Art Theory without Jargon

Back in the 1980’s and 1990’s, in painting and drawing when I was ‘coming of age’ as an artist, there were several dominant art theories routinely taught in art colleges: Formalism from the Bauhaus, Modernist Abstraction from contemporary America, and Postmodern Deconstructivism mainly from European intellectual traditions, as well as Contemporary Figuration, often taught based on loose interpretations of prior academy and atelier methods, also from European traditions. Each of these approaches described various ways of thinking — worldviews — that in turn amplified types of art-making, and sometimes types of content. I tried each of these approaches and felt like none of them really met my needs or expectations or interests as an artist.

Formalism seemed too divorced from symbolic or metaphoric content, and emphasized basics that didn’t seem basic at all. Modernist Abstraction, closely allied with Formalism, seemed too narrowed into beliefs about what is or is not essential in art; and was a form of Essentialism applied to minimal art methods. Postmodern Deconstructivism was great fun, and wildly experimental following in the political and psychological footsteps of Surrealism and Dadaism, but, it was also relativism disguised as art and scholarship. As such, deconstructivism was often deeply anti-science and therefore, highly suspicious. A lot of deconstructivist art theory is jargonized nonsense, obtuse and useless. The figurative traditions were no better, and tended to emphasize repeating well-known older traditions, leaving artists in the bizarre position of being followers of traditions, rather than, like the true spirit of Renaissance artists, being curious, poetic, intellectual explorers asking profound questions about art and representation. In that context, to make good representational or figurative art almost always meant to use the same methods and materials that figurative, realist teachers used, repeating the teacher’s authority as visual exemplar, to the denial of innovations. And all of these seemed to deny fundamental new evidences that reality (if we’re to be at all ‘realist’ in our artmaking), is far weirder and full of more accident and randomness than ever expected.

In those days, I’d just stopped focusing on modern languages and engineering as my college majors. I was familiar with a variety of other cultures and their speech, which in turn taught me that the eurocentric concepts of much art history was skewed toward particular worldviews. I’d studied for a year in Innsbruck, Austria – which despite my own German-American heritage was as different as could be from my upbringing. Maybe it sounds silly today, but back then, they already had well-established routes for recycling glass and metals; which was nonexistent where I’d grown up, and, they already had robust nationalized healthcare, free college education (if you qualified for it), and much more. Traveling to Rome, to Istanbul, to Marrakesh; these places and peoples taught me much more broadly than the narrower range of art theories. Similarly, through my former class work in engineering, I was familiar with calculus, college physics, chemistry, some thermodynamics, and computer programming. That familiarity, basic though it was, was enough to demonstrate that the math-references and science references in a lot of art theory was often inept, and often misplaced. So I was suspicious of many of the claims of various art theories.

Writings that did make sense to me focused on psychology and anthropology, loosely, and a lot of logic. These were mainly writings by Rudolf Arnheim (Power of the Center), Ernst Gombrich (Art & Illusion), and Ellen Dissanayake (Home Aestheticus).

Sometimes it seemed like the creativity of the contemporary science and engineering completely trounced all of this art-theorizing, by developing hugely effective ways of helping the world: electromagnetism and quantum physics for how cell phones work; information theory and mathematics for how computer science and programming works; biology and chemistry for how modern vaccines save millions of lives every year.

I couldn’t help but wonder: why isn’t art theory that useful? How come its explanations so frequently explain nothing? Were art and its art theories doomed to irrelevance, having fallen into the essentialism of so much Modernism, or the relativism of so much Postmodernism, or the repetitive authoritarianism of so much representational, figurative art?

All the while, the contemporary arts moved onwards, creating immense wealth for a handful of collectors and artists, whereas most artists fell to the side, to do … what?

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Ultimately I decided that for me it was important to avoid being an art critic. I try today to approach artworks with a sense of curiosity, of asking what is present, and why is it present? What might be learned or experienced through or with this artwork? And, simply, if I didn’t like it, just walk away and go focus on some other more interesting artwork. So that’s the approach: simple, and driven by curiosity.

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