Theory for Beginners because the authors don’t spend much time evaluating the theories mentioned: for the most part they just state them and move on. The good point about such an approach is that it leaves you to make up your own mind about the various ideas presented, and  you can always track down the source material for any theories you find interesting. If you find some of them silly just remember that they wouldn’t be included if they hadn’t captured public attention at least briefly. The question of which theorists, or which artists, actually have something to say versus which are attention-hungry prats is one you’ll have to work out for yourself. Personally I would have preferred a bit more discussion and evaluation—there are numerous dictionaries of art already on the market which are more useful if you just want to look up what is meant by neoplasticism—but the overview of philosophy and art in a historical context remains a selling point for this volume.

Art Theory for Beginners presents its material in the contrapuntal fashion which has become a For Beginners trademark: the main text is written in straightforward prose but is constantly interrupted and commented on by illustrations, quotations, boxed comments and summaries of key points. The art is crude but effective and many of the illustrations are line drawings of famous works of art relevant to the discussion at hand. It’s useful to have deliberately non-great art illustrating the discussion because it provides counterbalance to the high seriousness of many of the theorists and their pronouncements.  Breaking up the main prose is also a good strategy because it helps keep the reader actively engaged in the discussion, and the authors have provided a sort of hippie character who appears periodically and serves as the reader’s representative by demanding that the theorists express themselves in clear language.  

This volume includes a one-page bibliography which is useful and a one-page index which is not: it leaves out too much many key terms which are in fact discussed in the text, reducing the volume’s usefulness as a reference. There are few typos which suggest a spell checker gone mad or perhaps they’re just an inside joke which I’m too dense to understand: the letter sequences "ad" and "bc" have been translated into "A.D." and "B.C." so you have "the Indian su B.C.ontinent" several times as well as Theodore "A.D.orno." But that’s not a fatal flaw and shouldn’t materially detract from your enjoyment or the usefulness of Art Theory for Beginners.  | Sarah Boslaugh

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