Critical Theory 1 – Summary & Reflections

Many of the readings and discussions within Critical Theory 1 were, on the surface, difficult to apply directly to my personal work. After all, how could slapping molten lead against a wall or painting in a thick, chunky impasto style with pure pigments have any connection to my highly digital work? As it is easy to guess, after some consideration, I realized the discourses and works throughout Critical Theory 1 were foundational–that is they paved the way for the work that I am doing to be considered art and offered many schools of thought and ways of seeing the world that have become part of a basic understanding of art. As I turn my way of thinking from a rigid closed-minded approach. I am able to evaluate my work with more depth and (I aspire) to create work that is part of the contemporary art discussion, so much of which is formed on the foundation of current critical art theory. I will address several of the readings and discussions throughout this paper, but my focus will be on the three main realizations that have remained at the front of my mind and continue to educate my work. Through Critical Theory 1, I came to realize that I needed to work on understanding the art that I came in contact with, I needed a language to discuss connections between the art I saw and my own art, and I needed to dig deeper and research art that interested me.

First and foremost, Critical Theory 1 forced me to confront my big issues with art as a whole. I had never much appreciated the work of the ‘big’ movements – Cubism, Futurism, Structuralism, Pop Art, etc. I had a hard time understanding how these movements could be so easily divided and put into such a clean taxonomy.[1] The works of the movements seemed completely devoid of what I would have referred to as ‘aesthetic quality’ and they failed to speak or convey any particular message to me, leaving me confused. I did not feel like I connected at all and the work seemed out of touch with my current time and the world in which I existed. Stuart helped us to understand that some work is discourse-based and that is it is dependent on provided information in order for it to make sense. I then realized I had been judging the work on the basis of its formal qualities without taking the time to consider the deeper meanings within the work. I was looking for what was denoted in the initial impression without exploring the connotations that come from spending time with a piece. In a slightly embarrassing moment, I realized that, like many of the works I judged so harshly, my current body of work itself does not convey its full meaning unless the viewer is provided with specific information. When I began to reevaluate many of the pieces I had not taken the time to understand, I actually began to value them and add them to my visual and conceptual references as I think about work. This opened the door to my looking at many of the readings and analyzing the arguments in their own context and, with some, against my own work.

A specific example of a reading that is still affecting my perception and work is Sol LeWitt’s 1967 “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” from Artists, Critics, Context. In it, LeWitt bluntly states, “What the work of art looks like isn’t too important. It has to look like something if it has physical form. No matter what form it may finally have, it must begin with an idea. It is the process of conception and realization with which the artist is concerned” (qtd. in Fabiozzi 181). This was what I had always been told, but I never believed it. However, after much thinking, I have now decided that this is indeed the way I want my art to function, but it will require a complete shift in my approach and the relegation of my highly esteemed aesthetic preconceptions and the value I put on formal elements as the highest importance in my work. It means, in essence, a tear-down-and-start-over for me. To build work on things that I just liked – visually appealing textures and colors – would be to grossly undervalue and miss out on so many aspects of my work.

Another discussing performance artists such as Carolee Schneemann, Bruce Nauman, Vito Acconci, Chris Burden and Marina Abramovic, I came to see the spectrum of performance art, but more importantly, I understood that every work of art that shows the artist’s hand is in some way performative in nature. I realized that performance is part of the medium and like all mediums carries inherent qualities that must be considered. I began to see the way that Andy Warhol created himself and his brand as a long-form performance and how the act of layering all of the frames of a movie by hand in my work is performative by its very nature. This helped me to consider my involvement in the conception, gestation, and delivery of my work. I was now able to see how art had shifted in the twentieth century from being about the details of the medium and formal or symbolic qualities into the transmission of ideas.

Secondly, Critical Theory 1 gave me the language I needed to talk about my work and the art that I was seeing. It taught all of those in the class how to look at art – not just to walk by it or keep our noses in an informational brochure. We were taught to break down a work and evaluate it in three distinct ways: first, to identify the source (who, what, when, where), second, to create an analysis based on the work’s formal qualities (size, composition, texture, color, technique, etc.) and finally, to use the clues from the first two evaluations to try to deduce some meaning through interpretive analysis (what could this mean?). Coming at a work this way made it much less daunting (and actually very enjoyable and rewarding) to look at and discuss work.

Once I had the ability to talk about the work that I saw, I realized I could reverse-engineer the strategy and create work that was based on a concept–the interpretive elements of a piece–and make formal decisions based on my idea. As Marshall McLuhan wrote in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, “The medium is the message.” Based on my new vocabulary, I am now able to articulate what I feel has been missing in my work: pictorial space, depth, and an idea that is capable of persisting in the mind of the viewer. I need to work on pushing my ideas past the rut of what has already been done in order to work out and refine the ideas, questions, and messages within my work.

The other high value of Critical Theory 1 to my work was that it made me hungry for more art and discussion about art. I have been introduced to so many big ideas through the readings, many of with which I strongly disagree with or do not find to be relevant to my work. Regardless, I have become curious about the disappearance of our sense of history through consumerism (Foster 127-44), how broad art is (Fabozzi 234-5), and the absence of prominent female artists (Pollack; Nochlin) the way that contemporary art works to push ideas forward and its reception by the public (Steinberg) and how an already existing object can be appropriated into art (Staniszewski 218). Since being in class, I have undertaken a study of contemporary art in several narratives and started to dive headfirst into the work of several artists I am interested in. It is easy to get tied up in the theory and philosophy of the ideas being discussed within the work without applying them, but it is incredibly enlightening to study work and writings of artists as primary sources and create criticisms and opinions that are formative for your current personal work.

I have begun to study the work and writings of the artists that I admire and resonate with. Jeff Wall, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Gregory Crewdson, Andreas Gursky, and Gerhard Richter have really appealed to my curiosity. Through studying their work and writings, I’ve been able to establish that I love the process of taking a photograph from being a simple a document to something constructed and familiar. Wall and Crewdson use tableaux, Richter uses photorealism and mashes it with destructive marks or blurs, and Gursky manipulates the ‘pure’ representation of a camera to exaggerate and compose to scale. Sugimoto stands out as a bit more of a purist, but he has the ability to create the illusion of depth in a space over time that I just can’t get over. These artists, along with their written rationale for the work they do, are currently influencing the direction art is going in a strong way.

At times, Critical Theory 1 was frustrating and boggling. However, as time passes and I continue to have a broader view of the history and significance of art as well as to understand discrete movements, pieces, and artists with greater clarity, I realize that the gamble of ‘believing’ the hype was worth it. I don’t admit to agreeing with or even enjoying a large number of works or artists, but I am at least able to get past the shock value or deskill to get to the root idea. I am able to process and digest work with a foundation and a background and I have the ability to compare and contrast a wide range of other work. I can now intelligently discuss and describe what I see and think in work and how it relates to other work, philosophy, or theories. This cycle is fueled by the hunger to grow and discover more and apply it to my own work so that I may be a perpetual student and a growing artist.


[1] I came to realize the cleanly divided or “radical breaks between periods” was a false assumption reading Fredric Jameson’s Consumerism and Postmodern Society. (Foster 142)





Works Cited:

Fabozzi, Paul. Artists, Critics, Context: Readings in and Around American Art since 1945. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2002. Print.

Foster, Hal. The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture. Port Townsend, WA: Bay Press, 1983. Print.

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964. Print.

Nochlin, Linda. “The Politics Of Vision: Essays On Nineteenth-Century Art And Society.” The Politics Of Vision: Essays On Nineteenth-Century Art And Society. Harper & Row, 1991. 33–59. Print.

—. “Why Have There Been No Great Female Artists?” Women, Art, and Power. Reprint. Harper & Row, 1989. 145–178. Print.

Pollack, Griselda. “Modernity and the Spaces of Femininity.” Vision and Difference: Femininity, Feminism and Histories of Art. London/New York: Routledge. 50–90. Print.

Staniszewski, Mary. Believing Is Seeing: Creating the Culture of Art. New York: Penguin, 1995. Print.

Steinberg, Leo. “Contemporary Art and the Plight of Its Public.” 1962: 3–16. Print.



Critical Theory 1 Summary:Reflection – Jer Nelsen – SP2015

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