Essential Reading| Art Since 1900

Quite simply put, this is not your parents' art history textbook.

This is a picture of my very first art history textbook
Somewhere on my bookshelf I still have a copy of the first art history textbook that I ever used in school. It was Grade 12 and I had enrolled in Mr. Kennedy’s “Western Civilization” class (or Civ 12 as we called it then) with promises from other students who had taken the course that I was in for a fun class covering the best bits of the history of art. I still recall the first day when Mr. Kennedy arrived to class just a few minutes after we had all taken our seat, out of breath and clutching two trays of slides and pulling a video machine and TV on a trolley into class (yes, I went to high-school before the advent of PowerPoint and the digital projector). In the darkened classroom as the sliding projector hummed, Mr. Kennedy began telling us about his summer trip to Europe from which he had literally just returned the day before, showing us slide after slide of his adventures and all of the amazing architecture, paintings, and sculptures he had seen. He then had us open our art history textbook, Kenneth Clark’s Civilization (first published in 1969!) to the first chapter on ancient art and watch the accompanying video where we were all introduced to the task of appreciating the best of Western art as a series of great achievements by men of genius. I can still remember the dry humour of Sir Kenneth as he discussed the exploits of the Greeks and the intrigue of the Roman papacy. It was everything that a good art appreciation course was meant to be—entertaining, neatly laid out, and thoroughly uncritical.

The October journal is considered essential reading
for historians of modern and contemporary art and theory.
Art history has of course changed a great deal from the time of Sir Kenneth, but one thing that has continued to plague the discipline has been the problem of the survey text—more specifically, the dilemma of how to deliver the history of art in a more dynamic and self-reflexive way without the apparent goal of simply overloading students with thousands of images, biographies of artists, and decontextualized dates to memorize.  Within the field of modern and contemporary art, this has proved even more difficult as art historians have recast the terms of debate around modernism, the avant-garde, and the recognition of the discipline’s privileging of particular discourses that often exclude the intersection of art and politics. In recent years, a number of very good textbooks have begun to appear, but perhaps the most rigorous textbook, and the one I consider essential reading to anyone interested in a dynamic account of the major debates and developments within modern and contemporary art is the somewhat controversial Art Since 1900 textbooks co-written by the daunting group of well-respected art historians Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, and Benjamin Buchloh. Daunting because these individuals represent a very important group of intellectuals linked to the prestigious academic journal October—a publication that was pivotal in introducing French post-structural theory and the interpretation of postmodern art and culture to the discipline of art history—and controversial because many art historians simply find the book far too challenging to incorporate into the typical survey art history class. That being said, whether it is used by art historians in the classroom or not, it is still the textbook in my experience that sits on more art historians shelves than any other.  

Divided into two volumes—the first covering 1900-1944 and the second from 1945-present—the books are arranged by individual years with an accompanying essay written by one of the co-authors centering on one key moment in the history of art. For example, if you were to turn to the year 1920, an essay focused on the Dada Fair held in Berlin of that year introduces readers to a discussion of photomontage and new media forms that challenged both the popular media advertisements and politicized artistic engagement on the eve of Hitler’s rise to power. Keep in mind that most art history survey texts only mention Dada in a few short paragraphs and link it back to its earliest formations or only make reference to the works of Marcel Duchamp (of course, I probably don’t need to point out that I never learned anything about Dada from Sir Kenneth). In this sense, the book is invaluable for its rich historical and critical engagement and essential reading for those individuals wanting to fill in the gaps of their modern and contemporary art historical knowledge. Reading the two volumes is as close as you will ever come to taking a very well thought out history of modern and contemporary art course. But if you still feel nostalgic for some simple art appreciation, I am happy to direct you to some vintage outtakes from Sir Kenneth Clark’s work (see below).  

Here is the opening six minutes to Kenneth Clark's Civilization video series--great vintage stuff!-- this is the same video that I watched on that first fateful day in Grade 12 Western Civilization class (it was dated even then!) and the series, if I were to be perfectly honest, first sparked my interest in art history. Below that is captured a great moment of pure Sir Kenneth that demonstrates his honest admission of enjoying the idea of the "genius artist" along with some other gems of art historical discourse that the last few generations of art historians have been trying to correct.

P.S. Thanks to Mr. Kennedy too if you are still out there!