Currently creating art on beautiful Vancouver Island, British Columbia.


Theories of Art

Been reading the third in a series out of the Routledge & University College Cork, called Doubt, by Richard Shiff. This book is also discussed in another blog .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.

post/Theories on Art
text interpreting the textual artwork “High Price” by Ron Terada.

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, but the overwhelming importance of which eludes me. 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”.

Robert Irwin: Scrim Veil—Black Rectangle—Natural Light, Whitney Museum Of American Art,

New York (1977) June 27–Sept 1, 2013

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 many would say that religion is not the remedy. To post-modernists, for whom there are no absolutes and everything is relative, religion is a 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 & self, self & consciousness. The results are Shiff’s and other’s elegant but tortured logical arguments that result when academic thinkers try to work out who we are, why we are here, what’s really going on and so on.

This is not to say that there is no role for art criticism and Harold Rosenberg’s early 1970’s book on art criticsm Art on the Edge makes a good case for it. This is also discussed in another blog. 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 objectivity in art criticism is unattainable because art is about feelings rather than reason.

But there remains the need for some over-arching theory as to what art is and what differentiates good from bad art. Otherwise the market happily steps in to decide. It’s a quandry into which few contemporary art critics seem willing to venture.

You might be interested in …


  1. State of the Arts. Ten Theses on Contemporary Art.
    “The creation of something new is not achieved by the intellect but by the play instinct driven by an inner necessity.” – C G Jung, psychoanalyst.

    1. The television series “Thomas och den vanskelige kunsten” in NRK is a humble and approachable introduction to the art – and to contemporary art “that to 98% is rubbish”. Quite true. And the 2% is probably still painting or sculpture of any kind, more or less traditional, but with quality and originality.

    2. It is above all the 98% that are exposed on the art market and in the institutional art halls. Thus, the lack of discernment, which is particularly strange in an age where for example Internet at all is impossible to manage without this property. In the history of art this necessary filtering is already a fact. Odd Nerdrum will survive Bjarne Melgaard.

    3. For something presented as art, one can ask a relevant question: Will this remain art?

    4. Painting and the expanded field: it’s not the painting that is in crisis but its wider – or thinner – field. Meta art levels. A work of art must be as strong in itself that voluminous texts and installations are not needed. Art should be more playful than cerebral.

    5. The beauty is not skin-deep. The ugly is not deep at all. The visual can not be replaced. Art requires a craftsmanship in the bottom that is equal for all, specialists and amateurs. To exceed the limits, there must be a visual center of knowledge. The color, shape and image is art’s timeless fundamentals.

    6. If the artist would like to become an author, filmmaker or actor so à la bonne heure – but visual art is left where you leave it, as well as nature. All artifacts can become art, if only for a second, but everything can’t remain art. Anti-art, however, remains anti-art.

    7. What Duchamp did cannot be repeated. Yet the conceptual art is treading water exactly 100 years later. The only really new art movements in our time are graffiti and street art.

    8. The “art world” as an institution at the top of the pyramid is a mirror image of the State hierarchy in which curators the middle classthe artists are the proletariat. The audience at the bottom is the powerless onlookers.

    9. The Situationists wanted to simultaneously exceed and realize art by creating revolutionary minds instead of art objects. This is because they saw the attempts to break the bourgeois continuity from Dada and beyond recuperated and thus failed. “The future of art works will consists in a passionate life” (Raoul Vaneigem).

    10. A contemporary phenomenon as a flashmob could be an artwork in situationistic significance, in the alternative a participatory performance art, social sculpture or happening. To create a situation means to create a revolutionary situation and the ultimate work of art here is ofcourse the world revolution which will make every human an artist (Beuys) and creativity becomes generalized.

    Until then is needed more than ever what remains of creativity, imagination, aesthetics, romanticism, skill, color, creativity and passion. Visual art’s all sophisticated techniques should be used politically, not only by specialized artists or an elite but by all, to one day be able to do the petrified world vibrant, just and free, to dance again.

    — Staffan Jacobson, Ph.D. Art History, Lund, Sweden.

  2. Re: “8. The “art world” as an institution at the top of the pyramid is a mirror image of the State hierarchy in which curators are the middle class, the artists are the proletariat, the audience at the bottom is the powerless onlookers.”

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