The Art Book
REVIEW: Karin Schimke
“Art”, like “poetry”, can be such a forbidding concept.
Those of us who do not practise it – apart, perhaps from part-time aesthetic experiments in lino-cutting, cake-decorating, wood turning or sock knitting, which, however tangentially, might be related to “making art” in the sense that they are creative endeavours – feel that a certain academic ignorance bars our entry into such elevated and hallowed ground as discursions into art and its meaning.
A passage from John Lanchester’s latest novel Mr Phillips plumbs this insecurity blithely when the protagonist wonders into The Tate Gallery.
“As always when he goes to a museum his impetus runs out very quickly once he has got inside. He has a feeling that he is looking for something that is not there, and what is worse, that everyone else is too. Or that they know something which he doesn’t. Or that there are a set of feelings he is supposed to have in the presence of art but which in his case are simply absent.”
I have felt that. And a sudden, inexplicable fatigue which seems to be related to some rising feeling that I simply don’t know enough to “get it”.
This stands in stark contrast to my private experience of art. I have, over years, managed to collect quite a substantial little art library and a small collection of paintings by local artists. I can say little about technique or context or meaning and I seldom know much more about the artist than the shape of their scribble on the painting. But – and this is where the art *fundis will throw down the newspaper in disgust – I like looking at pictures.
Yes. It’s that simplistic. Some pictures mean something to me for reasons I don’t fully grasp. And since I can’t afford that many, I like having books on art. Some pictures make no impression at all and I sometimes “see” them for the first time years later, as though a page had been surreptitiously inserted. Others I linger on. Others make me laugh. Or I shake my head at them.
In the novel I mentioned above, Mr Phillips goes on to name three paintings he sees at the Tate, and his thoughts and feelings about them are reflected in the narrative. His reactions are perhaps naïve – yet sometimes oddly profound – but he has them. And that is why people make art and other people look at it. It is, in essence, a reflective endeavour.
That art is also academic and can be analysed and written about – particularly in that highfalutin gobbledygook you come across in gallery pamphlets – is almost beside the point. Art is about seeing and about response. When I am told what I should be feeling about a work of art – something the high, grand walls and ceilings of museums seem to be doing too, albeit in a tacit way – then I become anxious and lose whatever connection exists between me and a work of art.
The Art Book, weighing in at four hefty kilograms, completely cuts me off from “expected responses” and the concomitant anxiety it causes. It’s just me, my cup of tea and pages upon pages of art. Five hundred and seventy six representations of works of art, and absolutely none of the usual organisational methods usually brought to bear in art books. There’s no section on Expressionism, Dadaism, Gothic or Rococo. No focus on landscape, or portrait or still life. The lens takes in almost every medium and every era – in the oddest way: by organising the representations using the surname of the artist. That means that on one left hand page you have four photographs of a man pushing an enormous melting block of ice across Mexico City (the work is called “Paradox of Praxis 1 – Sometimes Doing Something Leads to Nothing” by Francis Alÿs), while on the other you have a representation of an enormous oil on canvas by Jacopo Amigoni called “Juno Receives the Head of Argus”. This idiosyncratic arrangement means that every page is a surprise. Each picture of works by painters, photographers and sculptors is accompanied by a short text about the piece and about the artist. All of this is cross-referenced and there’s a really useful, no-nonsense glossary of technical terms and artistic movements included at the back of the book. I imagine that if your approach to art is deeper, more analytical and more organised than mine, you will find this disturbing. But I can’t quite imagine a person who would find no joy at all in this book, and I particularly recommend it for households with children. It’s like having a museum in your house.
In an essay entitled “Embodied Visions: What does it mean to look at a work of art?” the New York writer Siri Hustvedt notes that art exists because humans have been endowed with “reflective self-consciousness”. In other words, “we are able to represent ourselves to ourselves and muse about our own beings”. Art has no purpose other than to be looked at and thought about. She says that it is not a tool; that we can’t eat with it; that art is useless. But when we look at a picture or a representation of a thing or at an abstraction, we reflect on something in ourselves because “we are witnessing what remains of another person’s creative act, and through the artistic object we find ourselves embroiled in the drama of self and other”. No art book I own quite so fully represents this human drama as The Art Book does. – Schimke is a journalist, a poet and the editor of the Cape Times books pages.
*fundi is a South African word meaning “an expert in a particular field” or “an enthusiast for an activity or pastime”. (South African Concise Oxford Dictionary).