Anyone writing a book entitled "What is Art?" is asking for trouble. If written for scholars it will probably be of little interest to the general public, and if aimed at the public, it will most likely be dismissed as too general by the learned.
John Canaday's latest books is so titled, but he makes it abundantly clear on the first page that he is speaking to the reader looking for clarification and not to the scholar looking for new insights.
As such it is a clearly written attempt to explain the more general mysteries of painting, sculpture, prints, and architecture -- something the author is eminently qualified to do as his nearly 20 years as art critic for the New York Times and his several books on art testify.
Updated and expanded from "The Metropolitan Seminars in Art," Canaday's series of 12 monographs on the appreciation of painting that was published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1958, this book discusses the more obvious historical, stylistic, and technical categories of art.There is a chapter on realism, another on expressionism, and still another on abstraction. There are chapters on composition as structure, as pattern, and as narrative, as well as chapters on techniques of painting, on prints, on the artist as visionary, etc.
The 438 illustrations -- many of them in color -- do an excellent job of illuminating the text.Canday's choice of illustrative material for the chapters on abstraction, the techniques of painting, and the artist as visionary are particularly appropriate.
But I doubt that the general reader will get a true picture of some of the art reproduced. The color is the illustrations is inconsistent. Sargent, for instance, comes off well in "The Wyndham Sisters," but Cericault does not in "Raft of the Medusa." And Duane Hanson couldn't ask for a better color reproduction of his "Couple With Shopping Bags," whereas Renoir's "In the Meadow" misses by a mile.
And something else disturbs me. Despite its overall impressiveness, I'm bothered by the fact that this book makes no serious attempt -- on any level -- to answer the question posed in its title.
Canaday does address himself to the question. What is art? in the book's introduction, but the immediately disclaims any responsibility for it by indicating that it overlaps the question. What is Life? Having gotten that out of the way he then proceeds to describe what art does and how it does it. Fine and good, but why raise the question in the first place if it is to be so cavalierly dismissed?
Even his last sentence in the book, "The only answer to the question, What is art? is that art, whatever its definition, is an inexhaustible enrichment of life," evades the issue. The same could be said of love, religion, or kindness.
As I said in the beginning, anyone writing a book entitled "What is Art?" is asking for trouble. Mr. Canaday and his publishers would have been weel advised to drop that title and stick to its subtitle: "An Introduction to Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture." It would have been more honest, for what Canaday has given us is a straightforward and clearly written book that answers basic questions about the history, function, techniques, and problems of art. Period.