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Five Books to Read on Modern and Contemporary Art

Five Books to Read on Modern and Contemporary Art

Modern and contemporary art can be confusing. In fact, its ambiguity has become a point of contention among art appreciators and museum visitors. 

Art has often been valued for it's realism, universal appeal, and/or obvious display of skill. The technique among the Italian Renaissance artists of the 13th century was undeniably impeccable, and even 19th century impressionism (initially considered vulgar and unrefined by the critics at the time) has since been accepted as aesthetically pleasing and worthy of the artistic canon. It's once you arrive at the 20th century, where things get a little more subjective. 

Working at a modern and contemporary art museum, I have seen visitors literally become angry at the art displayed, with opinions that the art is devoid of talent and/or meaning. I often hear questions about why something is even considered art. Then there are the visitors that want to be open and try to understand modern and contemporary art, but are unable to connect to some of the more conceptual pieces without explanation of the context.

Going to an art museum can be intimidating, especially when the art is abstract or seems out of touch. It can be easy to dismiss art like this as beyond one's understanding, or even devoid of any meaning at all, but that is a limiting way to view art—and the world.

I find that reading about the conventions and philosophies of modern and contemporary art can create a great foundation to understanding and appreciating art as a whole. I've featured a few of my favorite books on the topic, which I would recommend to anyone who is interested in answering some questions about the mysterious world of modern and contemporary art. 

1) Who's Afraid of Contemporary Art? by Kyung An and Jessica Cerasi

This book is an easy read and great tool for those trying to understand contemporary art and the world surrounding it. It covers art movements, the different professional roles in the art world, and even manages to tackle a few existential questions along the way. The book is actually organized as an A-Z guide, which means the topics from one page to the next are usually unrelated or seemingly random, but I find this makes the reading experience more exciting. The authors don't just explain why you should like modern art. What I love about this book is that they acknowledge the validity of skepticism towards ambiguous art—and even embrace it—as they encourage readers to challenge their perspectives.

2) Seven Days in the Art World by Sarah Thornton

This book reads like an art world tell-all. Thornton splits her book into seven chapters, each exploring a different side of the art world (the auction house, the art school, the magazine, the studio visit, etc.). I love this book because it feels like having lunch with art insiders, telling you the behind-the-scene happenings of the latest museum exhibition or gallery opening. There are significant names (and some hidden names) and secrets revealed in each chapter. There are a lot of references that will be familiar only to those academically or professionally involved with art, but nonetheless, it should make an interesting read for anyone curious about the contemporary art market. While the writing may come off as a little smug, Thornton lifts the curtain of the glamorous and ever-mysterious society made up of people whose lives are driven by artistic creation—from all angles.

3) General Idea: A Retrospective 1969-1994 by Jean Christophe Ammann

In the late sixties—and peaking during the eighties—a group known as General Idea was formed. This artistic project between three Canadian artists was born out of an interest in identity politics and the dynamics of the modern art market. I love this book and this art group for one main reason: they are fun. General Idea embraced the idea of art created for profit and created a brand around their work in a fresh and unseen way. This book gives great insight into the appeal of consumerist art that boomed in the eighties, a style that is still popular now. Insightful and humorous quotes on fame, essays on queer identity, and provocative photography were all apart of the portfolio that made this group so great, and consequently, this retrospective book has become one of my favorites.

4) 50 Contemporary Artists You Should Know by Brad Finger and Christiane Weidemann

This book serves as an encyclopedic reference to many of the relevant artists of our time. If you aren’t interested in contemporary art, maybe it’s because you haven’t yet discovered the artist that speaks to you. This book highlights 50 of these artists, while providing relevant context and tracing various artistic movements. The book also prioritizes images, so you can see the major works from the artists featured, which keeps the reading light and stimulating. This book is a great introduction to a diverse range of talented artists, and is a great starting point for one’s own research on contemporary art.

5) Theories on Modern Art by Herschel B. Chipp

Not going to lie, this book is dense. If you studied art history in university, there’s a good chance this was required reading at some point. However, don’t be discouraged by the bluntly academic tone of the book, let alone the number of pages. This book honestly has a lot of great theories, and most are short essays written by the artists themselves. I wouldn’t read this book cover to cover, rather I’d keep the book as a reference point to look up the thoughts of artists whose works you come across. There are some really insightful and genuinely fascinating letters and essays from figures like Van Gogh, Matisse, Dali, and more.

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