Book Review: Art Theory – A Very Short Introduction by Cynthia Freeland

It’s sometimes good to pick up a book on a subject you know next to nothing about, just to try to get an early handle on it and immerse yourself in its world. This was my thinking when, having spotted a bookshop attached to an art gallery in Whitechapel, London, I spotted this Very Short Introduction (VSI). My only prior exposure to art theory was during a conversation with an art student when we were both at sixth form college. Here, she claimed that art was whatever an artist said was art. She followed up by saying that an artist was anyone who considered themselves to be one. Being keen on logic and wanting to bust her bubble via a reductio ad absurdum, I stated that I was an artist and that my poking her in the shoulder was a piece of art. It was done in jest, but for me it was a perfectly justified reaction against art theory as she portrayed it to me.

Onto the book. Freeland chooses, as seems fitting, to illustrate her work through example. Now the body of art in the world is far too great for any single work to do justice to, so Freeland is forced to limit her choice to just a few works. One of these in particular is given prominence as the lens through which she views the subject: Piss Christ by Andres Serrano. It is through this, and other works like Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (the shark in formaldehyde) that Freeland explores the question of aesthetics. Are these things beautiful? Freeland gives a brief survey of the philosophy of aesthetics, with a particular emphasis on the ideas of Kant. Her conclusion is that “Art includes not just works of formal beauty to be enjoyed by people with ‘taste’, or works with beauty and uplifting moral messages, but also works that are ugly and disturbing, with a shatteringly negative moral content.”

From here, we get a whistle-stop tour of various different kinds of art, all the way along questioning what it is that makes it art. What are the common themes and what are the differences. In particular, the idea of intent seems to be paramount. This is illustrated through looking at some of the pop art works of Andy Warhol. What made his version Brillo Boxes art while the commercially available equivalent isn’t?

When it comes to looking at a variety of cultures, Freeland asks the reader to face some uncomfortable questions. What for one culture is an expression of their identity may be taken as a quaint form of “tribal art” for another culture. This has given rise to an industry of such art that may have originated in particular cultural or religious expression, but later has become little more than a commercialised fulfilment of an imperialist fetish.

This naturally leads on to issues of money and how capitalism corrupts the art world. Fighting against this is the idea of public art; that which should be available for all the public to experience in whatever form the art takes, typically visual. There’s a brief history of the changing natures of museums here which was cut short for it to fit into this volume, but could easily have been expanded into a much larger chapter, as the treatment is all too brief.

One of the themes that has long permeated art, but which is particularly highlighted in modern art is the act of subversion and how art becomes a tool of that subversion. This is a subject Freeland examines through a few lenses, but in particular that of feminism. There are other lenses that have could have been used more extensively, but I think that in using the feminist angle, she was angling for an approach that would appeal to as wide a liberal audience (for that is who she seems to be writing for) as she could hope for. So it was a little ironic that in what should have been the most controversial chapter, she chose potentially the safest option.

So what does it all mean?

Here, we move to what I thought seemed to be the heart of the subject: how do we interpret art? It seems that any artist must have some idea of what it is that they want to convey and the viewer of the art is intended to receive a message. But unlike the written word, visual art (for in Freeland’s world, literature doesn’t really seem to count as art) can have “fuzzy edges”. What we then get is a rundown of various theories as to how the message is conveyed. If a viewer understands one thing, is it “right”? Is meaning generated in the mind of the viewer or can the artist turn around and tell them they’ve no right to interpret their art in that manner?

Towards the end of the book, we come right up to modernity, with an examination of the digital revolution and how art can be made available for all. It is worth questioning the future of the art galleries given that a click of a few buttons, we can see versions of the great works of visual art on our computer screens.

There was a satisfying moment I had whilst reading it one lunchtime as the book mentioned the very art gallery in Whitechapel where I bought the book.

I’ve come away from the book with the beginnings of an education. I think that’s the best that one could reasonably hope for. The book could have been a lot different if different examples were cited, as the world is full of art of a wide variety. I’m not sure I’ll take up art more seriously in the near future, but if you’re vaguely interested then I would certainly recommend this work to you. As I’ve tried to hint at in this review, there are lots of questions, so it’s certainly a book to make you think; and that can hardly be a bad thing.

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