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A Book Report 2 Years in the Making

I’ve been reading the same book for 2 years. Yep, that’s right. I may have all kinds of other commitment issues in my life, but when it comes to books, I’m in it for the long haul. Sure I’ve read other books along the way. Books that are way more entertaining. Books that are a lot more interesting. But I’m devoted to Art in Theory: 1900-2000, An Anthology of Changing Ideas and I’m not going to stop until I’ve read every page.Art in Theory: 1900-2000

Let me state for the record that a page in this book is like 20 pages in any other. It’s dense. Really dense. Check out this quote from page 817: “The articulation of Structuralism and semiotics to a Lacanian psychoanalysis wherin the human subject was understood as formed in the play of gender difference contained far-reaching implications for the avant-garde.” Huh? Try reading that before bedtime. Rather than Chamomile Tea or sleeping pills, Art in Theory is what I use when I have insomnia. I labor through 2 pages and I’m exhausted.

I know I sound like I’m complaining, but I’m not. I love this book. I love all 1376 pages. I love it because I am a self-proclaimed art geek, and this is the book for art geeks. It tells the story of 20th-century art from the first-hand perspectives of artists, critics and philosophers. It’s not distilled down art history in some art appreciation text book. This is art history straight from the horse’s mouth. From Sigmund Freud to Donald Judd, there’s a little something for everyone and a whole heck of a lot just for me!

I mention this book for a couple of reasons. First, and most importantly, I sound like a smarty pants when I announce that I’m reading a book such as Art in Theory. And what’s the purpose of a blog if not to make you sound like a smarty pants. However, to be fair, I will admit that reading and understanding a book like this are two completely different things. I’m reading 100% of the content; I’m understanding about 50%. As I wade through the text, I’ve been stunned by the connections that have emerged. Even at half capacity, it’s amazing to consider the progression from Cezanne to Nam June Paik. On a good day this book has the capacity to blow my mind!

My second reason for writing about this book is that I had one of those mind-blowing experiences this week. On the very night that I read Michael Kimmelman’s beautiful obituary for Robert Rauschenberg, I reached the page (page 761 to be exact) dedicated to the reprint of Jasper John’s obituary written for Marcel Duchamp. It was extremely timely as Rauschenberg was a contemporary of John’s and the two artists were greatly influenced by Duchamp’s work. I found the short essay so eloquent and poetic that I have to share it.

John’s obituary for the legendary artist was originally printed in the November, 1968 ArtForum. I quote the first four and last two lines.

The self attempts balance, descends. Perfume – the air was to stink of artists’ egos. Himself, quickly torn to pieces. His tongue in cheek. Marcel Duchamp, one of this century’s pioneer artists, moved his work through the retinal boundaries which had been established with Impressionism into a field where language, though and vision act upon one another…”

…The art community feels Duchamp’s presence and his absence. He has changed the condition of being here.”

WOW! It’s rare when an art theory book can make you cry, but I did a little after reading John’s final lines. After reading hundreds of pages filled with chapters like “The Legacy of Symbolism,” “Neo-Plasticism: The General Principal of Plastic Equivalent,”and “Manifesto of Mural Painting,” I was surprised to be so moved. This kind of moment makes me want to keep reading. And I WILL, because I’m in it to win it.

So, I’ve got about 600 pages to go. At this rate I’ll be done some time in the winter of 2009. Sure it’s a challenge, but I’m learning so much. Heck, I’m already starting to look forward to Art in Theory: 1815-1900.

Filed under: Art, Musings

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