12-Hour Art Expert–Art historian provides a brief overview on approaching art appreciation

Review by C.J. Bunce

The 12-Hour Art Expert is the latest effort to get the disinterested, uninformed, or uninitiated interested in fine art, or the changing contemporary styles as they’ve transitioned through art history across the centuries, with a greater focus on 19th century styles.  The last–and maybe only–time many people got even the most minimal survey of art were two-inch square images in the margins of their ninth grade world history texts.  Unfortunately, not everyone was so lucky to have had Professors Robert Schofield or Achilles Avraamides for their history courses.  Art historian Noah Charney attempts to merge two subjects into one.  The first half is an overview of art history as to the content of the actual works, and the second looks to the artwork as object separate from its content–how the discipline looks at artworks bought and sold, restored or conserved, and seen as lost or stolen artifacts.

Charney’s books is spectacularly thin, probably too thin.  But his attempt is to introduce hesitant audiences.  This is not even a supplement for an Art History 101 course, but more a book for junior high students to get excited about art.  If that is the purpose then the book works.  Despite the title the author states upfront he doesn’t assure expertise in the 12-hour window promised in the title, but he hopes to take the highbrow and elitism of art collectors and art appreciation and bring it all down to earth for everyone to enjoy, critique, or, if all else fails, loathe.

First off, it’s good to know the book is spectacularly thin on purpose.  Charney begins with Aristotle’s view of deciding whether something is art or not: (is it good, is it beautiful, and is it interesting?), right before noting the Duchampian shift of whether a work can still be art if it’s not actually “good.”  I appreciate that Charney doesn’t like much “concept-based contemporary artwork” because it is silly, self-indulgent, and pretentious.  Those are key indicators to me of bad movies, TV, and books, as well.  And the author takes strides to relate to every generation, referring to Renaissance writers as the “influencers” of Renaissance Europe.  Why not?

The first half of the book is as expected.  But this is a fraction of other introductory art history books, like for example the 1992 informative The Annotated Mona Lisa, now in its third edition.  If the reader is even remotely hooked on art appreciation, it may make more sense to go directly to H.W. Janson’s authoritative, hefty 1,150+ page The History of Art, now in its eighth edition and a staple since 1962, which currently is actually less expensive than Charney’s 170-page book.  The author discusses types of art, components, design and execution, paintings and sculpture methods, Leonardo, Picasso, Durer, Van Eyck, printmaking and producing multiples of art, symbolism and iconography, and he describes the important shift from artists transitioning from the role of craftsmen to becoming admired talents in their own right.

I’ve rarely seen a writer reference his own works as frequently as Charney does.  Charney wrote a book on Giorgio Vasari’s influence on art history and museums and so he gets more coverage than perhaps in other books.

The best feature may be the author’s crib sheet on identifying saints through iconography.  The book doesn’t offer very many visuals of artworks, but he introduces thirty paintings to illustrate relevant -isms (surrealism, fauvism, realism, abstract expressionism, etc.).

The second half of the book is more about the business of art.  Readers will get highlights of conservation vs restoration, and examples of cases of lost art, key missing artworks, and a segment on World War II stolen art.  The book was finalized before the onslaught of A.I. art stealing artists’ works for reproduction, which has been a big news topic of late.

Charney speaks like art crime is a new topic, but I had a course on the subject in law school in the early 1990s and we had authoritative textbooks on the subject even back then so I’m not sure what angle he is coming from.  The book lacks a thorough bibliography and source notes, which almost always accompanies any book like this.  I like the first half of the volume, but would only view this book as a pure introduction to art as topic for a narrow audience.  The book struggles to be contemporary, accessible, or “with it” while still coming off with the pretentiousness it purports to dodge.  Hundreds of books have done this before, and I’m not sure this adds much to the field, other than as a brief reminder for those who have already discovered art history previously.  But for the right audience it may work.

The 12-Hour Art Expert is available now here at Amazon from Rowman & Littlefield.

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