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7 Books to Get You Thinking About How to Discuss Art

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Appreciating art and discussing it are different beasts – both are subjective, but one relies on personal interpretation and activation, while the other requires justification and contextualization, usually in the form of art history or technical jargon. Whether using instinct or the long line of history and theory, numerous thinkers have debated what is really needed to shake up initial perceptions and promote outside-the-box observations. For those interested in getting past a simple explanation and considering art within a broader scope than simply aesthetics, here are seven books to help stretch your knowledge.

Ways of Seeing

First published in 1972, this book set the groundwork for cultural studies today. By focusing on how we look at art without any of the convolution and historical justification that substantiates “art speak” in recent years, Berger navigates a path that returns autonomy to the viewer so that more meaningful evaluations can be formed. He argues that seeing comes before words, but “the relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.”

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Rosalind Krauss and American Philosophical Art Criticism

Arguably one of the West’s most revered critics (following Clement Greenberg, who put several art movements on the map), a look at Kraus’ methods is a good introduction to formulating independent thought. Introducing French theory into the US art landscape, her technique rebelled against formalism and previous art writing approaches; this book surveys her arguments, off-piste positions and radical (at the time) contributions that changed the face of American art criticism.

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The Power of Images

Freedman’s book broaches perception and the history of it, and aesthetics, in a book that is a must-have. While academically-loaded, it concisely and accessibly tackles the study of images through historical and locally constructed replies, considering the psychology of human response through chapters touching on (for example) iconoclasm, desire, all while deviating from traditional modes of art interpretation. While it may fall short on issues that have become more pressing in today’s migratory societies, it still sets the groundwork for contemporary critical discourse.

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The Emancipated Spectator

When considering the politics of observing, it is worth considering the new perspective that renowned contemporary philosopher Rancière proposes. While many theorists argue that viewers passively absorb art, as artists endeavored to activate them, in response, Rancière builds upon the concept of the emancipated viewer, taking a markedly unconventional approach. By asking fundamental questions, readers are asked to consider what does “politics of art” mean, why is there a desire to connect life to art (or viewer to artwork), what have the traditional critical modes achieved thus far and has this encouraged, rather than counteracted, the consumption of art as a commodity, and inadvertently reinforced its commercial power?

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How to Write About Contemporary Art

Snappy and to the point, Gilda Williams, editor, critic and lecturer, outlines with her punchy prose the do’s and don’t’s of putting your thoughts on paper. While many of her accessible examples are straightforward, Williams reinforces techniques that are often overlooked or simply forgotten. Employing the very tone and methodology she describes, the book is a testament to the values she recommends for everything from structure to how to develop ideas, through to specifics on various art writing formats and analyses of seminal art texts by mega-figures in the art world today.

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In the Flow

Addressing the largest institutions of our time: museums, archives and the Internet, Groys takes readers on a journey through activism, participation, aestheticization and transgression that seeks to highlight a new kind of art theory. In line with 20th century criticism that dismissed art as sacred in favor of it being a “thing”, Groys suggests ideas can remain fluid. Using Walter Benjamin’s theory of the aura as a launch platform, Groys delves into how digitalization and contemporary artistic practices veer away from art as an object and towards art as practice (physically intangible), therefore transforming art into a state of permanent transition, or, fluidity, and modifying the entire perception of artworks altogether.

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Aesthetics and Politics

A collection of theoretical debate on aesthetics by some of the key thinkers of the 20th century, these seminal German Marxist figures pioneered new concepts of artistic purpose in the 1930s and 50s which still proves widely applicable. Their theories dismissed antiquated or reliquary values, and while they are complex and require time to adequately mull over, the interlinked trains of thought are critical in the comprehension of contemporary art today – whether from the point of view of the artist, the viewer, or the creator.

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Katrina is a contemporary arts editor/writer and TCK based in the Middle East with a special fondness for abject art, gourmet cheese and asking too many questions.