Tag Archives: Theory

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).

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

The arrow of time & art

Marshall McLuhan caused wide irritation with h...
Image via Wikipedia

Should we see art history as linear, with the phases, fads and movements embedded in the moment, or can we continue to learn from them, revisit them over time.  Indeed, can all of art exist simultaneously?

There is a bias toward linearity in art history, but it is tiring and probably unhelpful in the end as it suggests constant endings and beginnings, transitory moments of insight. From a structural perspective, it sees previous art as being a foundation for what follows (was that the point of post-modernism, with or without the hyphen?).  This view traps us within the arrow of time view of … time.  That what is past is past, and we move forward in some way, through the present.  Just when you thought you understood something, it morphs into something else, and then that has its day and we all move one.

What was exciting about cubism was its efforts to understand relativity theory, and the new understanding of the physical world that emerged at the same time.  Did Picasso and Einstein ever have coffee together?  But today, few artists have come to grips with the quantum nature of the world, and the possibility that time may not even exist.  That of course doesn’t mean that history doesn’t exist, but it does suggest that a temporal view of historical learning may not make much real sense.  From an art history perspective, it suggests that we might grow more artistically if art were seen simultaneously rather than in periods.  Yes, we have evolved new tools and ways of seeing, but that confuses the technologies of art with the insights that artists bring.  That styles change reflects sensibilities and the economics of art.  Some art requires electricity, some big walls.

McLuhan did say there was a difference between the medium and the message.  Perhaps we have become confused.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

Do artists think?

Pencil

Drawing Machine (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When an artists ‘does art’, what are they thinking?  Are they merely in the moment or are they constructing some sort of story (narrative for the remaining post-modernists out there)?  I continue to have a problem with art that is mute, because it makes me wonder if the artist was also mute, perhaps without thought even.  The challenge for artists is convincing dispassionate viewers of their work that they have engaged cognitive faculties within the artistic process.

 

What would it be like for there to be art without mind behind it?  Easy.  Attach your computer printer to a computer running a programme that produces various images, pictures, etc. in an automated mode.  Digital art, without the evidence of intelligence behind it.  A bit like the room full of monkeys at typewriters (remember those?) inadvertently producing Shakespearean prose.

 

The problem art critics have is that they must assume that there was intelligent life in the studio when art was being produced.  The evidence that this is not always the case is the never ending efforts by critics and art historians to find the artistic merit in often quite mediocre works.  Indeed, to ascribe high artistic values to work of technical quality, perhaps (I’ll grant them that), but of quite mindless content.  Academics can slag off mediocre writing by calling it journalistic; other writers can be accused of writing pulp.  Bad visual art is, what?

 

So the evidence for me that some artists do not think is that in other fields of human endeavour we have ways of making sense of this, but in art, it seems anything goes.

 

Do you recall the film, The Moderns, where the actor John Lone as Bertram Stone says: “I don’t give a damn for your silly opinions on the value of art. There is no value except what I choose to put on it.  This is art because I paid hard cash for it.  Don’t you understand?  Your precious painters mean nothing to me.  I could have Natalie’s mutt shit on a canvas and if I pay five thousand dollars for it, you critics would call it a masterpiece.”  The joke, if you know the film, is on them.

 

Maybe Bruno Frey is right.

 

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]

 

Russian unorthodox: Malevich

Malevich is almost rediscovered! His book,”Non-objective World” paints a surprising contemporary vision of art.  I like the idea of prescribing a dose of Cubism to died in the wool Cezannista.  I discovered a book by Noah Charney, “The Art Thief” which features Malevich in counterfeit form.  Having worked on the problem of counterfeit drugs, the parallels with art are thought-provoking.  But perhaps Frey might say there are no fakes, only poor copies.

Malevich reflects a mode of thinking popular at the time (like Picasso’s Cubism emering out of relativity theory), with a new way of looking at the world.  Bertrand Russel’s Principles of Mathematics led with a logical underpinning of mathematics, picked up by others such as Frege and we find ourselves here today.

Malevich to me seems to be anticipating modern physics of superstrings, branes and Neil Turok’s Endless Universe.  There is much to learn about the unreality of the world and the importance of artists in helping us visualise this.

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.