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Cast a critic's eye

THE ART HISTORY STUDY GUIDE By John Spencer Thames Hudson, Pounds 9. 95

Michael Clarke on a guide which spells out the essentials of art history.

All A-level students of the history of art and design will have much to gain from John Spencer's book. From choosing the right course to the interpretation of artefacts and the use of art history as a resource in creative practice, he raises key issues, offering sensible advice and invaluable information.

Opening with the question: "Why turn a pleasure into a discipline?", he easily distinguishes between art history and art anticipation and rapidly moves towards establishing curiosity, objectivity and methodology as the essential requirements of anyone engaged in the history of art.

These principles are upheld in two further chapters: the first considering ways in which art history and cultural conditioning are acknowledged, used and occasionally overcome in art and a period (or periods) for study, the availability of primary and secondary sources of information and making the most of visits and field trips in academic courses.

The essential requirements are dealt with in "The Language of Criticism". The ideals of mediation and interpretation are set against those of preconception and prejudice and students are alerted to the use and mis-use of historical and stylistic labels and advised to avoid both pretentious and vulgar language, aiming instead for well-argued, clearly-stated points of view.

There follows a chapter on the writing of set-subject assignments and the appropriate choice of a special study or dissertation topic and its research, illustration and presentation. The guidelines here (avoid subjects that have been tackled often in the past; beware of plagiarism; set your work out clearly and systematically) are as pertinent as in the following chapter on written papers (pace yourself in the exam - you must finish the paper; read widely and develop good study habits at the beginning of your course).

Doubts arise when Spencer offers possible answers to questions designed to elicit first-hand response to photographic reproductions of works of art and design.

His careful explanation of levels of understanding and interpretation will not prevent many anxious students from taking these as model answers. The succeeding examples of art and design in context, by far the largest section in the book, will only confirm them in their erroneous ways.

Without any apparent justification, formal and stylistic assessments are excluded and the author admits that the choice and sequence of artefacts is not only centred on Europe and north America but that women artists are under-represented.

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