This book is meant to "transform a potentially intimidating encounter with cutting-edge art into a dramatic, sensually rewarding and thought-provoking experience." Well, does it?
If nothing else that sentence makes a good blurb. I must say I haven't felt intimidated by art before, although I haven't experienced many performance pieces (some of which are mentioned in the book) with artworks of that type in-particular having the potential to be excruciating I guess.
What this book does do is provide a tool to approach contemporary art pieces (contemporary being 2000 onwards) "as if it were your first experience with that format," so as to get the most from it - the TABULA tool. This is introduced at the book beginning, tabula rasa being Latin for fresh slate and TABULA standing for Time, Association, Background, Understanding, Look again, and Assess. The author then goes on to show how to use this approach in the following chapters where contemporary art is grouped in categories: entertainment, confrontation, event, message, joke, spectacle and meditation.
In truth these chapters could have been grouped by anything really, and there is also crossover between them, but they act as a classification to help you bring pieces of art such as big playground slides, an estate agent tour, and some copper boxes that get FedExed from gallery to gallery alive.
The tool is simple to remember and use, even for a more-than-casual art observer as myself, and would work with non-contemporary pieces too. The author is impressive when he delves into pieces through the book (see for example the spotlight features at the end of each chapter), although some art he brings up is glossed over quickly. Also not all the art mentioned has a visual image within the glossy full-colour pages of the book. Similarly video pieces, performance pieces and other "scheduled or timed" pieces are difficult to decipher from a still image so having an internet device handy when reading this book to reference these would be desirable. Even then you may still need to do what the author recommends which is to go and see the artwork in person to get the most out of it (I haven't done that though).
There may be a London bias given the author's past as chief art critic at Time Out London, but the artwork featured still covers the world, even including an out-of-the-way rural Thai province. Anyway you would expect London to feature prominently in such a book anyway so this is not a criticism.
Overall then this book introduces a useful tool that, if used, should help to bring out a finer appreciation of contemporary art (and non-contemporary too) even without being well-versed in any art history knowledge.
Publication date: 1 Sep 2014
Amazon UK link (£7.99 at time of writing): Ways of Looking: How to Experience Contemporary Art