Cheat Sheet: What To Read To Seem Arty

It has the word ART in huge letters on the spine so everyone will see that you’re In The Know. 

They also make great elbow rests 
Chances are you’ve been to an open-plan house with white walls, white carpet and shiny table-tops. It’s the type of place where you instantly take off your shoes, wish you’d worn nicer socks and are terrified you’ll spill something. I’d place a bet that in the living room of this Straight-out-the-White-Company-Catalogue House there is a small collection of arty books. This will either be under the coffee table or on a white shelf next to an empty vase and an ambiguously exotic lump of wood. Unless the owner of the house is particularly artistic, these books will inevitably gather dust and go unopened for years. But the point is, they are there. Art books seem to be a staple of mild intelligence, creativity and normally have cool covers that look particularly classy in minimal interiors. 

Told You. 

From a less cynical point of view, you may also want to just dip into art from time to time and not know where to start. Art criticisms, reviews and articles often have lots of ‘specialist’ vocab like ‘chiaroscuro’ and ‘postmodernism’. So this is where I step in, with this helpful Cheat Sheet. Because (nerd alert) I have in fact read art books. These are what to read (or maybe just flick through) to get your grounding in art vocab, what’s hot in the art world, and basically what we’re all banging on about the whole time. And of course, the books that will look snazzy on your beech shelving unit.

Pretty self explanatory
Art: The Definitive Visual Guide- Andrew Graham Dixon
Right let’s start with this one (full marks for the imaginative title). It covers everything from Prehistoric to Contemporary in bitesize amounts. Giving you the who’s who in art as well as highlighting themes, subjects, and methods. There’s genuinely something interesting for anyone with even a slight arty interest, with In Focus pages where the book draws subtle parts of the pieces to your attention. Aesthetically it’s white (yay, no chance of clashing with your curtains) and has the word ART in huge letters on the spine so every visitor will see that you’re In The Know. Perhaps the only downside is you won’t be able to carry it in your bag so if you’re trying to impress people on the tube, you may need to look elsewhere.

"Why is no one looking at how arty I am??" 

Why Your Five Year Old Could Not Have Done That – Susie Hodge
And now to a much more interesting title, this book focuses on modern art. This deals with how some artworks have been ridiculed in the last centuries for being an illusion of artistic skill. People will look at conceptual art like Lucio Fontana’s and exclaim ‘Oi I could have done a rip in a canvas and sold it for millions.’ Well, matey, it’s time you read this book and realised there’s a lot more to it. Susie Hodge deals with some of the more controversial pieces of modern art and pulls apart why they sell for millions and your 5 year old’s doodle of a potato does not. You don’t have to be convinced by her argument, but at least you can have more of a basis for your debate…and this one fits in your handbag. 

"Sorry, Bobby, you may need to work a bit harder at that one..." 

The Story of Art- Ersnt Gombrich
Let’s step it up a tad here. This is a hardcore Art Book, no page-flicking and very few pictures, it is the size and weight of a brick. However, published in 1950, it is on every undergraduate art/history of art reading list. Yeah, it is pretty massive but Gombrich manages to cover an expansive period of art in a cohesive and understandable way. Calling it a ‘story’ is quite apt, he manages to write in a way that makes you empathise with each artist he mentions and places you right in the midst of each time period, understanding all of their issues and ambitions. It’s a good way to appreciate the arc of art, how we got from cave paintings to Van Gogh. It’s not the most contemporary view of history, but if you’re not that interested in postmodern thinking you won’t see many problems with that.

You can take this out on the tube and show everyone you mean business 

Ways of Seeing- John Berger
Another key player in art criticism and a common name on reading lists, John Berger was important in encouraging people to think differently about how we look at art. He wanted us to understand how a post card is different from the actual painting it represents, how each image we look at changes when and how we look at it. It’s pretty psychological and if you get into it, you’ll start analysing imagery all over the place. He was working at a time before social media and before a bazillion TV channels, so it’s interesting to think about how his work can be understood and taken further nowadays. His book's small and can really be read in a day or two, as it is less about the writing and more about the positioning and context of the photos he includes. If you’re not really a reader you’ll be pleased to know he started with a documentary series which can be watched for free on Youtube (although you may be put off by his startling choice of 70s shirts).

Ways of seeing... why fashion has changed 

Art magazines are perfect for staying up to date with the contemporary art world, what’s in and out in the big galleries and auction houses. Of course you have to be selective with which magazine you choose as they really differ on their angles. Here’s a few to think about… The Burlington Magazine is more an academic journal with articles written by some of the most prominent academics. It’s quite heavy to start with (and not a fab price for a student, I must say) but will help you get stuck in. A magazine more concerned with contemporary art is Art Review, it has lots of articles, criticisms and (obviously) art reviews. The adverts are often just as interesting as the articles as they’ll also show you what’s going on globally in the art world. And it’s got a pleasingly minimalist cover design, perfect for subtly placing on your coffee table. Aesthetica is in some ways even more arty, with lots of edgy words like ‘spatial introspection’, ‘standardisation’ and ‘syntheticism’. There isn’t that much text in this one, and has more of a focus on photography. It’s actually beautifully done, with full pages dedicated to full colour prints of art works. If you’re less into theory and more into simply really talented photographers, artists and fashion designers, this is for you. There’s loads more out there to flick through and Twitter is normally a good place to find them and sample their content before you buy.

Much edgier than my new profile picture. 

Chanel/fashion annuals

And if reading the books really isn’t your thing, but you’re still aspiring for the décor of a BeautyYoutuber’s bedroom, then fashion books are probably your best bet. Vogue and Chanel books look instantly classy and seem to always be paired with perfume bottles and orchids. They’re also good to read (obvs) but if you want to share your newly acquired knowledge, it’s probably best to do this on the FROW rather than in the Saatchi. 




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  2. A good review. I especially recommend books by Susie Hodge - there are over 100 of them, including the recent and definitive "The Short History of Art."


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