Art Theory: a short introduction

  • December 12, 2018
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brief critical guide to study of art and art theories

This introductory to art theory guide comes from a new series by Oxford University Press. They are written by specialists, aimed at the common reader, and offer an introduction to the main cultural and philosophical ideas which have shaped the western world. Cynthia Freeland takes a very lively and un-stuffy approach to explaining a wide variety of theories of art. She chooses topics – her first is the use of blood in art – then shows possible theoretical responses to it.

Her range of examples is wide and impressive. She sweeps without pause from ancient and classical art to modern performance and digital arts, from Christian to Inca rituals, and on to Park Avenue auction prices. She is very well informed. En route she explains theories of art, from Kant, Hume, and Nietzsche, to Walter Benjamin, Marshall McLuhan, and Jean Baudrillard. Her prime intention seems to be to force us to think more flexibly about what constitutes a work of art. It’s an approach which consciously raises questions rather than delivering answers.

For instance there is an interesting chapter on art museums – who creates and owns them, what they exhibit, and what function they serve. Links with big business and even international politics are explored, but at the end we are no closer to knowing what makes good art. It is less an explanation of art theories and more an introduction to themes and topics in the study of art, with particular emphasis on contemporary art from a largely American perspective.

But finally she does get round to two theories for the interpretation of art – what she calls expressionist and cognitive theories. She argues, quite reasonably, that there can never be a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ interpretation of a work of art – only ones which are more insightful, well-informed, and ultimately more persuasive than others. This is more or less the same conclusion as Jonathan Culler’s in his very short introduction to Literary Theory.

One very good feature of her presentation is that whilst clearly rooted in visual arts (painting and sculpture) it ranges widely over others: architecture, music, performance and video art, and even Japanese Zen gardening get a mention.

Despite my reservations, I think this is a book which will encourage readers to think more widely about questions of what is or is not art; the possible relevance of an artist’s gender; and the changing social significance of an art work according to the context into which it is placed.

These are interesting as well as cheap and cheerful introductions – and they come complete with a full critical apparatus plus suggestions for further reading.

© Roy Johnson 2005

Cynthia Freeland, Art Theory : a very short introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005, pp.158. ISBN: 0192804634

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