- An Introduction to Art
Explaining the complex history of art to an individual or group can be extremely difficult. Explaining how to approach works of art from the vast history of the subject can be nearly impossible. An entire industry of books aimed at surveying art from a Western or global view is employed each semester at colleges and universities. Straightforward and condensed survey books such as Gardner's Art Through the Ages or museum guidebooks such as The Art Institute of Chicago: The Essential Guide1 are directed at providing at least a workable knowledge of art in general or the art to be encountered in a museum's collection. However, it is rare to find a book that attempts to explain how to approach works of art in any situation and how such an endeavor can produce a more refined sense of engaging with the world. Charles Harrison makes a noteworthy attempt with his book An Introduction to Art.
In the book, Harrison describes various ways to approach art for the most rewarding experience. He states that the purpose of writing this book was "to help the reader to see and to understand what it is that makes these works of art attending to" (12). In order to understand a painting or sculpture, one must understand the visual language used in a work of art. The world or nature, he argues, could be better understood having learned this language of art. He further sums up this point by stating it is his aim to have "readers to progress from looking to seeing" (13), inferring that seeing entails a thoroughly richer experience than simply looking.
Harrison couches the beginning of the book in terms of a historical or aesthetic approach to art. Both approaches are touched upon throughout the book, and the author relates some of the most persuasive arguments for either view by way of theorists like Clive Bell, who argued for an aesthetic approach to art rather than looking at art in an academic fashion. The first few sections of the book also deal with where to find art and what type of art should be considered. The author helpfully explains the perceptive consideration of genre, a subject that deals with the sometimes straightforward and sometimes difficult categorization of art. Harrison weaves this thread throughout the book but makes his final point in the last chapter.
Throughout the book, Harrison discusses Eastern and Western art and the various media to be considered. Chapters covering two-dimensional art (painting and prints) and three-dimensional art (sculpture) give the reader a broad understanding of what constitutes the best of each media. The chapter "Seeing Paintings" is particularly enlightening.
I applaud Harrison's efforts, which add a significant tool to the repertoire of any art educator. The strength of [End Page 122] the book is its ability to present a wide view of the current art world with all its methodologies and philosophies. This is an extremely difficult endeavor due to the sometimes subjective nature of the evaluation of art. However, the strengths of the book are also its weaknesses. The broad scope of the work examined in this book makes it relatively dense and difficult for the audience to whom the book would primarily be useful: undergraduate college students. A more compact version akin to the series of books produced by the Getty Institute would make the subject available to its intended audience. While this book is an excellent resource, one that could be used by anyone wanting to gain a more knowledgeable appreciation for art, the thoroughness of the presented information makes for a complex read that might stifle students, young or old, wanting to equip themselves for a lifetime of art enjoyment.
1. Fred S. Kleiner, Gardner's Art Through the Ages (Boston, MA: Wadsworth, 2010); James N. Weed and Teri J. Edelstein, eds., The Art Institute of Chicago: The Essential Guide, (Chicago, IL: Art Institute of Chicago, 1997). [End Page 123]