I know nothing about art. Really nothing. I mean, I know when I like something, but that's about it. And I'm sorry to say it's not that I haven't had the opportunity to learn about art--actually, the college I went to had a very well-regarded art department. However, to take any of the classes, you had to first take Art 101, a yearlong survey course which was nothing less than a blood sport. The professors who ran the course were a particularly haughty, terrifying bunch; students who signed up to take the class waited in fear to find out which professor's tutorial they had been assigned to. In the end, it didn't matter, though, because they all were harsh, just harsh in different ways. That was just the day-to-day matter of taking the course, though--the midterms and finals in each semester held the entire college hostage. Students dropped pretty much everything else to study for them, and only them. It was considered a badge of honor to spend Friday and Saturday night in the Art History Library or Art Museum, and if you didn't at least try to get locked in to the museum overnight before an exam, well, you basically weren't trying (like that was a tough one for the security guard to crack--a hundred girls all trying to squeeze into corners and behind slim sculptures). Our school was supposed to have a spontaneous, let's celebrate autumn day off each October, but everyone could pretty much pick the date, because the art history professors wouldn't let the administration schedule it on one of their important dates...which was every day, according to them.
I decided I didn't need that kind of trouble, so I never got around to taking Art 101. I still feel somewhat guilty about it, though, so when wandering through the library, I saw a bright red book called, Explosive Acts : Toulouse-Lautrec, Oscar Wilde, Félix Fénẽon and the Art & Anarchy of the Fin de Siècle, by David Sweetman, I thought I had found something that would help fill this tremendous hole in my knowledge. A book about a time period I liked very much, connected with historical events I found interesting--those crazy 19th century anarchists, who couldn't ever really change society because anytime they came close to creating a political movement, someone would say, "Wait! We can't organize--we're anarchists!" And then they'd all scatter. Mix that in with a little art nouveau plus Paris, and you have pure fun, right?
When you pull a book randomly off a shelf, you sometimes experience the joy of finding an unexpected treasure. Other times, though, you just make a mistake. Sweetman's book felt closer to the latter for me.