Sorting Things Out: Sort Of

Theory and Me: No Love Lost

I finished reading bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress for the first time. I had a visceral reaction to the book. 167 annotations - easy to do in a Kindle. Each had some variant of WTF? Various reactions. Frustration. Annoyance. Chagrin. Illumination. and Discouragement. I was also intrigued. Why? The book forced me to acknowledge my innate and long-standing aversion to theory.
I read often and widely, up and down the Dewy Decimal System. When I finished the book (Dewey Classification: 370.11/5), something occurred to me. I don’t challenge myself enough with books like this. Then I remembered why. Theory almost squashed my love of art and made me turn to an investment banking career.
Ages ago, the last decade of the prior century. I was a newly-minted MA in art history from the Courtauld Institute of Art at the University of London. I wrote my thesis with a diluted version of Marxism. (The Wall would shortly fall). Art embedded in the society that produced it. Art refracts class structure. Art as a commodity of value. Fair enough. The approach worked for academic pieces, museum catalogue essays; and my thesis. I began to write criticism for magazines in the UK, Italy, France, and back home. Editors wanted theory-driven reviews. I had no critical foundation. A species of poetics (Small “p”), perhaps; but nothing more. I wrote from an experience-based dynamic of the artist making the work and the viewer looking at it. Critic colleagues encouraged me to read Deconstructionist texts; Jacques Derrida, mostly. I tried - and tried - to read Of Grammatology. Epic fail. I read a bunch of introductions to seminal texts. Same result. I couldn’t even grasp extracts. I asked my London professors for advice. They asked, Why would you write like that? Because that’s what, Francesco Bonami, Flash Art’s editor at the time, strongly suggested I do.
I couldn’t write criticism from a theoretical position to save my life. Not only did it not feel intuitive, it didn’t feel right. It did a disservice to the readers. Whomever they were. Much later I realized that my audience were those who read such reviews. Not the world-at-large. I felt that theory ripped Art from its experiential moorings. Without accountability to an audience, art, I felt was useless. It. Was. A. Ghastly. Time. I remember a trip to Yosemite when I was an undergraduate. I went with two chums. One a world authority on John Locke’s philosophy. (I later translated his art museum catalogue essays from French to English. I barely understood a single word that he wrote.) The other was his protégé. An epic view of Vernal Falls on a gorgeous summer afternoon. Were we struck speechless by the beauty of the scene? I was. As the sun set, though, the other two spent an hour discussing Edmund Burke’s Theory of the Sublime. Um, no thanks.
Driven by, well, I forget what drove me at the time, I reviewed a show by Terry Winters at the Museum of Contemporary Art. I shopped for theory the way you shop for a shirt. As a necessary though, in the final analysis, insignificant task. The review became a caricature of a review. It got published anyway. This led to a project of fake reviews (long, long before the advent of fake news.). I created a stable of 6 critics. Each critic had a perspective. Structural, Deconstructionist, Formalist, Feminist, Marxist, and Joe Six Pack. First, I would write a review in my James Voice. Then I would write a review of the same show based on one of the fake critic’s theoretical bias. Or what I perceived to be their particular bias. Later I created shows, so fake critics would review fake shows. It was a bit of private fun. Who the hell, after all, would publish these things? I thought of it more as a literary project, something Borgesian. And then along came the Internet, the World Wide Web, and blogs …
That’s why I enrolled in this class. I want to take another stab at theory, this time at the service of teaching and not of art criticism.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

The comments to this entry are closed.