Joanne lee


languages for learning to delight in art

The theory and criticism of art has, in recent years at least, been defined by its apparent interdisciplinarity. Our critical language is derived variously from aesthetics, semiotics, cultural studies, identity politics, psychoanalysis, psychology, and reception theory among very many others. In a manner fitting Adam Phillips’s description of psychoanalysis as ‘more of a grab bag of culture and history than a vision or system’, writers, thinkers, and indeed artists themselves have tended towards a working methodology best defined as eclectic.1 To me, this curiosity about diverse models seems healthy; it marks a real interest in the world and, done well, it is a model for engaging with the full potential and complexity of academic inquiry.

Of course there are well-rehearsed arguments to the contrary. Noël Carroll articulates a common concern when he states that these ‘theoretical excursions’ are almost always dilettantish rather than rigorous usually because they tend to rely upon second- or third-hand source material.2 A decade before Carroll, Jonathan Ree was highly critical of a certain kind of interdisciplinarity he termed the nouveau mélange, which brings together material that is at best incompatible or at worst contradictory.3 These arguments are not without foundation, but I remain concerned that they also make us over-defensive. In what follows, I hope to articulate some of the problems with our current theoretical approaches and to offer a sketch of alternative strategies. This essay is prompted by my work as an artist and as a teacher of practitioners rather than theorists. Within art, perhaps we can be a little less concerned with ‘getting it right’, overtly attempting to hold open a space in which uncertainty is privileged.

The theory and criticism of art is marked by a narrow orthodoxy of pseudo-interdisciplinarity that privileges the same few theories, and theorists, time and again. Victor Burgin’s The End of Art Theory railed against the canon of established artistic ‘masterpieces’, observing that canonical works are ‘consigned to perpetual exhumation’.4 My sadness is that the new discourse Burgin laid out with such conviction almost twenty years ago has now congealed into our own canon of established theoretical masterpieces. Even at the time Burgin was writing his piece, he noted: ‘The texts are looted of their terminology, which is then used to vacuously ornament the pages of conservative writings [...] Pages are now peppered with such terms as ‘signifier’, ‘desire’, ‘drive’, ‘deconstruction’ and so on — a roll call of the arrested terminological prisoners given meaningless labour in intellectual deserts’.5

It is still considered a ‘good thing’ by academics for art students to engage with this theoretical canon (and its descendants), but guidance is rarely offered as to what exactly they should do with it. Art students’ anxieties seem primarily focused upon theory, and those anxieties are often aggravated by their teachers, some of whom fear this material (because they too had an art education that failed to properly explain its utility), while others are hidebound by an unduly reverential application of models from other fields (which are often incompletely understood), and yet others simply enjoy demonstrating a theoretical dexterity. In each case, they reinforce the idea of its difficulty.

If teachers explain something about the use of this theory, one of two approaches is usually followed. On the one hand, staff encourage students to read against the grain, a method that requires a level of academic confidence beyond many undergraduates. On the other hand, students perceive (through staff) that the work they make needs to be somehow ‘about’ the theoretical ideas they have encountered. This latter approach simply creates a defensive attitude in which students feel they have to ‘justify’ their work: it is as if we are telling them that without this theoretical material they can have little of interest to say. In any case, much theory and criticism of art tends to operate with a model of lack and disappointment concerned with how artists, artworks, critics, or theorists have failed. Students have frequently told me that they do not find this persuasive or helpful. Rather than opening up possibilities it creates the expectation of having to defend whatever one does against all comers.

Students quickly perceive that there are preferred positions, readings, and opinions. They worry that transgression will result in their getting the art ‘wrong’ or will incur the wrath of their tutor (for which read poor marks). For some students certainties of interpretation are reassuring: they fear experiencing art without it having been pre-digested by criticism. The potential for rich and complex responses is seen as a significant difficulty rather than an aspiration. In addition, most theorizing of images and the visual realm has been marked by a deep mistrust of the object of study: images have become synonymous with seduction and misrepresentation. But like Barbara Maria Stafford, I believe that ‘imaging [...] remains the richest, most fascinating modality for configuring and conveying ideas’.6 I think it is time for art education and theory to offer a more positive and suggestive approach.

A key problem, however, is that most of my students don’t actually go to see much art, except as convenient reproductions in library books or if a college trip is organized. I don’t think this is simply to be put down to laziness, but rather that they actively prefer other forms, events, and phenomena. Although they are studying for a fine art degree, contemporary art seemingly fails to compel. My students obviously aren’t alone in this, given the public debate in the early years of this century as to whether art is ‘craftless tat’ or ‘cold, mechanical, conceptual bullshit’. The comments are from Ivan Massow, former Chairman of the ICA, and the then Culture Minister Kim Howells, respectively. (There is insufficient space here to explore the old arguments as to whether art is, has always been, or should be in crisis, though a lengthy debate throughout 2003 within the pages of Art Monthly explored precisely those issues and makes a worthwhile read.)7 But even within the art world there is the sense that we are simply treading water. We need art and art criticism that can more fully challenge and engage students, artists, theorists, and public.

To want to study something we must be interested in it, and yet education is largely about losing or compromising one’s interest, as Freud implies (according to Adam Phillips), and as I have witnessed daily.8 Is it perhaps necessary to lose something in order to find it once more? In part I think this is true, but in our urgency to promote it as the main strategy for educational development I am concerned that we are close to suggesting that a kind of bereavement is good for you — surely a rather cruel approach. Phillips tells us that ‘one of the first words in psychoanalysis for [...] interest was curiosity’ (16), and, for him, curiosity is being alert to the things that uphold one’s love of life. He goes further when he asserts that one of the aims of analysis is ‘to free people to do nothing to the future but be interested in it’ (32). I have a similar aim for art education.

In order to look forward, I first need to look back: curiosity has a history, one that is fascinatingly recounted in Barbara Benedict’s book on the subject.9 The word ‘curiosity’ stems from the Latin curiosus, meaning ‘inquiring’. In a special issue of the journal Word & Image devoted to the subject, the art historian Peter Parshall defined curiosity as ‘a state of mind and a condition of the emotions cultivated by those set on investigating the full scope of natural and human invention’.10 It is the free-ranging method of inquiry that I find suggestive, and also the sense that such inquiry was not easily regulated. In the same issue of Word & Image, Christopher Wood observes that ‘curiosity was the impulse to improper inquiry’.11 The apparent impropriety of curiosity is remarked by St Augustine, who considered it a lust of the eyes, and Wood suggests that curiosity ‘conspicuously resembled a sensual appetite’.12

Terry Eagleton reminds us that the aesthetic is ‘a discourse concerned with the way reality strikes the body on its sensuous surface’.13 The strength of art (and other cultural artefacts) lies in its potential to elicit an aesthetic affect. As a means of exploring the world we inhabit, this seems a profoundly powerful tool. The poet Fernando Pessoa may have declared that he had senses rather than a philosophy, but Susan Buck-Morss asserts that the aesthetic is not merely sensation, but also a ‘fundamentally cognitive experience’.14 She states that ‘the critical power of art, or any cultural form, may not be perceived universally, but if it is perceived, it hits you in the gut’, and goes on to suggest that this ‘somatic’ experience resists ‘predatory reason’ because it ‘can’t be stomached, gobbled up by the mind’. She claims that this ‘non-digestible residue is food for critical cognition’ (43). On the face of it, this notion of a gut response is almost blasphemous within the contemporary university or art school context. But if we attend more closely to Buck-Morss’s argument, we see that it is certainly not pre-critical or naive.

Her suggestion is that artists and cultural producers ought to be concerned with providing, in whatever form, ‘a somatic experience that is self-reflective — critical in the philosophical sense’ (43). It is thus not mere sensation that is perceived by feeling, but actually a critical form of knowledge. Were we to speak more frankly about the complexities of the ‘non digestible residue’ we would seem to have the basis for a more complex, subtle, and honest relationship to art. In considering the sexual researches of children as Freud’s apotheosis of curiosity, Phillips suggests that children do not sacrifice their lives to theory making, but ‘their lives are made possible by it’.15 He tells us that for Walter Pater (a figure newly rediscovered by a range of contemporary thinkers) the real interest ‘was in what the art, and the life of the artist, could evoke in him; what he could use it to become’.16 It is this forward-looking, ‘prospective’ interest (Phillips’s term) that I think we ought to be pursuing in art and education in preference to the ‘foreclosed’ aspects of much art and academic study which seem to discipline (and narrow) potential experience.17

How then can we develop our abilities (and those of our students) to be prospectively interested in the world? Jonathan Lear has suggested that we are hampered by an excess of knowingness,18 which can problematically proscribe responses and ideas. I think we need to counter this. If I can practise my own contextually inappropriate nouveau mélange for a moment, I would like to juxtapose the Russian Formalist Viktor Shklovsky’s idea of ‘making strange’ (oestranenie)19 with Jonathan Culler’s opinion that ‘the works we allude to as theory have the power to make strange the familiar and to make readers conceive of their own thinking, behaviours and institutions in new ways’.20 The idea of defamiliarization is not a new concept, but it is one we have rather put aside, perhaps in fear of its potential romanticism. Within what is frequently described as the knowledge economy, not immediately knowing or understanding is something to be concealed rather than positively


One mechanism for positively eliciting this strangeness is described by Jane Bennett as enchantment. She writes that ‘enchantment is a surprising encounter, a meeting with something that you did not expect and [with which you] are not fully prepared to engage. Contained within this surprise state are (1) a pleasurable feeling of being charmed by the novel and as yet unprocessed encounter and (2) a more unheimlich (uncanny) feeling of being disrupted or torn out of one’s default sensory-psychic-intellectual disposition.’21 Bennett concludes that ‘the overall effect of enchantment is a mood of fullness, plenitude, or liveliness, a sense of having one’s nerves or circulation or concentration powers tuned up or recharged — a shot in the arm, a fleeting return to childlike excitement about life.’ The effect of enchantment, then, is to reawaken interest. Her assertion that when one is enchanted one is actively engaged describes exactly the kind of state I would wish to see — but don’t — in art galleries and universities.

What seems to me important about Bennett’s work is that she is suggestive of what we might do with this engagement. Far from allowing a naive retreat from the world’s problems, she offers the prospect of using enchantment as an effective counter to cynicism, despair, and passivity. She does not seek to re-enchant a disenchanted world, but to attend to existing instances of ‘the marvellous erupting in the everyday’, in the words of Jackson Lears.22 His Fables of Abundance is a powerful study of advertising, and I find this a telling reference. In one example of a possible counter-story, Bennett’s argument goes that as consumers we derive non-commercial value from consumption and advertisements, so that some of this pleasure may be susceptible to ‘ethical redeployment’23

Within recent academic history, pleasure has had pretty rough treatment.  Horkheimer and Adorno describe it thus: ‘pleasure always means not to think  about anything [...] It is flight from the last remaining thought of resistance.’24 The heady debates around pleasure initiated by Laura Mulvey and others meant it largely became the feeling that dared not speak its name. But Bennett seeks to mobilize the energies of our pleasures in order ‘to exercise one’s capacity to see things as otherwise than they are’.25 She urges us to use our pleasure in order to fire our imagination: indeed, she sees this as an ethical responsibility.

Others have also argued that imagination might actually be a source of knowledge. Gregory Currie, in his essay ‘Realism of Character and the Value of Fiction’, says that ‘in imagining things, one might thereby come to know (possibly other) things’.26 Some academics have keenly pursued this strategy. Gregory Ulmer, for instance, has developed a pedagogic–critical method he terms ‘heuretics’ because, he believes, ‘learning is much closer to invention than to verification’. He complains that ‘the modes of writing now taught in school tend to be positioned on the side of the already known rather than on the side of wanting to find out (of theoretical curiosity) and hence discourage learning how to learn’.27

I should like to conclude on this question of knowledge. Peter de Bolla’s book Art Matters ends with an evocative consideration of wonder: a feeling very close to Bennett’s ‘enchantment’. What is interesting about wonder, according to de Bolla, is that ‘it feels as if it comes [...] before knowledge, since as Socrates remarked, the primary motivation of wonder is the recognition of ignorance’.28 De Bolla goes on to say that wonder requires us to acknowledge what we do not know or may never know, to acknowledge the limits of knowledge. It is, then, a different species of knowledge, a way of knowing that does not lead to certainties or truths about the world or the way things are. I see this as a positive approach. I would urge you to remember that several of our academic terms originate in such uncertainty: our ‘essay’ comes from the French essayer — to try, and ‘discourse’ from its Latin root discursus — a going to and fro. It concerns me that universities no longer remember this. These terms suggest the potential for taking risks in our experiences and learning, pursuing our interests where we need to. They do not require us to be so defensive.

Peter Parshall has said that ‘the curious frame of mind was an agitated and unstable universe, a place where conventional categories of understanding became blurred’.29 It is now acceptable (and indeed fashionable) to be artistically or academically interdisciplinary, but current forms of interdisciplinarity seem fundamentally conservative, merely reiterating a familiar set of models. Under the guise of policing academic rigour, these ‘master discourses’ ultimately control the boundaries of what is ‘thinkable’. Just as the church frowned upon ‘curiosity’ as being contrary to a proper inquiry into God’s universe, I fear one risks institutional excommunication in truly following one’s curiosity as artist or academic. Adam Phillips has wondered ‘whether knowing and understanding, however well done, should be the be-all and end-all’.30 Within the arts and humanities at least, I am more concerned with being interesting, and interested, than with being right. Phillips’s suggestion that it may be more interesting to have made something haunting than something true is in fact what drives me. It is heartening that wonder, curiosity, and enchantment are to be found once more as subjects proper to academic study, and I should like to propose that we might usefully develop them as methods, using the clues in work by Bennett, de Bolla, et al. The resulting open-mindedness may be a more compelling milieu for educating artists and bringing new audiences to our works of theory and practice. Speaking of psychoanalysis, Phillips has said that it should aspire to develop languages that people find intriguing enough to want to learn, without being so impressed by them that they lose their own voices, and that this process should enable them to lose themselves in whatever makes them curious and makes them feel alive.31 This lesson is one we would do well to heed.


1. Adam Phillips, Promises, Promises: Essays on Literature and Psychoanalysis, 2nd edn (London: Faber and Faber, 2002), p. xiii.

2. Noël Carroll, ‘Prospects for Film Theory: A Personal Assessment’, in Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies, ed. by David Bordwell and Noël Carroll (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press,1996), pp. 37–68 (p. 41).

3. Jonathan Ree, ‘Marxist Modes’, in Radical Philosophy Reader, ed. by Roy Edgely and Richard Osborne (London: Verso, 1985), pp. 337–60 (p. 338).

4. Victor Burgin, The End of Art Theory: Criticism and Postmodernity (London: Macmillan, 1986), p. 159.

5. Ibid., p. 163.

6. Barbara Maria Stafford, Good Looking: Essays on the Virtue of Images (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996), p. 4.

7. The debate begins with an article by Michael Archer, ‘Crisis What Crisis?’, Art Monthly, no. 264 (March 2003), pp. 1–4.

8. Adam Phillips, The Beast in the Nursery, 2nd edn (London: Faber and Faber, 1999), p. 23.

9. Barbara Benedict, Curiosity: A Cultural History of Early Modern Inquiry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001).

10. Peter Parshall, ‘Introduction’, Art and Curiosity in Northern Europe, ed. by Peter Parshall Word& Image, 11.4 (1995), pp. 327–31 (p 327).

11. Christopher S. Wood, ‘ “Curious Pictures” and the Art of Description’, in Art and Curiosity (see Parshall, above), pp. 332–52 (p. 334).

12. Ibid., pp. 336–37.

13. Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), p. 13.

14. Grant Kester, ‘Aesthetics after the End of Art: An Interview with Susan Buck-Morss’, Art Journal, 56.1 (1997), 38–45 (p. 39).

15. The Beast in the Nursery, p. 29.

16. Promises, Promises, p. 149.

17. Phillips, The Beast in the Nursery, 32.

18. Jonathan Lear, Open Minded: Working Out the Logic of the Soul (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998).

19. Viktor Shklovsky, Theory of Prose (Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1993).

20. Jonathan Culler, On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism (London: Routledge, 1983), p. 9.

21. Jane Bennett, The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings and Ethics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), p. 5.

22. Jackson Lears, Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America (New York: Basic Books, 1994), p. 19, quoted in Bennett, The Enchantment of Modern Life.

23. The Enchantment of Modern Life, p. 129.

24. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972), p. 144.

25. The Enchantment of Modern Life, p. 76.

26. Gregory Currie, ‘Realism of Character and the Value of Fiction’, in Aesthetics and Ethics: Essays at the Intersection, ed. by Jerrold Levinson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp.

161–81 (p. 161).

27. Gregory Ulmer, Heuretics: The Logic of Invention (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), p. xii.

28. Peter de Bolla, Art Matters (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), p. 143.

29. ‘Art and Curiosity’, p. 327.

30. Promises, Promises, p. 173.

31. Ibid., p. xiv.

This book chapter began as a paper I delivered at a conference for the Centre for Research in Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities at the University of Cambridge.

In(terdiscipline): New Languages for Criticism

Edited by Gillian Beer, Malcolm Bowie and Beate Perrey

Legenda 2007

Hard cover.

ISBN 9781905981137

'Interdisciplinarity' has dynamised the Modern Humanities like no other recent academic trend. Yet, this presents serious challenges involving both translation and affect: how can we transmit facts and interpretations, sense and sensations between disciplines, between different artistic media, between cultures, between the private and the public sphere? What are the advantages, the difficulties, and risks? Another challenge concerns language: if single disciplines have produced their own technologies of reading and writing, this book examines and breaks the routine to propose alternative languages. Some of the most distinctive voices in criticism, both established and upcoming, from literature, music, the visual arts, psychoanalysis and philosophy, amongst others, show here their commitment to comparative thinking. The challenge has been to reach beyond the jargon and the epistemological constraints of individual disciplines while remaining coherent and incisive. The outcome successfully reveals new links between different forms of cultural expression.

Gillian Beer (English Literature, Science Writing), Malcolm Bowie (French Literature, Psychoanalysis) and Beate Perrey (Music, Poetry, Psychoanalysis) were the instigators of the interdisplinary research project "New Languages for Criticism: Cross-Currents and Resistances", which since 2002 has been under the auspices of CRASSH, the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities at the University of Cambridge.