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State of the Art: 10 Thought-Provoking Art History Books

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Isabelle Popp

Senior Contributor

Isabelle Popp has written all sorts of things, ranging from astrophysics research articles and math tests to crossword puzzles and poetry. These days she's writing romance. When she's not reading or writing, she's probably knitting or scouring used book stores for vintage gothic romance paperbacks. Originally from New York, she's as surprised as anyone that she lives in Bloomington, Indiana.

Art history books are my favorite way to learn about history. Okay, sure there’s also historical true crime. But art history touches on every other kind of history, providing the perfect backdrop for developing a framework to understand the world. You don’t have to read up on art history to appreciate art, but it really helps. It’s similar to reading a book. You can read Moby-Dick, for example, and take away that it’s about a guy obsessively trying to kill a whale. But if you’ve read the Bible, Milton, Shakespeare, Homer, and a whole bunch of philosophy, you’re going to catch many more allusions and make more meaning out of the text.

Similarly, there is a skill to reading art. Learning about the cultures that create certain types of art will enrich your experience. So will learning some of the general movements and periods of art history. You’ll be able to catch some of those callbacks and allusions. Some people find older art baffling, because it seems straightforward and/or boring. I used to think that too, until I discovered I love to study the faces in portraits. I enjoy thinking about the symbolism and craftsmanship of artistic objects. Other times, contemporary art is challenging, because it rarely aims to represent something or someone in a straightforward way. But that’s the art that’s being made right now, for you! So here’s your pep talk. Be curious! Don’t be intimidated! Read up by choosing from some of these recently published art history books, and then see how your next visit to the museum goes. I hope you’ll be seeing with new eyes.

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This Is What I Know About Art by Kimberly Drew

This first book I’ve chosen is really an extended version of my pep talk. It’s very accessible, a quick read. Arts writer and curator Kimberly Drew uses this book to showcase her love of art and, at the same time, critique how siloed — and let’s be real, white — the art world is. She wants to create spaces where everyone feels welcomed to appreciate art. She also wants art to be a true change agent in the world. Alongside her compelling points, she also names many artists you’ll want to learn more about.

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Fabric: The Hidden History of the Material World by Victoria Finlay

As someone who adores textiles, it’s dismaying how paltry their representation is in a typical art museum. So it’s thrilling to find a book traverses both space and time to tell the story of fabric. I’m also a big fan of books that do a little bit of genre-spanning. This book delves into the author’s experience with grief as she explores this art form that virtually all humans interact with on a daily basis.

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Artcurious: Stories of the Unexpected, Slightly Odd, and Strangely Wonderful in Art History by Jennifer Dasal 

If you’re looking for an art history book that will be accessible and attention-grabbing, here’s your best bet. Written by an art history podcast host, this book finds the weird and interesting stories from throughout art history. Have you ever wondered whether a collection of toenail clippings could be considered art? You might be now, and this book provides the answer. It’s perfect for anyone wanting to dispel the notion that art history is a pursuit only for the most serious of thinkers.

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Out of the Sun: On Race and Storytelling by Esi Edugyan

Naturally, it’s impossible to divorce race and racism from art history, for a multitude of reasons. If you’re eager to understand more about the intersections of race and art, this book aims to explore this space. The book delves into art history, for example looking at how Black people are portrayed in portraits. The book also goes beyond visual art, including literature and film in its analysis. As a side note, if you’re a CBC Radio listener, this book is composed of the 2021 Massey Lectures from the Ideas series.

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Let’s Go Outside: Art in Public by Charlotte Day 

Public art is a rich area for study. So many of us encounter it daily without thinking too much about it: a statue in a town square, a mural on the side of a building. And with a pandemic that pushed many activities and events to safer outdoor spaces, as well as the renewed interest in considering what people and events we want to memorialize in public, this book is especially timely. This book examines these realities and many more dimensions of what it means to have art outside conventional indoor spaces.

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Art Is Life: Icons and Iconoclasts, Visionaries and Vigilantes, and Flashes of Hope in the Night by Jerry Saltz 

If you want to engage with contemporary art but aren’t sure what it’s all about, here’s the book for you. The author has been an art critic for decades, and his book draws from the past 20 years of his writing. His central question is how art reflects the times. Saltz’s writing is witty, accessible without being pandering, and persuasive. You’ll learn about familiar names in modern art like Jackson Pollock as well as contemporary artists and provocateurs like Jeff Koons and Marina Abramović. 

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Qummut Qukiria! By Anna Hudson, Heather Igloliorte, and Jan-Erik Lundström

What’s especially interesting about this book is its circumpolar scope. Traditional and contemporary arts from Inuit and Sámi lands and beyond deserve a rich celebration, and that’s what this book aims to provide. If you’re curious how traditional knowledge can help decolonization efforts, this book will provide perspectives. This book goes beyond visual arts as well, touching on traditions like Inuit throat singing, which can also be blended with newer skills like beatboxing.

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The Future History of Contemporary Chinese Art by Peggy Wang

It’s no surprise that the global art world intersects with politics. This book uses thorough research to present five case studies of internationally renowned Chinese artists from the 1980s and ’90s. While many Western critics praised with the dissident nature of the art, the author demonstrates that their art deserved deeper consideration. Every part of the world has its own art history, and this book asks how best to deal with that reality when it comes to engaging with contemporary artists making art on a global stage.

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The Mirror and the Palette: Rebellion, Revolution and Resilience: 500 Years of Women’s Self-Portraits by Jennifer Higgie 

Here’s a fascinating overlap: women’s history and art history. I challenge people who denigrate the practice of taking selfies to read this book and understand what it means for women to capture their own likeness on their own terms. With deep research going back 500 years, you will no doubt gain a new perspective on how women are depicted in art and what self-portraiture is all about as a discipline.

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Africa’s Struggle for Its Art: History of a Postcolonial Defeat by Bénédicte Savoy 

If the first Black Panther movie taught us anything, it’s that one can’t visit museums hosting African art without wondering about its provenance. I’m being glib, of course, but this is a very serious question. It’s worth knowing not only the history of art, but the history of African countries fighting to reclaim their art from colonizers. Written by an expert in restitution and cultural heritage, this book shows that these are not recent issues. Some countries began their work to repatriate their art shortly after they gained independence.

For more deep dives into art history, here are 11 more of the best art history books. Art fans in general will find even more to enjoy in this list: it includes fiction, memoirs, graphic novels, and more. There’s so much to learn! Because, to riff on the title of Jerry Saltz’s book above, art history books are life.