Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction by Cynthia Freeland
Initially published as But Is It Art? (An Introduction to Art Theory; 0192853678) this is now repackaged as part of OUP's excellent VSI series. Cynthia Freeland's informed and informative essay addresses, in seven pointed chapters, the central poser about modern art today - what is it!? and what makes it art?
A multitude of odd, disturbing, weird, pointless-looking pictures, sculptures and things make up the products that we see inside--and out of--our galleries, that make up the art in the art world, and it is difficult to know both how to judge them and from what perspective. Modern art seems to get ever more popular but also gives rise to ever bigger controversies: do any of us really know if something is or is not art?
"This is a book about what art is, what it means and why we value it ... [art] theory is more than a definition; it is a framework that supplies an orderly explanation of observed phenomena." Freeland starts with the shocking and looks at the role of blood in modern art and performance pieces. She contextualises it and then, through the chapter and the rest of the book, looks at different theories of art (ritual theory, theories of taste and beauty, imitation theory, theories that emphasise communication), the role of money, politics, new media and the thoughts of some important thinkers: Walter Benjamin, Marshall McLuhan and arch postmodernist Jean Baudrillard. Freeland evaluates how successful philosophers and critics have been in dealing with the art they interrogate. But this is not a dry book, indeed one possible criticism to be made is that it is rather shallow in its judgements of a number of theories and rarely gets below the surface of much of the work it discusses. That would be too harsh, however. Freeland has not set out to have the last word--and indeed her gentle, politically correct egalitarianism would probably not perceive there to be such a thing. This is a useful, compact, bright introduction to the perplexing issues around modern art today and, like the works of Matthew Collings, one that empowers the reader and viewer into understanding that their confusion in the face of certain works is okay, that the naive questions they might ask are the right ones.