Theories of Art

Been reading the third in a series out of the Routledge & University College Cork, called Doubt, by Richard Shiff. Though it’s a critique of critics, it has interesting ideas for me as an artist. Referring primarily to painting, Shiff suggests that interpretation has replaced an understanding of the painting itself – what he call the “materiality” of the artwork.

But the focus of his discussion is the perceived conflict between absolutism and relativism, though he does not frame it in these terms. He begins with the concept of identity – something that many contemporary artists find of interest, which has always puzzled me. But Shiff explains that this concept is more than what is commonly referred to as “identity politics” and encompasses a wider philosophical  issue.

This wider definition of identity has to do with an understanding of the self. Is the self a constant, or is it situational, differing according to outside stimuli?  This difference is described as one between the “temporalized” self and “all-at-onceness”. He believes this is the crux of the post-modern approach to criticism and goes on the describe the lengths critics go to avoid the extremes of absolutism and relativism by, for instance, providing criticism as a subjective exercise describing the critics personal views.

He also attempts to address how this dichotomy has influenced the post-modern approach to art-making. For instance, an artist such as Robert Irwin refused to have photographic representations of his work made as they would set up a duality by “explaining one thing in terms of another”. This duality or “self-difference” (where the self differs from itself) is what Shiff assumes post-modern artists have struggled to avoid. The goal is to “resist the gap between reason & emotion, mind & body, identity by name & identity by feeling”.

Some would argue that self-differing is an aspect of the human condition, and that it is impossible to attain any “all-at-onceness” that suspends the temporal dimension. And they would agree that religion is not the remedy. To post-modernists, for whom there are no absolutes and everything is relative, religion is the remedy that worked in the ,middle ages but is irrelevant to materialistic contemporary society.

So it is left to artists and critics to re-invent the wheel that will explain how to overcome “self-differing” or the condition where there is no integration between mind & body, body and self and  self and consciousness. The results are the elegant but tortured logical arguments that result when academic thinkers try to work out for themselves what humans have known and understood for millennia. The Greeks called this hubris.

This is not to say that there is no role for art criticism and Rosenberg makes a good case for it. He argues that someone needs to be working toward over-arching theories as to what constitutes art and differentiates good from bad. Otherwise, it will be left to the market to decide.

I don’t know of another field where there is the degree of uncertainty about the legitimacy of developing theories that there is in the field of art criticism. In other fields, it is accepted that the critic avoids accusations of subjectivity, absolutism or relativism by stating values, assumptions and objectives at the outset, then gets on with it. Perhaps  the assumption of objectivity in art is clearly unattainable because art is about feelings rather than reason, but feels the need to be justified by some form of reason other than marketability. it’s a quandry.





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