Picture it like this

3rd January 1997 at 00:00
Marina Vaizey looks at art books to help museums and gallery visitors.

Going to museums and galleries evidently does not yet beat fishing as the leisure activity of the nation, but it is coming ever closer.

A parallel activity is the increase in generalised art publishing: one recent phenomenon has been Phaidon's The Art Book (Pounds 25). Published in l994, it is a hefty volume of 500 reproductions of art works in the western canon. Phaidon has been so pleased with its success - it has sold three quarters of a million copies world wide and has been in several national newspaper best-seller lists - they have followed this up, in the same format, with The 20th Century Art Book.

Now Carlton has produced The A - Z of Art: the World's Greatest and Most Popular Artists and their Works (Pounds 19.99), another survey of the western canon from medieval times to today, with as many living artists as possible. Here the selection to me skewed so in favour of British-based artists, and indeed women, from Dame Laura Knight to Sonia Boyce, as to cast severe doubt on the sub-title and editing. There are 386 artists; where the book is superior, in my view, however, to the Phaidon anthologies is in its succinct biographical information which does give us a contextual handle, and in a very sharp layout.

What is the purpose of this kind of anthology, obviously of no use to the specialist, and probably not of much use to students? Judging by my own experience in having selected and written 100 Masterpieces of Art 17 years ago, orginally for Marks Spencer no less, and about which I still get letters, there is something about these compilations that captures people's imagination, and sparks something off. That is, in my view, more than enough: if these selections send anyone off to an art gallery to see something the book is a success.

As publishers keep producing, we must assume there is a market not just at school and college and university, but for the layperson who does not expect to be examined. Learning how to look is evidently something taken very seriously by publishers, museums and galleries, and by individuals for their private satisfaction. This apparent passion to look-and-see is a puzzle, for what do we see when we get to these glorious institutions on which both the public and private purse, not to mention the lottery, all shower gold? For this amateur-professional interest in the visual seems to continue in spite of the increasing visual squalor of the nation as a whole, supported by the extraordinary insensitivity of the practices of both planners and architects and the painful indifference of the public. We keep on going to museums and art galleries, watching and listening to programmes on art and visual culture, and reading. But do we know how to see as well as look?

Genuine help is at hand. Looking at Pictures, an Introduction to the Appreciation of Art, by John Armstrong (Duckworth Pounds 12.99) is in an honourable tradition, negotiated for example in 1960 by Kenneth Clark in a book of the same title, and followed by several notable museum publications, particularly from the National Gallery. Armstrong sets out a basic course in philosophy, in language of utmost clarity; he provides the paradoxical, an art book with hardly any illustrations which does intend to get us to exercise the mind's eye - and succeeds.

Moreover, he persuasively argues for some consensus on how we establish value, and against a relativist view of values; this vivid, short book is in fact a polemic against what the writer perceives - one feels - as almost a disease of contemporary life, the explaining away of value. His own series of essays is a fascinating attempt to give the reader the tools to provide the supports for his judgments as to aesthetic value. As such it should be in the portfolio of any students, amateur or professional: the language may be simple, and blessedly jargon free, but the ideas and vision embodied in this pithy book will serve a life-time of looking.

Women, Art and Society by Whitney Chadwick (Thames and Hudson Pounds 9. 95) is a revised, expanded and new edition of a seminal study first published in 1990 on the vexed subject of women's art, vexed because it is still controversial to separate artists by gender. After all, when did you last read a book called Men's Art which wasn't from the top shelf at the newsagents? Still, this is a book packed with information, controversy, argument and very good art, for which the series of straightforward and subversive questions to ask set out in Looking at Pictures will come in handy.

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