A fresh perspective on writing about art

Dana Arnold Middlesex UniversityProfessor of Architectural History and Theory at Middlesex University Dana Arnold seeks to put an end to complex and inaccessible art literature, instead finding ways to speak about art in a way that is jargon-free, easily understandable yet thought-provoking. Her latest publication, A Short Book About Art, is published by Tate.

As we walk through a museum or gallery, a story unfolds: we encounter artworks grouped by ‘movements’ like Cubism or Surrealism. We might see ‘world art’ from outside Europe categorised by geographies like Oceania or Asia, or prehistoric sculptures displayed as ‘relics’, away from the ‘art’ of ancient civilisations. We may be led to view African or shamanic sculpture as primitive when compared with Greek statues, because one looks more realistic than the other. For decades, museums and galleries have used these chronological and geographical categories to explain the development of art, but what happens if we collapse these categories, and consider art from a different perspective?

I have been exploring different kinds of juxtapositions and relationships between artworks, artists, subject matter and materials from across broad sweeps of time. Some of the questions I ask might seem surprising at first and they provide some unexpected answers that reveal hidden meanings. What can cave paintings tell us about a Picasso sculpture made from a bicycle seat and handlebars? What do statues of the Buddha have in common with Greek sculpture? If we compare Cindy Sherman’s photography to Renaissance nudes by Titian, what do we learn? My point is to show that art from all periods operates in similar ways.

J.M.W Turner Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps 1812 © Tate Photography

J.M.W Turner Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps 1812 © Tate Photography

Art and mind

A mixture of familiar and less well-known works reveal stimulating comparisons that cut across time and geography. I begin with the idea of ‘Looking’ – something it is quite easy to forget to how to do. Art is a means of visual communication and it is important to think about what we see when we look at art.

Exploring art through the lens of materials, mind, devotion, power and sex opens up new possibilities for looking and thinking about art and can help us understand its secrets. A look at media in different cultures can rebalance our way of looking at art in a global context. Plus an analysis of the techniques and effects of materials and processes – including paints, precious metals, pigments, marble, paper, dripping, carving and modelling – all encourage the reader to think about the intrinsic qualities of the object.

The relationship between art and mind questions the role of our imagination and the influence of philosophy and psychoanalysis with some unforeseen and provocative results. By contrast, there might appear to be few surprises when we think about the relationship between art and devotion. But in my book I decided to go beyond religious art from a range of cultures to think about other kinds of devotion as expressed, for instance, in marriage pictures.

Berthe Morisot Girl on a Divan c.1885, Tate Collection © Tate Photography

Berthe Morisot Girl on a Divan c.1885, Tate Collection © Tate Photography

Power and sex

We are probably all familiar with the use of art as a propaganda tool and an expression of power. One of the questions I ask is how portraits work to produce an iconic image that helps promote the cult of the individual and how his/her power and aura is conveyed. But it is also important to think about the ways in which these images of power can be subverted – for example, the pulling down of statues of twentieth-century dictators such as Lenin, which presents a very different kind of image of power.

And finally, where would we be without sex? Images of the female nude have been a major, age-old preoccupation in western art. I end the book by looking at issues of sex and sexuality in a global context. My purpose here is to show that there are common themes in the conception and representation of sex and sexual practices interwoven across a broad geographical and chronological span of human creativity.

A Short Book About Art aims to show that there are many diverse ways to write about, think and look at art – and that they can all in their different ways be interesting and pleasurable.

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