A week in books

From '20th Century Design' by Jonathan Woodham (OUP, pounds 8.99)

It's a pretty safe bet that Sister Wendy Beckett will not be asked to write for Oxford's History of Art series, developed at a cost of pounds 2m and now launched with titles on the photograph, 20th-century design, art in China, European art from 1700-1830 and art and society in Italy, 1350- 1500. With her breathless enthusiasm and gossipy urge to get inside the heads of masters old and new, the toothy Carmelite probably embodies the OUP editors' worst nightmare. Elegantly designed, lavishly illustrated and keenly priced (at pounds 8.99 per volume), their series has a clear intellectual agenda - beyond its commercial aim of knocking Thames & Hudson's rival World of Art library off its revolving pedestal at the head of the popular art-books market.

Oxford hopes to bring the so-called New Art History out of the seminar room and into the tote bags of gallery-goers everywhere. So exit the traditional canon, with its procession of great names, its rapt aesthetics rooted in idealist philosophy, and its cosy belief in the virtue of courts, patrons, salerooms and museums. In its place comes a fiercer orthodoxy, devoted to critical theory and social contexts, suspicious of the artist's genius and the spectator's pleasure, asking tough questions about just who got to paint, purchase and possess the objects of its scrutiny. Evelyn Welch, writing on the Quattrocento, tells you an awful lot about household structure in 15th-century Tuscany but manages only a couple of glancing references to Piero della Francesca. The Roundheads have taken over the museum. These days, they won't smash up the statues - but they might insist on some slightly sarky labels underneath.

In most cases, the benefits of the new puritanism outweigh its rather joyless tinge. Since Thames & Hudson have just re-issued Mary Tregear's World of Art volume on Chinese Art, we can compare it head-to-head with Craig Clunas's Art in China for OUP. Clunas, I think, wins on nearly every count. Let's take one familiar example: the extraordinary Terracotta Army of life-sized clay soldiers buried with the Qin Emperor at Lintong in 210BC. Tregear waxes vaguely lyrical about the naturalism of figures that may portray "actual members of his bodyguard". But Clunas plants the tomb troops in much firmer historical soil, explaining why the army is "a triumph of bureaucracy as much as of art". The breathless rapture, he assumes, we can supply for ourselves.

Fair enough; but Oxford's editors should spare a thought for the unreconstructed Sister Wendy tendency. Many lay readers may still fancy a spot of uplift. Besides, the entire Oxford project pivots on a paradox - visually pleasurable books that challenge the idea of innocent visual pleasure. And they do not stand alone: recent Thames & Hudson titles (such as Whitney Chadwick's bestselling Women, Art and Society) can match OUP blow for theoretical blow.

Meanwhile, Phaidon plans a vast new library entitled Art & Ideas. On the evidence of two outstanding volumes out already (on Islamic Arts by Jonathan Bloom and Sheila Blair, and on Early Christian and Byzantine Art by John Lowden; pounds 14.99 each), Phaidon's series may prove to be the pick of the crop. It boasts expert but undogmatic texts and a wealth of illustrations even finer than T&H or OUP. All in all, gallery-hopping artspotters have reason to rejoice. Our fin-de-millennium "archive culture" is alive and well, and living on a bulging shelf of glossy paperbacks.

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