Art Theorising: a process of open exploration

Art theory, like art history, is often presented in terms of sequences, schools of thought, or key individual thinkers– looking both for unique perspectives and for linkages between these.

Art theory has also tended to be Art Theory ie a bundle of expert knowledge, to be taught and written about; usually treated as a summary. It is less seen as art theorising ie a process, open to many, with ‘maybe’ and ‘good enough for now’ tentative aspects to it. From this second perspective art theory is less a canon of ideas to be applied to art; and more of an emerging, loose, adaptable framework within which art can be considered and within which things might be thought through.

What is suggested here is that art theorising is a process of reinvestigation, of reconstruction, of regeneration – using elements of previous ways of theorising. The kind of thinking imagined is along the lines of hinging fragmentary understandings together in ways that make personal sense – a kind of ‘build our own theorisation’ process.

Setting these thinkings within considerations of the nature of contemporary society, may allow people to follow their own theorisations about art in the current context: what art is; why it is; where it is shifting; and what this means for society in general.

Below are some of the fragments of understandings that can articulate together, repeat, stand in contradiction, have ambiguity, be disagreed with etc. Whilst the word ‘or’ is used in some of the sentences, this is meant to indicate softer options rather than hard-edged binary choices, consistent with the idea of an opening-up adaptive approach rather than a pinning-down defining one.

Boundaries of art; purposes of art

  • Art can reflect life, can focus on life-as-is, the everyday; or can reflect ideal models behind real life, as things could/should be; or can express and illuminate inner worlds
  • Art can deliberately carry its own status as high art , low art, outsider art, insider art – reflecting different degrees of elitism or expertise
  • Art can stress the importance of the material; or of participatory/performatory activities; or of conceptual activity
  • The art is in the process; or the art is the completed object/event
  • Art can put ideas before objects, so that ideas are machines for making art
  • Everything one needs to consider is contained in the work itself; or it is the relationships to things outside the work (the context) that matter more than any individual piece made
  • Art has its own significant forms (in different contexts) – the qualities/essences of its materials and activities that set it apart from other activities
  • Sometimes the audience is seen/sees itself as part of the artwork (but does art necessarily need an audience?)
  • Art can be used to sustain things or can be used to challenge things; art can be used to question, explore or test things out in unique, artistic, ways
  • Art is a sensory, not an intellectual, experience – so falls outside of sterile theorisations
  • Art has a philosophical edge: It asks questions such as ‘What is ….?’, ‘What if ….?’. and ‘Why not ….?’

Art goes on in the mind (of the artist; of the audience; of the commentator)

  • Artists may have heightened sensitivities; particular ways of seeing/ thinking/doing – some heightened access to higher planes
  • Art results from the expertise of creative persons (alone or in collaborations) or ‘Anyone can be an artist’
  • Ways of seeing are constrained by or structured by (but not fully determined by) social forces
  • The mind perceives something, but there is doubt about what makes something ‘something’. Art is not simply explicable
  • Artists follow rules, make choices, explore and test out. Art is experimental with a basis in the aesthetics of curiosity, research and learning
  • Artists strive to get to underlying things, work through layerings, deal with uncertainties
  • Artists make first, then match this to ideas to produce further ways forward (cf fully  pre-planned approaches)

Effects of shapes, colours, lines, forms etc

  • The skilled, experienced, innovative use of approaches and materials can drive art to make new statements, uncover new insights, test new limits etc
  • At its base, art is not magical: simply stuff (objects, colour, surfaces) used in certain ways
  • Artistic activity can aim for simplification, or exaggeration, or abstraction – as ends in themselves or as tools with which to make other things work
  • Art need not be based on some search for meaning; art can be based on the enjoyment of experimentations

Reflexiveness of art

  • Art, artist (and viewer?) can be self-aware; self-reflexive; self-critical
  • Art can consciously show its process, its internal workings, its working-out. The process can openly be the art (rather than the art being based on illusion and artifice)
  • Art can explore its meaning in its particular context; aware of its place in the world (conscious of bias, gaze etc)

Manifestation of structures and values

  • Art made is done so in the recognition of art’s socially constructed nature
  • Art being made fits with ways of thinking about values in society at the time
  • Art gets made and viewed within existing social/economic conditions
  • Art has some reliance on the language and concepts arising out of social systems
  • Art can be incorporated as a cultural sector; or art can be critical, avantgarde and transformative of its wider system
  • Art objects produced are carriers of their own historical and cultural contexts and values
  • Structure builds things up, constructs and composes works of art. Alternatively some art collapses things down, with destruction and decomposition as valid art forms

Art as cultural sets of signs

  • Artists can manipulate signs; audiences can read them
  • The range of signs are structured; but not fully fixed – which forms a creative leeway
  • Artworks can be analysed to make any system of signs more visible
  • Art reinforces, or subverts, systems of understandings – within limits

Art within rational grand narratives and individualised intentions

  • Art was created within, and to a degree sustained by, grand narratives. Maybe these are no longer seen as valid. In which case, there can be lots of smaller narratives, to be articulated, assembled, reshaped, bricolaged. Art then functions how one likes it to function.
  • It is the differences, the spaces between, that gives meaning to things in art (and in life)

Things change

  • Each change in technology creates new thinking, new concepts and new approaches – all opening up possibilities for new practices
  • Art can feel under threat of displacement by technology advancements. Some fears go unrealised eg photographs do not capture reality (are not the person/the event itself); new technologies can be co-opted into new artforms
  • Art works are made via here-and-now individual descriptions and explanations (even if part of short-term sets of practices) rather than via long-term linear prescriptions.
  • Art is characterised by turns, ruptures and points of significance
  • There have been times when art would never be the same again – new forms, new ways of seeing, new understandings, new social frameworks, new theories ….
  • Things can be less fixed than they appear. Art deals with the unstable. It can capture the fluid identities of people and things, the intersectionalities and hybridisations of cultures.
  • There are ongoing shifts in the politics of representation – who gets to speak for whom (via art).
  • Changes in art can be less about shifting edifices with taproots down into underlying structures or processes. Things may be more rhizomal: popping up in slightly varied forms. Becoming not being; evolving across a loose open matrix through differentiation and repetition – multiplicities rather than detailed maps; experimentations rather than linear plans

Where does art end, in real terms?

  • Varieties of art (across history, place, culture, style) now mix together in open frameworks. Art can be anything; art can go anywhere and become anything.
  • Art can become democratised (rather than elitist/expert) and is no longer to be viewed with adulation. Art can be a mere distraction
  • Art is relational. Actions of the audience can create the artwork or can complete the artwork. The boundaries between artwork and audience blurs.
  • Art can increasingly involve hyperrealities getting mashed together – with images of images of images – within which it becomes hard to identify any original or originality – so things carry less authority and a reduced sense of ownership, with uncertainties about where the ‘art’ resides
  • So many things can be art – maybe there is just ‘wider culture’ (which questions how things are seen, and thought about, in the world)

Working through some of the above considerations might suggest ways of theorising art. Since this activity sits within its own current wider context it is also necessary to read across, back and forth from the ways of theorising to the determining facets of the contemporary. By this process one might be able to think about reasonable understandings of what art is, what art does, why art gets made, what value art carries, what shapes approaches to art, where art might take us – and so on – within contemporary society.

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