Published October 9, 2023
Explorations in Art Theory Part 1: Insights and Intrigues
When you hear the term ‘art theory,’ what comes to mind? Is there a difference between ‘art theory’ and ‘art criticism’—and does it matter? I often anticipate these questions in advance of any conversation about art theory and its purpose in the complex artistic and cultural landscape of today. In the dynamic sphere of the contemporary art-world, we seek relevance and connection, thus how do theoretical insights further contribute to our affinity for art?
In my pursuit of these topics, I have discovered that multidimensional ideas about art offer an expanded capacity for falling in love with art, and art theory has come a long way. Innovative forms of expression reflect our current realities—new terms, words, and modes of interpretation are pushing ‘art-speak’ into ever more conscious ways of communicating. In this age of hyper-connectivity, we are redefining existing paradigms across all sectors of society (and what a thrill to be around for this elevating period of exchange among creatives).
Despite the kaleidoscopic character of art—and its arbitrary raison d’être or ‘reason for being’—we can identify two distinct aspects: physical objects (artworks) and metaphysical concepts about those objects (theory). Hence, the dance between art and art theory is established and it takes every rhythmic embodiment imaginable, from the metaphorical polite waltz to the free-style disco-fever. As art lovers, we are witnesses to this lively spectacle and we can enjoy art theory for both the established nature of its tempo (stalwart theories about art) and the unanticipated metamorphosis of its gesticulation (innovative theories about art).
Let us honor, however, the often-misunderstood persona of theoretical practice: theory as associated with the dry vibe of academic writing, or the daunting lands of postmodern jargon, or the often-impenetrable style of Artforum articles. Even a brush with thicker realms of art theory can be an utter fog. Indeed, our engagement with art theory reveals the demanding nature of analyzing art as a kind of mental gymnastics. The twists and turns of theory can be maddening and nonsensical, further illuminating the vaporous nature of metaphysics itself. Yet the potent dialogue that arises out of this process yields the hidden delights of art theory as a singular form of philosophy and gossip. By ‘art theory as philosophy’ I mean our love of wisdom through introspection (aesthetics as a special form of philosophizing) and by ‘art theory as gossip’ I mean our investigation of the luscious details surrounding artists and their lifestyles (as veritable theories about existence).
Thus, the heart of art theory runs parallel to our raunchy human realities. Art is complex, artists are complex, and theories about art are equally elaborate in their complexity. At the outset of these ‘micro-dose’ peeks into art theory I am compelled to declare my ardent fascination with the theatrics of aesthetical-theoretical scenarios. In other words, theories about art are ultimately grounded in the messy and compelling lives of artists and the strangeness of art objects. This ignites a sense of excitement as we explore art theory as an area of intrigue concerning human narratives. The seemingly hermetic nature of art theory is, in fact, a trove of stories ripe for a redux recounting. The core issues of art theory surface time and again, like old flames that we savor for their emotional sway.
Our alignment with art welcomes the intensity of art objects that tinker with our emotions and aesthetic experiences that defy our sense of actuality. Art theory goes a step further: it asks us to entertain coherent ideas about oftentimes incoherent scenarios. Most of us avoid deconstructing reality as a regular habit (or do we?) and theorizing does not encourage stability. On the contrary, these explorations in art theory aspire to capsize ideas about art by revisiting—and interrogating—existing areas of theory to reconsider these concepts amid a changing world. As such, this series will re-introduce some of the supreme voices within the canon as to dismantle these ideas against the zeitgeist of now.
We begin the conversation with Plato, a monumental character who plays an extraordinary role in the ‘art theory script’ since the Greeks. Plato is among the mightiest of all ancient thinkers to speak about art. Classics are inexhaustible and Plato represents the mountainous heights of theory to which we must return, but not with the flagging eye of the past, rather with the inter-cultural, inter-subjective third-eye capacity for seeing an overlapping vision of art across the ages and throughout diverse civilizations (imagine how an AI-generated image of this might conjure a wild landscape of visuals).
A brief lowdown on the indomitable Plato and why he remains a colossal phantasm within the story of art theory going back millennia: he wrote 36 books, all of them dialogues. He wrote about the poets and the artists, about beauty and emotions, about heterosexual and homosexual love. They say that with the study of history, all roads lead back to Rome. Similarly, in the study of art theory, all roads lead back to the world’s first true philosopher, Plato—and notably for one powerful detail with respect to his opinion of art. In “Book X” of The Republic, he condemned the self-referential and impractical character of art. Plato banished artists and poets from the ideal city, citing them as liars who incite passion and emotion, distrusting them for making us ‘think like women.’
Plato confirms the so-called ‘truth of metaphysics’ as being above the physical world, as ideal and eternal, and this is a highly important and suspect aspect of his thinking. He denounces artists as those capable of creating lies, vice, and corruption through creative imitation. With such damning views, the whole of art theory has been influenced by Plato’s theories. We must grapple with Plato anew as to untangle his ideas from their entrenched state within the history of art theory. How has Plato’s judgment about art and artists been subsumed into mainstream consciousness? And how can we identify these controversial concepts in examples of art? In the next segment, we will further explore how the dubious nature of Plato’s thoughts about art reverberates centuries later in the work of another tremendous art theorist, Immanuel Kant. Despite hundreds of years between Plato and Kant, there is a curious subplot that develops with respect to notions of ‘beauty’ and art—and ugliness as a vital opposition within this drama!
This is the first in a series of four essays exploring art theory. Stay tuned for the next installment in early November!
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