December 27, 2005

The Importance of Art Theory Now

I am a practicing text-based artist (my work can be viewed at who has taught art theory for seven years, first at University of Maryland, College Park, where I took my MFA in painting, and currently at Corcoran College of Art + Design. As both an artist and a professor, I have more than a few reasons for starting this blog. First, I intend this forum to become an integral component of my "Theory Now" course at Corcoran, and my students will make regular postings as they engage in an ongoing discourse about contemporary art and the theory that supports it. Second, I am interested in formulating a concept, or at least a working template, of what "art" entails. Moreover, I remain firmly convinced that all art that "matters" has a genuine relationship to theoretical constructs (not ideologies) and I intend for this discursive site to foreground the importance of art theory.

When the late 1960's brought us Minimalism, then Conceptual Art, these upstart movements prophesied an "end to art" as we knew it based on earlier academic models that focused on aesthetics, surface qualities (or "retinal art" as Marcel Duchamp liked to call it) and "subjectivity."

The importance of such varied theories as structuralism, poststructuralism, Lacanian psychoanalytic readings and postcolonialism to the best art that has been made for the last 40 years is that these theories provided visual artists with an outside "field of knowledge" that inspired their explorations, investigations and revelations in a variety of new art practices, including video, performance, photo-text work and installations. More than mere influence, these theories proved to be an essential intellectual grounding for much of the best work that was made then and continues to be made today.

Where we once had the Kantian subjectivist drive to taste-based "judgements" of beauty, we now have an "archaelogy of knowledge" that fuels art theory now, establishing its relevancy in substantially new ways. Just to address one theory, the poststructuralist "read" of visuality and "meaning," (see Roland Barthes' The Death of the Author and Jacques Derrida's Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences), we now accept that there is no innate "meaning" in a work of art. Further, the putative "subjectivity" of a work is revealed as a misnomer, a relic from that 18th Century line of reasoning, bearing little to no impact on our own hypereality. With such knowledge a "given," these young artists in my classes are truly orphaned voyagers in what they know to be an anxious new world order, fraught with the hallucinogenic dangers of authenticity, originality and "meanings."