Think Art

This essay commissioned by the Witte de With, looks at the relation between art and theory. It was written in 1999. While still on the site, it is sold out.

A Journey from Démodé to Displacement: Some Reflections on the Relation between Art and Theory

small excerpt from the essay:

I still believe the relation between art and theory to be both necessary and vital. As Gilles Deleuze aptly points out: ‘…from the moment a theory moves into its proper domain, it begins to encounter obstacles, walls and blockages which require its relay by another type of discourse (it is through this other discourse that it eventually passes to a different domain). Practice is a set of relays from one theoretical point to another, and theory is a relay from one practice to another. No theory can develop without eventually encountering a wall, and practice is necessary for piercing this wall.'[ref]Gilles Deleuze in conversation with Michel Foucault, ‘Intellectuals and Power’, Discourses: Conversations in Postmodern Art and Culture, ed. Russell Ferguson, William Olander, Marcia Tucker and Karin Fiss (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992)[/ref]

The liberative possibilities of such an alliance lie in the potential to pierce through walls thrown up by the process of theorizing and conversely to break down those erected by practice. However a truly open dialogue can only happen where there is a sense of mutual reciprocity or for that matter mutual risk; the dilemma is how to attain that state of reciprocity. My at times polemic argumentation and generalizations thus far have been used for the sake of driving home this question. How can art and theory proceed in order to strike up a conversation on an equal footing so those ‘relays’ can occur?

Although I have no prescriptive solutions to this question, as a beginning there are some primary elements which can be addressed. A more open dialogue between art and theory can be facilitated by setting aside falsely dichotomous models in search of interactive paradigms acknowledging the fluidity of social change and exchange. As Michel de Certeau writes in Culture in the Plural: ‘between a society and its scientific models, between a historical situation and the intellectual tools that belong to it, there exists a relation that constitutes a cultural system’. In order to escape the sequestered isolation of their own specialized tools, artists and theorists must recognize that they are simultaneously products and partial producers of a cultural system. And entrenched in this condition, they share similar concerns and face the same prospects of their work being appropriated or assimilated by larger social and economic forces. Implicated in these networks, cultural production must be continually re-inserted, measured up and critically evaluated according to a variety of social dynamics.

It is also important to move away from classic constructs of theory versus practice by acknowledging the hybridity of each activity. Theory has its elements of practice, but all too often while critiquing structure, it remains unaware, unaccountable and above reproach in terms of its own manifestations. If theory begins to value its own form, then it is subject to similar representational quandaries and has a great deal to gain from a relation with art. Conversely, there are theoretical capacities in art-making. As the Critical Art Ensemble suggests, art can prepare ‘ the ground for the introduction of new realities and vision’ and ‘act as a catalyst for critical and imaginative thought.’ [ref]’Critical Art Ensemble in Conversation with Mark Dery’, Mute Magazine, No.10 (London: Skyscraper Digital Publishing) p.33 [/ref]By realizing where these mutual territories lie, a relation between art and theory can be created which is based not on a division of labour – the one who does and the one who thinks- but on common issues and interests.

With these starting points in mind, I am in favour of a relationship between art and theory that refrains from the arrogance of expertise, rejects the hermetic tendencies of specialization, and allows the borders of each discipline to be continually redefined when brought into conversation with each other and broader social networks. I welcome an alignment that stimulates the potential to critically reflect, speculate and most importantly transform perception, thought, belief and practices. Finally, I hope for institutional frameworks that foster such exchanges and moments of uncertainty, confusion, crossovers and perhaps even displacement.