Thursday, April 4, 2013

Back in school -- theory

Almost done with the semester, and I realize that throughout the course I have been wrestling with the question "what does this mean to me?"

First of all, who is me?  Although I am intrigued by the complexities and subtleties of theory, and enjoy reading art criticism, my primary self-identification is as a working artist, a maker.  And I have not yet seen much overlap between the theory and the practice of art.

In the history of high art, there have been plenty of theory-driven movements, many with their own manifestos, clubhouses and secret handshakes.  More recently, since the definition of art has broadened, there are identifiable groupings of certain practices and approaches -- conceptual art, performance art, earth art.  But I wonder how many of the artists whose work can be validly described by a certain theory actually woke up in the morning and said "I need to make something post-structural."   I suspect the inspiration came from some other thought process, and the theory was put on after the fact by outside obervers.

Even within the famously labeled movements such as Abstract Expressionism or Minimalism, many of the alleged participants have resisted the label.  And once you drop down the food chain, to the everyday artists whose work is not found in MOMA or written up in Artforum, I suspect that theory almost disappears.

I suppose there are everyday artists who choose their formats, mediums, subjects and viewpoints from a starting point of theory.  I could envision, for instance, that committed Marxists or feminists might choose to act out their political imperatives through art rather than through community organization, writing, academic scholarship or seeking elective office.  I know that in some repressive regimes, art (visual or literary) is one of the few vehicles available to express opposition and individuality.

Ai Weiwei, Sunflower Seeds -- 100 million hand-painted ceramic seeds, installation at Tate Modern, 2010

But I suspect these overtly political artists are vastly outnumbered by artists who determine their work from other starting points.  Some may be attracted to art because of an early-discovered facility in drawing, or the inspiration of a favorite teacher or mentor.  Some may come to it as a hobby and only later become more serious about it.  Some may come to it as a job, such as illustration, advertising or fashion design, and only later decide to practice it without benefit of clients.

As I think through the roster of working artists whom I know personally, which must number at least a hundred, I can't think of any who start with theory.  Many of them not only refuse to ground their work in theory but resist assigning any meaning to it.  If pressed, they might say "I make it because I want to," or "because I have to," or "because I can make whatever I want," or "because I like the way it looks."  Many artists who strive to sell their work will say "I want to make art that's beautiful" or "that people like" or "that people will buy."

And I won't say they're wrong.  In fact, I have a hard time thinking how a working knowledge of theory makes a better artist.  I have been asking myself as I read Barthes and Baudrillard and the other intellectuals whether anything I've learned has anything to do with people who make art, or whether theory is solely the province of people who talk about art.

So far I have come up with two possible trains of thought that might take me from the station of theory and let me off in my studio.

The first is that by learning about various theories I might come up with ideas that could influence my own art.

The second is that I need to carefully examine the messages that I am sending in my art.  Perhaps there aren't many people out there who want to receive them, or who are equipped to decode them, but on the off-chance there is somebody, I want to make sure that person will get the right idea.

I'm still skeptical about the role of theory in my life as a working artist, or the lives of my everyday artist friends.  But I'm thinking hard.

What do you think?  Does art theory enter into your work?


  1. Without getting into the discussion of whether my work is art or craft, I usually am just hoping that what I create is not too derivative of something I've seen lately.

    I would be very happy if I 1) consistently had a message and 2) was able to express it successfully.

    Often I realize what my message is part way through and then work to emphasize it. I don't go looking for other people's theory garage to park my work in. I make something I like for the purpose I have in mind.

    IMO art theory is built around some famous artists after the fact. Artists who aren't famous don't get counted in the theory-making. Famous does not = good art. Famous can simply = good marketing.

    I should admit to being a marketing person. I would be the sort who would scope out a gallery or two, figure out who their customer is and make stuff that I think will sell there. It is probably not how art or art theory is supposed to work. It would never occur to me to make some random stuff in a series and pedal it around to a yellow pages list of galleries hoping it would all be bought up, make me famous and fit into the current art theory.


  2. Kathy, I've enjoyed reading about your experiences in this class. I have been asking myself some of the same questions. As I become more interested in making art I also become more interested in understanding other artists and how or where my art fits in the larger picture. I think I am pretty well grounded in the "isms" up through the 1970's or so, when I took my last college art class, but what's gone on since then is largely a mystery to me. I've been trying to learn more out of curiosity than out of concern for where I fit in (I sort of know what niche I'm in at the moment).

    I like your two trains - part of the reason I'm constantly looking at art of all ages and types is that I think it all adds to my concept of what art is, and at least subconsciously influences what I want to do or say with my art. My current niche is more about composition and color and beauty than it is about meaning, but there are also some things I would like to say, thoughts I would like to provoke, or comments I would like to make through my art at some point in the future.

    I agree with Leigh that theories seem to evolve after the fact, and that famous does not equal good, although that's sadly gotten quite muddied lately IMO.

  3. I have considerable skepticism about theory. If my message could be described in words, I'd still be writing, instead of doing fabric collage? patchwork? embroidery? whatever it is. Why do I make what I make? My only answer is "because that's what it's supposed to look like."

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

    1. I think "theory" involves a lot more than describing your message in words, but includes things like why did you choose this medium, this technique, this subject matter, etc. I need to think more about this and if I figure out anything useful I'll write about it.

    2. Well, I started as a writer, so describing things in words ought to feel natural. But I have no whys--no conscious ones, at least.

      Mary Anne in Kentucky

  4. "But Is It Art?" by Cynthia A. Freeland is a nice little book that I read recently. It gave me a lot of food for thought.

  5. Interesting comments. I'm primarily a painter, but a good friend who is both painter and quilter referred me to your blog. If I were a quilter, I would say as to theory v. practice,partly in jest, that it is hard to make a blanket statement.
    I find that sometimes I begin with an idea or concept, and build from that as a base. Then at other times I start with the materials, paint in my case, and let the materials speak. Since I paint mainly abstract work I do not consciously begin in the second mode by imagining or studying any "object." However I am respectful of the inner workings of the brain and of psychology so I must always admit that much of my work comes from that mysterious inner self. Freud was close to this point when he described the superego as an "unconscious conscience.."
    Fran Roberts, website

    1. Fran -- I agree that your inner self often plays a role that you may not always realize at the time.

      But my question: do you have to read Freud and Jung to let this happen?

  6. No, but I find it interesting to consider some of the ways one's art often has psychodynamic roots or sources.