Review of How Art Can Be Thought: A Handbook for Change | Leonardo/ISAST

Review of How Art Can Be Thought: A Handbook for Change

How Art Can Be Thought: A Handbook for Change
by Allan de Souza

Duke University Press. Durham & London, 2018
336 pp., illus. 14 b/w. Trade, $99; paper, $26.95
ISBN: 9781478000365; ISBN: 9781478000471.

Reviewed by
Rob Harle
February 2019

This book is a detailed, thorough, and comprehensive discussion concerning all aspects of contemporary art. de Souza opens a “can of worms” on almost every page, exposing long-held myths about art practice, what art is, and if in fact we can really say anything meaningful about the whole “art world” at all.

Allan de Souza is professor and Chair of Art Practice at the University of California, Berkley and as such the book is orientated towards the teaching of art from an academic perspective; however, his whole underlying philosophy is firmly planted in the “nitty-gritty” of day-to-day existence, including such prickly areas as race, gender, financial privileges, colonialism and so on, more about this later.

The book has a smattering of black and white images, Acknowledgments, Notes, Bibliography, and a good Index. The Introduction, A Foot in the Door is followed by five chapters and then concludes with a chapter How, Now, Rothko?. The Introduction is of a highly personal nature, partly autobiographical, and enables the reader to understand where de Souza is “coming from.” This is important because of de Souza’s polemic emphasis on politics, racial exclusion, sexual discrimination and the agendas of those involved in the creation, management, and running of art schools in most countries but especially in the UK and America. As de Souza found out early on in his artistic and then pedagogical career, “white Anglo-Saxon Christian males rule”, Okay?”) He describes himself as an East African Asian, when he moved to London (as someone from the colonies). That he had an excellent portfolio and an excellent English accent meant nothing as soon as those that “rule” saw him appear for an interview. He describes these early days throughout the Introduction.

Chapter 1 – How Art Can Be Thought discusses how we think and speak about art, and “what the material, aesthetic, and political consequences might be.” (p.12)

Chapter 2 – Entry Points looks at the fundamental questions of art and pedagogy, emphasising, quality, equality, and diversity.

Chapter 3 – How Art Can Be Taught and Chapter 4 – Critique as Radical Prototype investigates how the questions “are put into practice within the art school” (particularly MFA programs). (p. 12)

Chapter 5 – How Art Can Be Spoken: A Glossary of Contested Terms. In this extensive chapter de Souza discusses “contested terms”, with a primary relevance to art - terms such as Democracy; Experiment; Identity Politics; Mediocre and so on from A to Z really gets to the “heart of the matter”.

The final section How, Now, Rothko is a kind of conclusion and practical discussion, drawing on the earlier arguments in the book, using Mark Rothko’s paintings and the influences on Rothko’s work as a kind of case study.

I did not really know what to expect when I received this book? Although the homonym title did alert me that it was going to be different. It could possibly be described as a complete and thorough deconstruction of the whole art industry. Industry is the key word involved here, as everything to do with Art (capital A) since roughly Rembrandt’s time is without doubt an industry. The industry does not care why humans have had a need to make art (lower case a) since antiquity, nor does de Souza delve into this biologically evolved trait. This is not a criticism of de Souza’s discussion and analyses as such, even if there was room in the book to look at the biobehavioural basis of art making I doubt it would make any difference to the “hard core” capitalist art industry, nor would it change the way art is taught and the resultant products traded. Having said that, the subtitle of this book is A Handbook for Change, the changes de Souza advocates or suggests are the equal inclusion of all individuals regardless of race, gender, ideologies, and financial standing in the art world, so perhaps by including why the need to make art is because it is an evolved biological trait might help bring about change for the better.

The book is a little repetitive in parts, but is very well written and highly readable. It is a must read for all art educators, art students, curators, art critics and faculty at academic institutions where art is still included in the curriculum. I suggest the book is not necessarily relevant to the established practicing artist, happily (perhaps in their ignorance) making art. For them it could be a little like the old Zen adage. “A toad said one day to a centipede in fun, pray tell me how you run, the centipede lay distracted in a ditch wondering which leg went after which”!