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Why I Hate Art Theory

Updated on April 27, 2015
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"I can't stand theory because it is imposed by the intellectual. And the intellectual is, by definition, not a creative person. The intellectual is a person who talks about the creative process, but often doesn't understand it." - Mary Pratt, painter

Taking Art Theory in Grad School

Theory has never been my strongpoint. I never had to really deal with theory until I began my first semester of graduate studies at UC Berkeley. Signing up for my first art theory course was rather nerve-wracking; it seemed that most others had studied some form of theory in undergraduate studies. I knew that theory was no easy task, but I sincerely hoped it was not as bad as I imagined. My first reading assignment was a book by Hubert Damisch: A /Theory/ of Cloud. It was even worse than I had imagined. The dense, overly written language used by Damisch, resulted in my reading paragraphs absentmindedly, and then attempting to re-read them in hopes of grasping just a bit of valuable information. Still, I hoped that my instructor had simply picked a bad seed as my introduction to art theory.

As my second year of studies approached, I dreaded the thought of taking art theory once again. At the same time, I was hopeful, as this time we were to focus on contemporary movements. I crossed my fingers that the language in our reading selections would be far more accessible and modern. As I purchased my reader for the course, and received it fresh off the press, warm in my hands, I could hardly wait to flip through the first few pages and confirm my assumptions of more "pleasurable" readings. Unfortunately, it looked as if I was doomed for disappointment.

Three class meetings in, we were to discuss "Myth Today" from Mythologies by Roland Barthes. As our class was gathering and waiting to start, another student approached me and asked how the reading was for me. "Well," I replied, "I started out strong. Look at all my highlights!" However, somewhere along the line I had gotten too lost and could not seem to regain my understanding. (Assuming I really even understood the first several pages.) The highlighted areas became rather sparse and eventually nonexistent. My art theory instructor, who I'll refer to as Professor H, was standing nearby and likely overheard the conversation between myself and the other student. For some unknown reason and through an act of courage I cannot explain, I turned to my instructor and said something to the effect of, "By the way, I HATE art theory. I just can't understand it." Did I just walk myself into an immediate fail? I wondered whether I had just made the biggest mistake of my life and hoped that another student might chime in, agreeing with my comment, so that I could perhaps feel better about this bold statement.

The Challenge

Professor H's reply to my comment was rather surprising. She remarked that as long as I knew why I hate art theory and examined why the language of theory is as such, it was okay for me to feel that way. Here, I reflect to another class meeting, when Professor H was asked by another student why she studied art theory; what is it about art theory that she enjoys? Part of her response was that in order for artists to not make art that has already been made, they should know art theory. Okay, sure, I agree that that is a very valid point. Much of my own art practice has been one of simply creating what I feel passionate about. I will admit that I hardly consider if what I am making has already been made. And if I do consider this thought, I tend to shrug it off and hope that it has not been done. It seems more important for me to create what I am really itching to create. So what if it has already been done?

While that may be my initial response, I really do care if something I am considering has already been considered in the art world. So then I ask what it takes to know art theory. For one of our class meetings I was responsible for leading the class in discussing the week's readings. Naturally, I was assigned, what I thought, one of the more complicated articles: "The Exhorbitant Question of Method" and "The Engraving and the Ambiguities of Formalism," from Of Grammatology by Jaques Derrida. When I looked up some background information on Derrida, I could not help but laugh when I read that his works are some of the more complex and hard to understand. “Thanks, Professor H.” I knew that I needed to begin reading well in advance of my class discussion, but little did I know that I would spend about an hour per paragraph, trying to break down sentences and define words for the benefit of my comprehension.

This was generally my style of reading if I truly wanted to grasp the assigned readings in the art theory course. If I did not apply myself as such, it resulted in a mediocre absorption. So if this is how art theory is learned, how in the world do artists even find time to create art? Are these theorists really writing for artists? I would suggest that no, they do not necessarily write for artists, rather for each other. It seems that theorists generally write for theorists, or for scholars of theory.

Two of the course readings that actually grabbed my attention were Joyce Ann Joyce's "The Black Canon: Reconstructing Black American Literary Criticism" and Henry Louis Gates, "What's Love Got to Do with It? Critical Theory, Integrity, and the Black Idiom." Both texts are in direct conversation with each other. I must admit that I half-heartedly read the piece by Joyce, but it was Gates' writing that sucked me in and piqued my interest in the former text. Gates' rather humorous and nearly condescending way of writing had me feeling almost embarrassed for poor Joyce Joyce. But that is beside the point. In part, Joyce's text states that it is the (let me say critical) writer's responsibility to create texts in such a way that readers of various educational backgrounds should be able to understand them. Here, I cannot help but partly side with Joyce. Several of the readings that were discussed in this course were written in such a specific theoretical language and style of writing that seemed almost impossible to penetrate. I cannot help but imagine that many times, three paragraphs of text could have been written in three lines. And do these theorists go home at the end of the day and talk to their significant other the same way they do in their writings?

Joyce felt that African-American literary critics should not engage in black critical theory or instead, adopt a style of critique unique to the African-American idiom. By not doing so, Joyce believes Gates employs a Western way of critique and is non-supportive of the struggle African-Americans have already endured. Gates, however, revoked the truly insulting claim of anti-blackness, stating that just because African-Americans have faced a lot of challenges, does not mean they should dumb down their writing or critique of writings. Gates passionately believes that it is the reader's responsibility to dissect and understand a text, not the writer's responsibility to write for the average reader. Here, I must also agree with Gates. The idea of making oneself sound less intelligible so to be understood is rather demeaning. But even Gates remarks, "We write for each other, and for our own contemporary writers. This relation is a sacred trust." Stated loud and clear, in order to understand theory, one must be in the mindset of a theorist.

Hate Might Be a Bit Strong

Returning to Professor H's statement that artists should know theory so that they are not re-inventing the wheel, I must say that this "task" does not fit into my art practice. Sure, there are several good theoretical texts that I have actually enjoyed and some ideas I may have retained, but I truly believe that art theory and art practice are two incredibly distinct entities. As Rudolf Arnheim stated, "Good art theory must smell of the studio, although its language should [and does] differ from the household talk of painters and sculptors." I wonder how many art theorists actually have the time or ability to create art.

All in all, I do not really hate art theory. I agree that it is important in examining what has happened in the art world and how certain ideas influence others. Art theory can help artists talk about their work as well as deconstruct their ideas. (But are there no Cliff Notes for these texts?) I have yawned through some class discussions, but have also been engaged in some remarkably interesting conversations with my peers. I have laughed through some readings, such as the one by Gates, as well as Ad Reihhardt's "12 Rules for a New Academy." I was truly excited when I learned about how dreams work and where our dreams come from in Sigmund Freud's "On Dreams," and I was challenged by definitions of beauty in Immanual Kant's "The Critique of Judgement." When our class was assigned to write our final paper on a topic of interest, I could not think of a theoretical concept that I could passionately write about. However, I do have strong feelings about art theory and so it seemed only fit to write about that. In writing this paper, I considered that it could actually be a work of art itself. Perhaps I should not declare it so, however, as I believe Adrian Piper and Andrea Fraser have both already done that.

"In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is." - Yogi Berra

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    • Life of an Artist profile image
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      Corinna Nicole 2 years ago from Huntsville, AL

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting @Rochelle Frank and @Bagaceous!

      And I'm truly flattered that this has been one of your favorite reads Bagaceous! :)

    • Bagaceous profile image

      Bagaceous 2 years ago from Milano, Italy

      Your words: "I truly believe that art theory and art practice are two incredibly distinct entities" are exactly how I feel and felt back when I was studying Art Theory.

      I never hated it, though I did often wish I was actually creating something unique at the times lectures ran on too long in Art Theory. Your article is the best I have read yet Corinna. I admire you for sticking through it all, I did too and have yet to make use of anything I learned during those lectures.

      Your professor sounded wonderful! Wishing you all the best with creating exceptional art. Looking forward to reading more from you!

    • Rochelle Frank profile image

      Rochelle Frank 2 years ago from California Gold Country

      Though I was an Art History major, I never went far enough to get into Art Theory classes. As far as creating art, I think you are right about creativity being mostly or completely an anti-intellectual process. It was interesting to hear how you found some value in the courses. Your perseverence is admirable. I think your professor was a wise person to push against your doubts.

      Also, though we may laugh at Yogi Berra's comments, he was extraordinarily wise about many things.

      I enjoyed your artistic treatise.