What you read can open up the doors of the art world.
As a historian, I’m often asked if I can recommend books to people who are interested in learning more about art and the art world. I love questions like this because I’m a perfect example of how easily you can educate yourself about things. All it takes is curiosity and the desire to do it.
One good place to start is with an overview of American art. My favorite is critic Robert Hughes’ 1997 book “American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America.” It’s not written as a scholarly text, but for general readers who want to know. Such an overview provides a good chronology of the artists and movements that come and go through the ages.
If it’s Modernism in particular you want to understand, start with Peter Gay’s fine 2008 book “Modernism: The Lure of Heresy.”
As a historian who has written a couple of biographies, I’m particularly fond of artists’ biographies as a way of understanding what even the most abstract of Modernists were up to. Deborah Solomon’s recent bio of Norman Rockwell and Christopher Simon Sykes’ first volume of his David Hockney biography are both great books and windows into an artist’s mind at work. On the smaller side, a German publisher called Taschen has a fine series of short paperback artist bios with lots of color illustrations. I’ve assigned the Kandinsky, the Warhol, and the Chagall volumes at various times to my Modernism seminar and the students have responded warmly.
Another way of understanding art and learning how to talk about it is by reading essays and reviews by good critics. Clement Greenberg, Hilton Kramer and Peter Schjeldahl are three of my favorite critics and I classify their work as indispensable. Schjeldahl, who writes for the New Yorker, is the only one still alive, but they’re all skilled writers and bold thinkers whose opinions are clear and understandable. Reading good critics will also help you explain your own opinions.
I’ve observed many times that no one accuses baseball or football of being elitist when their more complicated rules and traditions come into play. People just learn a little bit about them and suddenly they’re talking like experts. Art is no more elitist than those sports despite the impression that lots of people apparently have. Anyone who’s curious can just start reading and visits to a museum will suddenly make a lot more sense.