November 11, 2015

Should Artists Read "Critical Theory?"

Recent interactions with former art theory students have inspired me to flip open my notebook and discuss the reading choices of artists, particularly with regard to whether or not they should be reading “critical theory.” Because I am currently taking time off from teaching I won’t assign any readings here but simply express my thoughts on the subject and my personal belief that critical theory is required reading for artists.  

Today’s post was partially provoked by Nicolas Bourriaud’s elegant but perplexing statement regarding critical theory, or rather his “answer” to a single question posed to him in an recent “interview.” In the veritable tsunami of information that washes over us hourly, this little gem of a text could’ve been easily lost and I am grateful that a student shared it with me. There are a few ex-students that share my passion for theory and I’m empowered by their continued pursuit of the discourse that it ensures with me.

Side-stepping for the moment the mystery of why Ryder Richards, himself an artist, would ask only this one question, what rankled most was Bourriaud’s meandering around the topic. Bourriaud deigns not to define “critical theory” but instead begrudges us with a “yes and no” answer. To whit:

“If the question is ‘do they have to’ the answer is ‘no,’ obviously. You can think in very critical terms without referring to any critical theory pre-existing to your investigations…I read a lot of artist’s interviews and texts, so you see that the opposite can be true also…if the question is ‘do artists need to read such-and-such’ type of literature, the answer is definitely ‘no.’ You never know where ideas come from.”(1)

To be fair, Nicolas did warn us that he wasn’t sure “one can be dogmatic with this type of question.” But certainly Nic is no stranger to dogma; his Relational Aesthetics veered very close to a doctrine when first published in 1998, and still has some miles on it. Highly “opinionated?” Yes, but as a theorist Nic was more than able to back up his beliefs that objects as conveyers of meaning were passé and that the new approach of socially enabling, community activist-artists was here to stay.

Yet Nicolas wasn’t able to get that worked up about critical theory as a necessary evil. Perhaps Nic sensed the confrontational taunt buried in Richards’ single question interview. It was a challenge more than a question, really.

The closest Nic came to addressing critical theory was when he teased Richards with this:
“Critical theory, if it’s meant to describe a very specific type of literature – it’s very narrow. I think the ideas come from so many different places. Critical theory is not the critical sound that is produced in the art world.”

If this statement was merely Nic’s superficial dismissal of his interviewer, we might forgive and forget. After all, Richards is actually asking what is so important about critical theory for artists. But I think that Nic was attempting to deflect the question, by briefly alluding to the lesser important branch of critical theory as used on literary texts. Bourriaud’s own Relational Art takes its very germination, however, from the broader branch of critical theory espoused by the Frankfurt School and their view that their Marxist, political philosophy “ought” to integrate with the social sciences.(2)    

And at this moment in the “interview” an interviewer worth our time might have jumped on that idea of “texts” and parried Nic with this:

“But haven’t we understood – certainly informed by the work of Derrida, Barthes and others – that artworks themselves are texts? Are you so naïve as to suggest that the art world produces only the “sound” of critical theory instead of the substance?”(3)      

To produce these texts, our artworks, the art experience that dear old Bourriaud championed nearly 20 years ago, one must constantly “position yourself in front of all the other artists, then all the artists of your times, and the critical voices of today and the past.” This is where Nic gets it right and his view meshes with one of the Core Mantras of my pedagogy: before you make a painting, do a performance or an installation, you need to familiarize yourself with the theory and practice of all that has come before. 

Thankfully, you have the Internet and a smartphone; that's where most critical theory resides now. You’ll be a better artist for it, or at least a critically savvy one.    


2. Bourriaud defines Relational art as "a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space." Relational Aesthetics, Dijon: Les presses du réel, 2002, p. 113.

3. Certainly in this interview Richards missed an opportunity to ask Bourriaud what he makes of Relational Aesthetics evolving into Social Practice Art in the last two decades.

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