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Art: Key Contemporary Thinkers

by Diarmuid Costello and Jonathan Vickery, Editors
Berg Publishers, Oxford, New York, 2007
213 pp. Paper, $19.95
ISBN: 1-84520-319-1.

Reviewed by Rob Harle (Australia)


This book’s greatest virtue is the important contribution it makes to art education. To my knowledge it is the first time such a broad anthology of "key contemporary thinkers" has been attempted. As such it will become an indispensable reference and source book for art students particularly, and also for History of Ideas and Cultural Studies students.

Costello and Vickery have done an excellent job of representing the main intellectual contribution, concerning art theory and practice, since the beginning of the 1960s of over 45 artists, philosophers, and art historians. None of these actually speak for themselves; each essay discussing their significant ideas is written by a scholar with specific knowledge of each "key thinker". To give the prospective reader an idea of those represented, here are just a few of the better known ones: Foucault, Barthes, Adorno, Smithson, Derrida, Merleau-Ponty, Klein, Danto, Greenberg, and Buren.

The book is arranged into four sections, together with a List of Contributors, Introduction, and a very informative Glossary of Terms.I – Art Theory and Practice redresses the usual omission of actual artists in anthologies of this kind, "…it includes artists as thinkers, that is, artists who have made a major contribution to thought about art…through their writings as well as their art".
II – Art Theory and History, this section includes art historians and theorists, "…who have made the greatest impact on thought about art…and whose work clearly embodies a broader intellectual position despite remaining close to its object"
III – Philosophy of Art and Aesthetics. This section concerns philosophers from various traditions whose work, in addition to aesthetics and the philosophy of art, is also "…widely read beyond the confines of professional philosophy".
IV – Theory and Philosophy of Culture is more diverse than the previous sections and draws on "… a range of disciplines, such as sociology, and sub-disciplines, such as semiotics and psychoanalysis, as well as, ‘the philosophy of culture’". (All quotes from the General Introduction).

Art: Key Contemporary Thinkers should come with a warning in red on the front cover, something like the following: Students Beware. Uncritical consumption of all ideas in this book could lead to insanity, artistic impotence, or as Wittgenstein once suggested, "becoming a shop keeper". Young undergraduate visual art students will find this book a little like a candy shop where they just have to try every sort of candy until they make themselves sick. Why is this? The range of ideas presented in this book is extremely broad, in many cases completely contradictory and in other cases conveys a sense of depression and hopelessness.

If "art is dead", art galleries (museums) now "cemeteries", and artist’s studios have become "commercial depots" (p. 6), then I suggest it is many of the art critics, artists, and philosophers of art represented in this book who are the executioners. They have attempted to destroy something that they have barely perceived. The myopic, tunnel lack-of-vision that has elevated an intellectual approach to art, to the supreme criterion by which art can be conceived and perhaps executed, to the exclusion of a "feeling" approach to art, has done humanity and art a great disservice.

The warning I suggest is serious, if young art students, curators, and potential critics swallow this "intellectual only" approach to art uncritically, they will simply end up impotent clones of the "key thinkers". The art they create will be a shallow, impoverished, still-born art to which they have failed to give one of the most important qualities of all art - feeling.

This criticism should alert the reader to the importance of this book. And why, apart from being an informative and comprehensive introduction for those generally interested in art and art history of the later years of the twentieth century, it will become an essential reference book in art education at tertiary level.



Updated 1st May 2007

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