theories of art (and other things)

[I teach in Goddard College’s MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts program. As part of my advising practice, I regularly send my advising group a preface letter — in preface to a second letter that speaks directly to a student’s individual work — in which I speak to some element of pedagogy, art theory, art practice, or the program’s degree criteria. From time to time I will share the letters here.]

26 March 2012

Dear friends,

Here we are, rushing headlong to mid-semester!  By the time you read my words, half of our semester will nearly have passed.  By the time I receive your next packet, we will be anticipating the summer residency!

My goal in naming this rush of time has mostly to do with reminding you that we are in the middle of things and in service to asking you to consider whether you feel like you’re meeting your learning goals. This is the time of the semester when things should feel exciting, overflowing. It may feel like you’re really in the swing of things or that you’re in danger of drowning among the many things your collecting, receiving, or making. If you are a more orderly thinker than me, it may feel like you are checking off tasks and accomplishments are a routine and regular pace. Regardless of your work style, it should feel now like things are moving.

In this letter I want to spend some time thinking with you about the nature of art theory. Before I begin, before you yawn, I want to remind you of a point I made in advising group. I believe that we are all theorists. The process of making meaning from our experience seems to be part of the human impulse toward language. We tell stories of what we’ve experienced in order to create order, as a way of structuring our experiences in relation to each other. This process of reflecting upon things, or placing them in relation, and of generating meaning through this process is what I mean by theory in its most basic form.  I doubt that we can turn off this way of being, but I know many of us resist it.

I also want to acknowledge that many people who are seen as theorists, who adopt the professional identity as theorists, sometimes seem to be speaking in languages intent upon excluding us from understanding. As I’ve said in other letters, I think it’s profoundly important to be respectful of disciplinary language; however I think it’s equally important to acknowledge that complex ideas can be expressed through plain language – and even without language. Theory is not the stringing together of big words; it is a process of discerning meaning and establishing context. That can happen in many ways.

In relation to the MFA degree we ask you to think about this in several ways:

Engagement with Praxis/Integration of Theory in Action
Students will reflect an understanding of the nature of praxis, the ways that ideas can be enacted and embodied through action, as well as the means by which art practice is advanced through its relationship with theory.  There should be clear evidence of the integration of a personal theory of art into a student’s practice as well as an engagement with other theories of art.

In this letter I want to set aside, for a moment, the idea of praxis – which is embodying and enacting theory and practice – and focus on theories of art.

For many years I’ve been searching for a good overview to the theory of art and I think I’ve finally found it in Cynthia Freeland’s book, Art Theory: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2001).   Before I outline a bit of Freeland’s thinking, I want to remind you that there is no unified theory of art (which is to say that there is no big secret being kept from you!). Given the subjectivity of aesthetics, in my opinion, there may be no purpose in trying to develop one either. This does not mean that anything goes or that art can’t be interpreted or assessed. Theories about art, theories applied to our art (yours and mine), exist in the world. Understanding the diverse and sometimes conflicting theories of art helps the artist understand the context through which their work is being seen and assessed. Understanding the diverse and sometimes conflicting theories of art can help an artist articulate a personal theory of art — which can establish a sense of connection to this historical moment, a context for the ideas that fuel one’s thinking, and may serve to advance the fields in which the artist is working.

Whether you’re conscious of it or not, you most likely have a theory of art. For many of who grew up in North America in the last generations, you probably have a theory of art that’s grounded in (or informed by) Modernism. Although we are living in an era after Modernism (it’s generally agreed that Modernism ended in the 1950s), our institutions are grounded in Modernist theory and we are the product of our institutions. Even if we have done the intellectual work of interrogating Modernism and have set it aside, our cultural structures have not caught up to our experience or thinking. Modernism promoted the idea of individual genius, rejected realism, embraced ideas of Universality through abstract languages, rejected religion, and established some enduring myths about artists, including the idea that arts are magicians or madmen, secular saints or pornographers. It linked the arts to markets and commerce. Perhaps more that anything else, it promoted artistic individualism and promoted concepts of authorship.

All of this is theory.

In some ways we’ve all moved beyond Modernism, too. Realism – especially in the areas of memoir and documentary — has returned as a critically embraced mode of art making. Indeed, working from personal experience has great currency in contemporary art. Spirituality has become a site from which art once again, and without self-consciousness, is being made. Yet some facets of Modernism continue to inform how we think about art. We continue to embrace Universality – even in the face of global diversity. We still think about the arts in terms of talent and genius rather than as a reflection of human consciousness and labor. All too often we fall prey to the idea that artists are mad – or prone to mental illness. We judge artist and art by their economic competitiveness in a dysfunctional art market.

I don’t mean to slam Modernism.  There is a lot to be learned from analysis of it and, in my own practice, I am deeply moved and inspired by the concepts and formalism of Modernist painters. But Modernism, no matter its conceits, isn’t everything. I’m making a point of Modernism to highlight the ways that we are consciously and unconsciously guided by theory. I also want to make evident that every facet of Modernism has a counterpoint in another theory of art.

This is where Freeland’s book is quite useful. By concisely framing some of the more powerful theories of art that inform our thinking (we’re not just Modernists), she helps the reader understand the conflicts and tensions between our thinking. For example, in relating the conflicting theories presented by Plato and Aristotle, Freeland established the foundational tension in Western understanding of the purpose of art. Plato believed that art must be tied to a higher mind and should not reproduce the natural world. Aristotle believed that reproduction of reality was an aim of art because human beings learn through repetition and reflection. He disavowed the idea of art being tied to a higher mind.

We all live with this contradiction.

In more contemporary terms, a current conflict lives in the tension between expression and cognition. Are the arts principally an intuitive and expressive medium or the product of cognitive thought? Should they be about our feelings or about ideas?  John Dewey helped us to understand that both positions can be true, that we can understand the arts as a lens through which to understand the culture in which they were made and as a mode of emotional expression. He laid the groundwork for holding the tension and resisting the seduction of one or the other pole.

As you may know, I tend to embrace Ellen Dissanayake’s idea, developed in her book Homo Aestheticus, that art is a human process of making special those things that are important. Dissanayake see language and fabrication as co-equal human impulses for making meaning – allowing us to see the manipulation of the material world as having as much power to convey meaning as the articulation of an idea.  Her theory allows us to look at, see, and ask questions or art from any period of human history. This theory has allowed me to situate a variety of my creative practices into a cohesive way of understanding myself as a person and as an artist.

Freeland gives a fuller description of these theories – and others. How does this matter to you? How does it relate to a process of developing a personal theory of art?

At the residency I asked all of you to frame questions about your work, to provide an entry point for me to provide feedback. There are a variety of reasons that I do this, but one is to provide an antidote to a lingering facet of Modernism – the idea that the art should speak for itself.

Indeed this is true. I can interpret any piece of artwork through the lens of my theory – or the lens of any theory I care to use. I can construct meaning from just about any material encounter that I have. My meaning may have absolutely nothing to do with your intention as an artist. Furthermore, the process of achieving an MFA is not tied to having a faculty member interpret your art for you; rather it’s in service to developing your ability to theorize about your own work and the creative work of others. By framing your questions, we can do that work together.

I sometimes fear that when I talk about theory I’m being heard in ways that I don’t intend. Our culture is biased toward linear thinking and, no matter how non-linear any of us may be in our thinking, we’ve all been subsumed by the prerogatives of linearity. It’s easy to assume that a theoretic approach to art means moving from theory to making. This is not the case. Going back to John Dewey for a moment, he allows us consider that one can move in a linear way from idea to art, but he also allows for the inverse to be true as well. Freeland provides a great overview of Dewey’s theory of art, as expressed in his book, Art as Experience.

As an artist, I sometime start with broad ideas, but often it is my phenomenological engagement with the material world that enables me to discover what I mean to say. John Dewey saw the naming of a problem is the beginning of a meaning-making process. Language and making are two ontological locations available to us in the meaning making process. We may choose to think through some questions. In other cases we may need to find answers through our bodies.  As a maker, I often follow curiosity in an intuitive way – without necessarily words or ideas guiding me — and assign theory later. When I start from language, I problematize my world and make objects in response to those questions. Both are valuable, but they are different paths.

I want to underscore something I’ve just said. Sometimes I need to make a lot of things before I understand the theory that’s informing or emerging from my making process. Sometimes, I find theory that explains what I’m doing after I pursue the doing of it for some considerable period of time. Being able to name my questions, my starting point, is a critical part of the process. Knowing the questions I have about the work in process helps me to know if I’m making progress with my inquiry. Knowing the theories available for interpretation of my work is similarly critical. In her book, Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery, Jeanette Winterson puts it this way: “To talk about my own work is difficult. If I must talk about it at all I would rather come at it sideways, through the work of writers I admire, through broader ideas about poetry and fiction and their place in the world.” (Jeanette Winterson, Art Objects, p. 165.)

Finally, although this is an MFA program, it is also and interdisciplinary program. Some of you may not find that the theory that informs your work comes from the art world. It may come from science or history, sociology or religion. For some of you, your theory may come from the everyday, the knowledge that lives in our embodied lives. This is wonderful. Name it and claim it!

The day is crystal clear in Provincetown. Spring is emerging from the darker days – and not that artificial and tricky spring of March, either! That was shocking. There is something very nice about the gentler return of the warmer months.

Beyond the natural world, spring here means the return of people and commerce. Every weekend there are a few more people wandering the streets and another restaurant or store open for business. The town’s repopulation has me considering my self-imposed exile and isolation. I have no regrets, but there are moments when I wonder if I’ve learned what I came here to learn. I know this has been an errand of healing – and I do feel better – but questions remain, nevertheless!

I don’t know about you, but the change of the season – regardless of whether it’s a solstice or an equinox – is always fertile time for me. It took me years to recognize it, but all of my best creative work seems to happen in the fiver or six weeks after the season shift. Here’s to hoping it’s a productive spring for us all!

Cheers, Pete

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