BUT IS IT ART? AN INTRODUCTION TO ART THEORY
by Cynthia Freeland (OUP, 2001 ISBN 0192 853 678 £8.99 [£12 inc. p&p*])
A provocative title is immediately attractive ? especially one that is colourfully set on a minimalist white background. It seems to reinforce the promise of clarity and resolution, rather like a self-help book suggesting the reader?s life will be transformed. In short, it is instantly seductive.
Freeland claims her book is about ?what art is, what it means, and why we value it?. Further, ?a theory should help things make sense rather than create obscurity through jargon and weighty words?. Coming from a Professor of Philosophy at an American university, this is refreshing. It?s written in easy language with ideas and concepts broken down and explained simply. Explanations are leavened with examples from current popular culture ? sentences that include icons such as Artforum and Marilyn Manson are not unusual. There is no expectation of prior knowledge; full of useful summaries of complex subjects, it is written for the genuinely puzzled but interested layperson.
As Freeland acknowledges in her introduction ?the data of art are so varied that it seems daunting to try and unify and explain them?. Nevertheless, this is exactly what she attempts. Over the next 200 short pages, (this is a ?pocket-size? format), she gallops through theories of ritual, formalism, expression, cognition, gender and the art market, referencing the Ancient Greeks and 18th century enlightenment before ending up with a chapter on new media that includes both Walter Benjamin and Jean Baudrillard. The book is both involved and involving.
The difficulty is that summarising even twentieth century ideas about art is inevitably reductionist and partial. She raises more questions than she answers, and discussion is repeatedly limited. I thought she made a good explication of the Kantian view that emphasises the quest for objectivity, but she is unable to look at how this relates to the emotional distancing that is characteristic of postmodern art. Additionally, although the chapter on gender politics covers most bases, radical French feminist thinking is omitted.
On the back cover, a quote from The Independent hypothesises that this book ?may well come to rival John Berger?s ?Ways of seeing??. This is too grand a claim, but it does skim convincingly across the surface of a range of art theories, and will make a great present for friends who have a benign interest in understanding more about art.
Review by Dany Louise, freelance writer and Course Director of the Community Arts Management Programme at the Centre for Arts Development Training.