Books: Paperbacks

Article excerpt

BUT IS IT ART?

Cynthia Freeland

Oxford pounds 8.99, 231 pp

WRITTEN BY a philosopher, this whistle-stop tour of contemporary art and art criticism is admirable for its scope, compactness and exceptional clarity. Reader-friendly and thought-provoking, Freeland is particularly fruitful on the relationship between art and money and the role of gender in the art world. She defends Serrano's photographic artwork Piss Christ as "mysterious, perhaps reverential" and reminds us that the now-beatified Giuliani banned Chris Ofili's Virgin Mary.

The book is, however, flawed by an excessive propensity for interpretation. She insists that Warhol should not be regarded as "lightweight" because of his "sobering disaster images". Here, Freeland simply doesn't get Warhol's deadpan, ultra-cool stance. Being lightweight or heavyweight is beside the point with Warhol. As he said: "If you want to learn all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings... There's nothing behind it."

In similar vein, Freeland challenges Francis Bacon's claim that his work was "only about painting" and dismisses David Sylvester's view that Bacon's "screaming bloody mouths were... harmless studies in pink, white and red" as "inadequate as an interpretation". Despite her unwillingness to take artists at their word, Freeland wins you over when she admits that the artist Barry McGee's notion that "a rock soaring through plate glass is the most beautiful work of art" tempts her to take that approach with the windows of his exhibitions.

PERFECT FODDER for the armchair voyager, this selection from the first 20 years of the US adventure magazine Outside includes such treats as the 10-page article by Sebastian Junger that was the seed for The Perfect Storm. But the book isn't all ruffty-tuffty stuff like Thomas McGuane's account of hunting in Montana ("I wanted the Old Rugged and a pot to piss in"). …