Theory Free…Not

Sun through the gazebo in Skaneateles

I drove to Syracuse last weekend to retrieve my daughter who just completed her first semester of graduate school. Her plan for recovering from a string of all nighters reading Leonardo’s notebooks and researching the driving force behind the Maniera style was to spend the night in Skaneateles, one of the most precious exemplars of Picturesque Americana. With two feet of snow falling in just 24 hours, we had the town to ourselves and spent most of the day sitting by a roaring fire reading and talking.

Kellin in Skaneateles

She leaves for Florence in a few weeks, so I am the lucky recipient of some of the heavier books that won’t be making the trip with her. She gifted me with a fabulous and immense tome, The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, Vincent Leitch, General Editor. This is the best overview of critical thinkers I’ve ever found. (If you know of a better one, please let me know.)

From the introduction:

In recent decades, theory and criticism have grown ever more prominent in literary and cultural studies, treated less as aids to the study of literature and culture than as ends in themselves. As Jonathan Culler notes in “Framing the Sign: Criticism and Its Institutions”, “Formerly the history of criticism was part of the history of literature (the story of changing conceptions of literature advanced by great writers), but…now the history of literature is part of the history of criticism…”

Some literary scholars and writers deplore the shift toward theory, regarding it as a turn away from literature and its central concerns. These “antitheorists,” as they are called, advocate a return to studying literature for itself—yet however refreshing this position may at first appear, it has problems: it itself presupposes a definition of literature, and it promotes a certain way of scrutinizing literature (“for itself.”) In other words, the antitheory position turns out to rely on unexamined—and debatable—theories of literature and criticism. What theory demonstrates, in this case and in others, is that there is no position free of theory, not even the one called “common sense.”

As is often the case for me, I find many parallels in the visual arts. The inability to be “theory free” is what I have often called the fashion paradox: You can never not make a statement about yourself based on the clothes you wear. Saying you don’t care is still a fashion statement, albeit often a bad one.

Right now the wide ranging field of the visual arts is riddled with holes left from a thousand theoretical pot shots. It is too easy to become jaded and disinterested as the theoretical battles continue to rage. It is also too easy to operate from the assumption (a false one) that you and your work exist in some untouched and untainted space. There’s no such thing and never will be.

It is easier however for me to read about the complex battles of deconstruction and poststructuralism, reader response theory, subjectivity/identity when the material being discussed is language based. It’s like watching your neighbor struggle with the ice and snow and forgetting momentarily that you have the same task to do as well.

One Reply to “Theory Free…Not”

  1. Elatia Harris says:

    For my painting career, I tried to remain outside theory while including it in my awareness. I didn’t want the pigeon-holes for myself, and wondered why anyone would tolerate them. This is quite different from failing to value consistency or vision, and it also never left me feeling at an emotional disadvantage when I painted or thought about painting. After all, if you cannot or will not say what you are as a painter or how you are affiliated with other painters doing work like yours, then you are trusting your instincts, and instincts tend to be rather unfriendly to theory.

    But I have to look at where all this got me — all this rejecting of -isms and refusing to be an -ist. I created a great deal of confusion in the minds of viewers — critics and other intellectuals, friends, gallerists, potential clients. I seemed never to represent any “flavor of the month” they could believe in, or to be a part of what they could understand as the coming thing. And I misunderstood how much the classification mania of the art establishment drove the career progress an artist could make. Perhaps one can’t ever truly be outside the system — only irrelevant to it. Post-modernism engineered a slow breakdown of these taxonomies, but then became, itself, theory-ridden.

    I saw the way I negotiated all that as the price of being authentic, and even from this distance I still see it that way. Authentic, yes. Intelligent, no.

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