THEORY AND CRITIQUE:
The Raw and the Cooked
Recently, a lot of people have been whining on about me being anti-academic. Not so. In fact, I am an academic. I read difficult books in difficult languages, I write difficult essays about difficult art. I taught school from age 50 to 70. So I am an academic by any definition. My problem is that I belong to the academic species but not to the art tribe of academics. My relationship with the art tribe is best summarized by my story about the Legendary Blonde Dog at the University of Pennsylvania. About 12 years ago I was giving lectures at Penn. Every morning my minder would pick me up from the bronze bench where the bronze Ben Franklin is taking his ease.
After a few minutes of my sitting there, the Legendary Blonde Dog would appear with a stick in his mouth. He would lay the stick between Ben Franklin’s bronze feet. Then he would back up into play-posture and make silly little barks. Finally the dog would retrieve the stick, run around, and place the stick again. Again, nothing from Ben and I was sitting right there. I would have thrown the stick but no, the Blonde Dog was a starfucker. It was Ben or nobody. Eventually, the Dog would go running off in search of more celebrity bronze. So this is my dilemma. Every time I come to CAA, I feel like the Blonde Dog, and this is the last little stick I will lay between your feet.
I am here because it is kind of you to invite a retired schoolteacher to address your grand convocation. In return, I would like to speak to you today as a retired school- teacher, and deflect our discourse from expensive bad art, delusional politics, cruel bureaucracy, and genteel whining. I would like to return to the only place we are free and safe, back to the classroom, which is the only place in a university where magic might happen. So let me suggest that some tidying up might guide us toward what we all want: new, influential art, and new, influential theory. Nothing else changes anything. I call it “intellectual correctness mitigated by kindness, forgiveness, humility, and the sure and certain knowledge that we are not as smart as we think we are.
My major concern, at present, is that the artworld is eating itself alive. Anything with an art-handle gets picked up and re-consumed. In my notes, I have 10 faulty clones of Richard Jackson’s and Lucio Fontana’s oeuvres in which the stretcher bar is re-consumed. Here are a few: 1) men’s and women’s underwear are stretched around tiny stretcher bars; 2) paintings painted on the back of the canvas (usually in the Neo Rau vein), are hung with yellow stretcher bars outward and the painting facing outward too from beneath; 3) brushy Provincetown paintings with one corner ripped off exposing the stretcher bar; or 4) one stretcher bar hanging on the wall alongside a painting stapled to the wall. After Jackson and Fontana, none of this is even recent. Even the vernissage is now reconstituted as a work of art. We consume ourselves.
So the artworld today resembles the last days of the Kiowa, whose whole livelihood derived from the buffalo. They hunted the buffalo and worshipped it. They made buffalo robes. They used the sinews for strings, used the bones for buttons, tent spikes, knives, and arrowheads. They ate buffalo meat, buffalo innards, buffalo brains and eyeball soup: For the Kiowa, with the advent of white men, this became death on a stick, as it is for the artworld today. Re-naming the baby is always a fools errand—new name (Social Practice), no new art, no new theory. So it is helpful to remember that new art, like Picasso’s, Pollock’s, and Warhol’s bred new theory, and not critique—although most of it was wrong.
I will begin when it was good for me. I spent the most rewarding 15 years of my short life teaching Late 20th-Century French Theory to graduate art studio majors in Las Vegas, Nevada. I was never comfortable in the university, but I loved my classes and my student artists, although it took five years to find my groove, and my groove was bilingual comp lit. I was gifting my students with their first real college experience—undergrad being high school with no social promotion. My students were not stupid but they were woefully ignorant and probably raised by wolves. I taught them what must have seemed to them like Martian chronicles, and they responded very well to the impudence of Foucault and Barthes—to the wild west of Deleuze’s Nomadology and the vagaries of Levi Strauss in the Amazon.
These students were pedagogically crippled but I found it easier to teach these studio artists to write without footnotes, so they might stumble upon their own ideas—because it is the tether of footnotes that divides theory and critique. Theory doesn’t have footnotes, or only perfunctory notes, and critique has all too many. Critique, with its apparatus, aspires to hold things together in a body of knowledge. I imagine the domain of critique as a vast geodesic sphere floating in space, where everything is connected, collected, related, counted, stacked, and numbered.
Theory, like great art, is catastrophic. Theory blows things up. It lays waste to intellectual galaxies. It blows the critical sphere apart and we have to start again with a new donné. Critique, as we know it today, began with the higher criticism of biblical texts in Germany in the 18th century. These scholars practiced exegesis. They sought out originalist readings, idiomatic meanings, narratives, myths, and local political contexts. This research formed a body of knowledge that, in the 19th century, would constitute the church’s single redoubt against Darwinism—a catastrophic theory, to say the least.
That said, the greatest characteristic of critique in the West is its ability to meticulously uncover lost theory that has been worn away in the passage of time. Some of the best critique arises from simple skepticism. Foucault is sitting in the clinic thinking how am I more crazy than the folks outside. Julian Jaynes wrote The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind based on one query: What if Homer is telling the truth? What if the Iliad is fact and not just a collection of poetic tropes? Leo Steinberg wrote The Sexuality of Christ to recover the lost discourse of incarnate word, to explain Christ’s prominent penis in pictures of the 15th and 16th centuries. Jacqueline Lichtenstein, in the Eloquence of Color locates the social quarrel between line and color, thought and beauty, in a bourgeois distrust of aristocratic skills and rhetoric that might seduce innocent shop-girls. Even today professors tell their shop-girls not to read my books because they are well written and are, obviously, the work of Satan.
These are all great books, and great gifts to us, and if I ever taught a course in critique, I would teach these books. So that is critique, well cooked and butchered. What is theory and why is it raw? I begin with the efficient cause of this talk: I kept meeting art professors, who, when I asked them what they did, said “Theory.” Since there is no theory of everything, I would say, “Well, what’s your theory?” and never got a proper answer. Theory is defined in the OED as: “a supposition or a system of ideas intended to explain something, esp. one based on general principles independent of the thing to be explained: Darwin’s theory of evolution” is their example. Levi Strauss’s demolition of the “primitive” from the wilds of the Amazon would be another. Foucault’s deconstruction of solipsistic sociology in The Order of Things is another. These theories take a hatchet to things. They slash bone and sinew, and, like great art, they come from the outside and change everything.
Critique is the product of culture. It’s cooked. Theory is the product of nature’s war with culture, usually with the aim of realigning culture. This is a raw thing and it arises from raw thinking. There is no need to footnote Darwin standing in the Galapagos examining a pigeon’s wing. Why footnote Einstein looking at the clock on the railway platform wondering when his train will arrive at Zurich? Why footnote Foucault, driving around in his little Fiat and seeing the suburbs as a self-regulating form of incarceration and social control?
So, here is the first lecture I gave my theory classes much condensed. First, there is no theory. There are theories. They are each autonomous and limited in their domain. One doesn’t take Barthes, the boulevardier, on a camping trip, although Levi Strauss and Deleuze might be fun; and even though, strangely enough, we have yet to map the domains of theory, you can be fairly sure that if you quote Derrida, Foucault, and Deleuze in the same essay, two of your citations are misattributed. As Levi Strauss said, structuralism is about discovering harmonies or rediscovering them, and these theories do harmonize but they do not overlap or intersect, and when they flow near to one another, misprision ensues. To conflate Foucault’s idea of the gaze with Lacan’s theory of the gaze is to infect Foucault with Freud and infect Lacan with Foucault’s arctic pragmatism. To presume that deconstruction has something to do with architecture is just pretty damn dumb. So theories have their own home countries. Baudrillard goes on at length about alienation. This puzzles Americans like me who are alienated from jump and can’t imagine what not being alienated might be. What would that be like? Sesame Street?
Second, since the texts we read were written in French and being read in French or translation, there are some eccentricities of the French language that need to be acknowledged. First, the standard English vocabulary is about 900,000 words. The standard French vocabulary is about 100,000 words, so French words aren’t surrounded with garlands of synonyms and adjectives. Each word does a lot of work in French, so it is possible to write a sentence in French in which the same word appears four times and means something different every time. American translators, sadly, thanks to the New Yorker, are fearful of iteration, and identical French words blossom into bouquets of synonyms. Americans fall back on synonyms to avoid iteration and this blurs meaning and euphony. It stains the architecture of the sentences. So English translations, with few exceptions, distort the text, and the French is very meticulous. So we should return to the Renaissance practice of the paragone. We go back and forth from one text to another, from one language to another. Add into this the fact that American translators invariably try to make these theorists into liberals, and you have a built-in moral paradox that can’t be redacted.
So you want to teach well to bad students. So, you forgive them and don’t try to be hip. I never took an art history course in college because the art historians wore Nehru jackets. So, forget Jay-Z, Kanye, drinking, and fucking. Kids don’t like it when you get in their space. You are the theory master. You have to be, and a graduate student in art has virtually no education, so you have to do the whole job. My solution was to teach autonomous theories, and compare them text to text, compare Deleuze to Foucault, compare them in French and English, right there, on the table in front of you: four sheets of paper per student. This works if you are patient and kind. Because what we need is new influential art from outside; new influential theory from outside.
Also if you are comparing Deluze to Foucault, and French to English, you learn things too. So you teach theory as you would Comp Lit. One to one. And if I had my way, of course, French Theory would be taught in the French department, and studio art would be like a clinic. If you want to draw a human hand, you make an appointment with the hand-drawing lady. If you want to paint like de Kooning, you buy $5k worth of paint and make an appointment with the “painterly” guy, etc.
Finally, I should note that there is no real payoff to this technique. You can’t teach them big things without preaching, and that is delusional since we possess no wisdom. You must hold the line and teach them a lot of little things, and they will put it together. Then you grade soft. You suffer the little children and remember that you cannot let your class make you stupid. Nor can you tell them they’re stupid. You know this stuff, they don’t, so you have to be brave if your troops are shy, and lend them a hand. You have to avoid artistic narcissism, the poison draught of professors, and remember your students are children entrusted to your care by their parents. So do your professor work very seriously. The present fashion of professors hating their jobs and hating their students just will not do. Professors do the task at hand.
DAVE HICKEY is a writer currently living in Santa Fe, NM. His many books of criticism include Air Guitar (1997) and the recent Pirates and Farmers (2013). His forthcoming collection 25 Women: Essays on the Work of Women Artists will be published later this year by the University of Chicago Press.