UPDATED DECEMBER 8, 2021
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Every artist has his or her own toolbox for making art. For many, this kit includes books they return to—not just for practical information but also for an understanding of the artistic process within a larger theoretical and philosophical context. That’s where our list comes in. We’ve assembled a selection of nine books, from works of critical theory to autobiographies, that appear on many artists’ bookshelves. Any of them would make an excellent gift for an art-loving friend, a budding artist, or yourself. (Prices and availability accurate at time of publication.)
1. John Berger, Ways of Seeing
In this groundbreaking 1972 book, British critic, artist, and public intellectual John Berger combines Frankfurt School theory with accessible language to demystify commonly held notions about art. Berger’s project began as BBC TV series of the same name, and in both print and television form, Ways of Seeing employs lay terms to offer a materialistic critique that frames art (particularly painting) within the larger socioeconomic context that conditions our reception of it. Berger notes how art has been changed by its wide dissemination through reproduction (a notion borrowed from Walter Benjamin) and weighs in on how the male gaze has shaped—and has been shaped by—art history. He also discusses how the market has replaced the church as the means of valorizing a religious reverence for art. Through it all he circles back to that most subjective point of view: the eye of the beholder.
Purchase: Ways of Seeing $6.67 (new) on Amazon
2. Robert Farris Thompson, Flash of the Spirit
A landmark 1983 study by art historian Robert Farris Thompson, Flash of the Spirit explores how cultural traditions brought from Africa to the Americas during the Middle Passage shaped, and still permeate, artistic expression throughout the African Diaspora in the New World. Focusing on five civilizations from West Africa—Yoruba, Kongo, Ejagham, Mande, and Cross River—Thompson traces their influence on Black arts in the Western Hemisphere. In his introduction, Thompson writes, “I hope, in opening some of these lines of inquiry, that the identification and explanation of some of these mainlines, intellectually perceived and sensuously appreciated, will provide a measure of the achievement of African civilizations in transition to the West, for theirs is one of the great migration styles in the history of the planet.”
Purchase: Flash of the Spirit $15.59 (new) on Amazon
3. Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art
Arguably no book did more to shape the course of modern art than this ur-text by Wassily Kandinsky, a seminal figure in painting’s transition from representation to abstraction during the early years of the 20th century. Central to Kandinsky’s thinking (which he lays out in the book’s first half, under the title “About General Aesthetic”) is a call for a “spiritual revolution” that will liberate art itself from the Western tradition of depicting external reality by stripping it of everything except the subjectivity of the individual artist. In this new model of artistic endeavor, artists would work more like musicians, abandoning mimesis for a nonobjective language of form, composition, and color (laid out in the book’s second half, “About Painting”). Published in 1911, Kandinsky’s treatise continues to inform abstract art to this day.
Purchase: Concerning the Spiritual in Art $5.95 (new) on Amazon
4. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”
One of the most influential critical tracts of the past 90 years, Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1935) is best known for introducing the concept of the “aura,” a term for the air of transcendental presence and cultural legitimacy bestowed on art objects. According to Benjamin, the aura derives its power from an object’s perceived uniqueness and historical durability, both of which have been undermined in the modern era by the ubiquity of art reproductions in print, photography, and cinema. Benjamin goes on to say that since aura amounts to a form of worship, its qualities can be pressed into the service of an “aestheticization of politics” through mass spectacle and cult of personality—the theatrics of Nazism being the obvious example in Benjamin’s time. Though Benjamin’s focus on mechanical reproduction may seem quaint today, his larger point remains depressingly relevant in the age of Trump and social media. The essay is featured in The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media, a collection of short pieces by the German cultural critic.
Purchase: The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility $21.00 (new) on Amazon
5. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida
While this slim volume by critic and semiotician Roland Barthes is considered a canonical treatise on photography, it isn’t really about photography per se, at least not in the sense of examining photography’s history or its contested status as an artistic genre. Nor is it, strictly speaking, the rigorous deconstruction one might expect from a seminal figure in the formulation of postmodern theory. More than anything, Camera Lucida, published in 1980, is a deeply subjective, almost mournful, rumination on the relationship between photography and memory, occasioned by the death of Barthes’s mother. Barthes posits that the effect of the photographic image depends on two qualities he defines as the studium, or content of the photo, and more important, the punctum, a Proustian detail within the picture that sparks an ineffable connection between viewer and subject across time and space. For Barthes, a photograph not only records life but carries it forward after death.
Purchase: Camera Lucida $16.02 (new) on Amazon
6. Edmund de Waal, The Hare with Amber Eyes
Ceramicist Edmund de Waal has described himself as a “potter who writes,” and indeed, the writing in The Hare with the Amber Eyes (2010) is as good as it gets. The book marries his family’s history with that of a group of collectibles in its possession, a cache of 264 Japanese netsuke—miniature wood and ivory sculptures traditionally part of a Japanese man’s costume. The netsuke were initially acquired by de Waal’s ancestor Charles Ephrussi, a member of an Austrian-Jewish banking clan and a patron of the Impressionists, whose interest in netsuke was consistent with the Japonism craze sweeping Paris at the time. When Hitler annexed Austria in 1938, the Nazis confiscated all of the Ephrussi family’s possessions—except for the netsuke, which had been hidden by a servant. In due course, they made their way to de Waal and became the subject of this magnificent meditation on the fragility and persistence of both art and familial bonds. The book was also the impetus for a current exhibition at the Jewish Museum that runs through May, 2022.
Purchase: The Hare with Amber Eyes from $11.72 (new) on Amazon
7. Stuart Hall, editor, Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices
An invaluable resource in the field of media studies, this far-reaching collection of essays, edited by cultural theorist Stuart Hall (who adds his own writing to the mix), delves into the mechanics of representation—as manifested by symbols, signs, and most important, language—and its essential role as the glue holding culture together. Hall notes that at its root, every culture depends on “shared meaning” in order to operate; in this respect, culture isn’t so much a “set of things—novels and paintings or TV programs and comics—as it is a process . . . concerned with the production and exchange of meanings.” The contributors touch on a range of subjects, from photography’s role in disseminating imagery to the ways in which methods as diverse as advertisements and museum exhibitions shape our attitudes about race, gender, and identity.
Purchase: Representation from $38.85 (new) on Amazon
8. Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again)
In 1975, the year the book was published, the New York Times called The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again) an “apocalyptic vision of vacancy.” This was not necessarily meant as a criticism. A pure distillation of the artist’s sensibility in written form, part autobiography and part proselytization for living life without feeling, Warhol’s Philosophy seems to bubble with Swiftian irony, though you can tell he really means it. Less ambiguous is his egalitarian outlook, evident in this take on Coca-Cola: “You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too.” Warhol always insisted that his art had “nothing behind it,” and while this volume may be about nothing, it reaffirms how far his ideas have spread. After all, if you want to see Warhol’s philosophy in action, just look around you.
Purchase: The Philosophy of Andy Warhol $10.79 (new) on Amazon
9. Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation and Other Essays
With the titular piece of this 1966 collection of essays, Susan Sontag created a furor by taking issue with critical writing at mid century, stirring public arguments and counterarguments within an otherwise arcane discipline. And while Sontag focused mainly on film criticism, her objections were meant to apply to the field as a whole. They boiled down to the question of interpretation—the tendency to assign meaning to art. She considered that approach redolent of the mimetic tradition of representational art, which had been discarded well before her writing. To get things up to speed with modernism, Sontag proposed, criticism should focus on form rather than content. Moreover, she disapproved of projecting Marxist or Freudian readings onto works of art, an approach she considered just as bad as trying to find a moral lesson within them. While some readers may find Sontag’s views too restrictive (or even archaic, given how long it’s been since modernism bit the dust), “Against Interpretation” remains a classic of its genre.
Purchase: Against Interpretation $18.00 (new) on Amazon