Theory and Me: No Love Lost
Tuesday, December 22, 2020
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.
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