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During a job search at a prominent university about 20 years ago, a search committee decided not to appoint a scholar in non-Western art despite the fact that, all agreed, this person surpassed in knowledge, field research, languages, and publications almost all (few) contenders in the field. The rationale of the decision was pithily expressed by a member of the committee: He doesnt have enough Theory.
Over a decade ago, when I was beginning my research on art along the New York waterfront in the 1970s, I came upon a marvelous quotation by George Segal. Segal is not someone who comes to mind when thinking about such artists as Vito Acconci and David Wojnarowicz who made art on the waterfront.
What role does theory play in art-making today? How do artists and art practitioners “think” about art in the absence of an overarching theoretical paradigmtheory with a capital T?
Today scale matters more than ever, and the perspectival shifts generated by contemporary technology only further corroborate a materialism in flux, and one that exists independently of the human mind and our ideas about it.
I have been thinking about your invitation and the questions youve posedthough not, I must say, as questions. I dont know how your prompt will appear when it is polished for the Rail, but something a bit more polemical would have been easier to speak to or push back against. What follows is a kind of reading of your email exchange with Phong, written mostly in the conditional tense.
In his conversations with Emile Bernard, Paul Cézanne had very violent words about his fellow paintersomeone who had actually been his friend for a while: Paul Gauguin.
Reading the prospectus for this issues Critics Page brought to mind a passage by Erwin Panofsky that a good friend is fond of quoting.
I admit to being surprised when the theoretical equipment I received in graduate school came to be of little use when I started to go to art studios.
Artists and theorists in the Western tradition have long fed off one anothers work. Some of the most prominent theorists have themselves been artists, although few who might have considered themselves principally to be theorists have claimed to make art of any kind.
During recent decades, as Joachim Pissarro observes, theoretical constructs have guided the critical evaluation of visual art and even shaped its base in perceptual experience.
Because most of us lack confidence in our ability to simply look at and feel art, in the same way that we can listen to and feel music, there exists a vast business of interpretation. (Michael Findlay, The Value of Art)