What role does theory play in art-making today? How do artists and art practitioners “think” about art in the absence of an overarching theoretical paradigm—theory with a capital T? Such were the questions posed to me by Joachim Pissarro a few days ago. Embarrassingly, one of the first questions I asked of myself upon receiving them was, “How often do I actually ‘think’ about art nowadays?”
As the editor-in-chief of ArtSlant, the answer should be: “very often,” or “all the time, really.” But in my day-to-day activities—proofreading and posting reviews, Skype meetings with colleagues, responding to emails from contributors and PR agents—I find that I’m usually thinking about strategies and plans for various aspects of the website and magazine, and seldom am I really, actually, hardcore thinking about art.
Now here I am in the Brooklyn Rail and I must decide “how” I think about art, or, more pointedly, how I can condense my thoughts about how I think about art into 800 words. My brain reels. Casting about, I panic and Google “art theory.” I flounder around in Wikipedia, skimming the surface for a few minutes. I’m not prepared for this; I came of age after capital T-theory had already gone by the wayside, along with History and Truth and Beauty. I sneaked into grad school without having taken the requisite courses that trace the arc of art theory from some Greek guys to the latest French dudes. My exposure to theory came at random intervals, without any logical progression, and was never thorough: from Guy Debord to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, from Deleuze and Guattari to Benjamin and back again.
So I do what anyone looking for answers in the year 2014 would do: I crowdsource it. On Facebook and Twitter I entreaty my artist friends to divulge their own personal relationships with theory. Answers ranged from non-committal “likes” to 1300-word essays. There are many artists for whom writing theory is a part of their practice (paradoxical, I know, at least by dictionary definitions); there are some who try consciously to balance theory and action; some whose practice is informed by theory but not dominated by it; and some who refuse theory completely. Clearly, there’s no consensus. In fact, as my deadline loomed, the diversity of responses was slightly exasperating. The conversation continued offline as well, and I spent the weekend, holed up against the bitter cold in a friend’s Chicago apartment, alternately laughing about the vagaries and pitfalls of writing about art, and arguing about the place of theory in art-making today (theory is alive and well at SAIC, apparently).
It dawned on me then, how much of our thinking about art is social. We talk about it, constantly: in studios, classrooms, and galleries; in panel discussions and lectures and artist talks; in hushed voices in museum halls and in louder voices at museum cafes; in snarky tones from the aisles of art fairs; in inflammatory opinions expressed in the comments of blog articles; in adamant, half-baked manifestoes over pitchers of beer in incongruent sports bars; in choked half-sobs at particularly brutal crits. We talk and talk about art, fueled by tiny cups of espresso served in Marais cafes, or by cheap wine elegantly poured by immaculately dressed gallery interns, or by PBRs fished out from ice buckets in the backs of cramped Lower East Side art spaces, or by salt-crusted margaritas from some downtown bar frequented by Wall Street office workers, or by potlatch dinners of fish stew and cheddar biscuits washed down with digestifs of homemade absinthe. As one of my Facebook commentators astutely remarked, it would be “a massive mistake to think theory is only something written and edited.”
I did not make this up, of course. Dialogue is “in.” Yet from my own personal experience, discussions among friends with sympathetic ears can become the fodder for, or affirmation of, ideas that only truly become developed, or get closer to being fully developed, in writing. While a conversation about art is more often than not ephemeral—details quickly forgotten, words frequently misheard, sometimes misspoken—writing can give form to abstract notions, lending them some sort of permanence, at least just long enough to allow them to be passed on for others to respond in comments, thoughts, and works of art. Writing is an extension of the dialogue, a way to continue the thought process about art; in fact, some of the most interesting approaches to writing about art that I’ve seen lately experiment with the dialogic: for instance, exhibition reviews conceived between two critics on Gchat; or essays written by several authors that expose the social process of editing, revision, and conflict rather than presenting a unified whole; or artist interviews conducted through the exchange of visuals and videos rather than questions and answers.
So perhaps our thinking about art primarily resides in, or is performed by, the give and take of words between friends, artists and curators, writers and editors. Joachim tapped me, made me think about thinking about art, and in turn I opened the question up to others. No conclusive results, but we certainly got a lot of thinking done between us all.
A thank you to Joachim Pissarro, Joel Kuennen, Peter Dobey, dineo seshee bopape, EKG, Darren Jones, Michael Morehouse, James Pepper Kelly, Tempestt Hazel, Stephanie Cristello, Mia DiMeo, and Aaron Hegert.
NATALIE HEGERT is the editor-in-chief of ArtSlant and ArtSlant STREET.