Monday, July 4, 2016

Art Books

I RECENTLY REREAD some art books that were very useful to me when I was writing about comparisons between literary works and the visual arts in England. These were not specialized books about English art but general works that have proven their usefulness through time. I did not go back and read again Helen Gardner’s Art through the Ages (1st edition 1926; I think I read the third edition), a book that gave me an early taste for art when I read it for our Columbia-style sophomore Humanities course at the University of Arizona. Gardner and her later rival H. W. Janson (History of Art, 1st edition 1962 and many subsequent editions) wrote texts that have gone through many editions and have grown into huge and heavy volumes. But I did begin Ernst Gombrich’s The Story of Art (1972), a different kind of art history that attempts a coherent narrative, especially of Western art. Gombrich keeps leading us back to the purpose art works were made for at given times and places, and he emphasizes how the artist is always modifying a template. These are also themes of Gombrich’s masterpiece, Art and Illusion (1956), a book I found extremely illuminating when I first read it—it holds up well to rereading, too. Gombrich shows some things about making art that every artist quickly learns but that are not obvious to the mere spectator: such things as how using color in painting is tremendously more complicated than simply matching a hue found in nature. He also stresses the importance of schema that, at least until very recent times, every artist learned in training, and that were then modified according to observation.
            Years ago I was lucky enough to come across an art text used in the University of Chicago’s year-long Humanities 1 course; Joshua Taylor’s Learning to Look (1st edition 1957) is a book that manages to teach an enormous amount about the expressive aspect of the arts in a hundred pages. Taylor begins with a comparison of two paintings to show how form can be used to get very different effects; he makes similar comparisons between two sculptures and between two buildings. All of this leads into a detailed discussion of art forms, materials, and techniques, introducing vocabulary and always stressing expression. Taylor thus makes a useful complement to Gombrich’s concerns with illusion and representation.
            My introduction to the politics of art came in reading the book version of John Berger’s 1972 television series Ways of Seeing. Berger begins from ideas of Walter Benjamin: his first essay is an illustrated riff on Benjamin’s 1936 “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” and he warns against the mystification of art, the confusion of marketplace with aesthetic valuation and losing sight of what a work “uniquely says” by glorifying “what it uniquely is” as an original. Berger convincingly demonstrates that the observer in traditional Western art is gendered as male and argues that tradition in connoisseurship and artists’ practice serves the cultural obsession with property by what art depicts and how it is commodified.
            The densest reading among these art books was Erwin Panofsky’s Studies in Iconology (1939), but even though Panofsky’s subject was Continental art of the Renaissance, reading him enabled me to think more clearly about English art of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Panofsky shows that classical visual motifs are modified by the Christian uses to which they’re put between the classical period and the Renaissance, so that the modified motifs can only be understood through the mediation of texts that span the period between their use to express classical themes and the time of their reemergence to do so again in the Renaissance. The mediation of texts in the understanding of art works was the key idea here; I realized it was even more important in a culture like England’s where the literary tradition was longer and stronger than that of the visual arts.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

More in Condensed Books Than You Thought?

IF YOU SCORN the idea of condensed books, let me tell you a story. I’d just walked into the Casa de los NiƱos thrift store in Tucson when I saw a woman sitting on the floor, pulling out copies of a group of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books that filled a fair-sized bookcase, taking out each book, turning it upside down, and shaking it. I caught the end of what she was saying to a co-worker: “At first I thought it was a fake. Then I took it to the register, and Jack used the marker on it, and it was real.” Naturally, I had to ask. The Reader’s Digest books were an anonymous donation left at the thrift store’s deposit door overnight. As the worker was shelving the books, a hundred-dollar bill floated out from one of the books. I watched as she continued searching through the books, and by the time she was finished, she had found eight new, crisp hundreds, apparently used as bookmarks by the previous owner of the books—or perhaps they supplied a hiding place. In any case, the charity that runs the thrift store was eight hundred dollars to the good that day. And I have to confess that when I go into a thrift store these days, the condensed books are my first stop.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Don't Read the Whole Thing

John Rawls, introducing his influential A Theory of Justice, does a remarkable thing for an author. “This is a long book,” he writes, and then proceeds to explain how you can get the theory he presents along with explanations of terms and pertinent examples by reading sections of the book that amount to only about a third of his 600 pages! It would be churlish not to take this advice, I thought, choosing the 200-page option. Plenty of other books, in my opinion, famous ones, classics, and supposed must-reads, should be preceded by Rawls-like advice about how to read them without reading all of them.
            According to Sir Francis Bacon, “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” Yes, even the classics may need some selective tasting. Read every word of The Odyssey, the master narrative of Western literature, because it will entertain, and, if you are a storyteller, train you as well. But The Iliad is another matter. When Homer describes encounters between Paris and Hector or Hector and Andromache, still more when he turns his merciless attention to Trojans and Greeks killing each other, he will keep anyone’s interest. But if you read every item in his catalogues of which country sent how many ships to Troy, only if you have a map of ancient city-states before you and a passion for ancient geography will you stay awake. By all means, skim Homer’s lists as you would the begats in Genesis. Just keep in mind that Homer’s catalogues really did interest his first readers and still command the attention of students of the ancient world.
            The Aeneid requires cutting on a different plan. Here it’s pretty much a matter of checking out after the councils of the gods in Book 1, the escape from Troy in 2, Aeneas’s travels in 3, the romance of Dido and Aeneas in 4, and the trip to the Underworld in 6. In 6 we get a prophecy of what happens until the founding of Rome, but we don’t have to actually live through the enactment of the prophecy.
            Authors may not be as helpful as John Rawls, but they do sometimes signal where your attention can wander. When a shepherd in Don Quixote begins to tell a story peopled by no one we’ve yet met but rather folks with conventional Romantic names, it’s safe to skip the rest of that chapter and possibly the next; the chapter titles will tell us when the main narrative resumes.
The point is that life is short and some books—even some very good books—are too long. A lot of selective reading is just taste, of course. At the halfway point in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich I realized that Hitler’s monomaniacal hobbling of his generals’ freedom to act and other aspects of the war’s progress were going to be far less interesting to me than the story of Hitler’s complicated and politically astute climb to power had been, and I just stopped reading. It’s your reading life, after all, and no one else’s; find the good parts and leave the rest unread.