This article is an explanatory essay written, in the fall of 2016, for a graduate art theory course in which some students were subject to what I call the “tyranny of relevance.” Two particularly militant students insisted that a historical approach to art theory had no value because it was an exercise in oppression that reflected Western power relations. They believed that all Western disciplines were inherently “racist, misogynistic, and patriarchal.” After realizing that a rational exchange with ideologues was futile, I wrote an essay that not only addressed the following five points but also refuted the students’ misunderstandings of Western history, art, and philosophy.
To develop an understanding of the key theoretical, historical, art historical, and philosophical concepts and terms that are necessary to a critical conversation on the canon, contemporary art, and personal studio practice.
To develop the means through which to think, speak, and write critically, clearly, and succinctly about art within the aesthetic and historical contexts from which it emerged.
To develop an understanding of the links between canonical Western art theory and its influence on twenty-first-century theory and practice in an increasingly pluralistic global culture.
To understand the advantages and disadvantages of the application of theory in personal studio practice: for example, when does theory clarify an issue and when does it complicate it unnecessarily? When does theory serve as a tool and when does it become a paralyzing dogma? How can the artist discern between theory that elucidates and theory that traps the artist into making illustrations of the theory? When does theory cease to be explanatory and cross the line into ideology? Should theory precede practice or emerge after the fact? These questions have no clear answers, but asking them incessantly can make the difference between a studio practice that is informed, open, and rewarding and one that is imprisoned in theoretical preconceptions and formulas.
To grasp the importance of dialectical approaches that allow the artist to synthesize antithetical viewpoints into unforeseen outcomes.
The modern term theory derives from the ancient Greek term theoria. It means to gaze upon or contemplate. Theory also derives from theoros, the ancient Greek word for spectator. It is no accident that both words are related to the ancient Greek word theatron, or theater. All are related to theasthai, to behold.
In modern usage, the word theory is problematic. For one thing, it has different meanings and applications in different disciplines. Scientific theory is both observational and methodological. It provides practical guidance in the execution of experiments that prove the initial hypothesis or speculative question. Still, the observational element can take many paths. The processes through which Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace developed their respective theories of evolution were different in kind but not in substance from those through which Dmitri Mendeleev arrived at the periodic table of elements. All three scientists relied on empirical evidence gathered through the detailed collection of verifiable data. However, Darwin and Wallace saw the visible evidence in the flora and fauna they studied with their eyes. On the other hand, Mendeleev worked with invisible atoms. Their ensuing theories haven proven their worth and validity over and over. Still, not everyone is convinced in spite of ever-growing evidence of their veracity. The problem lies as much with the public’s ignorance of science as with its ignorance of the terms. Evolution and the elemental weight of atoms are no longer hypotheses. Yet in the case of evolution many dismiss it as “only a theory.” Such scientific and linguistic ignorance has serious implications in the realm of public discourse on such life-and-death matters as climate change, an issue where the absence of rational understanding could damage the planet and potentially kill humanity. Fortunately, art is not subject to such high stakes.
There is nothing dismissive in stating that art theory is contemplation without causal dangers. When Rosalind Kraus attacked the “modernist grid,” she spoke from a position of taste masquerading as philosophical insight. Her observations were not based on empirical evidence or scientific rigor but on personal opinions that cited precedent and contemporary sources for what amounted to political support. Her ideas may or may not be helpful to an artist. They are certainly interesting. They deserve to be heard. But, in the end, they are mostly meaningless because they have no bearing on the existential understating of the world. Like the romantic poems of a love-struck adolescent, they are little more than attempts at seduction, albeit intellectual ones. The same could be said of most art theory. Such a realization goes to the heart of Duchamp’s infamous quip, “There are no solutions because there are no problems.” In art, the problems are contrived.
As a contemplative activity, art theory should inform, but it should never dictate. Above all, it must never serve as a formula for the making of art. When theory crosses the line from contemplation to formulaic instruction, it risks becoming dogma without first being knowledge. Theory, at its best, should remain above utilitarian applications, although it can guide them from a respectable distance. In that sense, theory must remain a spectator of practice who speaks only when the artist asks a question. If theory overtakes the artist, the practice dies.
In order to avoid the interpretative excesses of contemporary readings of art theory, we must first try to de-politicize how we approach it. De-politicization does not imply an absence of readings or discussions lacking in sociopolitical content. Instead, it refers to the need to refrain, as much as possible, from interpreting the texts exclusively through ideological filters and agendas. Needless to say, this is not always easy. We are, after all, human beings with experiences that color our understanding. Nonetheless, we have an intellectual responsibility to read a text within the context in which it was written. As I explained at the beginning of the semester, one does not have to be a communist to have an appreciation of Karl Marx’s analytical rigor. When read purely as insightful theory, Marx rewards the serious reader from any part of the socioeconomic and political spectrum. The same rule applies to Simone de Beauvoir. One does not have to be a feminist to appreciate and respect her brilliance. The finest thinkers throughout history transcend their identities and speak to us regardless of whether or not we agree with their assertions. In turn, we have a responsibility to respond in kind by making an honest effort to understand the contexts in which they thought and wrote. This demands a willingness to look at history with open eyes and a minimum of twenty-first century biases. The failure to approach the subject accordingly will serve only to trap us in our dogmas.
In order to enter a text successfully, we must first understand the meaning of the words as they were understood in the author’s day. For example, when Georg Simmel wrote about “man” he did not refer to male individuals exclusively. In older writings, if an article or preposition does not precede the word man, then it is in all probability a reference to humanity. The word mankind is also a reference to humanity. It appears sexist, but that was not its intent. We cannot apply the psychosocial theories of phallogocentrism that Jacques Derrida and Luce Irigaray developed in the late twentieth century to pre-postmodern texts without falling into a self-defeating discursive trap. Derrida was a very subtle and playful thinker, and Irigaray is a master dialectician whose games are deliberately intended to confuse her followers. Her approach to feminism is an assertion of personal freedom that serves both women and men by demonstrating the challenges of gender-based modes of communications. In lectures and conversations she is supremely rational. We shall visit her ideas during the spring semester.
Unfortunately, as any professor of French in the School of World Studies will attest, the Anglophone study of French postmodern theory is deeply flawed due to the binary tendencies that plague an American discourse that, from a European perspective, remains deeply puritanical. For example, when Derrida developed his ideas of “deconstruction” he did not intend them to serve as a platform for the denial of textual legitimacy or to induce discursive paralysis by bogging down the conversation with interpretative minutiae. Nor was it a denial of historical validity. His approach was nothing more than a cautionary game from a man who was painfully aware of his French-Algerian-Jewish roots thanks to the Holocaust and the Algerian War for Independence. As with many French intellectuals of his generation, he was fearful of totalizing approaches from both the Left and the Right.
This brings us to Michel Foucault, a crucial postmodern thinker who rejected the label and accidentally became the darling of his admirers in the field of queer theory. Foucault’s discourse on power is misunderstood to the point of uselessness yet has helped launch an entire industry in the study of power dynamics and marginalization. For example, he would have laughed at the twenty-first-century notion of adultism which the textbook Readings for Diversity and Social Justice defines as follows: “The word adultism refers to behaviors and attitudes based on the assumption that adults are better than young people, and entitled to act upon young people without their agreement. This mistreatment is reinforced by social institutions, laws, customs, and attitudes.” (John Bell, “Understanding Adultism: A Key to Developing Youth-Adult Relationships.”). The definition reflects ideas that Foucault addressed in Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality. Yet Foucault himself would have questioned the definition as a half-truth because it lacks context and leads to a totalizing dismissal of adult knowledge and experience. Instead, he would have approached the subject holistically by asking, “What do adults possess and lack, and what do children possess and lack?” Unfortunately, the ism in adultism presumes that all adults share an oppressive ideological position across time and space. Foucault would have rejected such an all-encompassing assertion for the same reason that, as a gay man, he distrusted the emerging gay liberation movement of his day. He knew from the painful lessons of French history that liberation did not always liberate. He understandably feared jumping from heteronormative oppression into homonormative oppression. Yes, he supported equal rights for LGBT citizens, but he questioned whether or not such rights would not also entail new forms of oppression. He grasped, as did Hannah Arendt, that the challenge did not lie with the possession or absence of power but with the latent fascist inside everyone, including the oppressed. He also understood that historical contexts were subject to far too many overlapping and contradictory conditions to be reduced to a single factor. This also applies to works of art. Thus, while a particular postmodern reading of Romeo and Juliet could blame adultism or even patriarchy for the fate of the tragic lovers, another interpretation could see the couple as the absurd products of immaturity, inexperience, narcissism, and selfishness. Foucault probably would have addressed the absurdity of all parties, including the parents, but he would not have forced the play into an ideological straightjacket. He was too sophisticated for such a narrow reading.
Western Art Theory and Postcolonial Polemics
Over the past fifty years the terms West and Western have assumed the power of an insult. The West has become the Red Scare of the twenty-first century: something to be feared, resented, rejected, and eventually marginalized and forgotten. Interestingly, such a view did not originate in non-Western societies but among historically ill-informed Westerners who assumed a level of guilt out of all proportion to historical facts. Indeed, the so-called West is far from innocent. Yet the same can be said for all the great civilizations that preceded or co-existed with it. In truth, the West is a relative latecomer to the club of world civilizations. Furthermore, the West is now being absorbed into something far larger than itself. Yet polemical critics insist on Occidentalizing the West into an exotic other replete with demonic powers out of all proportion to reality. A more informed approach would see the West as only one aspect of the total human experience that can now be shared with everyone across the globe. Such an approach is inclusive, holistic, positive, and open to hybridization. It allows Western ideas to engage with non-Western ideas in a dialectical process full of synthetic possibilities.
The West is much more than a cultural construction centered on Europe and whiteness. At its core the West is a composite without clearly delineated boundaries. Saint Augustine, a central figure to the development of Christian thought, was a North African Berber as well as a citizen of the Roman Empire. He was also a Westerner. Western Civilization is understood to have begun in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley and in Egypt not in Paris, London, or Berlin. We cannot overestimate the role of the so-called Middle East in the development of the so-called West. From the origin of the three Abrahamic religions to the transfer of alphabetic writing from Phoenicia (modern-day Lebanon) to Greece and Rome, we Westerners owe a debt that continues to this day. In many respects, the cultural, technological and scientific information that the West currently shares with the Middle East is nothing more than the second leg of a round-trip voyage that began in Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo, and Alexandria over two thousand years ago. If we assume that our encounters with the region are somehow new and unfairly one-sided, then we are wrong on both counts.
If the notion of an all-powerful West is misguided, then the notion of a malicious, male-driven Enlightenment is equally misguided. While it is true that the Enlightenment is disproportionately associated with male luminaries, a closer look reveals something very different. Throughout the seventeenth century and past the middle of the eighteenth century, highly educated women acted as information brokers who connected the leading thinkers of the day with one another. More importantly, many of those same women taught the men how to refine their writing style in order to make them more elegant, clear, succinct, rational, and ultimately accessible. The French salonnières of the 1700s hosted intellectual gatherings in which they acted as referees who often steered the discourse in directions that the men had not considered. Such women played a crucial role in calling attention to the idea of universal rights, including the abolition of slavery, the rights of indigenous peoples, and universal suffrage. Their interests ranged from science and philosophy to politics, letters, economics, and the arts, in short, all the fields that were seen as exclusively male. True, the women of the period had few legal and social rights, but the more educated among them correctly saw the Enlightenment as the first stage of a series of questions that could someday lead to some measure of equality. Those same women saw reason as a valuable ally in the struggle against the ignorance, superstition, and bigotry that denied them their rightful place as free citizens in an open society and occasionally led them to the stake. Reason held the key to liberty and equality.
Regrettably, no amount of social, political, or property rights could contravene the biological injustice of pregnancy. Mary Wollstonecraft, the eighteenth-century writer of one of the first modern feminist tracts, died giving birth to Mary Shelley, the future author of Frankenstein. Wollstonecraft was 38 years old when she died from puerperal fever and septicemia. A few decades earlier, the brilliant scientist and mathematician Émilie du Châtelet, also died in childbirth. She was 42. Both women were exceedingly well educated at a time when most people were illiterate, yet that did not save them from premature deaths. Pregnancy and childbirth remain among the main killers of women in the modern world. Under the circumstances, it is easy to understand why art theory was not high on the list of women’s priorities. Men could afford such frivolities: women could not.
Camille Paglia, an undoubtedly controversial and polarizing public intellectual, warns against romanticizing the preindustrial past and non-Western approaches. To that end she wrote, “Western science and industry have freed women from drudgery and danger. Machines do housework. The pill neutralizes fertility. Giving birth is no longer fatal [This is an inaccurate statement.]. And the Apollonian line of western rationality has produced the modern aggressive woman who can think like a man and write obnoxious books. The tension and antagonism in western metaphysics developed human higher cortical powers to great heights. Most western culture is a distortion of reality. But reality should be distorted; that is, imaginatively amended. The Buddhist acquiescence to nature is neither accurate about nature nor just to human potential. The Apollonian has taken us to the stars.” (Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae).
Whether or not we agree with Paglia is not as important as the fact that she raises a key point about the benefits and privileges of modern Western industrial life, especially for women. Both art theory and feminism are Western inventions, and both have given their non-Western critics the intellectual tools with which to challenge the West. The question for us lies outside the ethical complexities of the Western world, however we choose to define it. Our question is, “What can the West give me that is useful in my context?” That is the question that allowed Japan to become an economic superpower after its humiliation in World War II. It is also the question that made China the world’s second largest economy. Japan and China have not lost the essential qualities that made them unique. Instead, they simply added useful outside information to their native canons. The West did the same thing in the Middle Ages when it embraced Chinese technology and Indo-Arab mathematics. As global citizens and artists we have a responsibility to look at everything, contemplate everything, and think critically about everything. If the process begins with the study of Western art theory, it is only because the West wrote it first, not because it represents an imperialist agenda. When the West adopted the Chinese invention of paper, it did so for utilitarian rather than ideological reasons. Art theory no longer belongs to the West. A century from now this class will incorporate theoretical writings from every corner of the world, and the original Western texts will be studied and respected not as a colonial imposition but merely as the primitive seed of a pluralistic human endeavor.
Jorge Miguel Benitez holds a master of fine arts degree in painting from Virginia Commonwealth University where he currently teaches drawing, art theory and the history of visual communications.
Volume 31 no.6 July / August 2017 p14 – 18