AFC’s Stocking Stuffers: Intro to the Art World, a Beginner’s Reading List

by Paddy Johnson on December 23, 2013 · 1 comment The Holidays

Here’s some holiday shopping we can get behind. All month, we’ll be reposting our 2013 reading lists, a selection of art gems you can buy on a budget.

You like art. You know nothing about it. Where to start?

How about our beginners art reading list! This list is for all the friends over the years who have asked me what they should read to learn about art and the art world. No one wants to flip through a textbook to learn about art.  You won’t have to, with these books, recommended by me, and by AFC’s commenters.

Sarah Thornton’s Seven Days in the Art World

Probably the best overview of the contemporary art world in America that’s been written. It’s an easy read and compelling. Thornton’s coming out with a new book this year, so readers should be primed for the next one after having read this. It’s not yet available for pre-sale on Amazon.

Donald Thompson’s The 12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art

A look at the economics of the art world from an outsider’s perspective. Thompson sees art entirely through the lens of money and marketing, which is a little narrow for my taste, but it’s still a good primer. His new book chronicling art world gossip, is slated for release in 2014.

Matthew Collins, This is Modern Art

A six part series for the BBC went along with this book, so one can enjoy Matthew Collins in more than one medium. The book gives people a good idea of the actual stature of artists, so it’s useful in that regard, and improves upon “It Hurts“, a toilet read travelogue.

Dave Hickey, Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy

The best writer the art world’s ever produced by a long shot, but his thinking often doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. That’s disappointing, but the good news is that he makes art totally accessible and doesn’t dumb it down in the process. Invisible dragon is also good.

Julian Stallabrass, Art Incorporated: The Story of Contemporary Art

Art Incorporated tracks the changes in contemporary art over the last twenty years. Stallabrass has enough distance from the market and academia to produce a good book and his attitude is healthy. To summarize said attitude: Yeah, art is fluffy, but let’s treat it like it’s serious, and something serious will result.

His history of Internet art is pretty great too, if out of date. It was published in 2003.


“Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars
 is a super subjective, enjoyable take on some key moments in Western Art History. Of course, she makes outrageous claims and makes me crazy, but she’s Camille Paglia and I’d want my money back otherwise.

Steve Martin’s “An Object of Beauty“ is similar to “Seven Days but I liked it better. It fails the Bechdel Test but it has colour illustrations and there are some lovely moments of enthusiastic art interpretation.” —Professor and Scholar Sally McKay

It’s worth noting, that unlike “Seven Days”, “Object of Beauty” is a work of fiction. It tracks the rise of Lacey Yeager, a young and ambitious art dealer who will do whatever it takes to advance in the world of the high-end art trade in New York City. The novel makes our list because of its remarkably accurate depiction of the art world, and relevant contemporary themes. In the words of Publisher’s Weekly, “This book is about the absence of a moral compass, not just in the life of an adventuress but for an entire era.”

Chris Kraus’ “Where Art Belongs gets a recommendation thanks to Facebook commenter Biggie Daves (and New York Times art critic Holland Cotter). Kraus, who is known for her exciting and jargon-less prose, focuses on the last decade of art-making by artists using lived time as material. A beautiful bit of description from the MIT Press overview: “Chronicling the sometimes doomed but persistently heroic efforts of small groups of artists to reclaim public space and time, ‘Where Art Belongs’ describes the trend towards collectivity manifested in the visual art world during the past decade, and the small forms of resistance to digital disembodiment and the hegemony of the entertainment/media/culture industry. For all its faults, Kraus argues, the art world remains the last frontier for the desire to live differently.”

And finally, “Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by Donald Bayles and Ted Orland gets a recommendation thanks to artist, educator and AFC friend, John Tomlinson. The book provides a view into the world of art as experienced by artists themselves, and is included just for that. It’s worth mentioning, though, that unlike the other titles on this list, this book isn’t general interest; it’s a book by artists for artists. It’s an important addition to our original post, which did not include any work written by artists.

  • friendship person

    ‘seven days in the art world’ seemed an appropriate stocking stuffer back when this website was called ‘art fag city’ . but now that we have matured into ‘art f city’ lets rid the list of sarah thorntons circlejerk bullshit ,..anyway merry christmas paddy!

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