In praise of art books

Running out of things to read?  Do you ever have the sneaky feeling that books might be overrated?  Well, for some variation at the margin try reading art books.  That’s right, books about art.  Not “how to draw,” but books about the content and history of art.  Some of them you might call art history, but that term makes me a little nervous.  Just go into a good art museum, and look at what they are stocking in their bookstore.  Many of them will be picture books, rather than art history in the narrower, more scholarly sense of that word.

Art books offer the following advantages:

1. They are among the best ways to learn history, politics, and yes science too (advances in art often followed advances in science and technology).  Even economic history.  Since the main focus is the art, they will give you “straight talk” about the historical period in question, rather than trying to organize the narrative around some vague novelty that only the peer reviewers care about.

2. They are often very pretty to look at.  You also feel you can read them in small bites, or you can read only a single chapter or section.  The compulsion to finish is relatively weak, a good thing.  You can feel you have consumed them without reading them at all, a true liberation, which in turns means you will read them as you wish to.

3. They have passed through different filters than most other books, precisely because they are often “sold into the market” on the basis of their visuals, or copyright permissions, or connection with a museum exhibit, or whatever.  Thus they introduce variation into your reading life, compared to say traditional academic tomes or “trade books,” which increasingly are about gender, race, and DT in an ever-more homogenized fashion.

4. They are among the best ways of learning about the sociology of creativity and also “the small group theory” of history.

5. These books tend not to be politically contentious, or if they are it is in a superficial way that is easily brushed off.  (Note there is a whole subgenre of art books, from theory-laden, left-wing presses, with weird covers, displayed in small, funky Manhattan or Brooklyn bookstores where you can’t believe they can make the rent, where politics is all they are about.  Avoid those.)

6. A bookstore of art books is almost always excellent, no matter how small.  It’s not about comprehensiveness, rather you can always find numerous books there of interest.

7. Major reviewing outlets either do not cover too many art books, or they review them poorly and inaccurately.  That suggests your “marginal best book” in the art books category is really quite good, because you didn’t have an easy means to discover it.

8. You might even wish to learn about art.

9. This whole genre is not about assembling a reading list of “the best art books.”  Go to a good public library, or museum bookstore, and start grabbing titles.  The best museum bookstore I know of is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

10. It is also a very good introduction to the histories and cultures of locations such as China and India, where “straight up” political histories numb you with a succession of names, periods, and dynasties, only barely embedded in contexts that make any sense to you.


Comments for this post are closed