Theory of Art, A Reply to Charles Broys

Anita Vasudev posts a link on my wall on an article from e-flux by Mr Charles Broys which talks of this compulsive need for modern art to theorize itself. After a rather longish attendance of art as religion and then of modern avant garde, Hegelian theses against art, Nietzche and Foucault’s anti art stance because of art’s definitiveness about Truth, the author concludes that the need to theorize art is all about extending its appeal from the cultural locatedness of the artist and hence the particularity of the artwork into a universal appeal. Broys says that the increasing dependence of art on theory to make art work is a characteristic of modern art which must universalize because modernity itself is all about universals. When art was religious, there was a less need for it to be universal because it was all about talking to converts.
To my mind, there are problems with the above thesis. Art has some defining features which survive across ages and these features are beyond the historicity of art; such features inhere irrespective of whether art is prehistoric, ancient, medieval or modern and post modern. The purpose of art is not its defining feature because the purpose of prehistoric art as in the Chauvin caves in France dating back to a period of 14000 years attempts to capture the spirits of beings especially bisons as they leave the body of the animals. The purpose of ancient art is to propitiate Gods for the human has just invented God; in medieval times, art is religious, spiritual, beyond mere worship and goes into devotion, following, pilgrimage, wonderment and awe. Here we have art as spectacle and in Leonardo Da Vinci and Michaelangelo, art also as monuments. Paintings became monumental much before monuments were made a la Ochterlony in Cacutta, now Kolkata. Modern art is different from all of the above because it is secular, addresses profane subjects and celebrates the human spirit and its agency. Modern art is too wide a definition for modern art contains the baroque, the expressionists, the impressionists, surrealists, Dada avant gardists, cubists and now the post modern. Divided they may be, these styles of art all say the same thing, the human agency has to be celebrated; God is dead, long live Godliness. Observed closely, art has differed over time in terms of its context, the location out of which it originates, the particular situation upon which it grows. But the fact that it grows out of a context, its outward motion of overcoming that which is merely factual has remained constant to it.
Then what is art? Art is itself the universalization of particulars, the generalizations of specificities, the abstract categorization of the concrete and the recovery of essences from content. If this be the characteristic of art, then what theory does for art? Theory, like art, too is an abstraction out of the concrete facts, a generalization of contents specific to a context into universal rules applicable to all. Those who call theory to be objectifying and homogenizing also find art to be ideologically dominating. But art and theory have a crucial difference and I think that Broys is not aware of this difference. This difference between art and theory lies in claims; art merely presents itself before us as the Truth; theory presents to us the Truth. Truth emanates out of artworks as its contents jostle among themselves, conflict, cooperating, co-opting, and contradicting one another to produce resolutions those which absorb antonyms and make opponents coexist; the rendering of the mutually exclusive propositions into a transcendental unity makes art True. For theory, things are different. Here the world is selected into rules and exceptions, into what falls into the scope and lies outside it; theory’s truth is neither self contained, nor it is self evident. Theory must establish itself as truth by validating itself against newer facts which in turn it is required to classify into rules and exceptions. Theory, unlike art has no internal movement, no inner dynamics. Theory unlike art fulfills itself in controlling matter, manipulating it from outside; art fulfills itself by playing with matter and emerging out of it bearing the shape of matter. Matter remains outside theory; art is itself matter.
When we speak of theory of art, there are two possibilities. One we manipulate art in the same way as matter, generalize it across works into rules and hence destroy the uniqueness of individual works and try and place it in an Idea of Truth outside of itself. Here theory constrains art, deadens it and eventually kills it. Art resists this kind of theory. But if theory suppresses its purpose of classifying, organizing and regularizing matter according to concepts held outside of such matter and instead uses its skills in articulating concreteness of things as abstract concepts, it can talk about art for art itself is a generalization of specificities, it becomes art by raising the content into concepts. Then theory will become art and attain art’s purpose of revealing the Truth from within matter instead of outside matter. In that case, theory will be a translation of art into articulation, and will be able to extend arts cause rather than curbing its intent. For theory to be able to understand art, it needs to become philosophy.
Hegel said that art was the less developed form of philosophy; true because philosophy, by articulating in language the sub and the supra linguistic elements of art kills it only if merely through translation. Philosophy articulates in language the constituent elements within art and also the dynamism that processes such contents into the concepts to become art. Philosophy is a translation that, according to Hegel, renders art useless. Aesthetic theory, which is actually a philosophy and not a social theory developed with Hegel’s Berlin Lectures on the Art, central to which was his explanation of the Bhagavad Gita.
In sum, theory seeks generalizations over and outside the facts it deals with while art seeks to generalize the facts themselves. While theory subserves the world to a higher purpose defines outside the world, art finds a larger purpose within the world with the world itself. Theory and art in a way are contradictions in terms; one cannot be easily translated into the other. When theory tries to explain art in terms of phenomena outside its realm, it insists that art is functional, structural, and finally crashes into calling art as phenomenological. All explanations of art are wrong. Art is located in society, is born of society and expresses social concerns precisely because art is a way of responding to social constraints in order to escape, overcome, resolve, transcend, and sublimate these. Art’s purpose is the artist’s purpose; if the artist looks at herself as a person located within society, fulfilling herself as a social member art’s purpose is bound to be social. Should the artist construe herself as an individual, beyond the profane, beyond its pettiness, her art would express a pristineness, a vacuum, a superstardom and even super humanity. Nietzsche’s critique of art was this. Overtly aware of the art’s power to reach out to people, Nietzsche’s fear that art may impose the mind of the artist over his society emanated from individual artists who imagined themselves to be above the society, unconstituted by its forces, unmoved by its demands. It is in his theory of art that Nietzsche moves so much closer to Marx; I suspect that fascists were good students of Marxism.
Foucault’s idea of aesthetics as yet another form of power; for Foucault power is everywhere and in everything; and to say that art is also a power is a mere repetition. The question is not whether art is power or not; the question is what kind of power art is. Art challenges an entrenched power; medieval art challenged established ancient and pagan religions and modern art challenges the power of the King. Dadaism challenged the bourgeoise society, surrealism challenged materialism, still life and impressionism challenged war. Aesthetic theory must reveal the target whose powers art wants to undermine; for that alone is enough to talk of art. Art has camps; fans are divided, critics are at loggerheads. Such divisions among admirers of art vindicate the Foucauldian thesis of art being all about power.
When artists and their friends talk about their art and their kind of art, the attempts to theorize often revolve around the artist, her ways of working, and her techniques and so on. In such theories, one suspects that there is an attempt to celebrate the artist and project her as a celebrity. These theories often fail except with follower artists those who wish to learn to be artists themselves. For viewers and audiences, one needs a new kind of theory, the theory where what art attacks becomes important. For we as viewers for who art is a part of our larger social existence, seek in art, a solace, a meaning, a purpose for our existence which art provides to us apparently by emerging as this sublime, transcendental resolution but secretly empowers us by slaying our enemies, sometimes the inconsiderate parent, the intolerant teacher, the nasty neighbor and so on.

About secondsaturn

Independent Scholar. Polymath.
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