It can be said that writing about art came to provenance throughout The Age of Reason or The Age of Enlightenment, with the critical texts written mainly by philosophers such as Denis Diderot and as Johann Joachim Winckelmann. Art criticism as an autonomous discipline/genre came to prominence in the 19th century with various thinkers and distinguished authors.
Art essay as a specific form of exploring certain aesthetic and formal issues appeared with the rise of modernity. Various intellectuals differing in professions started grasping the impact both historical and modern art had on human thought and the society. Some essays were so innovative and radical that they changed to course of the art history, sending it in entirely new directions.
To bring you closer some of the most important essays written during the second half of the twentieth century we selected seven prolific examples which shook the way we understand and interpret art.
Featured image: Reader with On Photography by Susan Sontag. Image via Flickr.
Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? was written by Linda Nochlin, one of the most important feminist art historians. This particular text appeared in the 1971 edition of ArtNews, which thematized Women’s Liberation, Woman Artists, and Art History. At the time Nochlin was teaching art history at Vassar, and after reading the second-wave feminist publications such as Redstockings Newsletter and Everywoman her work took a different direction. The following year during a Vassar graduation ceremony, Nochlin spoke with an art dealer Richard Feigen, who expressed his desire to represent women artists and asked her a simple question: Why are there no great women artists?, which haunted her and led to the emergence of this essay (and the milestone international exhibition Women Artists: 1550-1950 curated by Nochlin in 1976 in the wake of institutional recognition of the Feminist Art Movement).
After it was published, it almost instantly became an influential text since Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? was the first major art essay of the field. Nochlin underlined that art history is a male-dominated Western construct by delivering her innovative methodological approach through four chapters (The Question of the Nude, The Lady's Accomplishment, Successes, and Rosa Bonheur); the renowned art historian argues that "the feminist art historian should pick apart, analyze, and question the social and institutional structures that underpin artistic production, the art world, and art history."
Essentially, this essay is crucial for understanding the necessity of a feminist intervention based on the rejection of unequal and unjust principles the discipline of art history is formed upon, as well as binary oppositions (men/women, black/white, heterosexual/homosexual, cisgender/transgender).
Featured image: Artemisia Gentileschi - Judith Beheading Holofernes, 1611-1612. Oil on canvas, 158.8 x 125.5 cm (62.5 x 49.4 in). Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte.
Although the second art essay on our top list deals with the entirely different subject matter, it is as relevant as the previous one. Through his 1964 text titled Artworld, the influential American art critic and philosopher Arthur C. Danto explored the notion of interpretation by explaining this particular phrase. According to Danto, it would be hard to understand conceptual art if there wouldn’t be art world, a specific community of curators, critics, artists and collectors; he came up with this term after visiting Warhol’s exhibition of Brillo Boxes at the Stable Gallery in New York when he asked himself a question what made Warhol’s Brillo Boxes different from commercial Brillo boxes? and a quick answer - the Artworld.
By proposing two leading concepts such as IT or Imitation Theory and the opposite RT or Reality Theory, the art critic/philosopher went further by attempting to explain the mechanisms of defining art with a special take on the avant-garde movement and the post-impressionist painting.
Featured image: The Russian edition of Arthur C. Danto's The Artworld, published by The Garage.
This is perhaps the most debated essay in art history - Avant-Garde and Kitsch by Clement Greenberg in 1939. After it was published, it received quite a stir due to the author’s daring propositions. In general, Greenberg perceived the erection of the avant-garde as a sort of an urgency to protect aesthetic standards from declining to kitsch imposed by the mass-production of consumer society. At the same time, he argued that kitsch responds to Academic art by stating all kitsch is academic, and conversely, all that is academic is kitsch.
Furthermore, Greenberg underlines the distinction between high art and low or popular art by bringing certain historical, social and political arguments; he claims that modern artistic practices inevitably became focused on the medium itself; they do not relate to the social world, and so they became self-sufficient.
Later in his career, Greenberg distanced himself from certain points expressed in this essay, and although it was widely debated and subverted by younger authors, at the time when it was issued it was a radical text with several interesting propositions.
Featured image: A preview of Avant-Garde and Kitsch by Clement Greenberg, via thesilo.ca.
Walter Benjamin was and still is one of the crucial writers for the art world whose works are still celebrated and referred to today. In particular, the text The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction is cited and explored in regards to the technological paradigm ever changed by the digital.
Namely, this essay was issued in 1935 and it is based on the exploration of the notion of authenticity (original vs. fake) expressed through the aura of a work of art devalued by mechanical reproduction. Looking from the critical Leftist (Marxist) stance, Benjamin argues the development of the artwork under capitalism; mechanical reproduction offers the artist a new way to think and produce artworks in the absence of traditional and ritualistic value and make it a tool for sociopolitical transformation.
The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction greatly influenced the currents in art history, cultural studies, and media theory.
Featured image: Unknown author - Portrait of Walter Benjamin, 1928. Source Akademie der Kunste, Berlin - Walter Benjamin Archiv. Image creative commons.
In 1981, American art critic and theorist, and the founding member of the iconic October magazine, Rosalind E. Krauss wrote the pivotal essay The Originality of the Avant-Garde. It continues to examine the burning subject in art theory concerning originality by focusing on the casts of Rodin’s The Gates of Hell. By articulating the apparent copy, Krauss investigates the aesthetic and formal issues imposed by the electrifying relationship between the original and the copy.
Furthermore, Krauss questions modernity while dissecting practices by artists spanning from Rodin to Sherry Levine and Carle Andre. She refers to Benjamin’s aforementioned The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction while rewriting the history of Modernism and reasserting the propositions expressed in earlier texts dealing with the same subject.
Featured image: Rosalind Krauss - The Originality of the Avant-Garde. Image creative commons.
Theory of the Avant-Garde is an essential text for understanding avant-garde and was written by German art theorist Peter Bürger in 1974. The author describes the early avant-garde movements as a fierce attack on the institution of art aimed to merge art and life into one. Bürger claims that this avant-garde agenda resulted in with the production of inorganic artworks, and although those artists finally failed in managing their aspirations, the author honors them for making a fundamental change in the development of modern art.
According to Bürger, the institutional function of art in bourgeois society is governed by the principle of autonomy: as it detaches itself from life, it opposes itself to society by surrendering its ability to make a change.
Featured image: Peter Bürger - Theory of the Avant-Garde. Image creative commons.
The last essay on our list is called Against Interpretation and was written by the acclaimed author Susan Sontag, best known for her contribution to understanding photography. Written in 1966, it is part of a collection of essays which also includes On Style.
With this particular text, Sontag proposed the transcendental power of art which was often taken for granted by the critics prone on constructing their intellectual readings. Moreover, she underlined that the modern style of interpretation lost sensitivity due to intent to excavate or destroy a piece of art.
Featured image: Susan Sontag photographed in her home, 1979 © Lynn Gilbert. Image creative commons.