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Under the Gaze of Theory


From the start of modernity art began to manifest a certain dependence on theory. At that time—and even much later—art’s “need of explanation” (Kommentarbeduerftigkeit), as Arnold Gehlen characterized this hunger for theory was, in its turn, explained by the fact that modern art is “difficult”—inaccessible for the greater public. According to this view, theory plays a role of propaganda—or, rather, advertising: the theorist comes after the artwork is produced, and explains this artwork to a surprised and skeptical audience. As we know, many artists have mixed feelings about the theoretical mobilization of their own art. They are grateful to the theorist for promoting and legitimizing their work, but irritated by the fact that their art is presented to the public with a certain theoretical perspective that, as a rule, seems to the artists to be too narrow, dogmatic, even intimidating. Artists are looking for a greater audience, but the number of theoretically-informed spectators is rather small—in fact, even smaller than the audience for contemporary art. Thus, theoretical discourse reveals itself as a counterproductive form of advertisement: it narrows the audience instead of widening it. And this is true now more than ever before. Since the beginning of modernity the general public has made its grudging peace with the art of its time. Today’s public accepts contemporary art even when it does not always have a feeling that it “understands” this art. The need for a theoretical explanation of art thus seems definitively passé.

However, theory was never so central for art as it is now. So the question arises: Why is this the case? I would suggest that today artists need a theory to explain what they are doing—not to others, but to themselves. In this respect they are not alone. Every contemporary subject constantly asks these two questions: What has to be done? And even more importantly: How can I explain to myself what I am already doing? The urgency of these questions results from the acute collapse of tradition that we experience today. Let us again take art as an example. In earlier times, to make art meant to practice—in ever-modified form—what previous generations of artists had done. During modernity to make art meant to protest against what these previous generations did. But in both cases it was more or less clear what that tradition looked like—and, accordingly, what form a protest against this tradition could take. Today, we are confronted with thousands of traditions floating around the globe—and with thousands of different forms of protest against them. Thus, if somebody now wants to become an artist and to make art, it is not immediately clear to him or her what art actually is, and what the artist is supposed to do. In order to start making art, one needs a theory that explains what art is. And such a theory gives an artist the possibility to universalize, globalize their art. A recourse to theory liberates artists from their cultural identities—from the danger that their art would be perceived only as a local curiosity. Theory opens a perspective for art to become universal. That is the main reason for the rise of theory in our globalized world. Here the theory—the theoretical, explanatory discourse—precedes art instead of coming after art.

However, one question remains unresolved. If we live in a time when every activity has to begin with a theoretical explanation of what this activity is, then one can draw the conclusion that we live after the end of art, because art was traditionally opposed to reason, rationality, logic—covering, it was said, the domain of the irrational, emotional, theoretically unpredictable and unexplainable.

Indeed, from its very start, Western philosophy was extremely critical of art and rejected art outright as nothing other than a machine for the production of fictions and illusions. For Plato, to understand the world—to achieve the truth of the world—one has to follow not one’s imagination, but one’s reason. The sphere of reason was traditionally understood to include logic, mathematics, moral and civil laws, ideas of good and right, systems of state governance—all the methods and techniques that regulate and underlie society. All these ideas could be understood by human reason, but they cannot be represented by any artistic practice because they are invisible. Thus, the philosopher was expected to turn from the external world of phenomena towards the internal reality of his own thinking—to investigate this thinking, to analyze the logic of the thinking process as such. Only in this way would the philosopher reach the condition of reason as the universal mode of thinking that unites all reasonable subjects, including, as Edmund Husserl said, gods, angels, demons, and humans. Therefore, the rejection of art can be understood as the originary gesture that constitutes the philosophical attitude as such. The opposition between philosophy—understood as love of truth—and art (construed as the production of lies and illusions) informs the whole history of Western culture. Additionally, the negative attitude toward art was maintained by the traditional alliance between art and religion. Art functioned as a didactic medium in which the transcendent, ungraspable, irrational authority of religion presented itself to humans: art represented gods and God, made them accessible to the human gaze. Religious art functioned as an object of trust—one believed that temples, statues, icons, religious poems and ritual performance were the spaces of divine presence. When Hegel said in the 1820s that art was a thing of the past, he meant that art had ceased to be a medium of (religious) truth. After the Enlightenment, nobody should or could be deceived by art any longer, for the evidence of reason was finally substituted for seduction through art. Philosophy taught us to distrust religion and art, to trust our own reason instead. The man of the Enlightenment despised art, believing only in himself, in the evidences of his own reason.

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