Book Reviews

The Art of Small Things by John Mack

The Art of Small Things by John Mack
 Reviewed by Laurel Hunter

It is no small thing to read through this book. Every time I picked up The Art of Small Things, I became totally absorbed in the beautiful color photographs that illustrate the book – the objects shown are incredibly varied and engaging, and the photography and printing exceptional. I found myself running to the internet to search for more pictures of ganjifa cards or historical chessmen, netsuke and brass weights. The text itself, of course, has information, but I needed more pictures to satisfy my curiosity. It is hardly a flaw for an art book to have pictures that are too beautiful. So perhaps it is a flaw of this reviewer that cannot resist miniature eye candy.
Another difficulty in finishing the book is the density of its prose. Written by the Professor of World Art Studies at the University of East Anglia, this is most definitely more academic text than page-turner. How did I read all that theory and criticism in graduate school? Discipline at last prevailed. I did not read the chapters in order, but I read them all!
Truthfully, the book is a bit dry. However, it is thick with knowledge of many, many cultures and their art and artifacts. It is no small feat to link figurative Aztec jade figures with Italian micro-mosaics with Japanese woodblock prints. However, I did find myself skimming, at times, the lengthy paragraphs that describe technical process. How the Ghanaians cast objects in brass or gold is not quite as interesting to me as the objects they chose and the way that they are arranged to imply meaning. Mack gets to all of this, of course, and the strength of this book lies in the incredible breadth and details of cultural information. For sure the prevailing message is the power of the miniature object to far outweigh its physical presence. Not just the intimacy that we often associate with small works of art, where one is required to move close to the work to engage with it fully. Mack takes on the secrecy of small objects and the power that comes from being hidden, ranging from the religious to the romantic.

He also takes his discussion far beyond analysis of the objects and into the cultures that produce them. For example, in a chapter called “Small Bodies” he talks about dollhouses and toys, as well as a cultural fascination with dwarves and a culture of child marriage. In another chapter we learn why brass weights from the Asante culture used for measuring gold take on such a variety of forms – and these are truly amazing casts of birds, men drumming, horses, etc.
What is made especially clear in this book is how small objects are necessarily attentive to details, and therefore venues for fascinating conceptual messages. The variety of objects explored in The Art of Small Things is astounding and the author’s knowledge broad, if the means of conveyance a tad academic. And there are, of course, the beautiful reproductions, which are the reason this book stays by my bed at the top of the stack.

The Art of Small Things by John Mack

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (January 31, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674026934
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674026933
  • Categories: Book Reviews

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