Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Book review: Reframing Art

Carter, M., Geczy, A.  Reframing Art (2006). Australia.  UNSW Press

‘Reframing Art’ by Michael Carter and Adam Geczy was suggested by my tutor as a worthwhile introduction to the concepts relating to art history and theory.  Although it is certainly not a photography book in any way, many of the concepts pertinent to painting, sculpture etc. also relate to photography as an art form.  The book starts by asking what art is (possibly one the of the world’s most long running debates) and moves through art works as symbolic objects (touching on some of the semiotics we discussed in the residential weekend in Leeds) and finally explores how we look at art, how it is exploited as a commodity, how it is displayed and the sort of audience that views art.  All the chapters are developed from relatively simple beginnings and the more complex areas such as the temporal progression of art objects from a starting point of often low value raw materials through to their emergence as potentially major investments, are explained thoughtfully and logically.
The text is more accessible than some of the art books I have explored recently and is certainly a significant move away from the challenges of Graham Clarke, a writer with whom I have somewhat limited resonance, although I concede that I am beginning to get a grip on his book as the course has progressed.  In the second chapter of Reframing Art the authors explore public perception of artists and make the point that over the last 150 years there has been very little change in how artists are generally portrayed, and in fact often caricatured, in the media.  They describe the stereotypical artist as “ .. nearly always being depicted as a peculiar kind of person: a bit mad.  He (and it always is a he) is someone who make subjects or creates experiences that are generally incomprehensible to patrons of the work and the general public.  The fact that they look different to the rest of the population is most telling.”  I wonder to what extent ‘artists’ have deliberately perpetuated this persona though, as indeed do many groups in society.  I’m sure I fit the ‘mad scientist’ bracket quite well …

Another feature of this chapter was the description of the collaborative nature of many great paintings.  Having never studied art in any way before, I had not appreciated the extent to which ‘the master’ left significant amounts of the painting of pictures to students and how many great works are a collective of different contributions, with the named artist often just applying their style in finishing off key elements of the pictures themselves.  One example of a major piece of collaborative art given in the book is Rembrandt’s ‘The Gold Weigher’ where the hand of the master is only apparent in certain key areas of the image, with much work having arguably been done by pupils.  This is perhaps analogous to photographers who specialise in elaborate tableaux settings involving large crews of assistants, lighting engineers and actors.  Gregory Crewdson springs to mind, and although he is directing and taking the photograph, many others are contributing to the generation of the final image.  Just a thought.
Wittenboogaert, The Gold Weigher  - Rembrandt
Rembrandt:  The Gold Weigher
The concept of framing was another topic in the book that struck me as being especially pertinent to photography.  The authors point out that most conventional paintings have borders and that these borders are further restricted by the use of a frame of some sort.  It is only a small leap to take this into photography, which of course restricts its imagery to the dimensions of the film or sensor, assuming we are not including stitched panoramics of course.  They draw a parallel with primitive cave art where the narrative in the paintings tend to just keep running along the walls until the artists ran out of cave!  Interestingly, as we have marched through historical time and increased in technical development and sophistication we seem to have progressively inhibited ourselves as far as boxing in pictures and photographs.

The New York Times described this book as “hands down, the most readable, up to date, introduction to art theory available”.  Although my spectrum of comparison is very small, I did find the book approachable and readable, whether taking the chapters in sequence or just dipping into specific areas.  I am sure that as my studies progress I will be able to gain more from ‘Reframing Art’ and it certainly serves as a valuable baseline from which to develop over time.


  1. Interesting point about the limitation of the 'frame'.

  2. On the basis of this post, you have made me spend money!! My lack of art background and knowledge frustrates the hell out of me! Have ordered second-hand for just over a tenner from the US. It's going to take about a month to arrive, but beats paying more than £50 on amazon!