One and a half cheers for theory – a subjective view.
Originally appeared in NewSArt, May 2002.
My final year of studying art was spent at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam in 1973-74. I was simultaneously studying philosophy through UNISA, which some of my art lecturers took as proof that I could not be serious about art. Academic interests tended to be absent in my fellow students and most of the Dutch artists I later met. Given my high expectations of what theory would mean for my life and my art, I found this anti-theoretical environment thoroughly depressing.
Today the tables are turned. Having become a professional philosopher I was able to indulge myself at the trough of theory for more than twenty years. Inasmuch as my artistic work has gelled over the years, it seems to owe little to this theoretical diet, and far more to the actual process of painting (apply seat of pants to seat of chair, said Mark Twain), the practice of meditation and the experience of psychoanalysis – which is so unlike any engagement with theory. Consequently, when I see high expectations of theory in art students and artists I am bemused, and when I encounter theory laden newspaper crits or opening speeches of exhibitions I tend to feel alienated. On my artistic road away from an enchantment with theory I am surprised at how heavy the traffic in the opposite direction is.
“If you can’t tell me the truth while you stand on one leg I’m not interested” a famous Hassidic rabbi said. As an artist life seems too short to while it away on theory. Most of the art I admire could only have been produced by artists working full-time. If theories and their critics are not engaged with thoroughly, they have the nasty habit of becoming ideologies, dogmas or at the very least caricatures of themselves. If they are engaged with too superficially, they become that dangerous thing – too little knowledge. But doing theory thoroughly really eats into the artist’s time. And requires an extended courtship of Academia: a plain, extremely overweight damsel whose sexiness to artists I now find difficult to imagine.
Let me freely admit that I still find reading Nietzsche, Freud or Wittgenstein exciting and rewarding. (Also as an aesthetic experience – these are great stylists). But if one wants to link these theories to art, one usually ends up having to read the – mostly depressingly pedestrian – applications far lesser writers have made of them. To me there is something deeply inimical to art in dutifully wading through such debates – not least because of the turgid prose much of this stuff is written in. But it seems that the authority of theory in the art world is such that its ugliness does not count as an objection.
This brings us to what it is that bugs me most about the prevalence of theory in artistic discourse today: the authority it is invested with. There is an essential nakedness about producing art; theory is the emperor’s new clothes which are supposed to hide this nakedness. I don’t mean that the artist is innocent of theory and preconceptions, innocent of political positions, sexisms, nationalisms, racisms. But that every new work makes of the artist a beginner with no place to hide, no recourse to any authority with which to trick the paper, canvas, clay or marble into submission. Hiding behind something with authority is an artistic cop-out.
There have been great theorists of art, and some of our best critics owe much to their thorough grounding in theory. Theory has its place and its uses: it can help artists articulate what they are doing, relate to their time and place, try new angles instead of repeating the tried and true. Without exposure to various alternative theories of art, we run the risk of remaining in thrall to the expressive theory of art, which people often take to be a universal, god-given truth, revealed by common sense, rather than a theory with a very specific time and place of birth. Theory can also be useful because a Pollyanna view of the world is not a great basis for making art. By disenchanting the social world for us, feminism, Marxism and psychoanalysis (for instance) prevent us from too comfortably taking it for granted.
But re-enchanting the world – aye, there’s the rub. Cynicism, disenchantment and a combative attitude, are not foreign to me, but they do not seem to have ever helped me produce art – and it would not surprise me if this were true for most artists. (I love Francis Bacon and Goya at their most apocalyptic, but cannot take them as model; give me Bonnard’s infinite tenderness rather).
It seems to me that in giving so much authority to theory, in breathlessly wanting to partake of its perceived sexiness, we forget how many of its useful functions can be fulfilled without our having to resort to theory. If we wish to be verbally articulate, we can learn from poets, novelists, or the raconteurs among our acquaintances. (Stories tend to be more user-friendly than theories). If we wish to discover new realities we can visit the scene of war – like Gittoes; or talk to people nobody talks to – like Henk van Woerden speaking to Tsafendas.
If it is our intelligence we are trying to develop, let us not take the production of theory-laden talk as the acme of intelligence. The exercise of intelligence is usually far more bound up with perception, with our body, and with the direct physical and social context we find ourselves in than theory, which tends to be less dependent on perception, the body and context. Making art can be incredibly difficult. Applying intelligence to this task often means simplifying things in such a way that the impossibly difficult is broken down into a series of manageable tasks. From the vantage point of high theory what works in practice may seem utterly banal and uninteresting. As an artist the thinking that I find essential to the execution of my works seems to owe more to what I have learnt from other actors in the practical domain – artisans, entrepreneurs, good secretaries – than from theory. These are all areas in which one has to keep one’s eye on the ball too insistently to be able to rely on theory very much. Speaking of the eye: despite the prevalence of metaphors of seeing in theoretical discourse, the eye is pretty redundant to theorising. So that the theorist engaging with visual art often resembles a tone-deaf music critic – not that this need in any way impede the rate at which theoretical discourse is produced.
I am convinced that many people end up being disempowered by the authority given to theory – those to whom theory is uncongenial or inaccessible risk becoming less likely to produce or consume art. Is this what we want?
But perhaps I shouldn’t try to give my theory-weary and theory-wary aesthetic a theoretical justification. (While writing I can think of a thousand good objections to what I am saying). Let me rather quote a fragment from “Exorcism” (1978), the Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade’s expression of his ennui with theoretical jargon – that of structuralist theory, in this case. (To non-Catholics: the Libera nos, Domine refrain means: “Deliver us, Lord”).
From the syntagmatic reading
From the paradigmatic reading of linguistic utterances
From the phatic use of language
From the factivity or non-factivity of the main clause
Libera nos, Domine
From the categorial structuration of language
From the pre-eminence of language in the ensemble of semiotic systems
From the concretion of units in the dialecticising status of language
From orthophonic speech
Libera nos, Domine
From the epistemological programme in the oeuvre
From the epistemological focalisation and the dialogical focalisation
From the acoustic substrate of the culminator
From genitivically related systems
Libera nos, Domine
Postscript: Compare Woody Allen on Bergmann:
And what of the now-famous New York summit in which Woody and Ingmar
finally came face to face? “Oh, I had dinner with him one night in New
York at his hotel suite, years ago,” says Allen dismissively, “and I’ve
had a couple of long phone conversations with him. I found him to be not
some kind of exotic, pretentious genius, but like every other good film
maker I’ve spoken to. He speaks in regular street terms, workman’s terms,
about working on films and the problems with shooting, with the audiences,
with the producers, with the grosses, why something doesn’t do well here,
but it does well someplace else. It wasn’t like going to visit Fu Manchu
where a gong is rung and somebody comes out in a black robe and you sit
there and discuss these profound silent movies about the inability of
people to communicate or find meaning in life. It’s not that at all!
Film: When Woody Met Ingmar ; Nearly 50 Years Ago …
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