The best books on understanding the crazy world of contemporary art

Why am I passionate about this?

From the moment I could pick up a pencil, I’ve loved to draw. Since then, my art career has developed alongside my writing, and I’m now a professional illustrator. Despite this background, I still feel alienated from the “art world”. Contemporary art seems like a scam. Its pieces leave me cold, there’s rarely any skill to be appreciated, and their “meaning” is often obscure or trivial – at the end of the day, a pickled sheep is a pickled sheep, right? Pale Kings is a satire of all this, where a group of chancers set out to scam the scammers at their own game. But would anyone really buy a hole?

I wrote...

Pale Kings

By Gareth Southwell,

Book cover of Pale Kings

What is my book about?

Dean’s got a bit of a problem. Just three days into his stint minding the family shop and already there’s a jagged hole in the wall where the new smart-drugs vending machine used to be, courtesy of the local psychopathic heavy. But as the clock ticks down on his father’s return, hope appears in the guise of an enigmatic beauty, a girl stepped straight out of Dean’s dreams, proposing a wild and improbable plan that could just change all their lives – maybe even for the better.

A prequel to MUNKi, Pale Kings is a sharp-witted and comical journey into the crazy world of contemporary fine art, the illicit potential of virtual reality gaming, and the neurotic susceptibilities of robotic guard dogs.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art

Gareth Southwell Why did I love this book?

The staggering thing about contemporary art is the money involved. Why would anyone pay $12 million for a dead shark preserved in formaldehyde?

This question drives Don Thompson’s book, as he explores the contemporary art market from the point of view of a professional economist. It’s a relatively unbiased work, free of ridicule or outrage, and is perhaps the better for that. Thompson shows us how the market works, and the role of each player – the buyers and collectors and investors, the rock star artists, the museums and galleries and auction houses – but also explores the psychology at work.

Why did hedge fund manager Steven A. Cohen buy Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living for $12 million?

By Don Thompson,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The $12 Million Stuffed Shark as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Why would a smart New York investment banker pay $12 million for the decaying, stuffed carcass of a shark? By what alchemy does Jackson Pollock's drip painting No. 5, 1948 sell for $140 million?

Intriguing and entertaining, The $12 Million Stuffed Shark is a Freakonomics approach to the economics and psychology of the contemporary art world. Why were record prices achieved at auction for works by 131 contemporary artists in 2006 alone, with astonishing new heights reached in 2007? Don Thompson explores the money, lust, and self-aggrandizement of the art world in an attempt to determine what makes a particular…

Book cover of Seven Days in the Art World

Gareth Southwell Why did I love this book?

Where Thompson concentrates on the economic aspects of the art market, Thornton takes a sociological perspective.

She is like an anthropologist exploring a strange culture, and in the best participative tradition, takes pains to understand it non-judgementally, on its own terms.

The seven days refer to seven distinct events that make up the ecosystem of the contemporary art world: the auction house where pieces are sold, the university where artists learn their craft, the fair where collectors find new talent, the prize that spotlights tomorrow’s stars, the magazine that critiques and identifies the latest trends, the studio where the artist works, and the exhibition where the triumphant art is displayed and celebrated.

If Thompson’s book is about the finance of art, this is about people.

By Sarah Thornton,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Seven Days in the Art World as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Sarah Thornton's vivid ethnography-an international hit, now available in twenty translations-reveals the inner workings of the sophisticated subcultures that make up the contemporary art world. In a series of day-in-the-life narratives set in New York, Los Angeles, London, Basel, Venice, and Tokyo, Seven Days in the Art World explores the dynamics of creativity, taste, status, money, and the search for meaning in life.

Book cover of Why Your Five-Year-Old Could Not Have Done That: From Slashed Canvas to Unmade Bed, Modern Art Explained

Gareth Southwell Why did I love this book?

Before you judge contemporary art, it’s only fair that you try to understand it.

As such, Susie Hodges’ book does a valuable service, collecting together one hundred of the most important, influential, and controversial artworks from the last century or so. This ranges from Picasso to Damien Hirst, from Andy Warhol’s silkscreen prints of tins of tomato soup to Tracy Emin’s unmade bed.

Each entry gives some background to the work, some critical analysis, and attempts to justify why, although your five-year-old might indeed leave their bed unmade, they could not have done so in a way that explores the poignancy of the human condition (or something like that…).

A partisan book, defending the importance of modern art, but an informative introduction.

By Susie Hodge,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Why Your Five-Year-Old Could Not Have Done That as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Come on, you know you've thought it-while viewing a "masterpiece" of abstract art, you mutter, "A kid could do that." Here Susie Hodge, author of How to Survive Modern Art, explains why the best examples of modern art are actually the result of sophisticated thought and serious talent. From Marcel Duchamp's notorious Fountain and the scribbles of Cy Twombly to Mark Rothko's multiforms and Carl Andre's uncarved blocks, Hodge addresses critical outrage with a revealing insight into the technical skill, layering of ideas, and sheer inspiration behind each work. In cleverly organized chapters such as "Objects/ Toys," "Provocations/Tantrums," and "People/Monsters,"…

Book cover of Ways of Seeing

Gareth Southwell Why did I love this book?

This classic text juxtaposes contemporary popular media with well-known works of art, and in doing so lays bare the hidden, timeless motives behind art production and collecting.

The book combines short articles with photo “essays”, and it’s actually the images that supply the most convincing argument. To see a Playboy centrefold alongside a nude by Ingres, or a food advert next to a still life by a Dutch master, forcefully illustrates Berger’s central point: that art is, and always has been, tied closely to commerce, commodification, and possession.

In short, art sells things – whether experiences, pleasures, values, or a particular sense of self or way of life. As such, it is a servant of those who have the power and wealth to possess these things.

By John Berger,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked Ways of Seeing as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.""But there is also another sense in which seeing comes before words. It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but word can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled."John Berger's "Ways of Seeing" is one of the most stimulating and the most influential books on art in any language. First published in 1972, it was based on the BBC television series about…

Book cover of Con Art: Why You Should Sell Your Damien Hirsts While You Can

Gareth Southwell Why did I love this book?

The shortest book on the list – I wish it were longer! – is the hardest hitting.

Julian Spalding, art critic, and former gallery and museum curator, is well qualified to critique contemporary art trends. But the “con” of the title also stands for “conceptual” (requiring only ideas and little skill or craft), and the “con” or scam that he believes much conceptual art to be.

Spalding has no problem with “modern” or progressive art that challenges the status quo – Picasso, Magritte, or David Hockney – but only the intellectual bankruptcy that the conceptual movement has ushered in.

His forthright take is controversial, but its feisty, informed, and well-argued critique suggests that the little boy pointing out the emperor’s lack of clothes may just have a point.

By Julian Spalding,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Con Art as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A concise dissection of the myths that created Con Art - above all the myth that art has to shock to be new. The multi-million dollar reputations of Duchamp, Warhol, Beuys. Hirst and Koons and many others are exploded. Their art is worthless as art because it isn't art.

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Book cover of Grand Old Unraveling: The Republican Party, Donald Trump, and the Rise of Authoritarianism

John Kenneth White Author Of Grand Old Unraveling: The Republican Party, Donald Trump, and the Rise of Authoritarianism

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Why am I passionate about this?

Reading was a childhood passion of mine. My mother was a librarian and got me interested in reading early in life. When John F. Kennedy was running for president and after his assassination, I became intensely interested in politics. In addition to reading history and political biographies, I consumed newspapers and television news. It is this background that I have drawn upon over the decades that has added value to my research.

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Long before Trump, each of these phenomena grew in importance. The John Birch Society and McCarthyism became powerful forces; Dwight D. Eisenhower was the first “personal president” to rise above the party; and the development of what Harry Truman called “the big lie,” where outrageous falsehoods came to be believed. Trump…

Grand Old Unraveling: The Republican Party, Donald Trump, and the Rise of Authoritarianism

By John Kenneth White,

What is this book about?

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