The Twenty-First Century Art Book

by Phaidon Editors, Phaidon, £24.95 (hardcover)

By Mark Rappolt

According to the anonymous author of its introduction, The Twenty-First Century Art Book is ‘a fascinating overview of what has been a hugely prolific period for the visual arts since the start of the new millennium’. In reality it’s a 304-page celebration of the mindless consumption of images. Who cares why the visual arts have been so ‘prolific’ during this period? Apparently not the producers of this book, who’ve simply arranged more-or-less random examples of this proliferation (one per artist included) into an A-to-Z of art’s ‘best known names’ as well as ‘many of the rising stars of the next generation’ – whatever generation that is.

Who selected these artists? Phaidon doesn’t give us any clues, merely listing two editors and four authors in the credits, and allowing the latter not much more than 150 words per artist to explain what’s going on. Thus we get a single photograph of Laurie Anderson reading a letter above a text describing ‘a sprawling installation’ [Sophie Calle’s Take Care of Yourself, 2007] featuring ‘contributions from 107 women’ and a two-sentence summary of Calle’s career since the 1970s (as if what happened before 2000 has little bearing on what happened since). Were it not for the fact that I’m holding this book in my hands, it would beggar belief that such an ill-considered exercise in publishing could even exist.

It gets worse. In that moronically worded introduction, they-who-shan’t-be-named marvel at ‘the alphabetical arrangement [of the entries, which] allows a performance by Marina Abramović to be studied next to a painting by Tomma Abts’. Did you hear that, directors of Europe’s cash-strapped museums? Why are you wasting your money on people when the alphabet is the ultimate curator? It’s free too! Let’s leave aside the fact that studying a performance from a single photograph is nigh-on impossible, and that none of the non-Western artists (most from China) included here could exactly be called emerging, and that no explanation is offered as to why one work rather than another by the same artist has been selected, and that the pathetic three-page ‘glossary’ tacked on to the end is entirely populated by the terminology of the late twentieth century (postmodernism, but not post-Internet – an omission that’s ironic given the extent to which this book is geared to an audience used to the picture + caption + link aesthetic), and… ah, screw it.

How is it possible to leave any of that aside in the way that Phaidon has? I imagine that the publishers might say that all this is as it is in order to make their book accessible to a general audience, but that’s no reason to assume that audience is stupid. Indeed it’s The Twenty-First Century Art Book that is just that. And lazy, vacuous and a total and utter insult to trees. At this point I’d apologise for wasting your time, were it not for the fact that there are too many of these brainless picture books, not all published by Phaidon, going round at the moment. But perhaps if you stop buying them, publishers will finally stop making them. 

This article was first published in the Spring 2015 issue of ArtReview Asia.