Arts book review

The evolution of art

Michael Bird revisits art history

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Bird examines Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera, also known as Allegory of Spring, as an example of allegory (#34).
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La trahison des images (The Treachery of Images), by René Magritte, is another work Bird discusses in “word as image,” which has evolved from ancient hieroglyphics to surrealist humor. The text below the pipe reads, “This is not a pipe.”

100 Ideas That Changed Art

By Michael Bird

October 2012

Laurence King Publishing

Rare are those who profess a love for every kind of art, and rarer still are those who actually have time to read about all of it. With the sheer volume of media that bombards us on a daily basis, is it even feasible to break art down into smaller, more digestible pieces? Luckily for the rest of us, art historian Michael Bird has written a book that caters to every sort of art lover, from novice art historian to seasoned museum-goer. 100 Ideas that Changed Art explains art’s long history in bite-sized chunks, covering topics ranging from cave art to the Internet.

Bird explains art as a “business of transformation,” and he structures the book accordingly: each of the 100 ideas is supported by a page-long essay tracing the evolution of the idea, from its origin to the present day. Photographs of paintings, sculptures, art installations, and performances accompany the text.

Often the parallels that Bird draws are quite jarring. In Color Codes (#33), Bird juxtaposes Bellini’s Madonna of the Meadow with Albers’ Variation on Red and Orange around Pink, Ocher, Plus Two Reds, 1948. While the deep blue of the Madonna’s robes are meant to symbolize contemplation and modesty, as dictated by the church, Albers’ painting demonstrates his deep-seated beliefs in the “scientific” manipulation of color. In Icons (#20), Bird compares Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe images to Byzantine religious art (“In one sense, the icon’s nature as a revered image that is constantly reproduced permeates modern art”).

Central to Bird’s arguments are the age-old ideas of communication and expectation. On the communication end, he introduces authenticity, in which “a number of the roles self-consciously adopted by artists in the twentieth century — revolutionary, enfant terrible, showman, shaman — involve a compact with the viewer: what the authentic artist touches or makes becomes authentic art.” As for expectation, Bird alludes to the subjective nature of modern art: “Titles have become a universal expectation; the artist can play the game or opt for Untitled, which can seem either a principled statement of the irreducibility of the visual or a lazy way out.”

Only occasionally does the structure of the book hinder its otherwise reader-friendly character. At times, Bird’s division of topics can also seem arbitrary. The section on statue (#4) largely neglects Greek sculpture, despite its significant impact on much of the Western art tradition; such discussion later appears in sections on the nude (#10) and contrapposto (#11). And 100 Ideas That Changed Art is not entirely introductory (as to be expected): those who know little about art history may want to read the book with a fresh Google page handy.

Potential knowledge gaps aside, 100 Ideas That Changed Art is a must-read for any art enthusiast. Bird spotlights artistic concepts and innovations that we often take for granted, and, in the process, restructures the way we perceive art. Who knows — you may even finish the book with a new favorite artist.