posted by on 2006.11.13, under Uncategorized


I was having dinner with e x t r e m e l y slow service at a Thai food place in Silverlake last night, when my neighbor and I got into a debate about the nature of art theory – she held that it is objective and I contended that it is subjective. We soon realized our ideas were pretty much polar opposite. So in the morning I sat down and hacked through some woefully inadequate and contradictory definitions of terms in the OED, then jotted some ideas down. I even titled my thoughts and sent them off memo-style for continuation of the discussion.
Feel free to comment – jquinn at rise dash ind dot com.

The Atomic Weight of Cobalt is 58.933195

How to define theory as it relates to art?

If theory is purely objective, as in Science, then this definition should be used:

A scheme or system of ideas or statements held as an explanation or account of a group of facts or phenomena; a hypothesis that has been confirmed or established by observation or experiment, and is propounded or accepted as accounting for the known facts; a statement of what are held to be the general laws, principles, or causes of something known or observed.
“theory 1, n.4.a” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press.

The problem I see here is that confirmation of a hypothesis relating to art depends upon the personal and “inward thoughts or feelings” of the author of that theory. Though it may be in agreement with other theorists or critics, this agreement between thinkers does not constitute the existence of observable facts, rather it contributes to a set of questionable ideas. Questioning and discussion of these ideas then forms the basis of Art Theory.

I can understand the application of this definition as it relates to the mere physical state of artworks themselves, as there are facts to point to in this case, but still feel the interpretation of those facts, and of particular artworks, puts the theorist firmly into the realm of the subjective.

The very concept of Art Theory seems, to me, to rely on a basis of discussion and argument (of subjective points of view) rather than an attempt at confirmation of some (objective) facts which then are unquestionable – as would be the case with fact.

Rather than tangle with fact and objectivity, I would promote the use of this definition of theory:

A hypothesis proposed as an explanation; hence, a mere hypothesis, speculation, conjecture; an idea or set of ideas about something; an individual view or notion.
“theory 1, n.5” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online. Oxford University Press.

This clearly relates to the subjective view, and speculation about a possible explanation of phenomena (here, the artwork it describes). This seems to me to jibe with the practice of argument and discussion that is theoretical discourse.

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