In space, no one can hear you read
Art theory books blow my mind.
They’re like papery pellets of concentrated intelligence. I’ll pick one up, open to any page and try a bit. Next thing I know I’ve swallowed the end of the chapter and I’m spending the subsequent hour walking around, eyes dilated, marvelling at all these new planets popping up at the edges of my brain.
There used to be something ominous for me about the art theory shelves – a cross between that old rote-learning dread from high school and an intimidating sense that these volumes were only for people who could accurately define post-positivist constructivism. A few years ago however, my world changed when I was assigned the shelving in the art theory section of the shop. It was basically speed-dating, but with books. Somewhere between De Botton and Gombrich I was hooked. Some mornings I was lost in the ones with glossy hard covers and smooth timelines, others in the dense and fascinating pocket paperbacks. There were books I could only follow for a few sentences, and others that clarified stuff I realised I already knew well. I ended up putting aside a teetering pile to read while not standing on a ladder.
It began to sink in later just how much I’d actually taken in. I’d be in the cinema and recognise a movie scene arranged like an historical painting, or suddenly begin identifying symbols carved in stonework throughout the city. I might possibly have become really annoying at vocalising these realisations in rapturous detail.
But the thing is, it isn’t about becoming an expert know-it-all. It’s not even about learning withering art-speak put-downs for works you don’t like (though I’m not going to lie, that’s a pretty awesome perk). It’s about building more layers of meaning and resonance to your visual world, with every new concept or detail shifting your perspective slightly or tilting your entire axis.
Imagine all the art you’ve ever seen – every painting, every sculpture, tapestry, hieroglyph, comic book, photograph, and stained glass window. Then think of everything you know about these works of art, whether it be solid fact (painted in 1865), personal experience (gave me nightmares), or sheer speculation (I think it’s something to do with the cheese riots?). If you could draw lines of connection between the works based on everything you know and feel and hypothesise, there would be a thousand shining threads linking them, and a million more going out to every other part of your life.
Every new image or principle or story you add to this constellation is expanding and enriching it, and just as no two people will have exactly the same reaction to a work of art, no two people have the same kaleidoscope of visual experience. Even if we all had the same dots, the patterns we make with them are intricate and unique.
The delight of the good art theory book is in having a guided tour of someone else’s mind-map, with their insights and discoveries leading you to create new links of your own.
So if you feel like your own bibliographic speed-date, drop into the Gallery Shop and prepare to expand your brain space. There are whole universes to explore among those shelves, and you can even borrow my ladder.
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August 11 2014, 9am
by Holly Bennett