Sunday, November 13, 2016

Book: Teach Yourself Art History

This book has received very high praise on Amazon. For me however, it was a yawn fest and I quit half-way through. I may have been expecting too much from this one; I only have a passing interest in art so leaping into a book on art history probably wasn't the wisest choice.

I did pick up a few things before abandoning:

"When we read about art or listen to someone talking about it, we need to understand that we are not getting the whole story. In fact, there is no whole story, just interpretations which have evolved..."

The status of painting as an art form has changed over time. Until the 15th century and the Renaissance painting was largely a contracted activity (vs free expression), where the status of the painter was often related to the status of the patron, who often had a high degree of control over the painter. Did patronage play a role in the rise in the status of painting? Quite likely.

Only with the likes of da Vinci, Raphael, Titian and Michelangelo was painting elevated from a mechanical art (the artist gets better over time) to more of a liberal art (required theory and scholarship). Patrons included popes, emperors and the rich.

The rise of academies (later 16th century) also played a big role in raising the status of painting. In France, the King supported the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture.  By 1790 there were over 100 academies in Europe.

Academies were also tastemakers, placing emphasis on drawing over colour, certain subjects over others (religious vs landscapes), establishing criteria for separating the good from the less good. Today, we are less likely to apply 'academic' standards to judge whether one painting is 'better' than another.

Our understanding and appreciation of art may be enhanced by the different ways in which we can think about it e.g. formalism (assessing the qualities of the picture such as line, shape, tone, media, and techniques), or thinking beyond the frame (where we need more knowledge than just the visual of the picture).

Western art divides periods into artistic styles. Broadly:
1300-1400 Medieval
1400-1600 Renaissance
1600-1750 Baroque
1750-1960s Modern
1960+ Postmodern

Examples of appreciating art beyond the frame:

- in relation to its historical or social context (linking this to the symbolism and imagery of the painting is called iconography)
- artistic biography and state of mind - bringing the artist's personality to the center
- topics addressed
- meanings unintended by the artist

Asking these questions and applying different lenses can raise our appreciation of a picture. However, we need to remember that the image should remain central to the investigation.

My main concern with art critics, well with most critics, in general is that they have a tendency to over analyse, which makes them sound pompous. Here's Fry and Laurie as art critics, capturing the sentiment:

And here's the script to another sketch:

Hugh With me to discuss that scene from Scorsese's new release From Here to Just Over There is the critic, critic and critic Ray Daugh. Ray you've written countless, almost worthless books on the iconography of "the bottom" in American films - in what context can we approach this piece? 
Stephen Not really, no. We knew already that "the ass" has come to ...
Hugh By "ass" you mean "bottom"?
Stephen Tremendously. You'll have to forgive my lapsing into jargon for a moment there ...
Hugh By "jargon" you mean a series of specialist phrases, or better an "argot" if you will, to describe a particular area of criticism?
Stephen In some ways yes. The bottom has come to stand for the essence ...
Hugh The spirit?
Stephen ... the essence of the individual in modern American mythology ...
Hugh The contemporary single person living within a set of folkloric beliefs in Stateside North America.
Stephen In my last book ...
Hugh A book being a work of thought or prose bound together between hard or soft covers and commonly sold in bookshops?
Stephen Broadly ... in my last book, Backside Story: A History of the American Bottom I devoted an entire chapter to the ...
Hugh A chapter meaning a sub-division in a book, of which there are perhaps twelve, fifteen, twenty, creating blocks of writing?
Stephen Often ... an entire chapter I devoted to the phrase "my ass is on the line". "The line" being ...
Hugh I think we all know what a line is.
Stephen In this case "the line" being the vestigial notion of the frontier in American folklore. Partly - (gesturing) to put his bottom on the frontier - is still the goal of the modern American.
Hugh (Copying gesture) By this you mean an utterly infuriating gesture guaranteed to put people's backs up in quite a major way.
Stephen I hope so.
Hugh Well, sadly the clock has ...
Stephen Large, circular timepiece ...
Hugh ... beaten us once again.
Stephen Flagellated, whipped us for at least a second time ...
Hugh So thank you ...
Stephen Expression of gratitude ...
Hugh Ray ...
Stephen Shaft, or beam of light ...
Hugh Very much.
Stephen A lot.
Hugh Pat.
Stephen Small slab of butter.

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