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by Walter Robinson
The almost-endless column of books on your desk is a promise to the future, a compendium of things that someday you’ll look at and learn about. You want to know it all! But who has time to read books anymore, save for lucky students and book professionals? You’re reduced to the literary equivalent of a lick and a promise, courtesy of Artnet Magazine -- an intense though brief survey of new titles, just in time for the holiday season. Remember, nothing in the art world gives value for money like an art book!

Speaking of value, the art-market boom seems to have convinced art-book publishers that the time is right to bring out some how-to manuals for new art collectors. You know already that the secret of art collecting is simple -- have lots of money. If you want to know more, the nimble Allworth Press offers Marketing and Buying Fine Art Online: A Guide for Artists and Collectors by California-based artist and web entrepreneur Marques Vickers ($19.95). The 216-page paperback is packed with technical details for the aspiring internet artist, from domain-name registration and digital watermarking to "art as a hedge investment" and "traits of compulsive collectors."

Targeting the same readership -- those of us who would rather learn by studying than by actually doing, perhaps? -- is Canadian journalist Lisa Hunter’s The Intrepid Art Collector: The Beginner’s Guide to Finding, Buying and Appreciating Art on a Budget (Crown, $13.95). The best way to collect on the cheap is to invite your artist friends to your birthday party, but of course there’s more to be said than that. The Intrepid romps through African art, Oriental rugs and antiquities as well as photography, prints and posters, with mini-features like "finding tomorrow’s art stars at student art shows." Columbia University MFA professor Jon Kessler notes, correctly, that "hot MFA programs" at Yale, Columbia and Cal Arts are perceived as "a way of entering the market."

Better for sophisticates in this department is Adam Lindemann’s Collecting Contemporary (Taschen, $29.99), which delves rather deeper into the more mysterious workings of the avant-garde and its corresponding market via interviews with leading collectors, dealers, auction-house experts, consultants and curators. For further details, consult the interview with Lindemann himself in these pages [The New Art Aristocrats Oct. 18, 2006]. Suffice it to say here that art historians of the future will surely mine Lindemann’s interviews for a deeper understanding -- it does go deep, you know it does -- of the tick and the tock of the weird contemporary art market. 

Correlating as well with a robust art market is what has been called a "criticism of complaint" -- that is to say, art critics are always a little grumpy, and nothing makes them grumpier than when the art they don’t like is selling like hotcakes. Thus, Critical Mess: Art Critics on the State of Their Practice (Hard Press Editions, $24,95), edited by Art in America scribe Raphael Rubinstein and featuring an impressive collection of essays, most previously published, by writers ranging from art historian James Elkins and philosopher Arthur C. Danto to working critics like Peter Plagens and Jerry Saltz.

Of course, most of the time, if a critic is complaining about art writing, it really means that he (or she) doesn’t like the art that everyone’s writing about. I read Rubinstein’s own essay on the "quiet crisis" in art criticism when it was originally published in 2003, and though I don’t really recall his arguments, I do remember that the abstract paintings that he commended were definitely god-awful. Still, despite the basic fallacy of the premise -- art criticism is in fine, though low-paying shape, thanks very much -- the book makes for entertaining reading, if only because "we count on critics to amuse us with the bad news" [see "Book Report," Apr. 15, 2002]. In one of our favorite lines, for instance, Elkins, who you’ve got to admit is a little stuffy, counts gallery invitation cards as part of "the sheer quantity of writing on contemporary art."

The mess that Rubinstein is talking about can, however, be found in the art world as a whole, which sometimes seems to be a hotbed of cupidity. And lord knows, the art world has plenty of people who are anxious to play the role of schoolmarms for the museum world. Thus, Ethics and the Visual Arts (Allworth Press, $27.50), edited by Elaine A. King and Gail Levin, features several new essays by many of the top advocates in the field, which makes it definitely worth its space on the bookshelf. Actually reading the essays is a bit of a slog, however.

Complaints about the compromised funding of exhibitions like "Sensation" at the Brooklyn Museum and "Armani" at the Guggenheim, though they loomed large back when the shows were under way, seem more like molehills today. And frankly, the now-familiar lecture about stolen "cultural property" -- invariably exported under the corrupt noses of local governments by local citizens -- is more than a little tiresome. As one top dealer in ancient art readily admitted to me just the other day, "That’s an argument that we’ve lost." Just send the loot back, and let’s move on.

One essay that makes for fascinating reading is Levin’s own text on the sad fate of the more ephemeral parts of the estates of Edward Hopper, who died in 1967, and his widow, Jo Hopper, who died the following year, all of which was bequeathed to the Whitney Museum. Under the guidance of its respected curator James Goodrich, Levin claims, the museum failed in its duty to claim its legacy, which included invaluable archival material as well as artworks. Thanks to this inattention, many Hopper works ended up on the private art market.  

Another notable essay is Saul Ostrow’s Consuming Emancipation: Ethics, Culture and Politics, a comic gem of crypto-Stalinist cant, though this kind of Alan Sokol-Social Text prank seems out of place here.

Speaking of the hard slog, you know they have a lot of that in university art history departments, and proud of it, too, they are. This is where the ideas live -- they wear them on their sleeves, so to speak -- but boy do they make the reader struggle like a bug in molasses to get anything out of it all. For instance, on hand in our vaulting pile is the 492-page A Mieke Bal Reader (Chicago, $28), an impressive paperback survey of influential essays by the prolific Dutch scholar Mieke Bal. Luckily for the reader, Bal isn’t one of those academics who clog their prose with nonce terms and impenetrable syntax. Rather, she writes as clearly as a babbling brook -- and is about as deep.

Bal’s essay on collecting, for instance, something we know something about, cites dozens of authors, from Pierre Bourdieu to Slavoj Žižek, but says little of substance other than to claim that collecting constitutes a "narrative" and has something to do with the notion of the "fetish." As is common practice among theoretical writers, she doesn’t encumber her argument with anything specific or concrete, other than to refer in passing to a friend who has a collection of seven flower vases (the reference to Bourdieu does involve art collecting, for which Bal perceptively notes that "you need to be rich -- so rich, that the rest of the world hardly matters"). Most of the time, however, the reader isn’t quite sure what real-world activity Bal might be referring to.

In distinct contrast are a couple of essay collections by a couple of art-world veterans who are what we can call working professionals (rather than ivory-tower academics). Their writings trace a very real daily practice, and contain both testimony and evidence of how the art world actually works. David RobbinsThe Velvet Grind: Selected Essays, Interviews, Satires (1983-2005) (JRP, $18) includes more than 20 texts by the Milwaukee-based conceptual artist, ranging from writings on his own art -- including "Talent," the 1986 series of head shots of young artists that brought him widespread acclaim -- to interviews with other artists like Richard Prince, or Peter Nagy and Alan Belcher, the proprietors of the East Village art gallery Nature Morte in the early 1980s. As a writer Robbins has a light touch, and his observations have an amiable anecdotal relevance.

Klaus Ottmann is a curator and critic who trained in philosophy and got his start writing about art in the pages of Flash Art, and his new collection, Thought Through My Eyes, Writings on Art, 1977-2005 (Spring), is all over the map. It has terse essays that tend towards the poetic and experimental, like the short piece on the German painter Salomé that beings the volume, and more problematic texts like Criticism and the Common Consciousness (1992), which offers rather too extensive quotes from Kant’s The Critique of Judgment with his own rather too sparse interpretive remarks.

The reviews fare the worst with the passage of time, as they are too limited in both description and comment to be of much use today (a three-gallery New York show of works by Marcel Broodthaers in 1997, for instance, is called "long overdue" and full of "significant works," though the source of such significance is not detailed). And with about 75 texts, the overall effect is fragmentary. The book might work best on a table in a sunroom (or some other, smaller room), where it could serve as a source of casual readings.

Do the same failings mar Imagining the Present: Context, Content and the Role of the Critic (Routledge, $44.95), a collection of essays by Lawrence Alloway (1926-1990)? Alloway was a curator at the Guggenheim Museum, one of the founding editors of Artforum magazine, art critic for the Nation and coiner of the term "Pop Art," and somehow you approach a collection of his writings with rather more relish than usual. As a writer, Alloway was, in the words of Richard Kalina, the painter who edited this volume, "clear-eyed" with no interest in writing "that felt like cozy amateurism, snobbery, angry young man whining, tweedy pastoral yearnings or donnish aestheticizing."

Though Imagining the Present is in fact mired in the past -- debates of the 1970s, notably regarding Greenbergian abstraction, that are now (astonishingly) all but forgotten -- its essays are signposts in contemporary art history. The book includes "The Arts and the Mass Media" (1958), where Alloway introduced the idea of Pop Art, as well as "Systemic Painting" (1966), "Anthropology and Art Criticism" (1971) and "Photo-Realism" (1973). His "The Function of the Art Critic" (1974) can serve as a corrective to the many maundering essays produced on the topic since. Missing from the book, sadly, is "Network: The Art World Described as a System" (1973), an early attempt to analyze the contemporary art market.

But so many books of essays and criticism, you must be thinking, what kind of holiday gifts might they make? It’s a little like getting a textbook as a present or, perhaps, a cactus -- the late art dealer Colin De Land once sent Art in America editor Betsy Baker a large prickly pear as his "thanks" for an A.i.A. review of one of his shows, a review with which he presumably disagreed. When we think of art books, we think of oversized tomes with lots of pictures, images that are in themselves stunning and varied. And, of course, there is no shortage of such things.

Some are organized around specific art-historical investigations. Garrett Stewart, an English professor at the University of Iowa, has given us the 300-page The Look of Reading: Book, Painting, Text (Chicago, $65), a scholarly survey of artworks showing books and people reading, ranging from Zurbarán and Tiepolo to Art Spiegelman. Other art books are much more focused, like Brice Marden: Paintings on Marble (Steidl, $35), with a text by critic Lisa Liebmann, which zeroes in on the celebrated abstract artist’s curiously timeless paintings on stone, made in 1981-87 on the Greek island of Hydra.

Best of all are exhibition catalogues, especially those produced for current shows, which are topical and timeless both. The 866-page hardcover Domenico Tiepolo: A New Testament (Indiana, $75) by Adelheid M Gealt and George Knox, published to accompany the exhibition of Tiepolo drawings at the Frick Collection, has the weight of a book that stretches back centuries. It reproduces the 113 drawings in Tiepolo’s epic and idiosyncratic retelling of the ancient story of early Christianity, along with the author’s texts identifying details of the narrative and a fascinating introduction looking at Tiepolo’s various artistic strategies.

An especially large selection of titles relate to shows at the Metropolitan Museum -- and who can leave the Met without buying a catalogue? -- including Set in Stone: the Face in Medieval Sculpture (Yale, $50) by Charles T. Little, a curator at the Cloisters. The survey of sculptures, many torn from cathedrals and other buildings in a flurry of French revolutionary iconoclasm, provides a material trace of the dawn of Gallic secularism. From the Guggenheim Museum, a good choice is No Limits, Just Edges: Jackson Pollock Paintings on Paper ($40), the 144-page catalogue for the exhibition organized by Susan Davidson -- a necessary addition to the art lover’s Pollock book collection.

Not all museums are in New York, of course. If you didn’t find time to visit the Santa Monica Museum of Art for the contrast and compare exhibition of paintings by Giorgio de Chirico and Philip Guston, now is your chance. Enigma Variations: Philip Guston and Giorgio de Chirico ($30), the catalogue for that eye-opening show, which was organized by Michael R. Taylor and Lisa Melandri, includes 26 color plates plus a illuminating essays tracking the "unprecedented, and perhaps unmatched" effect of the older artist on the younger.

Last but not least is a stocking stuffer, a small (ca. 4 x 7 in.) "artist’s book" by New York painter Peter Nadin, The First Mark: Unlearning How to Make Art (Edgewise, $10). Publisher Richard Milazzo calls the book a "novella" that "shifts between prose and poetry" to tell the story of its painter-protagonist and his search for "the first mark, the primordial impulse behind all art." And, we hasten to note, the story includes an art dealer named Walter who is brained with a bronze cast of a roast beef sandwich! Happy holidays!

WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.