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Freeland, Cynthia, , . But is it Art?: An Introduction to Art Theory
2001, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
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Publisher’s note: From Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes to provocative dung-splattered madonnas, in today’s art world many strange, even shocking, things are put on display. This often leads exasperated viewers to exclaim–is this really art? In this invaluable primer on aesthetics, Freeland explains why innovation and controversy are so highly valued in art, weaving together philosophy and art theory with many engrossing examples. Writing clearly and perceptively, she explores the cultural meanings of art in different contexts, and highlights the continuities of tradition that stretch from modern often sensational works, back to the ancient halls of the Parthenon, to the medieval cathedral of Chartres, and to African nkisi nkondi fetish statues. She explores the difficulties of interpretation, examines recent scientific research into the ways the brain perceives art, and looks to the still-emerging worlds of art on the web, video art, art museum CD-ROMS, and much more. She also guides us through the various theorists of art, from Aristotle and Kant to Baudrillard. Throughout this nuanced account of theories, artists, and works, Freeland provides us with a rich understanding of how cultural significance is captured in a physical medium, and why challenging our perceptions is, and always has been, central to the whole endeavor. It is instructive to recall that Henri Matisse himself was originally derided as a “wild beast.” To horrified critics, his bold colors and distorted forms were outrageous. A century later, what was once shocking is now considered beautiful. And that, writes Freeland, is art.

Comment: Chapters 2,3 and 5 of But is it art? can serve as a good basic introduction to art theory. The book is written in a light, narrative style and does not focus on the details of particular theories; instead, it is arranged in a useful historical narrative which presents theories in their contexts, showing the types of art they were inspired by. This text is best used in introductory teaching, as a background reading, or as a pre-read for higher level courses where it should be followed by more focused and specialised texts.

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