Practical Criticism and Art Theory in the ‘90s 

By Professor Rosetta Brooks

I am very happy to have been invited to speak at this conference today. For the past few months I have been conducting a lecture around the country entitled Don’t Piss on My Shoe and Call It Rain, a lecture that is not essentially anti-theory but, rather, is based on the idea that over the last few years there has been a dysfunctional relationship between art practice and art criticism and theory. As both an art writer and teacher for a number of years, it has been increasingly clear to me that there has been somewhat of a backlash in terms of students’ attitudes towards an education in which the theoretical component has become a dominant component of the course. So it’s very interesting that this conference is predicated on the assumption that there has been a decline of interest in theory and theoretical ideas as they apply to art amongst the newer generation of young artist.

Perhaps one explanation for this is the scarcity of interesting ideas in the realm of theory. It’s almost as if academic theories have taken pride in this sense of limitation. Nowadays, one amendment to one small idea is enough to produce a book or at the very least a lecture series. What we appear to have are cultural theorists who can take one tiny idea from Freud’s the Uncanny, for example, which is one essay out of about 60 volumes of essays written by Freud, and can write a whole book about it. But it’s not just that; that idea seems massive in comparison to the even newer generation of theoretical writers who can take one particular facet of the Uncanny and produce three volumes of texts about it. It’s a kind of one-upmanship in which theorists seem to take a delight in the smallest of detail.

This is the age of the footnote. We are past the age of big ideas like, say, Wittgenstein’s Theory of Language, or Freud’s idea of the Unconscious. These were the kind of ideas that displaced or encompassed all others. But if we are to go by what we read in the newest cultural theory, these monomaniac ideas have grown old and hollow, detached from life, no longer able to relate to phenomena of daily living that they originally allowed us to see from a new perspective. Theory now is mostly dedicated to the dismantling of these monomaniac ideas. There seems to be a suspicion of all big ideas. Big ideas like individual freedom are suspect because they are based on huge abstractions. So theorists have tried to burst the bubble. Theoretical insights always seem now to be dissimulative and negative. It’s my contention that it is theory itself that expresses the impotence of ideas and therefore creates a blindness to ideas or dulling of creativity as might be suggested by the impetus for this conference.

But if contemporary art is not theoretically as informed as it was, say, in the heydays of the ‘80s, one must then ask the question, by what is it informed, if not by ideas? Artists, perhaps more than others, live their lives perpetually in the grip of ideas. All the artists I know thirst for ideas, new perspectives from which to see themselves and the world. So if they find themselves drawn to ideas outside the now well-established and recognizable terrain of the theory that surrounds art practice, it is probably because they have an appetite for new ideas, new theories, new perspectives of the world rather than because they are rejecting an intellectual function for art. Perhaps we should be asking ourselves how critical and cultural theory has failed contemporary art, rather than why contemporary art has failed to attend to the agenda of theory.

Ideas can, and have always been, used both as ways of seeing and as ways of obscuring and therefore not seeing. And it seems clear that a lot of art criticism is close to the heart of this duplicity. If we are looking for ways of seeing something anew and yet those ways are communicated as concepts in an ossified (i.e., dried-up or dried-out) form, then ultimately those ways might become ways of overlooking--of not seeing.

"The best artwork is always a threshold between their (imageries’) seduction and their (knowledge) imperatives. In the most powerful works of art, there is always a big idea lurking in the phenomenal particularities of the image."

he artist in the embrace of an idea struggles to articulate the idea as image. As verbal embodiment, it is this critic’s role to help the artist in this process. And yet it seems that this role has often been usurped, or at the very least compromised, by the all-embracing, vice-like grip of critical theory on critical practice. What has happened over the years is that, instead of art criticism coming out of the experience of looking at the artwork (instead of looking at the particular ideas that are embodied in a specific work of art), critics have to take their agenda elsewhere, most recently and most obviously from the schematics of psychoanalysis.

T So with recent issues like transgression, the body, desires, death, the uncanny, which continue to haunt museums and galleries even today, the theorist is used in these issue-based shows to substitute issue for tendency. This is the repressive aspect of theory: it’s a repressive facet of an idea that reduces art only to variety of physical manifestations, or worse, to an illustration of a theme. Such shows have become repressive and irrelevant because they include art on a variety of pretexts. In contexts like these, theoretical ideas become a way of reading art. The work of art is then reduced to either conform or deviate from a central theme, resulting in works that are read but seldom seen.

Sadly, there has been a duplicitous alliance between artist and critic in this context because issue-based art (like neo-conceptualism) accepts that this is the way the work will be read in relation to the issues addressed. In neo-conceptualism, for example, every work must be absorbed totally by the idea it is addressing and it must do so with the minimum of excess and with no residue. Both artist and critic design and define its economy and neatness. Practice and theory together embrace the idea of concept and accept it as reading rather than insight. The marriage of issue-based art and critical theory acknowledges explicitly that both activities are addressed to issues separate from either critical writing or the work of art.

In both cases, the problems become repressive. Criticism that never addresses the artwork directly -- except inasmuch as it touches on the issues referred to -- is free from responsibility of the artwork. That is, it doesn’t have to criticize because it is duplicitous with it; this kind of criticism often produces hagiography (bad art theory). On the other hand, issue-based art only succeeds when it provokes the issue it is addressing in theory or criticism. What is produced is a marriage of mutual indifference and strategic mutual use. But sadly, what is also lost in this pragmatic contract of mutual indifference is the idea as insight; the idea as a way of seeing; the idea as a revelation in both theory and in art practice. Ultimately, the relationship of the idea to the image is lost irrevocably.

What I would like to argue for is the kind of criticism that will return to the particularity of the artwork itself; a criticism that sees its role as assisting in revealing the idea in the image; a new relationship (which is also a very old one) of artist and critic collaborating in the revelation; seeing in opposition to the bureaucratic communality of issue-based interests. Only when criticism returns to this neglected ground of aesthetic experience will artists take more than a token interest in the theoretical issues of the day.

Though I have great sympathy for those who see in much contemporary art a depletion of the power of the image because of this strategic approach to both practice and criticism, I am also aware that it is all too easy to articulate the problems of theory and practice in terms of the opposition of image and idea. All that this does is to oversimplify the relationship between imaginary imagery (oneiric) and conceptual knowledge. Ideas and images are not antagonistic. The best artwork is always a threshold between their (imageries’) seduction and their (knowledge) imperatives. In the most powerful works of art, there is always a big idea lurking in the phenomenal particularities of the image.

Big ideas themselves have an image-like quality. The guy, for example, who discovered DNA (I think his name was Krik) described the discovery as a sort of aesthetic revelation. He said that when he finally grasped what he had discovered, it wasn’t because he understood a particular set of data, but it was the moment when all that data suddenly became an image to him: the double helix, the ascending spiral.

So ideas and images definitely have an affinity with one another rather than an opposition. James Hillman, noted writer and Jungian psychoanalyst, acknowledges this when he says that our word "idea" comes from the Greek eidos, which originally meant "thought" in early Greek, and also from Plato, who used it to mean as "both that which one sees (an appearance or shape in a concrete sense) and how we see." "Ideas," Hillman says, "are both the shape of events and the modes that make possible our ability to see through events into their patterns"... He goes on to say that "the implicit connection between having ideas to see with and seeing ideas themselves, suggests that the more ideas we have, the more we see, and the deeper the ideas we have, the deeper we see. It also suggests that ideas provoke other ideas, breeding new perspectives for viewing ourselves and the world."

The problems Hillman confronts within his world of psychoanalysis between the conflicts of theory and practice, and of idea and image in the context of therapeutic practice and psychoanalytic theory, are precisely those we seem to be confronting in art practice and theory. And whilst Hillman is remaining determinedly on the side of the image as the guide of psyche against reducing everything to theory, his argument is not against ideas but for their return to the realm of the image. "For us," he says, "ideas are ways of regarding things, gaining new perspectives. Ideas give us eyes, let us see. The word ‘idea’ itself points to the intimacy with the visual metaphor of knowing, because it is related both to the Latin videre (which means ‘to see’) and the German word wissen (which means ‘to know’). Thus ideas are ways of seeing and knowing, or knowing by means of an insight. Ideas allow us to envision, and by means of vision, we can know."

Criticism and theory would be better attended to by artists if it better attended to art. There is an extraordinary sense of condescension in a lot of contemporary critical theory’s relationship with the contemporary art that is represented as something slightly tangential to the real issue at hand. I am almost never certain that the compulsion to write on the part of many art critics today derives from the experience of an artwork. I think a lot of criticism has singularly failed its subject matter in recent years as have the new curators with their theory agendas and issue-based approaches to contemporary art. It’s not enough to ask the critics to return to the image from the world of ideas, rather than that they should return to the ideas in the image, to the ideas that image conjures.

Teaching Philosophy - Painting and Drawing
By Alex Tsung Chien Wu

Wualex Studio's - by Alex Wu

I believe there are enough words of wisdom, enlightened lectures and seminars to define the means of art and its function in society, which have been supplied consistently by influential critics, journalists and historians throughout the history of art. But the decision to pursue becoming an artist and the role contemporary society assigns to the artist still remains a task which can only be defined and resolved by artists - ourselves.

There are nearly 20,000 M.F.A related students graduating in North America each year (estimated by Prof. W. Patrick Schuchard, Washington University 1998). However, despite the select few who are able to continue their work and become recognized artists after completing school, as negative - yet true - as this may sound, the majority cannot. While I am writing down my teaching philosophy of art, with all my knowledge of art that I have acquired throughout my academic years, I still cannot unrealistically ignore the voices of uncertainty and disappointment from that majority.

Is art or becoming an artist teachable? What kind of course outlines, seminar materials designed for art students would be able to prepare a group of vanguards who will soon amount the 20,000 each year? Honestly, I do not think there are definite answers to these questions, nor a guideline or any kind of substantial knowledge of art theories or materials and procedures of its practices that are guarantees of success. In other words, art theories and studio craftsmanship may be teachable but not art or becoming an artist. As the saying goes, "art cannot be taught, only can be learned". While in a field searching for the purity of individual opinion, what an art instructor does, I believe, is there to help art students’ "learning". To help them choose their own paths, recognize each of their unique individuality and identify all the additional elements, which can be reached only through a process that includes discovery, examination and cultivation of each artistic personality.

Art is a unique way of living and being. Studying art and becoming an artist is a process of liberation and independence, learning to see and feel and give voice to the world with individual opinion. There should not be any pre-set formula to teach someone how to see and feel, or how to be him/herself. An art student should be introduced, I believe, to the rediscovery of the true nature of human sincerity; to be helped to identify themselves in the mist of an image and information proliferating era. They should be encouraged to reexamine themselves in all the focus of reinvestigation and debates about art that inevitably lead into the searching for what is new and what art is about to become...? They should be helped to remember the joys of making and composing images and ideas, to rediscover the motif of human creativity and its sincere nature with honesty and integrity.

Art, I believe, is not there for studio-artists to define or to foresee its future. This is something that’s suitable for art critics and journalists. For studio-artists, art is a way of life, as well as a "process of constant reexamination and searching for each unique kind of truth" as Jonathan Fineberg has said, "to discover his/her inner thoughts and identity in relation to the constantly changing fact of existence" 1. In my opinion, art is a word that describes a particular human behavior (that of artists) and the process of becoming a unique individual. Of all the great words that attempt to define the relationship between art theories and artists, Sir E.G. Gombrich, the art historian, may already have given the simplest but most philosophical insight into studio-artists: "There really is no such a thing as art. There are only artists - men and women, that is, who are favoured with wonderful gifts..who process that integrity of character which never rests content with half-solutions but is ready to forgo all easy effects, all superficial success for the toil and agony of sincere work. 2 Studio-artists, I believe, are designated to make images not theorize them.

Professor Rosetta Brooks was my M.F.A thesis adviser, who also helped me a great deals in recognizing the role of an expatriate artist like herself and myself, and how it functions in contemporary society. The following article, entitled "Practical Criticism and Art theory in the 90s" was edited from a tape recorded during a lecture she conduced at Washington University, 1999.

Rosetta Brooks’s concept in defining art practice and art theory is still my maneuver for defining my path as well as identifies major aspects (both technique and concept) that make up a studio-artist. It is also my belief that the needs of reexamining the nature of art practices and art criticism is what has been lacking by today’s studio- artist and appears as a common threat to most art students. If I would be teaching a studio class, painting and drawing, this article should be considered as the main guide to my teaching philosophy. 

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