Throughout the whole of my art education, and later in my career as an arts educator, I have been trying to juggle the balance between art & design practice and art theory. Somehow, I - and the educational establishments I have attended and taught at - have always thought that theory was a good thing. It was never really questioned.
So, as the designated ‘theory lecturer’ on the BA Graphic Design programme at Arden University, I would like to take this opportunity to examine the issue more critically and pose the question - is theory relevant to creative practice? I am hoping the discussion will be useful to creative practitioners, particularly our students here at Arden, who might themselves have pondered this very question when faced with challenging academic ‘theory-based’ modules.
I shall attempt initially to frame the question within a historical context, looking particularly at the relationship between theory and practice. Later, I shall discuss more generally the nature of the creative process and what role theory might play here.
The historical context: two contrasting perspectives
Let’s start with two quotations that demonstrate contrasting attitudes to the question.
The first quote is by the critic Clement Greenberg writing during the 1950s and 60s, primarily in support of the American Abstract Expressionists. He argues,
'It should also be understood that the self-criticism of art has never been carried on in any but a spontaneous and subliminal way. It has been altogether a question of practice, immanent to practice, and never a topic of theory. (Greenberg, 1965, p. 9)'
No one artist was, or is yet, consciously aware of this [self-critical] tendency [of Modernism], nor could any artist work successfully in conscious awareness of it. (ibid, p. 9)
The second quote is by Mieke Bal, Professor of Theory and Literature at Amsterdam university. She is particularly known for her commitment to mixing academic disciplines, writing primarily on the links that can be made between semiotics and the visual arts. She argues:
'Theory as in "the point of theory" is not a language, not a thing, not a whole. It is, rather, a way of interacting with objects. An interaction that does justice to the mission of the university to produce new knowledge and not just conserves traditions. In that sense theory is a practice, a form of interpretation, not the pinnacle of objectivity as much as a touchstone for subjectivity; not abstract but empirically anchored. (Bal, 1994, p. 9)'
So, what we have here is first an art critic, Greenberg, who appears to set up an opposition between theory and practice. And second, a broadly-based academic cultural theorist, Bal, who actively seeks to intertwine them by suggesting that theory is a form of practice.
Looking closer at what Greenberg is saying, he seems to describe the artist as someone who acts spontaneously. Critical reflection, theory, never enters his or her creative process. As a gifted artist s/he will simply know by instinct how to push their art towards its right conclusion. It is the job of the critic (i.e., Greenberg) to interpret and reveal the truth of artworks and to contextualise it, not the artist.
Although influential in his time, Greenberg's ideas did not remain unchallenged. Artists and critics, particularly those who saw themselves as operating outside the mainstream art scene - women and people of colour - began to question his rather narrow definition of art and the artist.
The quote by Bal could be read within this context. Unlike Greenberg, she does not set up an opposition between theory and practice but actively seeks to intertwine them by suggesting that theory is a form of practice. What she refers to, I think, is an attitude towards objects which is best described as dialogical. A typical case might be where a critic or historian brings a theoretical stance to bear on an object but only to find that the object 'speaks back,' revealing itself to be more complex than anticipated, and less pliable to the theoretical hypothesis.
But like Greenberg, Bal argues from the position of the critic. And here theory may well seem like a form of practice. My next question would be, could the reverse also be true? For the artist or designer, may practice seem like a form theory?
The artist’s perspective
There is no doubt that theory came to play an important role in creative practices during the 1970s and 80s when artists, who were involved with political issues of gender and race, used it as a framework for asking difficult questions. It was not just an outmoded version of (Greenbergian) Modernism that was under attack, but the very notion of representation. Theoretical perspectives from gender studies and postcolonial discourse helped raise and formulate questions. How had stereotypes been created or reinforced by the media - and why? Is identity inevitably tied up with representations – to be understood as a cultural construct? Is it possible to escape identification with mainstream images? Postmodernist artists such as Mary Kelly, Jenny Holzer, and Barbara Kruger, and others like them fit this category.
However, many artists might not fit so readily into this picture. Much contemporary art has been referred to as decidedly 'anti-theoretical.' In contrast to an earlier phase of Postmodernism where theory was often (but not always) paramount to artistic practices, much contemporary art has turned to the profane and the trivial.
There are several takes on this shift in emphasis from theoretical distance to a supposedly populist identification. Some, like artist and writer Mark Harris, have been very skeptical, seeing the resistance to theory as a symptom of a new, easy, consumable art, which is shallow and apolitical. Others, such as the art critic Robert Garnett, have been more sympathetic, seeing the new practices as a necessary reaction to a prior moment of Postmodernist art that had become institutionalised. The relations between theory and practice had become too close, resulting in art that ‘illustrated' theory in reductive ways.
Drawing this brief historical overview to a close, I would like to end with the words of the literary critic Terry Eagleton who argues, 'Hostility to theory usually means opposition to other people's theorises and an oblivion of one's own.' (Eagleton, p. xii) By implication, all expressed values and preferences belong within a context. Nobody works in a vacuum. Hence, if we agree with Eagleton (and I do), everybody is indebted to theories of some kind. We just do not always realise it. In conclusion, it seems clear that theory has been very important to various kinds of creative practices, even to so-called 'anti-theoretical' practices, if sometimes only as unacknowledged biases.
The creative process: where does theory fit in – if at all?
But what about the moment of creation itself? How does theory enter into practice at this level? How is it - or perhaps not - relevant to the act of creation?
Lots of books have been written on 'creativity,' what it is and what it means. One of the definitions that I feel most comfortable with has been developed by practitioners and teachers looking closely at research undertaken by various philosophers and scientists. One example might be Betty Edwards basing her ideas on the research carried out by Roger Sperry. Creativity, here, is often described as a process that takes you from something known to something unknown. It involves change and transformation, maybe even breaking habits.
Certain stages appear to characterise this creative process. You have a starting point: your current ways of working, knowledge, values, etc. You may be dissatisfied with this state of affairs and search for change. This might push you into a period of active experimentation. During such times, it is not uncommon to experience 'sudden flashes of inspiration'. Seemingly out of the blue, you have a solution to a problem or a fantastic idea.
Although such 'flashes of inspiration' may seem sudden and surprising, appearing almost as if by magic, I suggest it comes from one of two key sources: 1) newly acquired knowledge, whether technical, theoretical, experiential, psychological, etc. or 2) a new way of combining or perceiving previous knowledge. So, if you are working actively for change by experimenting, reading, etc., one would suppose that there is more chance of it happening.
According to Edwards, the reason why inspiration often appears as 'sudden' is that those unusual connections between existing and acquired knowledge that produce new insight are often done by the part of our brain that thinks spatially and visually, not logically in a verbal sense. So, many artists experience that their best ideas occur when they 'switch off' their rational and verbal faculties, for instance, when they are about to fall asleep, daydreaming, or free brainstorming.
So, I have proposed a notion of creativity as a process that involves both logical and non-logical modes of thinking. Inherent to this process, then, is a kind of dialectic between spatial and visual perception, and verbal, theoretical thinking. This dialectic may sometimes be experienced as harmonious and productive. But not always. Just as often, it may be experienced as a source of friction and tension.
Take as an example the artist Susan Hiller: she has an academic background in anthropology and clearly uses her knowledge and expertise in her artwork, yet insists that the slide from practice to theory should not be accepted as straightforward and natural. Quite the contrary, she argues that they must be recognised for their independent strengths and values. In a society that appraises rational thinking and verbal communication above other functions, visual, perceptual, and intuitive skills are vulnerable. So, extra care should be taken to preserve and nurture such qualities.
Implied in Hiller's argument is perhaps also the fact that theory can seem overwhelming, if not intimidating. The danger is that it takes over, and appears more interesting than the art object itself.
In pursuit of an answer to the question 'Is theory relevant to creative practice?' I have considered several different perspectives: the Greenbergian Modernist stance, the critical Postmodernist position of Bal, and the anti-theoretical attitude of some contemporary art. The role of theory in the creative process itself was also explored. Based on these ideas, I would like to suggest that, yes, if you understand and accept a broad notion of creativity as a process in which both nonlogical and logical thinking play a part, then theory is highly relevant. Not in isolation and not as a set of principles that would explain the practice, but as an important tool for inspiration, critical reflection, and self-assessment. Theory and practice must be seen as independent, parallel activities which are neither mutually exclusive nor entirely compatible.
Bal, M. and Boer, I. E. (1994) The Point of Theory. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press
Eagleton, T (2008) Literary Theory: An Introduction. 25th Anniversary Edition. New Jersey: Wiley
Edwards, Betty (1986) Drawing on the Artist Within. New York: Simon and Schuster
Greenberg, C. (1965) ‘Modernist Painting’, in Frascina, F. and Harrison, C. (eds) (1982). Modern Art and Modernism, A Critical Anthology. London: The Open University