WHAT IS ART? An Introduction to Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture by John Canaday

WHAT IS ART? An Introduction to Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture

By
Email this review

KIRKUS REVIEW

Art is somehow beautiful (outwardly ""ugly,"" or not). Art enlarges our experience. Art is a record of its time. . . . On those lulling notes, Canaday--former New York Times art critic, former Philadelphia Museum head of education--begins this new enterprise, an expansion of his widely-circulated Metropolitan [Museum] Seminars in Art into a hefty, one-volume course in the appreciation of not only painting (subject of the Seminar monographs) but also sculpture and architecture. Helen Hokinson's club-ladies would be comfortable here. Canaday begins by comparing two Norman Rockwell scenes with the so-called Whistler's Mother--patly dismissing Rockwell's ""level of conception,"" not recognizing that he created totems (and, as conventionally, touting the Whistler's ""expressive composition""). Such contrasts are endemic because Canaday is out to label every object; we have, for instance, ""ideal realism"" (the Greeks), ""realistic"" realism (the Romans), ""mystical realism"" (the Middle Ages), ""dramatic realism"" (the Baroque), ""anecdotal realism,"" and divers others. We also have lots of mechanistic compositional analysis (with corroborative illustrations at hand), lots on the ""appeal"" of individual works--and no end of leaden prose. (It wasn't surprising, says Canaday, that the same people bought the ""slick, artificial, frequently erotic"" work of Boucher and the homely, chaste genre scenes of Chardin; ""the attitude toward Chardin's subjects combined sentimentalism with a variety of semi-intellectualism in the appreciation of current concepts of the nobility of the common man propounded by the philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau."") Canaday, however, has been around the art world long enough to have picked up some interesting talking-points (e.g., the comparison between a ""pure, direct"" New Guinea tribal structure and the confounding, exoskeletal Beaubourg); and in any case there's no point in belaboring the book's failings. In today's market, it gives good value for the money (400-plus illustrations, 150 in color) and there's enough on such basic matters as techniques and media to give it some substance if not much weight.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1980
Publisher: Knopf