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Trade Winds, Tsunamis, and the Coconut Wireless

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Science Fiction, the step sister

Ursula K. Le Guin’s National Book Award Speech Was Stunning

Posted: 11/20/2014 10:18 am EST Updated: 11/20/2014 11:59 am EST
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Ursula K. Le Guin, a science fiction author venerated for her poignant diction, gender-bending characters and eerily accurate speculations about politics and technology, was honored for her life’s work at the 2014 National Book Awards. Her acceptance speech was both eloquent and bold in its predictions and accusations — which is par for the course for the author, who’s delivered a number of memorable commencement speeches.

In this speech, she targeted businesses aiming to commodify the art of writing (read: Amazon), and championed authors who delve into fantastical plots rather than sticking with straightforward realism. Accepting and sharing her award with “all the writers who were excluded from literature for so long,” Le Guin offered many notable thoughts:

“My fellow writers of the imagination … watched the beautiful awards go to the so-called realists.”
Le Guin voiced her feelings about genre — as a genre writer herself, she wishes science fiction and fantasy writers would be given due credit from critics and literary awards.

“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.”
She also chastised our tendency towards nonchalance concerning our country’s current economic state, saying that just because a social structure seems pervasive doesn’t mean it can’t be challenged.

ursula le guin

“I think hard times are coming. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries, the realists of a larger reality.”
Le Guin’s speculations about the future have proven to be eerily correct in some cases, such as cross-continent communication, so when she says “hard times are coming,” it might be worth heeding her words of warning.

“We need writers who know the difference between the production of a commodity and the practice of an art.”
Le Guin emphasized the importance of uncoupling art and profit, and hinted less-than-subtly that Amazon and other industry juggernauts are guilty of this crime, to the detriment of literature.

ursula le guin

“I’ve had a good career. Here at the end of it, I really don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river.”
Again, the author noted that she’s concerned about the well-being of artistic pursuits, and hopes that publishers and writers alike eschew profit for the more rewarding payoff of freedom.


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The ARTINFO Bookshelf: 40 Books That Every Artist Should Own

The ARTINFO Bookshelf: 40 Books That Every Artist Should Own, Part I

The ARTINFO Bookshelf: 40 Books That Every Artist Should Own, Part I
A few of ARTINFO’s 40 Books Every Artist Should Have: Phaidon’s “The Art Museum”, Edward Said’s “Orientalism” and more

ARTINFO has combed our bookshelves, looked through our dusty college syllabi, asked fellow artists, professors, and historians, and compiled a list of the tomes that every artist should read, own, and pass on. We’ve been careful to balance our selections between theory, history, reference, and practical guides, ranging from the semiotics of Roland Barthes to a gigantic biography of Pablo Picasso. Our list was so long that we had to break it into two parts. Here is Part 1, and check out Part 2 for even more books:

“Visual Thinking” by Rudolf Arnheim, University of California Press

Merging art and psychology, Arnheim (1904-2007) masterfully explains perception in the context of aesthetic imagery. His stance, specifically in “Visual Thinking,” is that all thought is based on perception. Its 35th-anniversary printing should be bought as a set with “Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye,” and read not just by artists, but also art critics, to understand the psychology behind our response to art.

“Camera Lucida” by Roland Barthes, Farrar Straus and Giroux and Hill and Wang (MacMillan)

Barthes is the grand poobah of French semiotics, and his texts have laid the groundwork for the codification of culture. They range from the edgy ruminations of “Image – Music – Text” to the intimate reflections of “A Lover’s Discourse.” But “Camera Lucida,” with its lyrical yet rigorous reflections on the images of Richard Avedon and Robert Mapplethorpe, is perhaps one of his most lasting contribution to writing about art.

“Ways of Seeing” by John Berger, Viking (Pengiun Group)

Based on the original, highly successful BBC television series of the same name, Berger created a masterpiece in 1972 by digesting complex ideas about image reproduction and popular culture, bringing theory to the masses with “Ways of Seeing.” He covers subjects including imagery in advertising, the notion of originality, and subjectivity in perception. While others have gone into greater depth with many of the topics he covers, Berger’s opus is a must-have for its succinct mastery and impressive compilation of complex theory.

“Art/Work” by Heather Darcy Bhandari and Jonathan Melber, Simon & Schuster

Not every artist needs a career guide, but for those that do this is one of the best. Written by a gallery director and an arts lawyer this is first handbook of advice on the management of a full-time art career, offering some savvy advice about the business end.

“The Continental Aesthetics Reader, 2nd Edition” Edited by Clive Cazeaux, Routledge

This is different to another anthology, “Art and Theory,” because of its unique organization, which is by art historical movement and cultural milestone. The seven sections of the book range from German Aesthetics to Postmodernism and set art history off against literature, sociology, and philosophy in the writings of Giorgio Agamben, Slavoj Zizek, Immanuel Kant, G.W.F. Hegel, and many more. Compared to “Art and Theory,” this text has a broader range and suitable for artists whose work is cross-disciplinary.

“Art History: 4th Edition” by Marilyn Stokstad and Michael W. Cothren, Pearson

While the art history textbook market has long been dominated by Gardner’s “Art Through the Ages” (now in its 13th edition) and “Janson’s History of Art: The Western Tradition” (in its 8th edition), a shift has been occurring in academia towards the use of Marilyn Stokstad and Michael W. Cothren’s more recent, more student-friendly, inclusive, and participatory textbook “Art History.” Just as big, but not as costly as its ugly stepsisters, “Art History” strives to be more than just a survey, with engaging diagrams, materials, and methodological explanations, online complimentary software, and a decent revision to the art historical timeline which makes it more diverse. In addition, in comparison to Gardner’s tiny reproductions, Stokstad and Cothren are not skimping on the image quality and size, so the textbook is as good a visual resource for artists as it is a textual one.

“Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Harper Collins

This is an original, psychology-oriented perspective on what some call “getting in the zone” but what unpronounceable Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi terms “flow.” What sets it apart, and makes it an apt text for art-making, is Csikszentmihalyi’s focus on satisfaction and happiness.

“History of Beauty” and “On Ugliness” by Umberto Eco, Rizzoli New York

OK, these are actually two books, but they are really two halves of a whole. For artists interested in aesthetic theory, the body, and kitsch, Eco is your man. A cultural critic, his sweeping knowledge unfolds in engaging story-like prose (he is also a celebrated postmodern novelist, of course) with direct visual examples. Well versed in art and philosophy, he cites an exhaustive list of examples, including Bosch, Brueghel, Goya, Milton, Goethe, and Ancient Greek amphorae.

“Why Art Cannot Be Taught: A Handbook for Art Students” by James Elkins, University of Illinois Press

Elkins examines the structure of art education and fixes a microscope on art school’s elusive “crit” system. Whether you are preparing for your first critique, or about to mount a major retrospective, his insights on what works, what doesn’t, and how to take and dish out criticism are invaluable. No one has tackled this subject quite as thoroughly.

“Art and Illusion: A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation” by E.H. Gombrich, Princeton University Press

A classic (it was published in 1960) if one is seeking knowledge on the contentious merger of the sciences and humanities, Gombrich uses Leonardo, Rembrandt, and Ancient Greece as examples in the history of picture making and perception. His approach is a uniquely rationalistic one, and still a refreshing take on the subject.

“Art in Theory: 1900 – 2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, 2nd Edition” Edited by Charles Harrison and Dr. Paul J. Wood, Wiley

One of the most widely used anthologies of art theory texts, and significant for offering a heaping helping of primary resources. The newly revised edition, updated to include the ‘90s, has essays ordered by art historical movements, including writing by Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, Giorgio de Chirico, Marcel Duchamp, Mark Rothko, Francis Bacon, and many more. Like, many, many more. It’s big — but don’t let it intimidate you.

“Illuminations: Essays and Reflections,” Knopf Doubleday, and/or “Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 1: 1913-1926,” Belknap Press of Harvard University

Benjamin has been for decades the sensitive art theorist’s go-to guru. His essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” is read widely by art history and studio art majors, and “The Task of the Translator” can also be mined for aesthetic insights. However, while “Illuminations” is both short and contains some of the most relevant essays Benjamin wrote on art, the first volume of Belknap Press’s “Selected Writings” series has some very poignant writings on illustration, children’s drawings, and perception that are incredibly suggestive for those interested in semiotics, color theory, and memory.

“The Pink Glass Swan” by Lucy Lippard, the New Press

Lucy Lippard wrote some of the most important essays on feminist art, politics, and activism in the 1970s, inspired by the women’s movement. This collection compiles highlights from her popular “From the Center: Feminist Essays on Art” and “Get the Message?: A Decade of Art for Social Change,” as well as pieces done originally for print in newspapers, magazines, and art catalogues. A must-have on the genre of feminist art writings, or for any artist navigating issues of politics and class in our troubled contemporary art world (see the title essay, a true classic).

“The Art Museum” Edited by Phaidon

All artists should have an image bible; something that is both an inspiration and a source for historical imagery. This book is it. While the quality of the reproductions might not be the best (they are a little dull, truthfully), Phaidon makes up for it with the tremendous trim size on this tome of images. This book is massive. The reproduction of the Sistine Chapel alone will take up half your dining room table. Try finding another version as complete, detailed, or as large in your Gardner’s, or even your Stokstad and Cothren. (Beware the price-tag, it’s expensive at $500.)

“Orientalism” by Edward Said, Penguin

The leading text on exoticism and “otherism,” Edward Said’s “Orientalism” blew readers away when it was published in 1979, creating a much-needed term to describe the way Western thinkers and artists had mistread the East as a fantasy projection of their own insecurities. This is mandatory reading for artists whose work focuses on issues of identity, race, culture, and history — and, now that we think of it, it should just be read by everyone in general.

“Anatomy: A Complete Guide for Artists” by Joseph Sheppard, Dover Publications

Every artist, whether interested in performance or painting, should arguably have a basic grasp of drawing — if not for the basic understanding of the human form in space, then for useful knowledge of composition and light. This is by far one of the most user-friendly and complete guides for artists of any medium to use in their studies. Take my word from having used this book myself.

“Seven Days in the Art World” by Sarah Thornton, W. W. Norton & Company

The first-person story of the journalist who infiltrated the art world and performed the impossible feat of making art the subject of a best-selling book. It’s an incredibly informative as a well-rounded view of the multiple cogs that keep the art world turning, from art publishing at Artforum to the well-assisted studio of a high-profile artist like Takashi Murakami. Thornton’s ethnography is an attempt to understand an unregulated, exclusive world of insiders, following a path from the making and selling of contemporary art to art school to the auction house.

“The Lives of the Artists” Giorgio Vasari, Oxford University Press

One might consider this a biography of the Italian Renaissance, told through the brief, individual biographies of the important artists of the day. Giorgio Vasari invented the term “Renaissance,” and simultanously invented its history by chronicling its progression from Brunelleschi to Da Vinci. The OUP edition features 36 of the most important entires, and is one of the most important sources an artist can have on this all-important period. (Nearly all of the text, in its unabridged English translation, can be found online here.)

“Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: Over Thirty Years of Conversations with Robert Irwin” by Lawrence Weschler, University of California Press

What better way to learn than from the master himself? This is considered one of the most vital books on a single artist’s experience creating work over a multi-decade career, and the conversations author Lawrence Weschler has put together are a first-hand account at the unique way Irwin, the Light and Space maestro, sees the world.

“A Life of Picasso: The Cubist Rebel, 1907-1916” by John Richardson, Random House

John Richardson is the Robert Caro of artist biographers. Pablo Picasso is surely a colossal figure in the realm of history, and Richardson manages to dissect his life into a generous three-volume epic. As far as artist biographies go, this is the one to own, cherish, and study the hell out of. Not only does it detail Picasso’s life and work, but it also captures the era in which he lived, the movements he helped create, and his complicated relationships with contemporaries like Braque and Apollinaire. The second volume is the one we have picked out here, specifically for its great detail about his relationships with other artists of the time, but the other two (“The Prodigy 1881-1906” and “The Triumphant Years 1917-1932”) are also worth owning. Picasso changed history, and the modern day art world wouldn’t be what it is without him.

For questions or further book suggestions, write amartinez[at]


The ARTINFO Bookshelf: 40 Books That Every Artist Should Own, Part II

The ARTINFO Bookshelf: 40 Books That Every Artist Should Own, Part II
A few of ARTINFO’s 40 Books Every Artist Should Have: Susan Sontag’s “On Photography”, Rosalyn Deutche’s “Evictions” and more
(Illustration by ARTINFO)

ARTINFO continues its list of the 40 books every artist should own, following up Part 1 with another 20 essential picks for your library.

“Witness to Her Art” Rhea Anastas and Michael Brenson, Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College

Using the work of six key female artists (Adrian Piper, Mona Hatoum, Cady Noland, Jenny Holzer, Kara Walker,Daniela Rossell, and magazine Eau de Cologne) as examples, this anthology of artist writings, primary documents, and criticism presents key insight into the legacy of the feminist movement.

“The Profitable Artist: A Handbook for All Artists in the Performing, Literary, and Visual Arts” Edited by Artspire, Co-published by the New York Foundation for the Arts and Allworth Press

The NYFA Web site is known to many as the first place to search for information on jobs, grants, and opportunities in the arts in New York. The non-profit organization has supplemented its online arm with this “best practices” how-to guide for managing a career in the arts. With valuable information on business, finance, marketing, and law balanced with interviews and case studies, the book is translatable to art careers in multiple disciplines. This book is about making a living. Who can sniff at that?

“Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking” by David Bayles and Ted Orland, Image Continuum Press

A grounded look at what it’s really like to sit down and make art. Made by artists for artists, this book is advertised as “not your typical self-help book,” with insights into the difficulties behind finding the rhythm in your art practice amid the other stresses of life. The book was a huge hit when it was first published in 1994, selling over 80,000 copies in its original Capra Press edition, mostly due to word-of-mouth endorsements.

“The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field” by Pierre Bourdieu, Stanford University Press

Leading social theorist Pierre Bourdieu continued his study on Flaubert’s influence on modern literature and crossed into the area of art, developing a theory of its autonomy in this 1994 work. Bourdieu builds a bridge between social relations and art, creating an indispensable interdisciplinary approach.

“Participation” Edited by Claire Bishop, MIT Press, co-published with Whitechapel Art Gallery, London

The CUNY professor sparked a whole line of books in this style with the now classic 2006 compilation of writing on relational aesthetics and performance art, featuring narrative analysis of historic works by El Lissitzky and Allan Kaprow, and essays by Umberto Eco, Roland Barthes, Felix Guattari, Joseph Beuys, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Hal Foster, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, and many more (and the first translation to English of French guru Jacques Ranciere’s “Problems and Transformations in Critical Art”). The book is the ultimate introduction and definitive go-to source on the subject of participatory practice.

“Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility” James P. Carse, Ballantine Books (Random House)

For the game-lover in all of us, Carse’s course on games in business, politics, and personal life is a brainteaser totally valuable to artists whose work is playful or performative. Carse explains winning, losing, the mystique of property and power, culture and community — all things that are applicable to the canvas or your social life.

“100 Artists’ Manifestos: From the Futurists to the Stuckists” Edited by Alex Danchev, Penguin Classics

Discover the roots of all the ‘isms’ that your professor may have claimed your work derives from, as well as a few others. Danchev compiles 100 manifestos from the last 100 years written by artists from Rem Koolhaas to Billy Childish. If you’re interested in reading even more manifestos from outside of just the visual arts, check out “Manifesto: A Century of Isms” as well, although Danchev is our recommendation for the visual-art-centered bookshelf.

“Art As Experience” by John Dewey, Penguin Group

American philosopher, psychologist, and education reformer John Dewey (1859-1952) was one of the foremost respected authorities on literature, the effects of the arts, and aesthetic theory. His work still has the power to suggest new ideas. Summed up, a large portion of this volume is devoted to his argument about the centrality of the art object to culture.

“Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics” by Rosalyn Deutsche, MIT Press

The Columbia University feminist theory and modern and contemporary art scholar left her mark on theory with the 1996 critique “Evictions,” which combined urban theory and the history of art and architecture into a critique of democratic space. This text is valuable for the urban sociologist with aesthetic concerns as well as for artists whose work deals with space and class.

“Art Forms in Nature: The Prints of Ernst Haeckel” by Ernst Haeckel, Prestel

Haeckel was the John James Audubon of plant life and sea creatures. The natural scientist, who first published his portfolio between 1899 and 1904 in separate installments, left behind some of the most delicately rendered interpretations of organic forms, proving a valuable resource for both scientists and artists alike.

“True Colors: The Real Life of the Art World” Anthony Haden-Guest, Grove/Atlantic Inc.

Interjecting both humor and insider experience into our list, Anthony Haden-Guest’s tell-all account of the boom of the art world in the 1980s, and then its bust, continues to be gripping reading.

“The Art Spirit” by Robert Henri, Basic Books

Reading this 1924 book is still like having the most dedicated of teachers with you at all times. Robert Henri’s mentoring words offer technical and critical advice that is inspiring, encouraging, and easily translated into many areas of life.

“Jack Goldstein and the CalArts Mafia” by Richard Hertz, Hol Art Books

The birth of the so-called “Pictures Generation” begins here, with the story of Jack Goldstein and his CalArts classmates, who led a shift from Conceptualism to Pictures art in 1970s New York. Hertz weaves his story from the narratives of the art world’s own, including contributions by Tom Wudl, John Baldessari, Matt Mullican, Robert Longo, and more. Together, they reveal the evolution of Chouinard into CalArts, the dynamics of New York’s art scene of the ‘70s, and, of course, the compelling story of Goldstein himself. Nearly all CalArts alumi have read this book, myself included, and the phrase “CalArts Mafia” has taken root as an affectionate term for the vast network of artists working internationally, post-Goldstein.

“Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy” by Dave Hickey, Art Issues Press

Meditating on art’s function, dysfunction, and position in a democratic American society, “Air Guitar” has become widely read as a piece of cultural commentary over the years by theory students, critics, and artists.

“After Modern Art 1945-2000” David Hopkins, Oxford University Press

Hopkins’s text offers a valuable history of postwar art, compressing the widely varied movements of American and European art into a sensible timeline — no small task. Our only wish is that this book be updated as soon as possible, seeing as it cuts off at 2000, and over a decade of artmaking has passed.

“Concerning the Spiritual in Art” by Wassily Kandinsky, Dover Publications

The father of modernism and abstraction was also heavily invested in capturing “spirit” on canvas, and he delivers still intriguing words on color theory and the nature of art. A good compliment to this is his other famous work, “Point and Line to Plane,” which dissects the place of the line, point, and building blocks of composition in non-objective painting.

“Art School: Propositions for the 21st Century” Edited by Steven Henry Madoff, MIT Press

With the price of higher education soaring, students falling into debt, and institutions subsequently reevaluating and reorganizing curriculums and education models, today’s art schools face new challenges. Steven Henry Madoff and MIT Press look at the current state and future of art education. With accompanying essays by artists and educators such as Hans Haacke and Marina Abramovic, as well as questionnaires with Shirin Neshat and Mike Kelley, the anthology is critical for its unique view of academia from the perspective of those who have passed through it at different points in the last century — creating a roadmap of the major historical art schools, and hinting at the possible structures of new schools to come.

“I Like Your Work: Art and Etiquette” Edited by Paper Monument

This was the first pamphlet published by the art-focused offshoot of literary journal n+1. Paper Monument’s guidelines for how to behave in the art world are both funny and serious in a “take it with a grain of salt” kind of way. Featuring the contributions of 38 artists, critics, curators, and dealers, from Paddy Johnson to Rachel Uffner, “I Like Your Work” helps avoid the possibly disastrous social interactions that might occur at a Thursday night opening otherwise.

“On Photography” by Susan Sontag, Picador (MacMillan)

Her book “Against Interpretation, and Other Essays,” published in 1966 put Sontag on the map as an integral voice in the cultural debate, with her now famous essay “Notes on Camp” and musings on arts and literature. Nearly a decade later, she packed hit the art world with another punch in “On Photography,” famously comparing the camera to a loaded gun.

“The Practice and Science of Drawing” Harold Speed, Dover Publications

Missing from most art schools these days is concrete technical instruction, and though Harold Speed’s book was written over a century ago, it can still fill that void. Speed’s instruction on line drawing, mass drawing, visual memory, and materials (with accompanying plates and diagrams) serves as the perfect place to being learning the traditional skills.

For questions or further book suggestions, write amartinez[at]

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Ten Books Every Artist Should Have—and Know Well

Ephraim Rubenstein's Book Pile XXXIV

Most artists can cite books that have held great meaning for them over the years. Not only have these books imparted wisdom and generated ideas, they have been companions in the long—and sometimes solitary—profession of being an artist. We carry on conversations with great books over the years, and as we change, the works change with us. Different aspects of these works—which we may have missed earlier on—reveal themselves to us on subsequent readings. There are many works that have been crucial to me over the years, but here are ten that I could not imagine being without. I certainly could not have developed my ideas on art without these works. They include artist’s letters, treatises, and landmark works in art history, theory, and criticism.

1. Of the ten books on my “artist’s bookshelf,” I would put Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet first. These letters speak to all young people, but especially intimately to artists. They whisper in the ear of anyone with a soul that yearns to be realized. They are also an invocation, a summoning of the Gods and of mystery, that works like a prayer for all of our artistic endeavors. Rilke speaks about the demands, the pleasures, and pains of the artist’s life like no other. He challenges the reader to see life as mission; to understand that the life that most people live is only the surface of life, and that it is the artist alone who penetrates to the depths of real experience. He continually raises one of the most important, yet difficult, features of the artist’s life, which is solitude. It is Rilke’s belief that without the ability to experience and utilize deep solitude, a truly creative life is impossible.

2. Vincent Van Gogh’s Letters to Theo is second. Never has a creative intelligence laid itself bare as Vincent does in these letters. We see him grappling with all the essential problems; his work, his family, his love objects, and historic and contemporary art and literature. We see him from the inside out, day-by-day, week-by-week, forging the vocabulary of modernism, painting, “not as I see things, but as I feel them.” Van Gogh appeals to us because he is the perennial lost soul, a young person trying to find his way in the world, trying to figure out the meaning of his existence, and of how he can be of use to the world. Vincent is like St. Augustine, but in reverse: he starts out attempting to be saintly, but when traditional religion fails him, he makes a religion out of painting. Perhaps most moving of all is the discovery of how close the two brothers were. Theo went mad after Vincent’s death and survived for less than a year before he himself died, leaving his wife, Johanna, to deal with their infant son, Vincent, and with her brother-in-law’s legacy.

Ephraim Rubenstein's Book Pile XXXI (detail)

3. Third is Heinrich Wölfflin’s The Principles of Art History: The Problem of the Development of Style in Later Art. Wölfflin, along with Bernard Berenson and Erwin Panofsky, is one of the Founding Fathers of art history. As Herbert Read said of Wölfflin: “He found art history a subjective chaos, but left it a science.” Anyone who has studied art history is used to seeing two slides on the screen at the same time. This was but one of the innovations introduced by Wölfflin, who believed that all aesthetic judgments were relative rather than absolute, so that something could only said to be “painterly,” for instance, when compared to something else. In The Principles of Art History, Wölfflin examines one of the most crucial paradigm shifts in the history of art, the change from Renaissance to Baroque. He delineates five pairs of opposing qualities that define the major characteristics of each period. He then trains the viewer to recognize each of those oppositions, so that he can then identify any newly-encountered work as being either Renaissance or Baroque. The pairs are: “linear” and “painterly”; “plane and recession”; “multiplicity” and “unity”; “clear” and “unclear” forms; and “tectonic” and “a-tectonic” construction. Wölfflin believes that the shift from Renaissance to Baroque was the greatest paradigm shift in the history of art. He believed that most subsequent stylistic changes followed the same general patterns, so that if you could understand this particular evolution, you could understand the entire history of art. Although Wölfflin is an art historian, he sees like an artist. He is sensitive to the slightest shifts in temperament, as revealed by lines, tones, forms, and construction. No one has ever written about stylistic distinctions with so much passion and acuity.

Ephraim Rubenstein's Book Pile XXIX (detail)

4. The Principles of Art History is well complemented by Bernard Berenson’s Italian Painters of the Renaissance. Painters is an “education of the eye” using the Italian Renaissance as a model. Berenson’s work as a connoisseur had much to do with how he developed his feeling for the history of art. He spent his days separating the work of artists of varying style and quality, and this made him keenly aware of personal difference. Because he was examining the work of individual artists, he came to see the history of art as being largely biographical; as being part of the “great man” theory of history. He believed that events turned upon the appearance of great thinkers, military leaders and artists, who rose to positions of power based on their unique skills, and who therefore changed the world by their presence. This is quite in opposition to Wölfflin, who, being a Hegelian, thought that history was made up of large, unseen, unstoppable forces, and that if a great man arose, it was only because the whole world’s consciousness had been prepared for it ahead of time. In addition, Berenson based his approach upon the work of the ancient historians, Herodotus, Thucydides, and Plutarch, whose histories were often largely strings of biographies. Berenson was not only interested in biographies, however, but in genealogies; who studied with whom, who was capable of making an informed innovation, etc. He understood that artists are often quite concerned with their lineage. Studying the work of closely related artists made him intimately aware of the difference between the greatest masters and those who were not as gifted. In his art history, therefore, he strayed into two fields not strictly historical; the thorny question of quality, and the psychology of aesthetic appreciation, or the psychology of enjoyment in art. He was as interested in the viewer as he was in the artist, and sought to understand why it was that we were so moved by certain artists, and the mechanisms by which that was accomplished. Berenson’s tremendous analytic powers, his training at Harvard, his friendship with William James, his role as a connoisseur, and his career as a picture dealer and authenticator, gave him interests and credentials that most art historians do not have.

5. Kenneth Clark’s The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form is the first—and still the most serious—study of one of the crowning achievement of Western art, the nude. Starting out by examining the difference between naked and nude, Clark explores in great detail our propensity to idealize the human body, and how this affects every decision we make about ourselves. Clark understands that without this process of idealization, the concept of the nude would be impossible. He concludes that the nude is not a subject of art, but rather a form of art, just as ballet is a form of dance and opera is a form of music. Clark sees the nude as capable of embodying the entire range of human emotions, from pathos to ecstasy, from sensuality to asceticism. He studies, as well, the concept of dipendenza, or the relationship of the nude to architecture. He emphasizes how both forms require that beauty be wed to certain strict functional necessities. Despite his pessimism as to whether or not the nude remains a viable concept for us, this is an incredibly inspiring book about a subject so close to so many of us at the Art Students League.

Ephraim Rubenstein's Book Pile XXXXI

6. The nude’s relationship to architecture brings up my next book, Body, Memory, and Architecture. Written by Kent Bloomer and Charles Moore as an introduction to the study of architecture for their first year students at Yale, Body, Memory, and Architecture is an extraordinary introduction to the subject, because the authors discuss architecture from the point of view of how buildings are experienced by their inhabitants, rather than by how they are built. Bloomer and Moore believe that truly memorable places—places that move us, that we remember and to which we want to return—are based on the human body. Modernism opposed the body with the Cartesian grid, thereby giving us the soulless boxes and glass and steel canyons that oppress us on a daily basis. In the process, architects—along with their arcane concerns (beauty)—were replaced by engineers, with their modern and quantifiable concerns (efficiency). As in so many other fields, specialization took over broader-based humanistic concerns, leaving us with efficient, quantifiable environments that sound good on paper but that leave our eyes undernourished and our souls starved.

7. Leonardo da Vinci’s Treatise on Painting is perhaps the finest book on art that never got finished (like so many of Leonardo’s other projects). But what we have is the literary equivalent of a sketchbook; ideas, notes, discourses, rants, observations, etc. on any subject of use to the painter. What is paramount to note is that, unlike nineteenth- and twentieth-century art, there is absolutely no mention here of the artist’s feelings or emotions. For Leonardo, as for all of his Quattrocento colleagues, the basis of art was rational and scientific, based on an understanding of phenomena that were observable, predictable, and repeatable. As Leonardo wrote, “Those who become enamored of the practice of the art, without having previously applied to the diligent study of the scientific part of it, may be compared to mariners, who put out to sea in a ship without rudder or compass, and therefore cannot be certain of arriving at the wished-for port.” For Leonardo, perspective is the sine qua non of all of the visual arts, without which nothing can be done well: “The young student should, in the first place, acquire a knowledge of perspective, to enable him to give to every object its proper dimensions.… Perspective is to Painting what the bridle is to a horse, and the rudder to a ship.” Nowadays, we take it for granted that artists should always carry a sketchbook around with them, but this was actually one of Leonardo’s greatest innovations. At a time when most artists turned to their studio pattern-books to see how to draw any given object, Leonardo insisted that they go to nature as the source, and take their sketch books out into the street and observe nature firsthand: “Be quick in sketching these with slight strokes in your pocket book, which should always be about you. When it is full, take another, for these are not things to be rubbed out but kept with the greatest care; because forms and motions of bodies are so infinitely various, that the memory is not able to retain them; therefore preserve these sketches as your assistants and masters.”

8. If Wölfflin’s The Principles of Art History helps one to analyze the stylistic differences between periods and styles, then Michael Baxandall’s Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy examines the social forces and cultural norms that makes one particular period—fifteenth-century Italian Renaissance art–look the way it does. The book starts out by asking the question, Why is it that Renaissance paintings look the way they do, and how do we read (interpret) them? In other words, when we look at a Florentine altarpiece, we know that there is a lot going on that we can only half understand, like watching a movie with the mute button on. How did a fifteenth-century person see, and what did he or she know that made it possible for him to understand the painting much more completely? Baxandall concludes that every culture has “visual habits,” and that these visual habits allow–or mandate that–we perceive visual information in certain ways. The style of pictures is therefore intimately related to social history. One of the most important social factors that Baxandall examines is money. To Baxandall’s way of thinking, “who paid for the painting” is just as important as “who painted it.” Because patrons often exerted strong influence on artists–both positive and negative–paintings become “fossils of economic life” and “deposits of social relationships.” He does this by examining contracts between artists and their patrons, trying to pay close attention to the client’s role in how paintings look. In Baxandall’s mind, the client and the artists made the picture together. This kind of thinking can be applied to almost any period in the history of art, even though modes of patronage have changed drastically.

9. One of the most inspiring books on the list is Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit. I am not sure if I love it solely for itself, or because it reminds me so deeply of the Art Students League (where Henri taught for many years). Henri sees art making as the purview of everyone, not just professionally-trained artists. As he writes, “In every human being there is the artist, and whatever his activity, he has an equal chance with any to express the result of his growth and his contact with life. I don’t believe any real artist cares whether what he does is ‘art’ or not.” And although Henri carves out a special place for people who do dedicate their life to making art, he feels that all people can live creatively and freely, and be possessed of the art spirit. In Henri’s mind, the “art spirit” is

simply a result of expression during right feeling. It’s a result of a grip on the fundamentals of nature, the spirit of life, a real understanding of the relative importance of things. Any material will do. Anyway, the object is not to make art, but to be in the wonderful state which makes art inevitable. I am not interested in art as a means of making a living, but I am interested in art as a means of living a life. The object of painting a picture is not to make a picture—however unreasonable this may sound. The object, which is back of every true work of art, is the attainment of a state of being, a state of high functioning, a more than ordinary moment of existence. In such moments activity is inevitable, and whether this activity is with brush, pen, chisel, or tongue, its result is but a by-product of the state, a trace, the footprint of the state. These results, however crude, become dear to the artist who made them because they are records of states of being which he has enjoyed and which he would regain. They are likewise interesting to others because they are to some extent readable and reveal the possibilities of greater existence.

10. Finally, I would end with Susan Sontag’s collection of essays, On Photography. We are so saturated with photographic images, and images have so infiltrated every aspect of our lives, that no one today can possibly imagine the world before photography. And while we are all well aware of the pleasures and benefits photography has conferred on us, we are less cognizant of its darker, more insidious side. It is this troubling aspect of photography that Sontag examines in her landmark essay, “In Plato’s Cave.” Sontag presents photography as a highly problematic activity. These problems are moral/ethical, aesthetic and philosophical in nature. Some of the problems that Sontag delineates, for instance, are:

• that photographs can only tell you how something looks at any given moment, whereas the truth about anything is revealed by observing how something functions over time;

• that photographs are confused with reality—they give us the false idea that we can hold the world in our hands as an anthology of images;

• that by furnishing this already overcrowded world with a duplicate one of images, photography makes us feel that the world is more available to us than it really is;

• that people always “look” different when they know they are being photographed. What does this say about truth and appearance?

• that to photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It puts one in a certain relationship to the world that feels like power and knowledge, but is not;

• that to photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them in a way they never see themselves: it turns people into objects that can be possessed;

• that there is an aggression implicit in every use of the camera- we “load,” “aim,” “point,” and “shoot” the camera;

• that the camera is a kind of passport that annihilates moral boundaries and social inhibitions, freeing the photographer from any responsibility toward the people being photographed (witness the number of people who took pictures of the subway passenger who was pushed onto the tracks, and subsequently killed, instead of helping him up.)

These are just some of the many objections that Sontag raises about this seemingly innocent and now ubiquitous activity. And Sontag was writing before digital photography and cell phone cameras made photography even more ubiquitous than it was when she was writing! All of these books raise issues of fundamental importance to artists. With these texts in place as building blocks, any subsequent works that you may read can be fit into place to form a larger framework for your thinking about the visual arts. Since I teach many of these books in the Seminar in the Literature of Art, I know well the value of re-reading important books. I have read some of these works a dozen times! And the best books will continue to reveal more and more, no matter how many times you read them.