Tag Archives: huh?

Physics Envy: or why art theory isn’t

The September issue of Frieze art magazine is all about ‘theory’ or what appears to pass for theory in the art world.  The whole issue reads like some undergraduate magazine or

Confucius 02

He understood. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

papers prepared by graduate students with too much time on their hands; political polemic blends with obscure language, which even core Frankfurt-school-istas would find hard to follow.  All this is to be regretted, as underlying this enterprise is an important problem, namely what are the theoretical, as opposed to philosophical, underpinnings of art itself.  Unfortunately, what might have been an informative examination of the problems of theory and art is really just another barrage of intemperate criticism.  But is anyone listening or is this just so much solipsism?  What’s an intellectual to do?

Physics envy is the desire to have the theoretical rigour that characterises physics.  Many will reject this in the art world, but why else would they confuse theory with philosophy if they didn’t see theory as bestowing rigour, logic, structure, and deep meaning?  The whole issue of Frieze waffled back and forth between the two terms, citing as theorists people who wouldn’t recognise the word, and citing theorists whose theories lack any basis for verification or falsification.  The leap from philosophy to theory is a big one, taken by science years ago when it ceased to be called ‘natural philosophy’.  Politics got rebranded ‘political science’,  and economics has always had ‘physics envy’.  What now for art?

The other distressing theme running through the issue is the Western-centric mind-set; they are still fighting the tiresome battle between Continental philosophy and Anglo (sic) analytical philosophy.  In this myopic battle they miss wider philosophical progress. Readers may enjoy the challenges ranging from Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature to VS Ramachandran & William Hirstein, The Science of Art: a neurological theory of aesthetic experience, Journal of Consciousness Studies 6(6-7, 1999):15-51.

What we have is something vaguely called “critical theory” even more vaguely a “theory of artists’ minds”; I guess the word ‘critical’ suggests serious self-reflection when it really is quite empty. The ‘theory’ it ain’t.

But perhaps cultural studies sounds more scientific, (physics envy?) and less, well, less philosophical, and its practitioners more legitimate (in the sense Habermas would use it).

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Art & Economics: Bruno Frey

Bruno Frey writes about the economics of art.  His work is provocative and challenges many assumptions about how the art world operates.  I quite like his observation of the challenge facing gallery owners who, striving to make a living, only represent artists who are likely to sell, while at the same time, wanting to bring new artists to the public.

TURPS

I’m now subscribing to Turps Banana, a London-based art magazine published by artists.  They held a fund-raising event to ensure the financial security of the magazine and provide editorial freedom from advertising.

My hope is that the magazine’s writing will be accessible rather than the art-babble that so often is found in magazines; almost rivals the nonsense in classical music programmes for vacuous commentary.

The world does need more and better magazines on art, that increase public access to art, especially in cultures that do not generally buy original art, feel it is inaffordable, or that they would be ‘posh’ to hang original art on their walls.

If Turps were an art gallery, now what would it look like?

Today is also my late parents wedding anniversary; they never really got to see what happened to me.  I wonder if they’re eavesdropping now?

Abts, Hodgkin, Rothko, Twombly, Newman & Chou En-Lai

Today I’m thinking about the work of Tomma Abts and her highly geometric abstractions.  Her colours are delightfully muted.  I am thinking about whether I like the machine-like perfection (despite her saying these works take a long time and betray their provenance).  I do like the layering, of past incarnations being replaced and the lines showing through — I do this and feel it adds to the history of the creative process. I also respect her for working with a fixed canvas size — I was chided once for using the same size and similar marks (or lack thereof) and wondered why that was a problem.  I don’t get criticism about the ’sameness’ of my handwriting which is quintessentially mine, too.

I am also thinking about Howard Hodgkin, whose work is tremendously provocative and elegantly cavalier in form.  His bold designs and titles are thoughtful.  I like this, and feel that titles are appropriate to a work of art, more ‘user friendly’ than ‘untitled number 342′, which feels like you’re eavesdropping on a private experience.  Why many artists avoid titles seems petty — certainly we’d feel quite differently about Shakespeare if ‘Romeo and Juliet’ were simply ‘untitled number 24′.

I still find Rothko interesting and thoughtful.  I’ve read his words, and what others have written about him and looked at his work up close and personal as he would like as well as from afar.  Was he really so mythic?  He did choose rectangular shapes, vaguely outlined albeit so background and foreground are ambiguous (is the foreground the bit in the middle?).  What was Rothko thinking?  That is the question for me.

Finally, today’s ‘thinking about’ brings me to Cy Twombly (a variant on my own last name, I wonder…).  This former cryptographer’s fascination with codes is evident, and the playful nature of the works are refreshing.  Is Twombly the last abstract expressionist, or is there hope for those who think this approach has more to say?

Granted, the art community does view things in a rather primitive linear manner (post-modernism and post-post, and post-post-post notwithstanding), that with art you can’t really go back — Cubism has no more to say despite having its genesis in Einstein and relativity theory, something we’re still learning to understand — so can we really say that the last ‘art word’ has been said on cubism?  I think not.

I’m still trying to make sense of Newman’s Onement.

As Chou En-Lai said when asked what he thought the historical significance of the French revolution was: “Too soon to tell”.  Perhaps the problem with art is that the attention span of the art thought leaders is too short — perhaps on the same order of length as the folks who look for the next big thing in music.  It is the sustainability of the message that is probably important than the novelty. (So much for YBA…)