Intro to the Art World: A Beginners Reading List

by Paddy Johnson on May 17, 2013 · 10 comments Resources

You like art. You know nothing about it. Where to start?

How about our beginners art reading list! This list is for all the friends over the years who have asked me what they should read to learn about art and the art world. No one wants to flip through a text book to learn about art.  You won’t have to, with these books.

Sarah Thornton’s Seven Days in the Art World

Probably the best overview of the contemporary art world in America that’s been written. It’s an easy read and compelling. Thornton’s coming out with a new book this year, so readers should be primed for the next one after having read this. It’s not yet available for pre-sale on Amazon.

Donald Thompson’s The 12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art

A look at the economics of the art world from an outsider’s perspective. Thompson sees art entirely through the lens of money and marketing, which is a little narrow for my taste, but it’s still a good primer. His new book chronicling art world gossip, is slated for release in 2014.

Matthew Collins, This is Modern Art

A six part series for the BBC went along with this book, so one can enjoy Matthew Collins in more than one medium. The book gives people a good idea of the actual stature of artists, so it’s useful in that regard, and improves upon “It Hurts“, a toilet read travelogue.

Dave Hickey, Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy

The best writer the art world’s ever produced by a long shot, but his thinking often doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. That’s disappointing, but the good news is that he makes art totally accessible and doesn’t dumb it down in the process. Invisible dragon is also good.

Julian Stallabrass, Art Incorporated: The Story of Contemporary Art

Art Incorporated tracks the changes in contemporary art over the last twenty years. Stallabrass has enough distance from the market and academia to produce a good book and his attitude is healthy. To summarize said attitude: Yeah, art is fluffy, but let’s treat it like it’s serious, and something serious will result.

His history of Internet art is pretty great too, if out of date. It was published in 2003.


John Tomlinson May 17, 2013 at 2:04 pm

This is great, Paddy! As a longtime art educator, I say it is valuable and much-needed by both students and the wider public. Those are the very books I offer my students and art-loving friends, as well as “Art & Fear” by Donald Bayles and Ted Orland. I also recommend the fine book.
“Art and Discontent: Theory at the Millennium” by Thomas McEvilley (1993).

Paddy Johnson May 17, 2013 at 2:15 pm

Fantastic! I’ll collect the recommendations and make an update!

Dada May 17, 2013 at 2:52 pm

Thanks for the list Paddy! I’ve read “7 Days in The Art World” and am now really looking forward to her new book. She really has the ability to help you understand the clusterfizzle that is the art world.

friendship person May 17, 2013 at 3:11 pm

i like the part in the book ‘7 days in the art world’ where that kid at cal arts pulls a gun out and tries to shoot himself but the gun doesnt go off. i wish he would have committed suicide in front of everyone, just to prove the point that the most importat thing in this world is definitely art. im athiest, but that doesnt mean that i dont find god in art and also this blog

R. Emora May 18, 2013 at 12:21 am


JD Siazon May 18, 2013 at 2:03 am

Any poet who seriously undertakes the lonesome yet infinitely enlightening task of changing fundamentally all functioning art machine communication in the glitch of a heartbeat will–dazed–remain also vastly incredulous seeing his cohorts not in light of the pitch and tenor we hear in deep truths but shades and semblances broken mirrors tell me crazily of out of cruel jest informative if bitter.

I must tragically confess my extreme solitude or adept feeling thereof pertaining to my words versus words unbeknownst, believe me, Paddy, to none brazen in poetic maneuvering or politicians sophisticated in earthen laws modern, bizarre …

If be it our home, let words curdle lest milk know not transformation, also, as we must, thriving unparalleled like Dave Hickey.

sally mckay May 18, 2013 at 5:43 pm

Good list!

Camille Paglia’s “Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars” is a super subjective, enjoyable take on some key moments in Western Art History. Of course, she makes outrageous claims and makes me crazy, but she’s Camille Paglia and I’d want my money back otherwise.

Steve Martin’s “Object of Beauty” is similar to “Seven Days” but I liked it better. It fails the Bechdel Test but it has colour illustrations and there are some lovely moments of enthusiastic art interpretation.

Paddy Johnson May 19, 2013 at 8:36 pm

I’m going to add this to the list too!

Manuel del Cuevo May 19, 2013 at 9:46 am

The idea of the recommended “best writer….” that “often….doesn’t hold up….” is rather curious. Care to expand?

Robert Grand May 20, 2013 at 11:07 am

Yeah, great list! A heads up – Art Incorporated was republished as one of Oxford’s Very Short Introductions, which is still in print and widely available. (

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