SUGGESTED READINGS IN ART THEORY
One of my current students has asked me how to begin a study of art theory. Obviously one’s approach might be based on the expected outcome. In this case, the student is an abstract painter with admittedly scant exposure to contemporary art theory, but seeking to “understand” the basics. I have decided to share my thoughts on both my introductory art theory course syllabus readings, as well as contemporary art theory excursions, for anyone interested in becoming involved in this discourse.
GREEK TO MEDIEVAL
My introductory art theory course (as taught for two years at University of Maryland, one year at Corcoran College of Art) begins with the ancient Greeks - Socrates, Plato and Aristotle – with the Greek art theories condensed and paraphrased for my lectures. In lieu of enrollment in my course, I suggest that beginning students of art theory read Plato’s Republic, Book 10, and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Book VI. My previous research found these two selections on-line but those links are currently "dead."
While the reading of The Republic and Ethics may provide a sense of the style and episteme of Plato and Aristotle, along with Plato’s essential concept of mimesis and Aristotle’s thoughts on the “practical” intellectual activity of art, the successful appreciation of the theories would benefit from reading additional interpretations and further analyses, which are plentiful on the Internet alone.
I have assigned Ananda Coomaraswamy’s Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art as a provocative component to my introductory art theory courses. This book never fails to initiate lively and impassioned discussion among students and, as it references the Greek theories concerning the practical and speculative orders of the intellect, as well as Plato’s “Ideal World of Forms,” it is worth seeking out. Particularly incendiary are Chapters One, Two, and Four.
For introductory art theory courses, I also assign Jacques Maritain’s Art & Scholasticism, (Chapters II, III, IV: www.nd.edu/Departments/Maritain/etext/art.htm) as well. Maritain presents theories of “The Schoolmen” with welcome structure and his chapters provide a kind of “bridge” between Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, conveying a workable progression of “The Philosopher’s” 4th Century art theories into the 20th Century. Having no expectation of asking contemporary art students to comprehend Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, I use Maritain’s interpretations of the medieval monk’s writings to foster a transition of Aristotelian theory into the modern era.
Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment is credited with foregrounding the modern concept of “self.” It’s a tough read, however, so I suggest perusing the variety of appreciations and interpretations available on this 18th Century text. Chief among the Kantian dictums are his “disinterested” concept of beauty and the idea of beauty being a universally experienced “judgment of taste.” One might also take a look at A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, a 1757 treatise by Edmund Burke on the “darker” realms of sublimity that influenced Kant’s own thoughts on the sublime.
I would include Charles Baudelaire’s “Painter of Modern Life” and “Salon of 1846,” both available as excerpts in Modern Art and Modernism (F. Frascina, C. Harrison, eds.), along with Paul Gauguin’s letters and the excerpted essays by Maurice Denis from Herschel Chipp’s Theories of Modern Art. This would initiate a study of the "beginnings" of modern art theories, including symbolism and synthetism.
Now would be the time to start seeking out images, as I begin to show slides of art at this point in my introductory art theory course content. I find that it helps immensely to have practical examples at hand to compare salient points in the beginnings of Modernism. Early abstract art, Surrealism, and Dada are further supported by my assigned readings of Kasimir Malevich, Andre Breton and Marcel Duchamp selections, all from Theories of Modern Art. With the additional reading of Clement Greenberg’s “Modernist Painting” and “American-Type Painting” from Modern Art and Modernism, another “bridge” is built from abstraction through the post-WWII New York School era.
My personal and practical involvement with art and continued success with my “Theory NOW” contemporary theory course at Corcoran College directs the following selections. To address conceptual art, the “linguistic turn,” and other postmodern theories, I would suggest you read Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” and “The Artist as Producer” (excerpts available in Modern Art and Modernism) along with Roland Barthes’ “Death of the Author” (in his Image-Music-Text. It is relevant to note that these specific essays have a phenomenal relationship to art theory and there are many differing viewpoints and multiple forums of discussion available on-line.
A basic excerpt of Ferdinand de Saussure’s General Course in Linguistics is available in Peter Osborne’s Conceptual Art, which outlines his “semiotics” and an introduction to structuralism. I also recommend Hal Foster’s “Re: Post,” in Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation (Brian Wallis, ed.) for its relentless citations from the usual suspects: Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Jean Baudrillard, Frederic Jameson, Rosalind Krauss, and Craig Owens.
Another excellent sourcebook is Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art (P. Selz, K. Stiles, eds.). Particularly essential essays in this text are Sol Lewitt’s “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” and “Sentences on Conceptual Art,” Victor Burgin’s “Looking at Photographs,” Joseph Kosuth’s "Art After Philosophy,” and Mary Kelly’s “Preface to Post-Partum Document.”
From the late 1970’s onwards, the outside influence of other fields of knowledge, such as psychoanalysis (Jacques Lacan) and gender studies (Judith Butler) became pervasive in their profound effect on visual arts. If one wishes to “dig deeper,” I would suggest a brief foray into “literary theory,” starting with Derrida’s “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourses of the Human Sciences” from his Writing and Difference, and Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in Art After Modernism.