BY Sam Thorne in Opinion | 17 SEP 09
Featured in
Issue 125

Back & Forward

The changing role of cultural theory, and its enduring importance for contemporary art

BY Sam Thorne in Opinion | 17 SEP 09

During a recent studio visit with an MFA student I asked her whether theory figured much on the course. Her answer was punchy: ‘Theory of what?’ Perhaps I should have been more specific. But then, what did I mean exactly? The term has always seemed a slippery one to me: partly pejorative, a jibe from sniffy logicians, but also covering a bewildering, tantalizingly broad range of studies.

As many who were at art school during the 1980s and early 1990s will confirm, theory was then a far more dominant and contentious issue than it has been for these past 15 years. (This was by no means confined to art schools; while theory continues to be taught as part of many Cultural Studies programmes in the US, in many History and English departments in the UK ‘lit. theory’ has been roundly ignored.) Few of this decade’s most prominent theorists and philosophers write extensively about the production and display of art. Perhaps more importantly, those embarking on MFAs in the last decade would have done so at a time when the major battles had already been lost and won, and when the more publicly visible theorists had died some years before. With them, the high-profile critics – such as Camille Paglia, who said of Michel Foucault that he made ‘smirky glibness an art form’ – have quietened too. At a seminar I attended in 2004 a tutor grandly announced the passing of Jacques Derrida, only to be met with blank faces.

Student reading habits are dictated by both enthusiastic recommendations and class requirements. Today, many students will first encounter – as I did – the foundational texts of continental philosophy in easily digestible short-form versions: a teaser from Derrida’s Of Grammatology (1976), choice cuts from Jean-François Lyotard’s 1979 The Postmodern Condition, a smattering of Gilles Deleuze’s writing on cinema and perhaps the whole of his and Felix Guattari’s ‘Treatise on Nomadology’, first published in English by Semiotext(e) in 1986. (Even these gobbets are seductive, offering a frisson of Gallic cool delivered with a tempting lack of precision.) A long established practice, providing excerpts in place of sometimes intimidatingly long books remains a quick solution to a necessary overview, though I would argue that many students today will have already encountered – perhaps unwittingly – theory’s dispersed legacy in unexpectedly various ways.

This has been underappreciated. In a New York Times column published last year Stanley Fish confidently pegged the end of ‘the age of theory’ as the early 1980s. For Fish, this regrettable tipping point occurred when he heard a film critic casually opine that Bronco Billy, a 1980 Clint Eastwood film, ‘deconstructed’ the Dirty Harry image. Equating a perceived loosening of the academy’s grasp on post-Structuralism’s vocabulary with the end of a theoretical impulse that aimed to destabilize dominant discourses and to decipher the operations of authority seems remarkably wrongheaded. Fish was too hasty with his post-mortem; just because theory had escaped from the academy didn’t mean it was a goner.

Rather than ‘What happened to theory?’ the more interesting question might be ‘Where is theory now?’ What could this declining emphasis on theory’s major texts in art schools – a literal shrinking, down to manageable excerpts – combined with its transmission into the outside world mean for both art and art education? Dispersal doesn’t necessarily equal dilution (though it hardly encourages rigour), but how does first encountering a text in an extra-curricular context – as a film, a song or a rumour – alter the initial experience of the text?

Theory’s orthodoxies radically affected the way that artists understand and talk about their work. Today many younger artists may do so unawares, having first encountered theory in a less rarefied context than an academic journal. Long before I had heard of Fish, I had unwittingly encountered him – or at least a character based on him – in his friend David Lodge’s trio of campus novels, in the deconstruction-loving American professor Morris Zapp and his ‘jargon-ridden lucubrations’. Lionized and vilified – the main players in the gilded age of theory were also fictionalized.

A better known example of theory’s sphere of influence is Woody Allen’s 1997 film Deconstructing Harry, a mangled homage that was noted in many of Derrida’s obituaries. More often, though, younger generations’ first experience of theory is bound less to heavy-handed paeans than to serendipitous habits. For example, in my late teens I used to buy music released by a small Frankfurt-based record label called Mille Plateaux, and was only later happily surprised to make the connection with Deleuze and Guattari. This haphazard dissemination into the real world not only prompts a kind of déjà vu when the text itself is actually encountered, it irrevocably affects how a younger generation comes to consider now canonized works. Once linked to disposable formats outside of the academic marketplace, the pop-cultural dispersal of theory was an ongoing disappearing act.

Theory’s relatively short history is closely tied with the thwarted communication and confused reception of complex ideas. As François Cusset wrote in his 2008 book French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States, theory’s ‘most intensive uses and most dazzling successes, but also its crudest distortions, occurred in artistic circles.’ These misunderstandings have been occasionally infamous, as with Jean Baudrillard’s rejection of his devotees at a 1987 lecture at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, in which he criticized their liberal use of hard-to-grasp concepts. More often, though, they are simply banal, as with the creaky and regrettable vocabulary of rhizomes, mise-en-abymes and aporias that unnecessarily populate press releases and catalogue essays. For a generation too young to remember when these texts were bitterly fought over, the move from the academy to popular culture has surely been a productive one. But if the approaches suggested by theory are to remain useful, we should pay attention to its past – not only how it has been marketed and circulated internationally, but how it has been misunderstood.

Sam Thorne is the director general and CEO of Japan House London.