Author: Kathleen Desmond
Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell
Book Review by: Laxmi Chaandi

On page 34 of this book is a narrative that takes us to the heart of this question: what is art? Because the reactions to a picture or an object can vary greatly – ranging from one person calling it “beautiful” all the way to the other extreme, a person calling it “garbage” – it is difficult (at least for the non-artist) to objectively state what art is.

On that page, the story is told of an artist walking on the beach of a small town who encounters there the curator of a local museum. The curator tells the artist that the museum has no money to buy new art and the museum would be highly honored if the artist donated one of his works to it.

The artist smiles, picks up a dead fish, hands it to the curator and tells him: “Here, take this, and title it Ineffable.

So this gets us to think: is the dead fish art? If placed on a canvas, and displayed in the museum, is it art? What about when it is lying dead on the beach, is it art?

The author takes this inquiry further about what constitutes art, asking the readers: “Thinkers (in art classes, I presume)…struggle to answer questions about whether or not a pile of bricks stacked exactly the same way, one by a famous artist in a prestigious art museum and another by a neat bricklayer on a construction site, are both art, or if just one is art, and why. Or whether human remains, Native American or Egyptian mummies ought to be displayed in museums.”

Ideas About Art contains, among other materials, the observations and experiences of the author Kathleen K. Desmond while living and teaching in various places in the United States (the Southwest, Midwest, and Northwest) and Europe (Amsterdam, London and Maastricht in the Netherlands).

The book not only relates Western ideas about art, but also non-Western ideas about what art is. In addition, it has a chapter on public opinion on art as well as public art.

When people generally speak about art, the words beauty and aesthetics are often used. You will find a whole chapter on the subject of beauty, especially an interesting discussion on the question: does art have to be beautiful?

Can art be immoral? Can it be unethical? A chapter on morals and religion explores these issues. The related issues of censorship and pornography in art are also covered in this book, along with political art which often conveys opinions and constitutes a from of advertising

This book also provides to the reader discussions of contemporary issues in art, including a chapter on postmodernist art and attitudes, photography and new media and the rediscovery of design.

Education in art and aesthetics are also covered, and in the last chapter, a roving discussion is provided about numerous artists, art critics, collectors of art, museums, museum curators and viewers.

An extensive bibliography of many books and authors spanning 15 pages is given at the end of this work to help readers learn more about other art-related subjects.

Kathleen K. Desmond is professor of art and design and a member of the Byler distinguished faculty at the University of Central Missouri. She is an award-winning teacher and scholar who specializes in educating students on aesthetics, art appreciation, art criticism, and art theory. She has written articles for many art-related publications. She is past Chair of the College Art Association’s education committee.

This book provides many refreshingly-new ideas about art from many people and areas of the world, as well as open-ended, non-dogmatic discussions on many topics.