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Issue 125

Teaching Survey

Four leading teachers from universities and art schools around the world reflect on the importance of theory for students today

BY George Baker, Isabelle Graw, Ronald Jones AND Michael Archer in Features | 01 SEP 09

What kind of theory is being taught today in art history departments and art schools?
What has changed in comparison to earlier decades?
What should change in the future?

George Baker

I am the last professor regularly teaching theory courses in an art history department once known for its theoretical focus. Indeed, last year my department discontinued its ‘theory concentration’. Mary Kelly continues to teach her seminar on Jacques Lacan (although a professor of art she is also an official member of the art history department) and most of my students take this course. They also work – as do many of the most motivated MFA students – within the programmes and classes of the Comparative Literature and English departments, which have started a new theory initiative inviting thinkers including Étienne Balibar, Slavoj Žižek and Alain Badiou to our campus. But within art history, there seems to be a general consensus that the days of theory as an endeavour in and of itself are over. It remains unclear to me whether this is to be couched as a failure of the theoretical turn within the field in the 1980s and 1990s; or as a victory, the recent banishment of art history’s tenacious empiricism: all art history courses now imply an explicit theoretical model or set of models in their conception. No separation of theory and practice remains.

Students in the UCLA Sculpture Garden, Los Angeles, USA, 2009. Courtesy: UCLA, Los Angeles; photograph: Stephanie Diani

The course that I teach, Art History 202, exists as a general rubric in ‘theory and criticism’. It sits within the catalogue of UCLA curricular offerings next to AH200, the compulsory art history methodologies course, and AH201, the ‘history of art history’ seminar (a dormant course, never offered). Under this rubric, I have not yet mounted the same class twice. The seminar has not become a Structuralism or post-Structuralism class (the bodies of thought to which I feel most tied), nor a practicum on some aspect of the thinking of a single figure – Gilles Deleuze, say, or Sigmund Freud (the thinkers to whom I return most frequently). It is not just that I lack the systematizing impulse to mount such surveys. But I envision the teaching of theory as necessitating a deeply experimental approach, changing with regard to recent events, books, debates, as well as artistic developments – a laboratory ethos in other words, testing and exploring new territory as opposed to solidifying and systematizing old ones. I have thus offered 202 as a ‘theories of modernity’ seminar, pitting a variety of approaches to current social structures against classical texts on modernity. In the wake of writing on Paul Chan’s work for London’s Serpentine Gallery I realized the need to think about temporality in new ways. The result was a seminar crafted around issues of anachronism, past and present, philosophical and art historical. We read texts by Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch and Siegfried Kracauer; Frank Kermode and Edward Said; Aby Warburg and Erwin Panofsky, George Kubler and Henri Focillon; Deleuze, Emmanuel Levinas, Giorgio Agamben. We read W.G. Sebald. I doubt the seminar was of much ‘use’ for the handful of artists who took it (mostly painters!) – ditto for the art historians, architects, film students. But it seemed both deeply energizing and necessary to all involved, at least from my perspective.

There seems to be a concensus that the days of theory as an endeavour in itself are over. 

One of the complaints dogging today’s undeniable anti-theoretical turn points to the lack of any common paradigm ruling theoretical discourse or debate. This should be seen, however, as an opportunity, not a handicap. For in the days when such paradigms were in place, theory was a thoroughly instrumentalized activity. I sense this danger still whispering through your current questions: how can theory serve artistic (or art historical) practice? I think it should not serve either, in any identifiable way whatsoever. Theory does not exist to facilitate the instrumentalization of ideas just as it should not be seen as a contemporary de-skilling of the activities formerly consigned to philosophy. Theory, instead, is something I conceive of as a more flexible mode of philosophical thinking, a thought that reaches outside the limits and boundaries of accepted fields and methods, hybridizing them, inventing new categories and new modes. These new modes may not prove useful, nor even comfortable. They may not produce what we seemed to seek in the past, a new paradigm or instrumental operation of thought. Theory, in fact, is what we need and should turn to when we no longer agree on any given paradigms, when we no longer seem assured as to what a field of study like art history should entail or should do. Theory is not just the hoary old Owl of Minerva, setting off in flight at the moment of dusk, at the moment something ends and can be consigned to the trash bin of understanding. Theory is also the beginning of the search for the new. It testifies to the need for speculation. The latter in fact is all that theory is. And this speculative potential is a space of freedom and invention, but also a space that today we seem to fear: theory as what we might simply call the ‘plenipotentiary of thought’.

Isabelle Graw

When I began teaching at art colleges in the early 1990s – at Munich’s Academy of Fine Arts and later at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna – theory was still having a hard time. There was always a small circle of theory-loving students who devoured the latest books by Judith Butler, Pierre Bourdieu, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. But for the most part, the (male) lecturers kept anything even mildly theoretical at arm’s length, associating it (quite rightly) with something that threatened their concept of art: there is a direct correlation between the level of hostility to theory and the degree to which art is understood purely as the expression of one individual’s senses. Moreover, being interested in ‘theory’ also meant opting for a model of art as social critique, at odds with isolated and restrictive definitions of art. But there were already signs of the problem with any artistic engagement with theory: the students had a tendency to transfer insights drawn from their reading directly into their work. At the time, I referred to this as Umsetzungskunst (putting-into-practice art). Texts were scanned for anything that might be of artistic or existential use, degraded to the status of the means to an end.

There are still a few art academies in Germany today where theory is seen as a distraction from 'actual' art.

There are still a few art academies today in Germany where theory is seen as a distraction from ‘actual’ art – understood as something substantial, detached from social conditions. Instead of making encounters with theoretical texts an integral part of their work, even open-minded art students tend to privilege their ‘own work’ over attending a theory seminar. Yet art worth talking about – from Gustave Courbet to Alexander Rodchenko and Andy Warhol – always possesses an intellectual dimension. As well as being influenced by theories, the works themselves also produce a specific form of theoretical knowledge. A common charge levelled at theory, however, is that the essence of art resists discourse. From this point of view, text is the natural enemy of art, since it threatens art’s traditional claim to a certain je ne sais quoi. In truth, however, this claim itself is a theoretical one. While theory-lovers may tend to apply theory directly, bypassing the specific quality of visual work, the theory-haters posit a divide between the textual and the visual, between theory and praxis, ignoring the very real overlap between the two.

Isabelle Graw giving a lecture, Städelschule, Frankfurt, Germany, 2007. Courtesy: Städelschule, Frankfurt

It was Conceptual art that established the profile of the theoretically literate artist. Although the model of the ‘artist-theorist’ who engages in artistic activity based on research still meets with scepticism and suspicion on the commercial art market, on the markets of knowledge – art societies, grand-scale exhibitions such as documenta or Manifesta – it has long since become the dominant model. As questionable as it may be to explain away an art work’s elements with researched references, it does have its advantages that ‘research’ has become part of the artist’s brief. It is a far cry, for example, from the mythical notion of the artist as a genius on creative autopilot. This development also bears witness to the shift towards a knowledge-based economy within society as a whole. The art world exemplifies the kind of ‘project-based polis’ (Luc Boltanski/Eve Chiapello) where projects based on cooperation, research and theoretical input are pursued. Correspondingly, there has been a change in the status of theory at art academies, from unpopularity to respectability. I was able to observe this surge in popularity firsthand in the numbers attending my seminars at the Städelschule in Frankfurt. Whereas in early years, the initial enthusiasm often evaporated as soon as work (in the form of class papers) was required, the students now stay the course, even for difficult close-reading seminars like ‘Understanding Rancière’. For hipsters, theory is a must – after all, in a project-based polis, knowledge is the main currency.

One problem remains here: what exactly is ‘theory’? Is it a mere supposition, as in ‘that’s just his theory’? Or a system of statements founded on rigorous principles? The concept of ‘theory’ unites these two meanings – it can be both systematic and purely speculative. This double meaning is what exposes theory to constant attack. This is particularly true at art academies, where theory will always play second fiddle, regardless of any trends. More generally, theory is a luxury only indulged during economic crises, when there is suddenly time again for questioning. Theory remains art’s Other – in spite of the fact that it inheres within art.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Ronald Jones

While business as usual suitably describes the handing down of theory, in other words, ‘critical theory’ in the academy, some faculty members and students at a few universities and art and design schools are systematically developing a relevant ‘post-critical’ alternative. This complementary path, charged by interdisciplinary research methodologies, can project power and influence precisely by creating entrepreneurial and attainable solutions to wicked problems. By comparison, ‘critical theory’, unable to actualize divergent thinking or disruptive innovation, seems like little more than toothless compliance with prevailing attitudes about its own efficacy. Critical theory has, some believe, dug its own hole; while actively critical, it is usually without creative alternatives to the object of its critique, i.e. ‘writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.’

National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, India, 2004. Courtesy: National Institute of Design

In ‘End the University as We Know It’, a watershed op-ed piece published in the 26 April 2009 issue of The New York Times, Mark C. Taylor, Chair of the Religion department at Columbia University, described the essential need in graduate education for ‘a curriculum structured like a web or complex adaptive network.’ ‘Responsible teaching and scholarship,’ he concluded, ‘must become cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural.’ It is worth noting that the ‘post-critical’ alternative is networked between the ongoing instrumentalization of post-criticality within architecture set forth by Michael Speaks and others, and Bruno Latour’s crucial 2004 essay ‘Why Has Critique Run out of Steam?’, all the while sharing close affinities with what many describe as ‘Design Thinking’. Why are we currently experiencing this across academic generations and disciplines? Students and younger faculty members are waking up to the widening failure of relativism, while the self-reflective brand of old-school critical theory is fully anesthetized. In this light, taking the course to empower a culture that can intervene at the intersection of many disciplines, supplying measurable change in the larger world and on many different fronts, seems all but instinctual.

Over the past few decades judgment of the rank found in writers from Susan Sontag to Donald Judd, from Rosalind Krauss to Thomas Lawson, has gone missing. As a result, those positioned to affect public opinion (who happen to make up significant numbers in culture’s audience – Jean-François Lyotard called them the ‘decision makers’) are all too often presented with no more than unsubstantiated opinions (from critical design to arts activism) when what they need is credible evidence from rigorous research before taking actionable decisions. Where, from the cultural side, are the methodologies for making decisions and attaining pro-active solutions whose success and failure can be measured not only as cultural achievements but also as successes from the political, humanitarian, public policy, or economic side? Post-critical theory can engineer methods for producing results across disciplines, not merely grandstanding jingoistic evangelism promoting a cause. In the face of what social media tangibly instrumentalized in the streets of Iran, one might ironically contemplate how many contemporary monuments dedicated to peace ever kept the peace?

For a glimpse into the future, read Taylor’s ‘End the University as We Know It’. Current research tells us that we presently lack the imagination to conceive of another methodology beyond interdisciplinarity capable of producing a higher level of creativity. The crucial implication for the near future is that because of that lack of imagination, innovations with the highest value will be driven by interdisciplinary research methods. Finally, how are we able to make such predictions? By using the analytic techniques and methods of future forecasting, which are becoming increasingly indispensable to advanced post-critical theory, and never more so than in the arts and humanities.

Michael Archer

Back in the late 1950s and early ’60s, when British fine art education was being formalized as a degree-level course, complementary studies was considered to be an integral element. Given that the reality could never match the ideal, what has transpired is a system within which most courses offer some menu of seminar topics in the humanities and social sciences. In the larger courses students might get to choose which ones they attend; in the smaller ones they get what they’re given. The tutors responsible for setting up and running this system are all pretty much at retiring age now, so maybe things will change. I’m not sure about that, though.

Art-making is specific and specifics always dismantle theory.

Art schools have always experienced a certain awkwardness when it came to naming this aspect of their activities. Art history, history and theory, complementary studies, contextual studies – the plurality of names can be taken as symptomatic of either a lack of clarity about what’s needed, or a belief in the desirability of openness in fine art education. None of the names is very good, really. In one way or another they all tend to encourage the view that what goes on in the studio is one thing, and what goes on elsewhere is a part of everything else. Of them all, ‘art history’ is perhaps the most problematic, its use implying that all contemporary art be viewed primarily as a continuation of – or, worse, a pathetic and inevitably doomed effort to match – what other people have already done and been fêted for.

Whatever the tag, it has essentially acknowledged the widely shared view, with which I agree, that it’s good every now and then if students and tutors sit around and talk. Doing this helps to give some perspective on what can otherwise become solipsistic and self-regarding procedures. Indeed, if this aspect of art school behaviour has any worth, it lies in its ability to show that everything else is just a part of what goes on in the studio. While there are any number of factors that might influence things, you can’t be prescriptive about what gets discussed. It’s less the specific subject, more the potential revealed through its availability for consideration that matters.

Michael Archer leads a seminar, Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, Oxford, UK, 2008. Courtesy: Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, Oxford University

One requirement is to ensure that curiosity and enquiry do not get subjugated to a feverish desire for fashionability. Merely replacing Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Jean-François Lyotard with Alain Badiou, Jacques Rancière and Slavoj Žižek is a tedious game. None of these people are in the business of providing a programme for action, and to allow students to approach them as if they might be is not healthy. Dave Hickey’s jaundiced view, voiced in Art in America a couple of years ago, is – and I’m paraphrasing here – that because we’re not proper philosophers, anthropologists, psychoanalysts or whatever, any mention of works by specialists in those fields in an art school can only be specious, misleading twaddle. This is a crock, and simply another version of the traditionalist plaint, familiar in the 1970s, that what people should do is ‘talk about the art’ rather than concern themselves with what Karl Marx, Mikhail Bakhtin or Louis Althusser may have said. What any of these people wrote could be interesting to look at, not least because the last thing they’ll ever be in any strict sense is applicable. Art-making is specific, and specifics always dismantle theory.

Finally, it needs to be pointed out that whatever I have said has nothing to do with what may or may not go on in art history departments. I’ve never taught in one, so can’t speak about them.

George Baker is Associate Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art, Vice-Chair UCLA, Department of Art History, Los Angeles, USA.

The founding editor of Texte zur Kunst and a professor of art history and art theory at the Hochschule für bildende Künste (Städelschule) in Frankfurt, Germany. Her book Grand Prize: Art between the Market and Celebrity Culture will be published by Sternberg Press in late 2009.

Ronald Jones is on the faculty of the Royal College of Art, London, and a regular contributor to this magazine. 

Reader and Course Leader, BA Fine Art, at Goldsmiths College, University of London, UK