When Plato exiled creative artists from the Republic, he had a good reason: Artists lie. “The maker of the image knows nothing of true existence,” the philosopher says, “he knows appearances only.” Since then, philosophers may have reconsidered the relation between true existence and appearance, but the relation between philosophers and artists has remained the same. Artists still seem like a people in exile, stumbling along in darkness. “If only we could teach artists to speak the truth,” philosophers from Plato to Hegel to Schopenhauer to Adorno have sighed. “Then, finally, they could find their way home.” By “home,” of course, they mean philosophy.
Is it necessary to say that artists have always seen the situation differently? “Artists need critics like birds need ornithologists,” quipped Barnett Newman in an uncommonly clear artist’s statement. “The philosopher’s ‘truth’ is also a lie,” artists say with their work. “Philosophy is just the intellectual’s aesthetic; the philosopher’s home is appearance, too.”
Nevertheless, philosophersand those who carry on the philosophical tradition in the name of theoryperiodically renew their good-hearted and thick-headed attempts to bring artists back under the protective roof of philosophy. In the best case, these attempts produce more philosophy. In the worst case, however, this naïve desire to save art from itself produces freshman-year courses like “Theories of Art from Plato to Adorno.”
I teach one of these courses at California College of the Arts. My background is in literary theory and intellectual history and, like most of my colleagues in the humanities department, I feel a passionate commitment to the methods and practices of conceptual thought. Every semester, I enter the classroom utterly convinced that art students need grounding in the tools and techniques of my discipline. And every semester, my students take their seats and with equal conviction ask, “Why do we need to know this?”
My answer? “Because learning to think critically will make you a better artist.”
Their response? “Whatever.”
I’m not being fair. Their response, really, is to produce more art. But from the theorist’s perspective, making more art sounds like “whatever.” It just perpetuates the problem. When faced with the bewildering disorder of art, critics want to clean it up (we say, “to understand it, theorize it”). Artists, however, want to mess with it, mix it up, keep it wild. I want my students to express their thoughts more clearly and to understand what I mean when I say, “commodity fetish,” “logocentrism,” and “the gaze.” They want to excel in their chosen media, to create innovative work.
It’s Plato’s fault that this seems like a contradiction. But it’s our fault as teachers of the humanities if we cannot resolve this apparent contradiction for our students and ourselves.
Ideally, art and philosophy share a goal. In one medium or another, both aim to increase our perceptual acuity. We want to “see” and to grasp what we see more clearly. But an artist sees and grasps with the materials of art, while a critic employs the tools of conceptual thought. It was Plato’s prejudice that conceptual thought was superior to all other methods. When teachers of the humanities accept this prejudice uncriticallywhich happens all too routinely, unconsciously, and understandablyI think we fail both as theorists and as teachers.
When my students ask, “Why do we need to know this,” they may be expressing undergraduate ennui. But this question also embodies the best kind of theoretical curiosity. How shall we hear it? As a challenge to our authority? Or as the fundamental challenge of theory itself? Maybe they’re asking, “What is the purpose of a critical vocabulary? What function do theoretical terms serve?”
Creating art is an intensely critical activity. The artist is constantly evaluating materials, engaging art history, and analyzing his or her own proclivities and assumptions. In the best case, then, I can teach them to be more critical, more precise in their questions. In this way, they learn to use the instruments of conceptual thought to solve perceptual problems or to accomplish specific perceptual tasks that they already sense. The result, one hopes, is that students learn to see and grasp their own media in new ways.
Unfortunately, however, because most teachers of the humanities are critics and not artists, we too often respond defensively. It’s understandable. We want our students to know the best of what has been said and thought about art. Therefore, we justify our discipline by teaching “theory,” that is, the abstract results of critical activity (the terms, the concepts), rather than the methods of critical perception itself. Like dutiful children of Plato, we teach our students how to speak like critics.
But what have we really taught them, then? Not to think theoretically, but to use (and more often misuse) a few theoretical terms. The paradox is that simply giving students new words (making them “conversant with theories”) defeats the goal of teaching them to think critically. Instead of increasing their perceptual sensitivity and creative subtlety, it restricts their vocabularies to a handful of fashionable terms and ideasthe reigning critical jargon of the day. Take a casual glance at the artists’ statements at any MFA exhibit. Why is every single student artist seemingly obsessed with “subverting” or “displacing” or “deconstructing,” or, or, or The terms are as predictable and self-important as they are conventional and meaningless. This alone should convince us that the humanities departments at art schools ought to take a slightly more critical look at themselves.
It seems to me we shouldn’t teach “theories,” but critical problems. There really is no reason why students need to know what Laura Mulvey means by “the gaze” or what Marx means by ‘alienation”until the students understand the problems that motivated these theoretical constructions. But if students engage with this problem, then Marx’s or Mulvey’s concept is no longer the “content” of what they learn. It becomes an example of how theorists engage with the world using the tools of conceptual thought. That’s a fundamentally different classroom experience that learning “theory,” a fundamentally different education than studying Marx. Teaching a syllabus of theories, we’re giving students the answers to questions they haven’t asked. Teaching critical problems, we help them to identify and formulate their own questions, and we encourage them by example to produce their own “theories”not in words, but in their own media, their own styles. In this way, we teach them to see and grasp conceptually; we educate them to be better artists.