It Speaks To Me: Art That Inspires Artists, by Jori Finkel
There is a strong tendency among many people to want to downplay the influence of others, and this book features a wide variety of artists (most of whom are very unfamiliar to me, although a few of whom have works that I have read about or seen before) who are willing to open up about the art that they find especially intriguing and inspirational to them. There are definitely some strengths of that approach with this book, and it is clear that the editors of this book wish not only to talk about the art that has inspired artists but also to plug the artists who are willing to promote other artists, some of whom are truly great artists throughout history that even such a philistine as I am can recognize. That doesn’t mean that this book is perfect, because it definitely has some flaws, not least in the joy that the book takes in writing about some pretty terrible art on the part of the people selected, as well as in the way that the book demonstrates the common artistic fondness for heathen art and architecture as opposed to biblical works.
This book is a bit more than 150 pages long and it can be divided roughly into two parts. After an introduction the first part contains around 50 artists in the contemporary world who are willing to write about art that has inspired them. Some pick obscure artists of the last 150 years, while others strike out and pick, for example, an Aztec statue of Coatlicue from a Mexican who obviously has some identity issues, and another who picks an Aztec sun stone with similar issues likely. One person picks a Tlingit box, another pick various historical artifacts like Diego Velasquez’ workshop, a Chola dynasty statue of Shiva Nataraja, as well as a nude male torso from the obscure Indus River Valley civilization. Others pick familiar paintings by such artists as Jan van Eyck, Paul Cèzanne, Rembrant, and Umberto Boccioni. The second part of the book, which takes up about 50 pages, discusses the art of the contributors and their own approach and careers, most of which were not as interesting to me as they likely were to the artists themselves. After that comes acknowledgements, museum credits, and photograph credits, as there is a lot of photography here.
Among the most notable quality of this book is the way that one ends up finding far more out about the people who are choosing the art that inspires them than we do about that art itself. That is a frequent complaint that one can have about a book. Part of the problem of influence is that what aspects of art resonate with us helps us (and others) uncover who we are. And the artists in this book are by and large interested in fairly ordinary things, like deconstruction rather than creation, fashionable identity politics, and the like. There is a lot that this book could have offered that was more striking and unusual than what it did, but given the way that the work is geared towards talking about what influences contemporary artists, most of whom don’t have very impressive art themselves, the end result is perhaps unsurprising in that. It is perhaps surprising and praiseworthy that so much of the book involves people talking about Old Masters as well as various important arts of the artist like making replicas of other paintings. For how else is one to become a good artist except by imitating other good artists and then mastering and striking out for oneself. Far too many contemporary artists want to be unique before becoming skilled.