Beyond Words

I’ve been on the hunt for books on the great non-literary arts, namely art and music. Last year (has it been that long?) I proposed a few titles in those categories but after doing a little more homework I have changed my mind completely.

Janson's History of ArtIn the area of art, there are four standard texts: Janson’s History of Art, Gardner’sArt Through the Ages, Stokstad’s Art History, and Gombrich’s The Story of Art. The first three are gigantic tomes, weighing between 7 and 11 pounds. Janson and Gardner are the market leaders and are in direct competition with each other in that they focus almost exclusively on Western art. Stokstad’s Art History is the largest of the group since it includes several chapters on non-Western art. Though I like the idea of having Western and non-Western art together in one volume, it’s not enough of a selling point for me to pick the Stokstad straight away.

Stokstad's Art HistoryNot surprisingly, given the competitive academic market, the “big three” seem to be quite similar. They are all about the same length (factoring out the non-Western art in Stokstad). They all make similar claims about the quality of their illustrations, the depth of contextual information, and their inclusiveness. All have companion websites (Janson, Gardner, Stokstad), but these consist mainly of quizzes, study guides, and links to art websites, rather than high-resolution images of the artworks they discuss (which is what I would like).

Gardner's Art Through the AgOne distinguishing factor is the number of colour plates in each book. Janson has 926 out of 1326 illustrations in colour, Gardner has 1306 illustrations, almost all of which are in colour, and Stokstad has 1409 illustrations, 1004 in colour. Of course there is more to it than quantity—size and relevance, for instance—but Gardner is clearly in the lead in terms of sheer numbers.

I’ve discovered that the College Art Association has undertaken a comprehensive review of all the current art history survey texts, but their results are only available to CAA members. Grrrr. The few reviews I have found (like this one) tend to be preoccupied with what the books don’t include—non-Western art and non-traditional perspectives—rather than the quality of what they do include. I’m afraid I can’t join modern scholars in the trendy sport of Euro-bashing. My heritage is primarily European and Judeo-Christian, so a book that focuses on that heritage works just fine for me. The fact that one reviewer disliked Gardner the most for rejecting all the “posts” (post-modernism, post-feminism, post-colonialism, etc.) makes me think that it might be the text for me. It’s subtitle, “The Western Perspective,” is apparently fully justified. All I really want is a text that will give me an idea of what the artist was trying to communicate, and how that fitted in with his or her life and times. I don’t need to be told what the piece should mean to me now—I’ll figure that out for myself, thank you.

The thing to do would be to spend a little time with each text but there is a little catch: my library doesn’t have the current editions. Janson, for one, has just been extensively revised, so this is a problem. Unless I can pry that review out of the CAA somehow, I’ll just have to take an educated guess and pick one.

The Story of ArtGombrich’s The Story of Art is in a slightly different category as it aims to be a concise, narrative introduction to art history, not a comprehensive survey. It has been wildly popular and is now in its 16th revised, expanded, and redesigned edition. It is published by Phaidon, whose books are works of art in themselves, and this book is no exception. They designed this book so that the illustrations could be found on the same page as the text referring to them, and so that there would be no references to artworks not illustrated in the book. I like that attention to usability. Though I intend to get one of the great survey texts for reference, I think this volume will be an excellent complement. I like to get more than one opinion on matters, and according to the reviews, Gombrich is nothing if not opinionated!

Music in Western CivilizationIn the area of music, there are also three main contenders: W.W. Norton’s A History of Western Music, Bond’s History of Music in Western Culture, and Wright and Simms’ Music in Western Civilization. All three texts have accompanying CDs, which are indispensable but, alas, ridiculously expensive. For me, Wright and Simms win hands down because their book “places music in the context of the politics and personalities, and the arts and humanities of each period of Western intellectual history.” Bingo! That’s exactly the sort of approach I want. My goal is not to become a musician or musicologist, but to get to know the history of Western music and its place in the larger history of Western culture. That’s what Wright and Simms promise to deliver, so I’m sold.

Now, all I need is a bank loan so I can bring these beauties home!


7 comments on “Beyond Words

  1. I thought I had this covered when I bought Gardner's Art through the Ages, of course- I should have known you'd add to the wishlist!
    You can find these sometimes used!

  2. Sylvia says:

    I will definitely look for good used copies, though from what I've seen so far these books tend to hold their value. Also, used textbooks are usually marked up, which I greatly dislike. It would have to be an extreme bargain for me to put up with pink highlighter!
    So, how do you like the Gardner?

  3. Stefanie says:

    I wish I had kept my art history book from college. I don't remember any longer the title or author but it was a fantastic book with loads of color plates and it cost and arm and a leg because it was a new edition and no used copies were available. But alas, I couldn't think why I'd want to keep this hardbound book which probably weighed 10 pounds so sold it back to the bookstore. Silly me.
    You are such a good bargain hunter Sylvia, you'll find the books for rock bottome prices and make us all jealous 🙂

  4. Hey Sylvia! Will you let me know if you wish to read either The Egyptian Book of the Dead or The Iliad with the Great Books Reading Partnership? I'm updating the Reading Partner list and your input would be greatly appreciated!
    Blessings Abound

  5. Sylvia says:

    Jessica, I'm afraid I've gotten quite backlogged so I'll pass on the BOTD and Iliad. I'll look forward to reading your thoughts, though.

  6. Wil Cone says:

    I wonder if you could browse a local college/university bookstore to peruse one or more of the standard art history textbooks…

  7. Sylvia says:

    I might have to resort to that, if they have them.

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