Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Thinking While Making Things : Open Thread

Of all the blunders the John McCain team made during the last presidential campaign, to my mind the single biggest error in judgment came when he suggested he needed to delay a debate in order to return to Washington to help address the economic crisis. It was a remarkable mistake because the response was devastating and should have been so obvious: “It’s going to be part of the president’s job to be able to deal with more than one thing at once,” said Barack Obama. In one fell swoop, the young senator with so much less experience looked more presidential. Again, though, the McCain team should have seen that response coming from a million miles away.

I thought of that turn in the campaign while reading Robert Storr's interview with The Art Newspaper about the role of art theory in making art. In general, I agree with much of what Mr. Storr noted, but the implication of his assertion that reading theory is so different from making art seems to be that the better you are at reading the theory, the worse your art will be:
[A] lot of people who do theory full time don’t really want to acknowledge that the process of making art is fundamentally different from the process of writing theory. And, therefore, even though you may share a vocabulary, you don’t share at all the same kind of generative process or goals. [...] People who have real theoretical minds read widely, they read selectively and they read for use.
I'm making a bit of a stretch here, but the idea seems to suggest that being really good at reading theory is so different from being really good at creating art that one would be hard pressed to find anyone who does both all that well. Taken to its logical conclusion, then, this would suggest that art making and art theory should be done by separate specialists.

Then I read Mark Staff Brandl's article for Proximity "Artists Write: Thinking While Making Things," (republished on
Sharkforum). Mark argues that:
[T]here is a need for primary secondary literature: theoretical musings by artists, not critics, curators or professional theorists (unless they are artists first and foremost and do one of the latter activities as a sideline). [emphasis mine]
OK, so Mark's article delves significantly into one of the best comment threads ever on this blog (which as Mark notes, resulted in 198 comments), including this kernel in a comment by Mark:
[O]nly the journals, philosophy journals, and the like offer real theoretical opportunities. The glossies are the problem here, not the artists.
Robert and Mark are talking about different parts of the same issue. Robert is noting how so few artists read theory well, and Mark is noting how those who wish to write theory have so few opportunities to have it published. But I can't help but feel that Robert's opinion contributes in part to Mark's complaint.

In the end of the his article, Mark writes "I assert that artists are indeed thinkers...and deep ones, especially when they do not spout pre-digested, memorized, consensus approved jargon."
In comparing the leader of the country with the potential leaders in contemporary art, I would side with Mark in saying our best theory could (if not should) come from our best artists. It makes no sense to me to suggest they can't excel at more than one thing at the same time. I would personally much rather read art theory by someone who makes it, knowing that their studio experience is the single best validation or refutation of their hypotheses. So long as that art theory is sound and compelling, obviously.

Consider this an open thread on whether art theory by artists is important.

Labels: art practice, art theory


Blogger Kate said...

Storr says, “We’re in a very strange situation where some artists have derived a lot from their theoretical reading but never as systematically as people are inclined to think.”

I don’t think he was trying to say that artists couldn’t excel at both. I think he was commenting on how the reading of theory contributes to the art making process in a circuitous way, as opposed to a direct way. As you have noted previously when commenting about “political art”, art that begins with an agenda is often quite unsuccessful.

Art theory written by artists is vital, as there is still a tendency to sideline and disempower them, defining them solely as the maker the goods, when in fact many are deeply intelligent, knowledgeable, and articulate.

I have gone open critiques by curators, for example, where an older, experienced artist showed amazing work and spoke about it in an informed and articulate manner, and was summarily dismissed. When the new, young, hip artist stood up showing his mediocre stuff, unable to speak about it beyond saying "he thought those two things looked cool together", he offered the curator the opportunity to showcase HER skills in describing the work, even folding his work into one of her own theories or agendas. I think it suits many people's purposes to keep the artist in the position of idiot savant.

10/20/2009 09:12:00 AM  
Blogger nathaniel said...

I'm artist who just finished a humanities-based PhD at Trinity College Dublin. The document as a whole was on a specialized topic not worth getting into here, but both of my examiners agreed that its biggest contribution was the incorporation of theory into practice and practice into theory: a chapter, written in a very personal and autobiographical style, on my own work. This was neither a traditional academic chapter nor an artist statement, but the kind of secondary text Mark refers to (with a bit of academic justification for how it functions at the beginning, as is always necessary in a PhD).

In fact, my external - who used to run a division of MIT press - advised me to, rather than trying to publish my dissertation as a book in its current form, work towards an edited collection where I invite the artists in my case studies to write similar chapters.

Great artists are always great thinkers. True, they are not necessarily great writers as well, but the two are not mutually exclusive, and in fact most often feed into one another.

Just sayin.

10/20/2009 09:27:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Kate, I don't think that "never as systematically as people are inclined to think” and "the reading of theory contributes to the art making process in a circuitous way" are the same idea. You can be very systematic in your circuitous approach.

I think the idea I expressed about political art is slightly different as well. I agree with you that should someone make art specifically to justify/validate their theoretical writings, they're making the same mistake made in so much political art, but systematically working through theoretical ideas in the studio need not include making work with a goal in mind. It can (and to my mind should) simply inform experimentation.

10/20/2009 09:47:00 AM  
Anonymous Gam said...

I's agree that artist's theories are important ...

Yet whether the theory is responsible for the art …I think to a parallel in Industrial design. Lots of theories there, but many designers maintain their best ideas come from working hands on in the workshop not in the computer or their rationalizations. As an example, there was an industrial designer who was redesigning the ever so useful bathroom stall toilet roll holder. As hard as he tried, he couldn’t machine the darn spindle doodaa that was to hold the toilet roll. Each time he tried his new design the darn cardboard center kept popping out. Then it dawned on the designer, this wasn’t about not machining to a high enough tolerance, but about ease of use, popping out the cardboard spindle during installation actually made replacement of the toilet roll easier to do. The failing became a feature. From contaminated Petri dishes to cathode tubes generating unwanted microwaves, the mistake, the hands on experience, often is the window to the greatest discoveries … art theory won’t do it alone.

Not to imply that brute effort alone creates masterworks. An artist that is articulate not only faces the directions that he is most apt to explore with success, but by allowing ones oeuvres to be informed by a considered theory actually would allow others to push around or recompose and elucidate the artists concepts. Hence having an articulated theory allows others the possibility to impact the artist’s oeuvre through their “critiques” of that theory. You can’t impact an artists works by pushing around the artists paint brush for them. So in a sense, the articulate artist not only finds the best avenues for their works or allows others more avenues to appreciate these works, but they offer the possibility for others to reorient the direction of the artists work via their theories. In design there is the MAYA concept. Most Advanced Yet Acceptable. To be an artist with a clarity of vision generations ahead of their time, might mean that the artwork will not be around when the rest of society catches up with it. So by articulating a general theory of their art, the artist allows their peers to nudge gently or not, their theory into something within reach of their times.

Art theory never made art, but it does shape artists.

10/20/2009 09:50:00 AM  
Anonymous cjagers said...

Ed, thanks for linking to this interview with Storr ... every line is quotable. I normally always agree with your POV, but in this case, I think you are making "a bit of a stretch here."

Storr is simply articulating how theory is different from making in a very neutral way. Why would anyone be "hardpressed" to find anyone that does both well." Your stance makes it seem like this is something we should be looking for?

I will be interested to see how quickly this comment thread starts to equivocate theory = smart, and making = not smart. (Ashame).

10/20/2009 10:05:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I normally always agree with your POV, but in this case, I think you are making "a bit of a stretch here."

Perhaps, but how I read it the first time was as is stated and although I can piece together a different read of it by slowing down and focusing on the various lines, when I quickly read through it all again, the subtext still seems to be somewhat less than neutral to my ear.

And, if Mark is right and Kate is right that art theory by artists themselves is vital, then, yes, I do think finding someone who does both well is something we should be looking for. Wouldn't you agree?

10/20/2009 10:15:00 AM  
Anonymous cjagers said...


Re: "I do think finding someone who does both well is something we should be looking for. Wouldn't you agree?"

Nope. I think its a big world and there is room for all of it. If someone gets stimulated by reading more theory than the next person, fine ... but I think it is VERY dangerous to say one is better than another.

Making is another form of thinking. Just like putting one word next to another creates meaning, so does putting one form next to another. To say one is better/smarter than the other is a destructive practice.

I agree with Mark in that it would be nice to hear from more artists (without the theoretical spin-zone) ... but that is very far from saying that artists should be theorists as well.

10/20/2009 10:24:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

but I think it is VERY dangerous to say one is better than another.

I'm not sure I did say that. Either way, what I meant to say was that if it's important for artists to write art theory, then those who do so particularly well should be readily findable and encouraged (where as I see Storr's interview as somewhat discouraging).

I'm not so sure I even suggested that writing theory makes someone's art more important or makes them smarter either. I simply feel it makes the art theory more compelling when you understand it comes via studio practice and not just a response to presented art objects.

10/20/2009 10:32:00 AM  
Blogger Christopher Quirk said...

I think Storr is just pointing out the vast difference between making things and writing about or contextualizing them, which is obvious but frequently ignored. The creative process is renegade; artists have a unique relationship that develops over time and is largely opaque to theorists. Theory analyzes, explains and proposes. The need to be cognizant of both entities has made the studio process more complex. The most compelling art works on both levels to some degree, but one can see the danger of explaining what one is doing to oneself while trying to do it. The kind of self-consciousness that theoretical concerns raise in the studio can inhibit unforeseen and more interesting possibilities. If there is a subliminal lament in Storr's comment, maybe it's regarding work that follows too closely theory's baton, and is best seen by press release.

That said, I think Storr describes what one sees in the rear-view mirror. There seems to be more porosity between writing and art then ever these days, and plenty of examples of people who do both very well.

10/20/2009 10:38:00 AM  
Blogger Lisa Hunter said...

One of my favorite theoretical "artworks" is Yoko Ono's Grapefruit Book. I look at it all the time, and think she expresses theoretical ideas brilliantly.

But few artists want to create a $10 book. They want to sell a $100,000 idea.

10/20/2009 10:39:00 AM  
Anonymous Gam said...

Maybe theory is like a compass in the wilderness. It won’t get you over the mountain, but it will let you know that maybe you should go over the mountain. If you just wander in the wilderness you may end up somewhere, but it may not be where your destination is. If you have only the compass and not the desire to scale the mountain, you likely won’t get to the other side. How can you not wish to have both the compass and the desire to reach your destination?

I do think Ed's contention that art theory from an artist has a verifiable poignancy. (and I am sure that doesn't imply a primacy)

10/20/2009 10:45:00 AM  
Blogger Brent said...

I'd say an artist that was a master of both artistic expression and art theory *could* be a force to be reckoned with, I think it is unreasonable to expect it since they are so different.

While both might be under the subject heading of "art" I think the similarities end about there.

10/20/2009 10:51:00 AM  
Blogger nathaniel said...

I'm not so sure I even suggested that writing theory makes someone's art more important or makes them smarter either. I simply feel it makes the art theory more compelling when you understand it comes via studio practice and not just a response to presented art objects.

Or at least offers a different perspective, drawing a more inclusive and interesting circle around the field (of both art writing and art making) at large. Great writing, like great art, can come from anywhere; and discouraging artists from writing (because it may effect their practice, as Ed reads Storr's piece - and I, for one, read the subtext that way as well), or versa vice, excludes thinking spaces with a lot of potential.

10/20/2009 10:56:00 AM  
Anonymous sharonA said...

I have a really hard time articulating my thoughts about this interview, and I've been trying to for days.

What I think I'm having a hard time swallowing is this idea that the two things - theory and practise - are separate or different things. I suppose on the surface they seem to be but they aren't. This is how I read Storr's answers in the interview, and frankly I was kind of stunned.

My artmaking and excavation of theory - both historical, contemporary, and personal - are the same and inseparable. I can't have one without the other. My exploration of one feeds the other. Theory and practise are two sides of the same beast, and they are not different. And I write, obsessively, because this is part of it too. I'm sure I'm not alone.

Not every artist is going to be the deepest historian or theorist and they don't have to be; but I know when I've seen art that isn't very strong it's partly because the artist doesn't have any foundation or exploration in either.

10/20/2009 11:56:00 AM  
Blogger tony said...

A bit of the chicken & egg problem. At a guess most art theories were 'constructed' around work which pre-existed them & such theories were not necessarily either formulated or sanctioned by those who created the work in the first place.

The English newspaper "The Independent" loves compiling top-100 lists & recently did one on the 100 most powerful/influential in the art world. The top places were occupied not by those who made the work but curators, critics & collectors. It's interesting that those who risk little but their reputation (if that) can be so influential.

At the moment we have perhaps a sufficient number of those creating work but the addition of more, many more art theorists, curators & art historians would be of great benefit in these times since so many who follow that particular path would be hard pressed to find employment in any other profession or occupation - however menial.

10/20/2009 12:15:00 PM  
Blogger Mery Lynn said...

Amy Sillman once said (and I may be misquoting) that making great art doesn't require great intelligence. The question, though, is what constitutes intelligence. We tend to conflate intelligence with logic and linear thinking and define imagination as a separate entity.

My question is when did art theory become important? Looking back historically, it seems that the theory part became significant about the same time as art became a university curriculum with degree programs. I often wonder if art theory was art academics' way of being accepted in the academic community.

Any thoughts?

10/20/2009 01:48:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"the addition of more, many more art theorists, curators & art historians would be of great benefit in these times"

A bit off-topic, but I'm assuming that's a joke even though I don't quite get it. I mean, just because they aren't fit for any other field doesn't mean it is of great benefit to anyone that they are in this particular field. Also, just as with artists, there are far more people who would like to earn their living from writing and teaching theory, etc. than actually can.


10/20/2009 01:53:00 PM  
Blogger Arcanum-XIII said...

Theory is often (or, more exactly, nearly always) in the realm of verbal language. Is art making verbal ?
I still think we (artist) have lot of things to say. Some artist I like have written, or answered great things about their work - I love the interview with F. Bacon for example, or the writings of Monet, the letters from Van Gogh, and so on.
But now, for me, it seem more and more a kind of obligation to be a "thinker" before we are doers. It's disturbing for me, as a young artist to see that - what will a phd prove about my work ? Or a lenghty essay written by me ?

Back on topic : I think artist can do both. Their choices. Example exist on it, so !

10/20/2009 03:07:00 PM  
Anonymous cjagers said...

Of course Artist's can do both ... I am just concerned that the *implied* message (form Ed and others) is that artists should do both. Or, that artists not literally engaged with theory are somehow "less."

Let's switch the context to music. I listen to music that I love, and don't care whether the musician is engaged with theory. If they are, fine, that's interesting too. A great example of this is Leonard Bernstein (a great composer and teacher/theorist). Does his engagement with theory make him a better musician than others? No. Does his effort means others should engage theory as well? No.

Nobody is saying that an artist can't take on theory as a personal indulgence. I just get scared when I hear *implied* messages that an artist fully engaged in theory is somehow preferred/better/richer, than someone who is not.

And Ed, I totally agree with your last statement "art theory is more compelling when you understand it comes via studio practice and not just a response to presented art objects."

I guess this becomes a conversation about what "theory" is. Unfortunately, I see many young artists trying to talk about their own work like a critic, from a 3rd person point of view. (I can't stand that). But it is a true pleasure when an artist talks about the nuts & bolts of their studio practice.

10/20/2009 03:45:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some artists are great thinkers, some aren't. Some are good thinkers but not especially good writers or even verbal communicators, while still being good - maybe even great - artists. I'm glad that Rob Storr, the head of the art school at Yale, among other things, is not trying to drum up customers for their PhD program (if they don't have one now, they probably will eventually). I'm glad that he's not trying to sell some idea that advanced degrees are necessary. (Personally, I don't think any academic degrees are necessary to be an artist, but that's another topic.)


10/20/2009 04:18:00 PM  
Blogger nathaniel said...

cjagers: I see and agree with your point wholeheartedly.
I take issue with the Storr piece, however, because he seems to "imply" that artists who write (theory) make work that is somehow lesser than those who don't, that their work suffers for it. This is just as ridiculous as the idea that artists "must" engage with writing (theory) to make good work. And we can talk in circles here, but I think we are saying the same thing from different sides.
And yeh, then there's the whole debate around what constitutes "theory," so I choose writing as my point of reference...

10/20/2009 04:24:00 PM  
Anonymous Patrick McDonough said...

I find this line of discussion very compelling and productive. A point a might like to add[and something which I have been grappling with recently] is how the production of some artists can be understood as BEING theory itself. And not simply at the service of novelty, but as a productive alternative to theory which takes its form through the written and spoken word. I have come to understand my own work as attempting to add to existing scholarship on play and material culture, but do such theorizing with THINGS. It is my hope to find some intellectual value in playing about play and making things about making and things.

nathaniel it sounds like you think about your work along these lines, are there other artists who do so as well?

10/20/2009 05:42:00 PM  
Anonymous cjagers said...


Excellent point! I see how the fear could go both ways. (And this is most likely Ed's point exactly).

I am open to all alternatives and just get scared when I hear one side start claiming their POV is preferred. I don't hear the pro-theory people saying they are merely scared of being precluded and totally open to both options. I read Ed saying: "I do think finding someone who does both well is something we should be looking for. Wouldn't you agree?"

This POV prioritizes one over the other. Of course, I could be mis-reading out of fear as well :)

10/20/2009 06:52:00 PM  
Blogger markcreegan said...

Great discussion y'all!
I remember in grad school some fellow students who had never heard of Barthe, Foucault, or Kristeva or read their writings still seemed to touch on issues of power, agency of the viewer, and feminism in their work, even if they were not able to articulate these things.
Reflexivity about their work was apparent in other ways in allusions to other artists, pop culture, film, or politics that have imbibed some of the concepts of the above mentioned thinkers and others. Perhaps it is second-hand theory that dominates artists' minds today.

10/20/2009 08:32:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

Last month Storr wrote a similarly themed article for Frieze (it's here if you want to pay or break in) and mentioned that students who could sling theory like champs had largely failed to accomplish praxis, the process by which theory is implemented in the real world. Small-t theory is simply a descriptor of how things work in general. First of all, art is very hard to generalize about. Second, apart from mechanical concerns, artists don't need to know how art works in general for them to make their individual work. Third, artists not interested in X have no business incorporating X into their work, for all values of X, theory included. Forth, theory is to works of art as words are to actions. We're not talking about two things of equal value or same kind.

Capital-T Theory is its own cultural phenomenon, and as MSB notes, it is marked primarily by a drive towards consensus around received ideas. He does not note that these ideas derive almost exclusively from Marx and Freud, from whose work identity politics and semiotic analysis were developed respectively. These in turn recombined to form a view of reality as relatively extant and mediated by language and politics. This makes for a strangely insulated culture that does not want to see its ideas tested. Storr, at the article linked above, said that if Theory ever dies, its tombstone will read, "as so-and-so aptly put it..." If artists have something to contribute here, it will be non-consensus ideas. But really, they might as well just work.

10/20/2009 10:58:00 PM  
Blogger Jay Erker said...

It was disappointing to read Robert Storr's words that suggested that art and theory are mutually exclusive from one another, especially since he holds so much sway in the art world.

In my mind it is hard to separate theory and art-making. A thinker can be an artist. A thinker can be a writer. Why can’t a writer be an artist? Deleuze, Nietzsche, Derrida, and Heraclitus are just a few thinkers who used prose to communicate their ideas. One person may use a brush, another a pen. It’s not so different. So when an artist makes work in their studio and wants to talk about their work with others, to communicate their ideas, it is not so far-fetched to think that they would want to use words that precisely communicate their thoughts. It is not a new idea. Theoretically speaking, it is postmodernism that has enabled just this kind of event to occur.

10/20/2009 11:46:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Warhol was a great artist. His "writing" is infinitely more interesting than any ordained art theory because it's unique, individual and effortless.

And I would much rather an artist spend their time making art than dividing their time between writing theory and making art.

10/21/2009 12:32:00 AM  
Blogger CAP said...

But I'm lovin' the glossies.

That Marcia V at AiA is so chic!

Too bad she can't edit herself a bit more, though.

The thing about theory is that it abstracts or generalizes on issues. When working, artists are always dealing with particulars, and it's not always clear where the issue or 'form' lies. Which is why there's so much talk about intuition and hunch.

In theory the issues are understandably much more black and white, and usually concerned with the role of art in stuff like politics, commerce, psychology or vice versa.

These are good things to think about when an artist stands back from the work, but they're of little help at the coal face, where it's not so much a question of where you're heading, but how to get there.

That's the difference between theory and practice, artist and critic.

10/21/2009 03:03:00 AM  
Blogger tony said...

During recent decades there has been an extraordinary rise & dependence upon the thoughts & theories of 'experts' - for the most part coming from the Disney World of academe.The most glaring & miserable example has been in the world of economics and we know where that has led us.

In the art world the closest analogy I can find between non-practising art theorists;art philosophers; some art critics and not a few curators is that of eunuchs in a harem. Whilst their tittle-tattle, when comprehensible, may be diverting and occasionally informative it would be an error to put too much weight on it.

As for art & art theories amongst visual artists that is their business. Take what one wants from where one wants but it is the work that counts & not the word.

10/21/2009 03:12:00 AM  
Anonymous Gam said...

If art theory was a map, a GPS system that got you to your destination, then everybody could create multiple masterpieces all the time, which isn’t happening. Art theory isn’t a blueprint for creating artworks. I see art theory more as a sense of direction, guide posts that one recognizes on their journey. How you get to that direction is still open to mistakes and discoveries and the subconscious and darn luck and perseverance and exquisite talent. Art theory is really just why artists do what they do. If you don’t know what you are doing then why do it? And if you can answer that, you have an art theory.

Artists – no I-, get really nervous that it’s the art theory that is being judged and not the art work, as pointed out in the very first posting here. But regardless of the hesitation towards an abuse of art theory, I think every artist has one regardless, and it does have value to the artist and others. That there is a disjunction between theory and practice is likely from the perception that the theory comes first, or defines the destination. Maybe it falls more in the realm of hindsight which allows us to choose our future paths better..

excelling at either could only inform the other

10/21/2009 09:47:00 AM  
Blogger Mark Staff Brandl said...

Thanks for bringing this up, Edward! I have had a great response to the series, and it was indeed directly influenced by your thread. This one too is great, although it centers too much on Storr's rather simplistic either/or. I generally appreciate Storr's analysis very much, yet disagree strongly with his solutions (something I feel often about Hickey and some others too). It ain't necessarily an either/or, nor is it a situation of "everybody should do it," --- I think you say this well, but others often jump to those two conclusions. There are and have been many "intellectual" artists. I could make Mr Storr a list, such as Leonardo, Michelangelo )known in Italian for his sonnets, e.g.), Motherwell, Dürer, and and and. Yes, the "other kind" is more prevealent, but that does not mean they are all dumb ecxpressionists --- simply that they haven't written much. I have had wonderful philosophical discussions with many visual artists. I, by the way, am clearly in the first camp, am in the process of doing a PhD as a kind of hobby, as I am already a very busy practicing artist. (Very intriguing ideas for your diss book there Nathan, please keep me abreast of developments.

I think philosophy and theory influence all artists, albeit often indirectly. Why not tackle it directly? You cannot know too much. If you are affraid it will "ruin" you, then maybe you are not strong enough, and need to address that.

But more importantly, one of my points I have often made has not been much commented on. That is I feel that IF you are going to be heavily theory influenced, then you should know ALOT and actively seek out your own sources for inspiration. As philosophers do. NOT just taking for given (i.e. trendily important) what is currently being served up, by the Octoberists and the like, e.g. Many Feminists and gender-theory people I know were excellent at that. The approach should be broadened.

10/21/2009 11:31:00 AM  
Blogger Mark Staff Brandl said...

Oh yeah, and after that long tirade, please read the 4 essays in Proximity issues I have organized so far --- and look for future ones. I have some very promising people who are both good artists and theorists (Joanne Mattera, who often comments here, will be one of them.)

10/21/2009 11:33:00 AM  
Blogger wisesigh said...

The same head cogently can wrestle with theory and wrestle with actually making art; the problem is trying to force the two matches to occur simultaneously -- which ends all too often in weak illustration of bits of barely digested theory.

10/21/2009 12:27:00 PM  
Blogger Tom Hering said...

Ed asked, "... whether art theory by artists is important."

For me, it sometimes is. When a sentence or paragraph by an artist makes something perfectly clear - and I've been trying to be clear about the same thing, in order to move forward with my work. Except for these moments, theory pretty much causes my mind to fog over. But then my only ambition is to do an artist's work, not a theorist's work as well. I find "doing" enough to struggle with.

10/21/2009 01:24:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's good to know the rules before you destroy them.

Great art is very selfish and should leave scars.

10/21/2009 02:02:00 PM  
Blogger Dilettante Ventures said...

The quote below is one I cite often and find useful here as some have conflated intelligence in general with linguistically expressed intelligence.

I also think it is important to always contextualize (a) theory's ends. What is it attempting to do? Is it employing the best available means to achieve those ends? I think that Mark would agree that all too often "theory" is not serving any end and despite the fact that many would agree we've moved on from "art for art's sake," we've replaced it with "theory for theory's sake" which I find pointless and dull.

Any idea that ignores the necessary role of intelligence in the
production of works of art is based upon identification of thinking
with use of one special kind of material, verbal signs and words. To
think effectively in terms of relations of qualities is as severe a
demand upon thought as to think in terms of symbols, verbal and
mathematical. Indeed, since words are easily manipulated in mechanical
ways, the production of a work of genuine art probably demands more
intelligence than does most of the so-called thinking that goes on
among those who pride themselves on being 'intellectuals.'

-- John Dewey, Art as Experience

10/21/2009 02:53:00 PM  
Blogger Jay Erker said...

I think a lot of people have trouble with theory primarily because of what it is: theoretical. It does not answer all the questions and tie everything up in a neat little package for one to consume. Good theory makes you think and creates more questions.

10/21/2009 02:57:00 PM  
Blogger Brandon Juhasz said...

I think theory is a weird chicken or the egg argument in that art informs theory and theory informs art but most theory is describing art that has happened already not that of which is happening right now. So as an artist there has to be a balance of self with theory to move things forward. (by self I mean what you need to express as an artist either personally or culturally)

The problem with theory is that once art is involved entirely with theory it becomes elite. Its like barber shop mirrors.

PS great topic

10/21/2009 03:12:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When did art theory become so pivotal and important?

10/21/2009 08:37:00 PM  
Blogger Mark Staff Brandl said...

Great discussion. Please everyone remember --- which gets forgotten often --- that "theory" is not only "Theory" (that dictator of the last decade or so), nor is all theory anti-visual, anti-corporal Poststructuralism. My own theoretical constructions are based in the recent, exploding inspiration of cognitive metaphor theory and cognitive neuroscience --- wherein intellect, emotion, spacial, cultural and most of all bodily embodiment are the basis of thought --- I would even assert that they have proven this in neuron and other research. A fully intellectual field that denies most of the bases of disembodied theories of thinking-vs-manipulation. Check out Lakoff and Turner and Johnson.

10/22/2009 03:02:00 AM  
Blogger Mark Staff Brandl said...

Also, if you are into podcasts as I am, check out this wonderful site, Brain Science Podcasts: http://docartemis.com/brainsciencepodcast/

10/22/2009 03:04:00 AM  
Blogger CAP said...

Part of the problem is the belief that theory is kind of like a recipe that the dutiful practitioner need only follow in order to arrive at an interesting result. But the kinds of theories most artists find inspiration in are rarely that comprehensive or explicit. Take de Kooning’s endorsement of Wittgenstein (sadly, not reciprocated). It’s not that Wittgenstein had that much to say about painting, or even art, but rather his very simple, later statements on incompletion and indeterminacy perfectly synch with 40s/50s existential commitment to action and process – in a nut shell - sorting things out as you go along. That’s so general it’s hard to see what implications an artist might draw from it about painting. Or rather, if true, then as true of Rembrandt or Rubens as much as Van Gogh or Mondrian. But presumably, de Kooning found consolation in metaphysical principles that paralleled his own choices of facture, color, scale and so on. And it’s probably why he baulked at full or sustained abstraction/figuration – there were no absolute or reliable endpoints for the Wittgensteinian Actionman.

I think this is what Storr is getting at when he says ‘never as systematically as people think’. Theory is more a jumping-off point. There are artists like Klee and Kandinsky that tried to get much more specific, but end up getting more personal or diary-like for it. To follow their theories is to end up painting like them. In the 18th century there was Joshua Reynolds and his Discourses, which were full of dos and don’ts for the aspiring classicist, ironically, formulated just as everyone was departing for romanticism. But then, many will say true artists are always well ahead of the legislators.

The current dissatisfaction with theory I think has more to do with its use by curators and critics. The problem is they pretty much reverse the process and use works as springboards for theories about social issues. They get excited by the bigger picture, particularly the one with them in it. It can one of personality, sexuality, race, class, nation, world or colony and in various combination. The meaning is so general it’s hard to see how it’s specifically derived from a given work, or how specific qualities to a work determine such a general meaning. Often the writers seem more concerned with citing appropriate literature (the dreaded ‘referencing’) than doing a little iconographic or stylistic spadework. And just as often when they do attempt to trace qualities, they do it so poorly their whole interpretation simply lacks credibility.

Theory is just as much a problem for criticism as art making. Even writing takes thinking.

10/22/2009 04:06:00 AM  
Anonymous luc said...

when i was googling with blogspot as a keyword, i saw this blog many times
makes me boring but i wonder how

10/22/2009 04:58:00 AM  
Blogger Mark Staff Brandl said...

Yes, CAP it is true that "the current dissatisfaction with theory I think has more to do with its use by curators and critics." --- Who often use it more like a weapon to club artists into submission, than even like a recipe.

On the other hand, I quote Gordon Epperson in my dissertation (from Gordon Epperson, "Reminiscences," The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 51, no. 2 (spring 1993): 284.) Epperson is a musician who is also deeply involved with the philosophy of art. He finds this concern natural and necessary. ---

"Musicians (like other artists) are inveterate theorizers, ceaselessly discussing their musical ideas and problems, analyzing techniques, making judgments, striving to get things "right." They are preoccupied in practice with form, function, and meaning: and their special vocabularies, sometimes as recondite as the argot of professional philosophers, are rich in imagery. They are, to a degree, aestheticians, though it would surprise most of them to be told that."

10/22/2009 06:01:00 AM  
Blogger tony said...

I admit to wading into waters far too deep for me here but I would suggest that the quality which troubles me when 'theories' enter too heavily into the art fray is that too much weight is thrust towards 'intellect' to the detriment of 'intelligence'.

Most artists I know possess the latter quality to a high degree; it is almost a sine qua non for the job. As for the 'intellectual' attribute - that seems to fall more strongly on the non-practising side of the fence. Intelligence can sometimes make itself apparent in silence whilst intellect is forever bound to speak to prove its existence & validate its worth.

10/22/2009 09:40:00 AM  
Blogger kalm james said...

I think an analogy could be made between the “art theorists” and hedge fund types, with aesthetic value substituting for capital. Like the overly complex world of derivatives and other financial schemes designed to squeeze value out of worthless assets (bundles of sub prime mortgages and toxic assets) much art theory is designed by folks who can’t create real value in a material object. Their theories are so ornate that only a few elite specialists can supposedly understand them. As regular art consumers begin to grasp the absurd values placed on nonexistent objects based on ideas that no one can understand, they loose confidence in the establishments promoting these products, and we begin to see a meltdown in aesthetic value threatening the stability of the world wide art market and its institutions. Obviously what are needed are governmental aesthetic regulations. President Obama should appoint an Aesthetics Czar, pass legislation to protect citizens from investing aesthetic significance in unreliable concepts, and an immediate cut in the compensation to these spurious art theorists.

10/22/2009 10:02:00 AM  
Blogger kalm james said...

PS, Let us never forget that Karl Marx began his glorious career as a humble art critic.

10/22/2009 10:07:00 AM  
Blogger Steve said...

This has been an interesting post and great read on all the comments, but I often think artists don’t see themselves as “Theorists” specifically because of all this “talk”. Who has the time, as an artist today, to get into all of these discussions when there are creations to be made?

I do find that what you believe “theory” to mean is critical to whether artist exemplify a creative spirit for art and for the theory of art. After all, most artists today have access to the greatest amount of information, discussion, and debate regarding art.

Is this not the first time that documented artist’s writings, web sites, blogs, videos, as well as social media interaction has become a form of personal history, their biography that tell us of their thought process? This is new, now and a fantastic and determinative way to analyze, over time, whether an artist is deep in thought or theory about art and their art?

The documenting of our work and the writing about our times and how we feel about these times as they relate to art and art history is a very new phenomenon, and a very exciting one. Yes, some artists may just write “wow, I really like the doughnut I just painted”, but for other artists the lifetime chronicling of works and thoughts may be something much more, and on critical review in the future give great insight into the artist, their work, and how much they though about what art theory is and what it meant to that artist.

10/22/2009 02:50:00 PM  
Blogger Jim said...

Hi everyone, Mark said I should post a comment. It's an interesting discussion. As an editor, my impulse would be to take the posts down for a while, rearrange them, and put them back up. That's because as Mark observes, "theory" isn't always "Theory." People here, including Storr, are talking about different things under the name of "theory" (or "Theory").

My contribution will be an observation about the use of theory. At the moment I am editing an anthology of visual studies (and other fields), written entirely by grad students around the world. (If you're a grad student, you're invited! See http://visualreader.pbworks.com.) One of the requirements for all the contributors is that they not only present their favorite theorists, but argue with them. So far I've been surprised to see how tentative the arguments are. When artists, art critics, visual studies students, art history students, and many others use theorists like Butler, Zizek, Foucault, Derrida, Cixous, Benjamin, Buck-Morss, and many others, they almost invariably just quote them and try to apply what they understand to be the theorists' principal insights. There is remarkably little critical argument. In academia, that can be obscured by dense writing; in the art world, it is obscured by the notion -- I think it's nothing more than a notion -- that the very act of making an object constitutes a response to theory.

So my contribution, to the various senses of "theory" and "Theory" that are being floated here, is a question: how many artists or scholars do you know who read theory, think about it, and then do something -- write a scholarly text, make an artwork -- that critiques the theorist? Some art is different from some theory; that might not be a productive way in to this material. But I would be interested to know what people consider to be work that demonstrates productive engagement with theory, as opposed to work influenced by theory, or work that is an instance of theory.

10/22/2009 05:38:00 PM  
Blogger CAP said...

Can you explain a bit more about the differences between theory and Theory, you see on the thread?

10/22/2009 09:37:00 PM  
Anonymous Mark Staff Brandl said...

I was going to quote some things from Jim Elkins --- so instead I thought I'd just go to the source and bugged him to comment. What a great comment! Jim once mentioned to me in Switzerland, that strongly intellectual approaches to art (such as his and mine) are fine, even great, but we need to remember that this is not the mainstream (comprising perhaps only as much as about 2 percent, he joked), if I am quoting you, Jim, from memory correctly.

Beyond that, you hit on a VERY important point. Probably the most significant one, which I have never see so clearly formulated. The problem that makes "theory" into that dictatorial bugaboo: capitalized "Theory." And what makes it academicist rather than really intellectual --- lack of critique. I even have examples of where timid professory demanded that I and others NOT critique theorists, because the deconstructionist world of academia would censor us and hate us.

Your point needs to be shouted from the metaphorical art rooftops. One doesn't need to always disagree, but also more importantly not always agree or worst of all illustrate. As I suggest --- artists should find their own thinkers who inspire them. And engage with them, and the opponents of their chosen philosophers, productively by critiquing them in the full sense of the word, not just re-apply, "be influenced by" or illustrate.

10/23/2009 05:28:00 AM  
Blogger Mark Staff Brandl said...

When I write that, summed up superficially, I mean theory (still generally of a Deconstructivist bent) as THE hegemonic, Consensus Correct, enforced "presence." Theory in this vein remains the most powerful force in literature and art departments in universities around the US and indeed the western world, although actually going a bit grey.

Literary or Critical theory, as it is more broadly termed, both bolsters and limits current discourse on the arts. When it is applied like a career-political tool, one to ham-fistedly keep artists in their place, I capitalize it, giving it that scary quasi-Hegelian or German Romanticism look.

It is not all bad ---, philosophy has experienced a surprising growth in the stature of aesthetics, once the barely tolerated foster child of metaphysics, to a position of vital importance in the discipline.

I realize that an ulterior motive in my dissertation and involvement with theory is also to be able to theorize myself out of the constraints of theory, fighting fire with fire as is often my wont, and put some fire as a weapon back into the hands of creators.

10/23/2009 08:54:00 AM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

I just had another major professional setback and am in a foul mood, but the problem is quite a bit worse than mere "lack of critique," Mark. Theory presupposes a certain kind of unknowable universe with no verities except liberal-leftist-progressive assumptions. You can't have a productive argument with people who believe that truth, beauty, gender, and damn near everything else are socially constructed and mandated by political force. Believe me, I've tried. You can't critique belief.

What's worse is that these beliefs have become so widely adopted that you will ruin your career by not believing them. What's a libertarian who thinks that recognition of beauty is evolutionarily hard-wired going to do in a contemporary art PhD program, besides suffer mightily at the hands of deconstructionist profs? We have an art world that does not regard visual quality as a worthwhile project unless supported by an intellectual framework, particularly one engaged in critique, commentary, questioning, or challenge to presuppositions of one kind or another, at least in the ersatz way that postmodernists mean these things. It has been made painfully clear to me that I can either make art conforming to this intellectual homogenieity, or fuck off. Maybe you and Elkins can find a way to have a "productive engagement with theory" or "theorize [yourself] out of the constraints of theory," but engaging a cynical system in an honest way doesn't work and engaging it in a cynical way just makes you one of the rats in the rat race. The writers I've found most useful for making art and navigating what passes for thought in art world are Clement Greenberg, who produced no theory, and Henry Frankfurt, who penned this helpful volume among others.

So I am instead plotting an art career that bypasses these self-described art people in favor of regular people who like art. After the malice and ill regard I've been subjected to by the former, I'd rather accomodate the latter.

10/23/2009 10:13:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

just had another major professional setback

Seriously sorry to hear that.

10/23/2009 10:19:00 AM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

Sorry - Harry, not Henry, Frankfurt deserves better than have his name botched by an artist having a bad year.

10/23/2009 10:20:00 AM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

And thank you, Ed, I appreciate that. I guess the other thinker I go to for navigating the art world is Marcus Aurelius, and he would deem it unseemly to rail like this about a problem that will be forgotten in a century. I hope that comment at least contributed something to the thread.

10/23/2009 10:29:00 AM  
Anonymous Paul Klein said...

Kalm James is right. Get out of the ozone. Art needn’t be for everyone, but you might as well give a nod to accessibility or resign yourself to the ivory towers of academia – which means you are a teacher first – not an artist. Furthermore, theory is nice, but what good does it do? How good is art that is determined by or illustrative of theory?

10/23/2009 10:53:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Franklin, I so know what you're talking about. Even if you are in basic agreement politically (support the same causes, vote for the same candidates, etc.) with these people, you will be punished if you question their reasoning. Because it is not reasoning. I had a very bad brush with academia about 5 years ago and I'm still bitter about it.


10/23/2009 11:26:00 AM  
Blogger Dalen said...

I think I'm probably not the only one out there a bit befuddled by this discussion. Feels a bit like when I tried to read Henry Miller or Ayn Rand at 18. Didn't understand what all the fuss was about, and gave up. Came back to them for a second try about ten years later, and discovered new worlds.

It's not that I'm anti-intellectual when it comes to art, but feel that it's premature at this stage of my artistic development to effectively ground my work in a consciously theoretical or Theoretical way.

10/23/2009 11:40:00 AM  
Blogger CAP said...

Okay, so let’s concentrate on prevailing Theory, basically a cluster of post-structuralist thinkers. Firstly, orthodoxy is always a problem to curiosity and real criticism – in any age there is going to be staunch resistance to rocking the boat. That’s sort of the point of having a boat. You don’t throw over anything valuable too readily. Proper criticism of it is hard to make and even harder to take. And I have some sympathy with Mark’s experiences in academia, having met with extremely spiteful responses to my own approaches there. But I don’t find anything especially dogmatic about post-structuralism.

It’s really a case of a generation (or two) of practitioners getting old, running out of steam, narrowing their focus. Look at that tired old October omnibus – Art Since 1900. Yeesh. On second thought why bother? It’s probably better used as a doorstop. At a certain point it’s easier to just skip the dialogue, or criticism from within a theory, and proceed to alternatives. If Derrida or similar really was my favorite theorist, it’s hardly likely my objections to his work would run too deeply, is it? (if they did, he would scarcely remain my favorite). Better, I think to find new heroes, find art criticism or history from somewhere that offers more satisfying interpretation and theorize from there. Or try writing criticism that avoids perceived flaws.

The old debate used to be between formalists, dealing with mainly technical or intrinsic properties to a medium or category, and social historians, dealing with its context. Nowadays that split runs more along the lines of comp lit/cultural studies versus art history. There are profound philosophical differences here, and these are duly addressed by philosophers. But critics and artists seldom feel the need to probe these, mostly they make do.

Artists quickly adapt to jargon and catch phrases, if they’re the terms critics and curators are using. Critics and curators adopt them because they’ve seen them in respected publications and heard them in lectures. They want to associate themselves with that kind of prestige, and so often they end up saying things in a fairly lazy, superficial way. It would be easy to draw up lists of artists who play along with this game, but in my experience they’re more inspired by the prospect of exhibitions and reviews than any substantial encounter with the literature.

I don’t see any works of art as being theories or the equivalent of theories.

10/23/2009 12:13:00 PM  
OpenID saskialehnert said...

positing art against theory seems to me to be as tired an argument as the mind-body conundrum...
Isn't the one a part of the other? Aren't we just making category mistakes in this argument?

Probably I'm tipping my hand to my own theory reading in that comment, LOL!

10/23/2009 03:11:00 PM  
Blogger Mark Staff Brandl said...

James Elkins added in a comment offline, another insight:

"Here's something I forgot to add: it has always struck me as strange that artists transform everything they're given except theory. The whole world is available as raw material for the artwork, but theory is treated so reverentially, so carefully, that
it seems somehow exempt. The same goes for scholars..."

10/24/2009 03:15:00 AM  
Blogger Tom Hering said...

The impression I'm getting is that theory functions as a set of passwords in the art world. If you hold to the right theory, and speak the language of that theory, you'll be allowed in by the people who can further your career. They use one of the right words in conversation, then you use one of the right words, and then they do again, and then you do again, and so on and so on until you've proven you're not a threat to anyone's position.

10/24/2009 09:13:00 AM  
Blogger markcreegan said...

Mr. Elkins raises very interesting points about artists' relationship to theory. I have always thought that Thomas Hirschhorn's kiosks devoted to the work of philosophers thereby making the writings the subject rather than the contextual justification are fascinating. It seems a clever way of "boxing in" theory via an art practice where usually the opposite is the case. These are presented as reverential, reifying displays but I think they have a different effect of critical parody. Or perhaps they do both, which is even more interesting.

The comments about theory used as some sort of gatekeeping tool is way off the mark and cynical. If one was a scientist, it would be expected that there is a basic (and more) knowledge of a pool of concepts, theories, practices, etc. The same is true in art academia where, say, an artist (especially a photographer) should have some basic knowledge of Benjamin's The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction, even if the artist's work contradicts these ideas (which many current art practices do).
The canon consists of ideas as well as technical practices.

I recently heard a discussion by an artist/professor about his photographs of intimate, domestic spaces. The question came up of how these illustrate or "critique" social conditions and stratification. He denied this outright, no mention of Foucault or Bourdieu's "habitus" convinced this artist that his work could be read politically. This disposition does not prevent his membership in academic circles.

I am sure there are members of of academia that utilize the belief in certain ideas as litmus tests, but I think that this is rare and I strongly believe there is some basic knowledge of (not belief in) theory needed to be an effective teacher today.

10/24/2009 10:14:00 AM  
Blogger ec said...

To Jim:
Theory in the hands of an artist becomes structure!
And vise-versa with the voluptuous text of a writer like Michael Taussig!
Ideally the effort to expand a conversation extends beyond one social group. There is anxiety in this discussion about art's social function. If Mery Lynn's correlation of discourse and academe dovetail, academe is a straw man for relevance...
Too many layers in this for polarities.

10/24/2009 11:30:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If this thread is any indication, actually, only those who hate theory would ever make good art, or be accepted by the majority of artists in the world. hooray for the formula of being angry at the non-existing formula/straw-man of theory! to the end of talking about things! materiality is all that matters, so fuck those phd fuckers! we hate them and their words! we will use our words to show them how bad words are!
seriously: are you anti-theory folks aware of what you all sound like?

10/24/2009 02:48:00 PM  
Blogger Alison said...

uhmm... I rather thought the art work was the theory. It would be rather pointless to illustrate someone else’s idea. Of course, it's great if an artist is able to describe their thoughts both verbally and visually and in equal measure. I imagine that there is pleasure in examining the nuanced differences in how the idea is received through the different mediums. Most of us I expect are just happy if we can write a decent statement that fits the visual things we do. The thing is an idea.

10/24/2009 10:43:00 PM  
Blogger tony said...

I believe the real stumbling=block about the art-theory conundrum is that theories always seem stronger in theory than in practice.

10/25/2009 04:25:00 AM  
Blogger Mark Staff Brandl said...

Anon has a point which must be addressed and thought about, one about which I am torn in several directions. Although I love to punch holes in the balloons of pseudo-intellectual pomposity. As Susan Jacoby wrote: "The mind of this country, taught to aim at low objects, eats upon itself." Ralph Waldo Emerson offered that observation in 1837, but his words echo with painful prescience in today's very different United States. Americans are in serious intellectual trouble -- in danger of losing our hard-won cultural capital to a virulent mixture of anti-intellectualism, anti-rationalism and low expectations."

There is indeed a very prevalent "dumb is good" tendency in certain factions of politics and cultur. Daniel Patrick Moynihan in a debate in which his conservative republican opponent repeatedly referred to him as "intellectual" and "professor," responded "ahh, the mudslinging has begun."

10/25/2009 05:43:00 AM  
Blogger CAP said...

I don’t see any comments that really declare a hatred of theory. Maybe Jay Erker comes closest. But most people have just been pointing out that theory is not practice, and that artists don’t have to be theorists as well. I don’t see anything dumb about that. Blindly going along with a lot of empty verbiage in the name of critical scrutiny strikes me as a whole lot dumber.

A theory of art is not art. Art is not a theory of art. Is that so hard to grasp? You want a Venn diagram or something? Theory is the work of theorists. It’s not something best entered into lightly and will entail endless research. There’s a whole career there. The same goes for art. If you want to do both you better make a lot of room in your life. But that won’t make the art any better, for conforming to just your theory. That won’t make your theory any more comprehensive for having dogged personal demonstrations. On the contrary, art dedicated to the demonstration of a theory is sterile and academic in all the worst senses (are there any good senses?). A theory illustrated by the work of just one artist is severely compromised in scope.

No one’s saying artists don’t think deeply, research thoroughly. Sometimes that pays off and sometimes it doesn’t. But what makes good art is not always profound content, expert technique or even ample promotion. It’s numerous intangibles, pre-verbals, personality variables and synchronicity or coincidence. Who would want it otherwise?

If you want rigorous demonstration of theory, try science.

Should theory be taught in art schools? Should practice be taught in cultural studies or art history? Who has time to do everything? Does post-structuralism have a monopoly on aesthetics? Actually it can’t wait to depart for broader social issues, and the issues can never be broad enough. And therein lies the notorious chasm between analytical and continental philosophy. Let’s not go there.

You can never learn enough. But that’s not to discourage you from learning more.

10/25/2009 10:51:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My mind keeps coming back to Cezanne. He had theories and he embodied them; they were personal to him. Do we theorize to reconcile ourselves with the world?

Of course art theory by artists is important. It's the building, not the scaffolding.


10/25/2009 04:16:00 PM  
Blogger Tom Hering said...

Theory (Webster's) "an organized body of ideas ... a general body of assumptions and principles ... a comprehensive and systematic view of a subject."

I wonder if the problem with art theory is that it can't help but say - or at least imply - that there are laws in art. To which the artist's nature, sooner or later, can't help but respond, "I must break these laws." ("Even if they're the laws of my own theory, and proved useful to me in the past.")

10/25/2009 05:52:00 PM  
Anonymous Bill said...

IMO - Artists make the art and know what it means (especially for themselves).

Most artists are at least a little interested in theory, but this usually comes after -- when looking/thinking about the work.

Like CAP said, "A theory of art is not art. Art is not a theory of art."

10/26/2009 10:11:00 AM  
Blogger Mark Staff Brandl said...

I agree with a lot of CAP and others thoughts, but I want to emphasize taht it is not a simple either/or situation --- which, to get back to my series of articles, is why I want to read stuff by practicing artists. Who make first, then analyze. Which are very complementary processes, in my opinion, --- when in the RIGHT order.

The proscriptive nature of theorizing by non-artists is what I do battle with mostly. Most theorists themselves, at least the analytical philosophers, do not do that, but their ideas are often put to that proscriptive use by "secondary" readings --- critics, curators and so on. There are many wonderful writings by historical artists concerning their theoretical analyses of their works (AFTER the fact), just not generally in journals, etc. Van Gogh in the letters to Theo, Delacroix in letters, etc etc etc.

Although James Kalm above is quite amusing in his joke on theorists, he has some interesting theoretical writings (but is a good practicing artist and video critic too), one of which will be in my series at Proximity.

10/26/2009 03:23:00 PM  
Blogger CAP said...

Correcto Mark and Tom!

And JK’s pointed parallel between the worlds of finance and art hits a nerve. There is inflation, corruption and insider-trading – even in writing on art. Perhaps there always was, to a lesser degree. But with the art world greatly expanded by so many more public, semi-public and temporary exhibition spaces, with globe-trotting curating now a career path; this tendency looms uncomfortably large. And the writing of curators seems far more doctrinaire, lazy and uninformative than most criticism. The popular press and glossies still do a respectable job of brief reviews, for the most part. You don’t find Jerry or Roberta going for quotation and footnote frenzy, for instance. Because they are quickly held accountable to a paying public. But the excesses and abuse of many curators goes unchecked.

If you’ve ever bothered to talk to any of these new breed of whiz-kids, you pretty soon discover their grasp of even advocated theory is wafer thin. And they’re not in the least bit interested in examining it any closer, much less debating it. For them, it’s really just a hollow formality on their careerist march in arts administration. And their choices reflect the same cynical, servile conformism. This wouldn’t be much of an issue except that you find the same thinking/writing creeping into grants and funding bodies criteria, into museum and public collection rationales. It accrues an insidious power.

This is my real beef with current dogma in art theory/history.

10/26/2009 07:03:00 PM  
Blogger Jay Erker said...

For the record: CAP, I have not posted any ideas suggesting a personal dislike of theory. I am afraid you have misread my posts or confused me with another.

I believe that many of the problems discussed in this thread regarding theory often lies in the complexity of T(t)heory itself. The ideas put forth by theorists are intricate, elaborate and many, and in order to comprehend them all one must be familiar with current theory, psychology, the history of theory, philosophy back to the pre-Socratics, and also perhaps anthropology, sociology, economics…I could go on and on. As mentioned in other posts, it is in fact a full time job to have a thorough understanding of these texts and have the ability to engage the texts in a lively debate, therefore it makes sense that the majority of students, artists, curators, and critics are unable to criticize theory or even discuss it without resorting to catch phrases and simplifications. As a student of visual art in the 90s, we were fed excerpts by the major theorists of our modern era and the excerpts were followed by a lecture and discussion. Not once did we read an entire text. I am sure most people educated during this time, and also in the 80s and 00s, have shared this experience and were also left with a fragmented and superficial understanding of T(t)heory as a whole which has thus engendered a wide array of reactions and behaviors echoing throughout the industry of art (as has been discussed in this thread).
As I stated earlier, I believe the action of engaging a theory or theories in a dialectical approach is a creative process itself and not dissimilar to the act of an artist creating a work of art. In fact, I have suggested that theorists, perhaps in the most ideal sense, can be artists themselves, utilizing words instead of a brush to articulate their ideas. For me, the term philosophy, rather than theory or Theory, better suggests this creative endeavor.

10/27/2009 03:25:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

For the last 50 years there has been one "theory" supplanting another as part of the dialog which surrounds art. Theory doesn't make the art in question any better but I suspect it makes it easier to sell. Fifty years later we are left with only the art and the out of date theories. Why should it be any different in the future? If you have a can of soup, you don't eat the can, you eat the soup, and trash the can.

10/27/2009 06:13:00 PM  
Blogger markcreegan said...

This has been an interesting thread, some real insights abound here. Ultimately, I think Storr's point of view correctly highlights the differences between art practice and theoretical writing in terms of process and goals while acknowledging their relatedness as modes of searching and understanding. As a teacher, learning theory should not be presented as the acquisition of ideas to be used prescriptively to make work, but rather as examples of critical attitudes and processes toward received aspects of our culture. That is the most important use of introducing theory in the classroom to young folk who perhaps have never engaged in questioning the received ideas they were raised with. In addition to that, its useful to examine these theories since many of these ARE the received notions needing to be questioned.

It usually takes a long time before a student's relationship with theory becomes more than illustrative and begins to be used as ways to unlock doors and expand associations in the way Storr described Felix G-T's relationship to theory. At some point, the level of understanding of a particular theory by an artist is not important. In fact, a misunderstanding can be just as useful and insightful as it can lead to novel questions and perspectives.

But I agree with Mark that I would like to see more texts that show how artists engage with theory (circuitously, illustratively, critically, whatever). Perhaps we need an updated edition of Theories and Documents.. hint hint Mrs. Stiles!!:)

10/27/2009 10:29:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

Getting back to the original post and its notion that "our best theory could (if not should) come from our best artists," there's a fundamental problem here, in that theory itself doesn't support hierarchies of quality. Assertion is as good as proof. Literary theorist Stanley Fish wrote that theory and deconstruction "relieves me of the obligation to be right... and demands only that I be interesting." Consequently there's no better or worse theory. Instead there's a culture of theory which some people navigate better than others. This navigation is a social effort, not a meritocratic one. It is a lot like the contemporary art world in that respect.

Anyone who thinks that the issues taken with theory above are paranoid, hateful, or off the mark should read Theory's Empire.

10/28/2009 08:30:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

In general "theory" in the humanities exist primarily in the general form "We think the world is like this" If we attempt to apply such a theory to art eventually results in a falsehood because the history of art has shown art cannot be bound or constrained by any theory.

Theory is the desiccated corpse of life. Art like life is messy.

10/28/2009 10:48:00 AM  
Blogger max (alex Meszmer) said...

Mark asked me to write sth. too - but I have to post it in 2 parts.

When I recollect my thoughts about art and theory – the first thing coming to my mind is when my art professor in the first meeting of my art studies at university welcomed us with the words:
"Well, guys, everything in art has been done already. So I am interested, what you will work on or find suitable to be done as artists."
A statement that I only could conquer in saying: "Ok let´s go and have a beer…"

Too much theory, too much knowledge about art, leads an artist away from practical work into a maze of possible discussions. It is always easier to talk about art, than to really work on real artworks. In a way the 19th century wasn’t that bad, calling those people, who just wanted to do sth. talking about possibilities, but rarely realizing sth. 'Bohemians'. This is what I would call contemporary art theory: a bohemian art of thinking – that does not have much to do with art making itself.

Apart from the fact that we do have more people calling themselves artists than we probably had in earlier times and apart from the fact that art got into a position that the German theorist Isabelle Graw in her book “Der grosse Preis”, dealing with art and the art market in our actual media and celebrity culture, calls art and being an artist the absolute neo-liberal (Reaganomics Yuppie) ideal for a hip lifestyle – we have to face a situation that is both paradox and the natural development after the statements of modern art at the same time.

Reading the last issue of “Texte zur Kunst” I felt trapped: nearly all possibilities artists are working at in the moment get a negative touch: institutional critic – out, painting – out, conceptual work – out, political work – out, social or other aspects – out and everything dealing with history or tradition – nothing more than a bad copy of 19th century behaviour.
After reading the whole issue the only possible solutions were, either to shoot myself as an artist, stop working as one or feeling like a dinosaur repeating history, facing the inevitable and being smashed by the next possible meteors of theoretical discussion.

I read this pamphlet on our way to Turin, attending the first documenta conference that was held by Carolyn Christov-Barkagiev in the Castello di Rivoli, as a preparation for her concepts for the next documenta in Kassel in 2012: She invited all documenta curators, who were still alive, plus three team members of Arnold Bode and Harald Szeemann to present the actual concepts in order to discuss the concepts of their documentas and as well the theory of art behind it.

This event, called a historic one by the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, made clear that with all developments of art – the growing biennales, the diversity of artistic interventions – especially the theorists of art are searching for a new ground – a new territory – to be able to argue about.
When Jean Christoph Ammann during his speech suddenly rose his voice to announce the documenta made by Catherine David to be the one that reduced art and its artists to just give out statements and that the basic lack of art is its lack of poetry, the discussion suddenly became an interesting one – that lead into the paradox situation that all curators started to recite English poetry to the audience.

But – the discussion grew into one that only got into the verve between modern and postmodern theory – or whatever we should call the positions taken by artists, dealing with all kinds of conceptual possibilities since this strain of thoughts was developed.

We definitely are not in a position to be able to clearly look back at the threads of history and what they did to our cultural development. We are in a state of constant confusion and disillusionment. Why is that, though?

10/30/2009 09:01:00 AM  
Blogger max (alex Meszmer) said...

And here Part2:

One thing is, to look clearly at our social and political systems: we declare ourselves democrats, but do we really live in democratic societies? Apart from the Swiss system with its idea of a democratic ideal has to be developed from the basic bodies of society, I cannot find a single state that has a really democratic structure. “Swiss” or “Switzerland bashing” became popular since the beginning of the financial crisis – but to be quite honest – it was not the democratic structure of this country that lead into this disaster, that which we call ""the financial crisis" of the beginning of this century.

The basis was politics started in the 80`s by Reagan and Thatcher and were recalled by the Bush family that lead parts of the world back to a situation and state of mind of the 19th century: imperialistic, reduced to a capitalistic system that is oriented to its own advantages.
Whoever can explain to me that there is a democratic strain within will gain a price. I can´t see it.

Apart from that: as “the market” was seen as the indubitable preference for anything and that as well culture and art had to set its preferences under an economic system what we can see now, is nothing more than a development of preferences in our world society.

Art – called the cultural industry – set itself under the same pressures. So, when we look at art, the art industry and its theory that is restraining out of this cultural, political and social development, we have to face nothing more than just to look at the results of a disastrous kow-tow that was dictated by an international political development.

That is no fun – that is pure reality.

So, what do to?

Even if I might sound old-fashioned, I state to my students that art has to do with Politics, Religion, Society and Aesthetics – in short form: it is all about power, sex and belief – and it should be able to define innovative possibilities. If we look at contemporary art – does it have anything to do with our belief systems? Yes – what we believe is not religion, it is economics and science.

Does it have to do with our political system? No – when we really think that we live in democratic systems. The actual art market with its noble form of curators, collectors and museums directors does not have anything to do with a democratic world – the ones meaning to be the trendsetters in this art system are deeply bound to a system resembling the reactionary traditionalists of the 19th century.

But then again: the technological development of the last years – our media society – did overrule within a short period all aspects of our life: what about privacy in contrary to the public life? What about an overall control of life? Laws and regulations that correspond with personal believe - do they correspond with social developments as well?

Our look at culture is shaped by beliefs coming from a society that is diminishing and is not at all corresponding to actual ideas – cultural theory is always a step back to what technology might make possible – we adore da Vinci, Michelangelo or Venice as an archaeological site being half alive but what happens apart from that?

Nothing more than a pure exchange of opinions that are held to be true.

Well, what I would be interested in is how we – we artists – can react to that? Does art mean anything to us? Is it more then just the one possibility we more or less can make our living with and need to be content if we are accepted by the art industry? Do I want to be part of the art industry as an artist? What would it make out of me?

Am I to be the one just delivering ideas that might be taken into account when they fit an economic idea you can make your living with?

I would say: art has to be done by artists – and theorists need to be aware of the necessity of developing a natural respect again – practice comes first.

Alex Meszmer, Pfyn, Switzerland

10/30/2009 09:02:00 AM  
Blogger CAP said...

Just to go back to what’s a long thread already, I know, but I ran into a fellow artist the other day and the subject of the Frieze art/theory debate came up and he pointed out the philosopher Simon Critchley’s role at Goldsmiths (Critchley - I think that's his name - was one of the Frieze panel) was basically to help students make an impressive interpretation of their work. I have to admit his contribution put me off so I must have skipped that part of the recording. I think Barbara Bloom says something similar at one point. Anyway, theory there was not so much an approach to making the work, but an interpretive or hermeneutic tool. The idea being, that students should look to placing their work in some broader context, a ‘dominant discourse’ or social program of some sort. In the old days, when abstraction was king, the appeal was more to art history, what technical advance the work might hold. These days we exchange ‘a history’ for ‘a discourse’. I don’t know that it’s that much of an improvement. But to cut to the chase, my friend agreed that theory on these terms was looking pretty tired and predictable, and that new programs or discourses were needed. My objection is that whatever the discourses, they were not tied to the work closely enough. So we disagreed there, but it’s a difference I thought worth adding here.

Unfortunately he shuns blogs and commentary as a waste of time. Another difference…

Oh - and good points Max - on art and Switzerland.

10/30/2009 08:30:00 PM  
Blogger max (alex Meszmer) said...


When I did my studies (90ies) theory meant: reading Deleuze/Guattari, Baudrillard, Virillo and most of the other french philosophers - that mostly ended up in getting lost in threory and pracitising conceptual ideas.

Neverthelesse the aim that we were given by our Professors was, to find our threads of Art - our personal themes and a way to work on fundamental philosophical and aestehtic questions.

Some years ago I talked to a swiss artist from the french speaking part, about my age - she told me that she was completely surprised to see her cousin study art in comparison to her: the students nowadays were trained in being successfull - or at least in surviving as an artist. This lead to a totally different system in education.

Sometimes I get the impression that the younger generation of artists often does not have a problem to change from art to other professions and back, for art is just one thing they were trained in.

Same is: I doubted very much that the Bachelor and Master system would work in art education (we oldfashioned people in germany - and switzerland did not have it) but it did lead to the same: art education light. I am still sure that art can not be taught in the same structure as economics - and for me the Bachelor and Masters system is developped to serve economic standards.

Why should we have theory then, when all is just business?

11/01/2009 10:51:00 AM  
Blogger Mark Staff Brandl said...

The Bachelors and Master were not in any way developed for economics. The asshole Business majors STOLE them, after they originally had had their own business diplomas (something like KV), and then got incorporated into universities.

In Europe, the idea in the humanities was to put some structure with the Bach./Masters into the VERY sloppy "liz.phil." stuff whereby students could never attend any classes (average was about two days a week), profs never teach, students do no actual curriculum (i.e. developed "flow" of courses: first intro classes, then developed classes etc up through in depth in specialized classes). In the liz. phil. versions of things like literature studies, students could practically read what the wanted in any order, do no other classes outside their field, and get a degree. Now --- if any of that applies to art, I don't know --- and much of it did NOT apply to "Hochschulen" --- but it did and does to most of European, esp. German language, universities, which were far more unstructured "education light" under the old system. Change is hard to take, but just because it is an American-based idea, does not mean it is "light" --- that is nationalistic European claim, and blatantly wrong. As I said, the largest number of "liz." degree programs were FAR lighter, which is one big reason why people are resisting it --- they don't want to change from the idea that the Matura/Abitur is the last of structured learning.

11/02/2009 03:23:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

"Why should we have theory then, when all is just business?"

What a great line to wrap up this thread. Many great ideas here. I've been excited by Mark's dissertation project- especially because it involves something called metaphor theory. Metaphor sounds so much more suited to art than theory, although I've always thought theory was just about the conversations of the day, as in the Dekooning/Wittgenstein reference way above - so naive I know. I'll repeat something I've said elsewhere - Issey Miyake's "the challenge of the age is to maintain ordinary sensiblities". To me, this is a challenge to engage theory as an artist as Mr. Elkins advises, but only as a response to the work itself (one's own work)which I think needs to maintain a kind of suspension of theory as it's being made, or better, a parallel energy - aware but open to the simple action of making something.

11/02/2009 05:02:00 PM  
Blogger max (alex Meszmer) said...

Well, Mark, I am talking about the bach. / mast. system that was installed within the last years in Germany and Switzerland. These are structures that were built due to aims given out by the "economy" always arguing about the education in universities failing the skills wanted from the companies.

The swiss education was different to the german - the german being divided in university - being very academic (I went through this as Art Academies got the same status) and Fachhochschulen educating with a fokus on practice and a future job.

Academic education was free in everything and I would not like to miss this oppurtunity, to be able to read what I want, concentrate on what I wanted and specialise in what I thought interesting. To be able to do that is pure luxury but follows the idea that human beings going through an a academic education should be able to do this. This was cut back more and more and never that open as it may seem, but at least it was a system that trusted the students enough to allow them steering their own development.

This does not work in a three year education with all those regulations because it lacks one thing: the time to really concentrate and work into those individual subjects.

Abitur or Matura is not the absolute and the rigid rules and the load of knowledge neither make it easy nor a good preparation for an academic education. School learned us repetition and what learning means I had to experience by myself during studies.

Why do we have the theory and the art we have? Because the actual education is "producing" artists and theorists. But they never get the time to develop themselves before they are thrown into the artworld...

11/02/2009 05:17:00 PM  
Blogger Mark Staff Brandl said...

Hi Alex, It depends a lot on whether we are talking of scholarly pursuits or the teaching of people who hope to be practicing artists. I would agree to some extent with your ideas for the later --- but
I still disagree with you adamantly about "time" and "free to" in other coontexts --- it was, IMHO, a ticket to laziness. And in many fields the students were MARKEDLY unprepared for international comparative thinking, as was noted in panels and publications, in comparison to BA/BS MA students --- the crisis in German students of universities (under the old system) purposefully abandoning the Universities (for Hochschulen) is an example. Dissatisfaction with absent profs etc. etc. etc. Only 13%, e.g., of Univ.students (with Abitur clearly) on average finish right now (in that old system)--- most switch to Hochschule (polytechs, for Anglophones). How else could almost all famous artists have Prof. positions in German Univ.s while living thousands of miles away? They only show up at most once a moth, etc.

My point is --- don't believe the nationalistic propaganda. Many profs are simply feeling the bite of responsibility, thus comppaaning and pulling the "oh tho awful America ideas" card --- simple fame, or simply the diss and the Habilitation alone are not enough anymore.

In the Bach/Mast version they have to continue to publish, produce,teach, have office hours, etc. And a guided curricula is NECESSARY to education, even to know what to react against. Otherwise you have the spotty bizarre collages of quasi-knowledge now so common. So one might as well be auto-didactic as go through the old lazy system.

While in my comment here I was mostly referring to scholarly humanistic disciplines, I do agree, though, fully with your statement about art ed: "Why do we have the theory and the art we have? Because the actual education is "producing" artists and theorists. But they never get the time to develop themselves before they are thrown into the artworld...," in that this "production" of mannerist academics is what I have often decried.

But being thrown into the real world is a good thing in all cases. I think being prepared to think they have the "key" to success by memorizing the rules of the consensus before being thrown out into the world is what is wrong and destructive.

But this has gotten of into Euro-politics. My point in my editorial series (for which Alex will be writing a piece, I'm glad to say),is that practicing artists have analytic insights as good as, and often more enlightening,than those of secondary thinkers (critics,pure theorists, etc.), but seldom get printed or discussed at this time. Any artists reading this with a drive to do such a piece (circa 800 words) for Proximity, please contact me via my website email address.

11/04/2009 05:33:00 AM  
Blogger max (alex Meszmer) said...

Well, Mark, perhaps this is the point we tend to disagree about:

The overall opinion about the german education being a ticket to laziness - yeah, in a way it was. For those who could not cope with it and just tended to use it as free space. On the other hand the statistics did show, that those who did not finish theis studies and went their ways, mostly did find a way to make their living, without ever finishind their studies with exams, diplomas or whatever and started admiringly successfull careers.

What I want to critize with the actual system is, that it minimizes the possibilities to an individual choice for a regulation of a (sorry to use the german word) "Kanon" that has to be learned - which again would be totally academid in a way you are fighting against. As Lüpertz and some of his fellows started to see art education as an education, where the students first had to learn to follow their "masters" in oder to copy his work untill they could copy as good as possible and finally were allowed to find their own way of expression - we tend to get - from a starting point about the weakness of theory and maybe as well art nowadays - into a discussion of art education. I think, that this kind of discussion is absolutely necessary and needs to be vital in order to get the slightest chance to get out of the actual problems we have that I tend to express as the style and epoch of (sorry again for the german word, and I would be pleased for help to translate this) "Beliebigkeit".
That is as well the definition I prefer to postmodernism - if it ever existed postmodernism as a sort of manierism just existed a very short time and only regional.

We did have our discussions about Goethe and Schiller, Mark, and I still tend more to the Goethe sight of the world and in that case as well to the idea, that "Gestalt" and with this as well aesthetics needs time to be developed and as well a lot of "Irrungen and Wirrungen" to get to the point and for I was able to develop myself through such a process during my studies in university, I do defend the "laisserfaire" system against any other possibility, because it enables to practice in a semisecure environment, before being thrown out into the world.

11/05/2009 02:41:00 PM  
Blogger max (alex Meszmer) said...

Plus one thing, Mark, and I know I get nasty with that:

It is not a big point in education to get good results in form as as many possible artists coming out of art education, but to get good ones.

and obstacles are kind of a way to scare away a lot of them. If I have to make money with my educational system, then I don't care about the results of my students in a way that they are really capable - and average is suitable.

If I care about art and culture, probably a harsher form of selection might be suitable...

11/05/2009 02:50:00 PM  
Blogger Mark Staff Brandl said...

Well, I still see too much nationalistic sour-grapes and rampant self-back-patting in Euro fears of the US in relationship to education.

But that is really off the track. AS I said, my point in my editorial series is that practicing artists have analytic insights as good as, and often more enlightening, than those of secondary thinkers (critics,pure theorists, etc.), but seldom get printed or discussed at this time. So let's all get out there and do that more. Thanks to Ed for this discussion.

11/06/2009 02:02:00 PM  

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