Reading List: The Art of Reading

Stories and transformation; these are elements to all successful art, whether realist, abstract or conceptual. It’s ironic that art often involves very non-verbal narratives and transformations, yet we persistently try to describe and understand it in words. We have to- if it’s compelling enough, we feel the need to communicate its transcendent glories and vain failures to others. Any truly successful work is a teachable moment- but how to teach it? That question is often on my mind, but in pondering it, one is fortunately standing in the shadows of giants.

Ways of Seeing, John Berger:  A sociological, and sometimes, overtly marxist take on art’s role in propping up the higher echelons of the class system, and attitudes toward gender, power and possession.  It’s based on a BBC series from the early days of cultural studies’ slow seep into popular discourse and is presented as a series of essays both literary and visual on aspects of art and advertising as they relate to each other and to the conventional wisdom. As such, it goes well beyond interpretation of composition, iconography and metaphor and into cultural theory and structuralism. How do society’s truisms affect the way an image is created, viewed, interpreted and consumed? Who is it for, and who does it exploit, or exclude, or perhaps more cogently, gaze at?

The images presented mostly span the Renaissance, the Age of Reason, the Romantic/Surrealist movements and the Advertising Age, excluding the Medieval and Modernist (the Modernist era having its own fraught, and possibly post-structural relationship with the materialist/imperialist impulse, of course). Thought provoking and compellingly readable, it becomes a sort of reference to the semiotics of privilege in art .

Picasso the Printmaker, Dallas Museum of Art: Catalogue of an 1983 exhibition of the Marina Picasso Collection that I sadly never saw ( it appeared at the DAM before I arrived here). It very much has a cataloguer’s approach to fitting the prints into Picasso’s main body of painting work, so most of the actual process of printmaking is glossed over, except what can be seen in the reproductions. Which is enough- these are rich images. A history of Picasso’s various Master Printers and graphics publishing over the decades is nice, but not nearly as interesting as the revelation that Picasso did not merely show up at their print shops to doodle on pre-prepared plates; he actually bought a small press for his studio to pull his own (gloriously sloppy) proofs. Whether Picasso intended this as a way to access less wealthy collectors, or simply loved the medium would be something I’d like to see studied. Mostly readable.

The Genesis of a Painting, Rudolf Arnheim: A reconstructed history of one painting, Picasso’s Guernica. It is very engaged in the examination of the creative process. How many of us have seen the famous film of Picasso at work- the cigarette smoke in the backlight, the shirtless and barrel-chested artist, the time-lapse transformations, painted on a see through surface. This is a more academic, less romanticized version, using the artist’s sketches and preceding iconography- much of it found in prints, by the way ( see above). Much less visually dramatic than the film of course- many of the records of the process are faint squiggles on scrap paper, but one must always wonder how much of the film is exhibitionistic posing.

Reading, and the slow visual mining of images both complex and improvisational leaves us the mental space to absorb and contemplate the creative process. We are following in the footsteps of genius, and Arnheim’s accompanying observations add much food for thought. This is especially true in a long first chapter in which he gives more general thoughts on the subconscious processes at work. I’ve been writing on this subject, and these passages were red meat.

Literary TheoryA Brief Insight, Jonathon Culler: I’ve made numerous snarky comments about academic theory, but if one reads a lot of lit and art criticism, as I do, one is bound to run into it. I’ve found it creeping into comics criticism. A basic understanding of it is quite helpful, in fact, and I admit that one of my major frustrations (beyond the clotted academic jargon) with it is that I can’t just bluff my way through a given passage on context; my lazy reading habits are exposed. Still, its multiple contexts and arcane canon are confusing to the recreational reader. Regular readers of this blog ( Hi, Mom!) may be surprised that I didn’t search out the Classics Illustrated version of The Foucault Reader, but it’s hard to find in Very Fine or better.

Instead, I ran across this little volume in my favorite used book shop. It seemed very readable and concise, yet didn’t soft pedal the subject, or end in “For Dummies”. At eight bucks, it was thousands of dollars less than a Masters Degree in English.

It turns out to be very useful. Not a page-turner, by any means, but organized well into basic concepts in separate chapters such as “Language, Meaning and Interpretation” and “Rhetoric, Poetics and Poetry”. These introduce major figures, and an appendix tries to sort out significant movements within theory. I still can’t claim to fully understand literary theory after having read it, but it’s very handy to have around to crib from.

As Culler points out, literary theory actually spends relatively little of its time on books. Linguistics, psychoanalysis and philosophy are often part of the analyses, and the objects  of study are often images or pop cultural ‘texts’, with tweets noticeably being more avidly deconstructed since 2016. It seems as though theory and cultural studies are here to stay, and bluffing one’s way through this critical landscape is not an option. At less than 200 pages of fairly limpid explication, this seems like the sort of volume one might pack if one is trying to travel light.

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