Thursday, December 15, 2005

theory theory theory

I only have a vague grasp of high level art theory. Some of the ideas I find interesting, others baffling (such how has anything remotely Freudian lingers in the humanities when it's pretty much out of use everywhere else??) and the rest inpenetrable.

Interesting article with some relevence to contemporary art, since so much of the theory of the last 30-40 years has been drawn from literary theory. Mostly about how the teaching of theory is changing in universities and that even pro-theory scholars are rethinking how it's used.

The Fragmentation of Literary Theory

In the 40 years since Derrida paid that visit to Johns Hopkins, succeeding generations of scholars have had time to fall in love with theory, fall out of love with it, and learn how to live with it. As in any long-term relationship, there's a continuing re-evaluation and reimagining of what works and what does not. Rei Terada, chairwoman of comparative literature at the University of California at Irvine, says: "As the 60s becomes a historical period... we can make finer distinctions and groupings among things that seemed all of a piece closer to the time. ... People are starting to sort out such legacies." No one still believes, for instance, "that all French theory is politically progressive," she says.

...theory is the impenetrable postmodernist stuff that has given many a canon-loving student the heebie-jeebies since the French critic Roland Barthes declared authorship dead amid the intellectual and political tumult of 1968. And since that moment, wave upon critical wave has swept through literature departments: structuralism, poststructuralism, deconstruction, Marxism, psychoanalysis, New Historicism, feminism, postcolonialism, cultural studies.


At 3:39 PM, Blogger M. Cameron Boyd said...

I've been meaning to get to this question of art theory for a day or two - what with reading 30 final papers, posting grades, etc. haven't been able to until today. I've taught art theory now for over six years, first at University of Maryland, College Park, where I took my MFA, currently at the Corcoran College of Art + Design, and I am firmly convinced that the only "meaningful" art must bear some genuine relationship to a theoretical construct (not ideology). When the late '60s brought us first Minimalism, then Conceptual Art, it spelt the true "end of art" as we knew it based on an earlier academic model focussed on aesthetics, surface qualities (or "retinal art," as Marcel Duchamp liked to call it) and subjectivity. The importance of such theories as structuralism, post-structuralism, Lacanian psychoanalytic readings and post-colonialism to the art that has been made for the last 40 years, is that there is an outside "field of knowledge" that drives the exploration, investigation and revelation of artists and the work that truly "matters" now. More than just "influence," these theories are essential to fuel the unique system of representation called art.

Where we once had the Kantian subjectivist drive to taste-based "judgements" of beauty, we now have an "archaelogy of knowledge" that drives the discourse of art, establishing its relevancy in substantially new ways. Just to address one theory, the poststructural reading of visuality, (see Barthes and Derrida), we now know that there is no inherent "meaning" contained in a work of art and, moreover, that the putative subjectivity of a work of art is a misnomer, a relic from those 18th Century lines of reasoning that bears little to no impact on our own hyperreality. With this knowledge a "given," the youngsters that I teach are orphaned voyagers in what they know to be an anxious new world order, fraught with the hallucinogenic dangers of authenticity, originality and meaning.

At 11:09 AM, Blogger Amy said...

I do see the importance of such ideas, and how theory has reinvigorated art, but I feel at the same time that theory has driven a wedge between the "knows" and the "know-nots" to use an inelegant term.

It makes it that much more difficult to reach any audience but the educated elite. Even highly educated people in other fields find much theory-driven art to be incomprehensible.

Not sure what the solution to this is. I'm not saying theory is inherently bad, just that it complicates the relationship between the art and the public, almost creates the need for an intermediary or translator (in the form of museum education departments, for example).

I just find it a bit sad that art of the past hundred years is seen as too difficult by "everyday" people, who flock to impressionist exhibits but can't even accept cubism. Maybe this is an indictment of our educational system, I don't know.

Thanks for the great comment.

At 7:09 AM, Blogger Steve said...

Amy, the initial post was interesting, and the article a good find. I think M. Cameron Boyd's response deserves some analysis itself, which I may do a little later myself. My two cents worth...

I think that, historically, the idea of the death of the author (not authorship!) was a well-calculated shot at intentionality--i.e., the idea that artists have a privileged position in relation to their own art. From an economic, theoretical and political point of view, the shot was a killer, allowing an academic industry to be built up in which, in effect, there are no privileged stories (about the truth of art or anything else) at all.

Conceptual and public artists, and the critics who concentrate on this kind of work, talk about art as though one 'kind' of art supercedes another. But this doesn't gel with our experience of what has happened or is happening now: minimalism and conceptual art didn't kill off retinal art, or make it irrelevant--Francis Bacon had a few great jibes about this, between bottles of champagne.


(Perhaps more at a later date... Interesting subject.)

At 2:42 PM, Blogger Amy said...

Steve, interesting insights. I'd love more.

I agree about the critique of the author was (is) important, not just in art but as a different means of looking at the world, at looking at the stories we accept as truth.

I'm afraid I don't have the background to fully analyze Boyd's comments, but I get the gist of it.


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