Tyler Green at Modern Art Notes posted a small blurb the other day talking about art theory and how he hates it. Tyler links to an LA Times op-ed piece denouncing art theory as well. This, in conjunction with a brilliant piece written by Jerry Saltz and published on artnet.com yesterday, caused me to give some thought to art theory. I highly recommend reading all of the links above.
After some thought I found that I too have a strong distaste for art theory. What in the world does it add to the art viewing experience of 99.9% of the general public? Not much, I think. Certainly there is a place for theory in our academic institutions and surely contextualizing art among all the various -ism's is valuable. But Jerry Saltz's piece blasting Damien Hirst is a perfect example of why theory in art criticism and reviews in mostly useless. Give me Saltz's 885 words without theory any day of the week. Saltz's article actually means something to me. I can feel his experience of Hirst's work. I can connect to his opinion. I can sense Saltz's emotional response to the work.
Anyone can learn art theory if they wish. I'd venture a guess that if you took 100 art historians and asked them to write a theory-based critique of Hirst's show, you'd get 100 very similar writing samples. It's not unique like economic theory isn't unique. We can all learn it. For me, econometrics is much more exciting and insightful. You can use some theory and techniques, but without some creativity and a personal approach, you'll get stale results. Art for me is the same way and it's why I write my reviews from a personal, opnionated viewpoint. Some may say, "We've all got opinions!" And my response would be, "That's the point!" We don't all have knowledge of theory.
I get so sick and tired of reading reviews full of theory. I don't have the education to understand it all (I'd rather look at art or make art instead of read about it) and frankly it doesn't do anything for me. I imagine that is what happens when most people read these types of reviews. Unless you feel your audience is mostly academics, I think writers should gear their reviews to bringing more people into the art world. Don't isolate your reader with theoretical mumbo-jumbo. Use that knowledge to frame your opinion and communicate it with directness and honesty. Sounds simple but I think it's a very difficult thing to do well.
I'm not sure I agree fully with Saltz's stance on the Hirst show - I enjoyed it - but man did I love his writing. When I finished reading the article I had a huge smile on my face. Thanks Jerry! I'll do what I can to follow your lead.