joanne lee


didactic parameters

I was invited to write a paper on the development of a ‘new apparatus of concepts’ for art theory. My paper, intended as a provocation, was presented by Professor Richard Woodfield at a panel discussion in Tokyo, and then reproduced along with an edited version of the resulting discussion, in Lier en Boog, Series of Philosophy of Art and Art Theory, the journal produced annually by the Dutch Society of Aesthetics.

Editors Annette W. Balkema and Henk Slager provided the following Point of Departure:

In today's theoretical reflection on the artistic process of communication, an obsolete apparatus of concepts in involved: a theoretical framework no longer geared towards how visual art functions nowadays. In ‘What is Philosophy’, Deleuze and Guattari maintain that it is philosophy's task "to create concepts for problems that necessarly change." In order to shift towards the development of such a new apparatus of concepts, the project Concepts on the Move intends to list topical problems and conditions of the artistic process, and to investigate research topics and issues which could lead to the beginning of another conceptual apparatus for dealing with the theory and practice of visual art. In order to arrive at a reflexive distance, the project aims to establish a dialogue between reflexive and active participants in the field of visual art. Therefore, panel discussions will be situated in locations (Antwerp: HIFA, Karlsruhe: ZKM, Ljubljana: Biennial, London: Slade, Maastricht: Jan van Eyck, New York: Columbia University, Oslo: Statens Akademi, Paris: Ensba, Venice: Biennial) where the conditions for such an exchange are optimal.

I am an artist and writer: in both cases these activities are important to me because they allow me to think and be curious about the world in which I find myself. I am also a lecturer in Fine Art, where I put to work the knowledge and experiences of these practices, which are in turn challenged by the discourse of staff and students with whom I work. The project Concepts on the Move states that its purpose is to explore decisive topics in current visual art, list current phenomena in visual art and develop new terms which may adequately relate to those phenomena. Deciding upon the current topics in visual art will largely be determined by whom you ask: which academy, university, dealer, critic or artist. My response to the project is driven by my activities within the field of academic research and pedagogy. As someone involved in the teaching of fine art students, I am concerned to define an appropriate curriculum  just what an art student needs to know in 2001. But I repeatedly find that such attempts are radically destabilised by the changing student cohort and my own evolving experiences and opinions. A year rarely passes without myself and my colleagues questioning the parameters we set and the issues we consider important. Our concepts are always fundamentally on the move. Whilst such activity is ridiculously time -consuming, and in part an annual admission of failure, it is a critical step in preventing the fossilization of any discourse. That little is fixed and everything open to challenge becomes something of a mantra. The will to question everything is in itself an orthodoxy amongst artists of, shall we say, a more conceptual leaning and one which may act as a troublesome and exhausting reflex. But old habits die hard and I feel I must begin here by taking issue with the terminology of the project.

The term "art theory" is, I suspect, purposefully vague. In order to establish appropriate contemporary issues, I would ask who or what this theory is for. Heidegger explained (in The Question Concerning Technology) that theory as a term is derived from the Greek “theorein”, from the coalescing of “thea” and “horao”. Thea is "the outward look, the aspect in which something shows itself" whilst horao means "to look at something attentively, to look it over, to view it closely." This showing of an idea or issue presupposes that someone is there to see it, to witness its being made visible. We need to be clear for whom exactly are we attempting to provide new technology and what purpose may be served by its use. So when we say "art theory" are we trying to understand what artists have made, to comprehend how or why artists produce what they do? Do we intend to explore how "meaning" is made and interpretations function? Do we wish to consider how art is both different from and yet related to other cultural products? In posing these questions I do not wish to appear willfully naive, but it seems critical that if we are to define new terms, we must first readdress the job those terms are expected to perform.

From the perspective of teaching I am aware that a good proportion of my work is invested in demythologizing the terms and concepts students encounter in their studies. Very many art students come to university without the academic background that gives the confidence to dispute the often abstruse languages they discover. The academic urge to neologism is at best an attempt to make language express something that was hitherto unrecognized or unsayable. At worst it is a careerist "laying claim" to academic territory: inventing a term which is forever associated with the academic and his/her work. The result may simply be yet more weighty cultural baggage to be dragged around by other academics and students merely in order to demonstrate one is paying one's academic dues. (It is interesting to me that procedure at doctoral level still refers to defending one's thesis, as if it is a military position the defence of which one is willing to go down in flames.) In a sense, I would suggest that it is tools rather than terms that we need, and a willingness to consider what we are trying to achieve and then which methodology may best facilitate this. At the root of the problem is the way that the visual and the verbal do not neatly equate, given that they exist in different though related linguistic registers. This is hardly news, and I do not wish to suggest that we must then shrug our shoulders and accept a certain failure. Their very incompatibility implies possibility, and indeed movement. As Barthes reminds us, discourse is from the Latin discursus, a going to and from. Our concepts must thus encourage the movement between ideas rather than the stasis of fixed definition.

In recent years, visual culture as a discipline has been rather in the ascendancy and I recognize that my research and teaching have largely developed in this direction. I would propose that I have abandoned the notion of a pure art theory, given that cultural producers and products are increasingly mobile. It is something of a truism to say that adverts are now better than the programs, or that advertising is worthy of definition as art. But such statements miss the point. In awarding the appellation "art", we suggest a misplaced sense of importance for the term: many producers would not wish to be labelled in such a way. I would rather we consider the reception and importance of all images and artifacts according to their context and reception. To conclude, I think I am suggesting that we need a theory which helps us understand and challenge the visual (and further the sensory) world in which we live. Calling oneself an artist is, I believe, only useful in that it allows the space to wander at will through a variety of spaces and disciplines, exercising curiosity and criticism. Given that the proper meaning of aesthesis is "sense perception", I would subscribe to Susan Buck Morss' view that what we need now is perhaps an aesthetics after the end of art, a theory which accounts for the reception of a variety of visual phenomena.