‘Fresh air’. The business of letting in fresh air necessarily involves something happening: a door or a window is opened and suddenly the stale, musky whiff of an atmosphere recycled perhaps just once too many a time is instantly forgotten. Of course its arrival may also herald the intrusion of such unwelcome guests as dust, noise or a sudden change in temperature. But for the pleasure of waking up and coming to your senses, this is a small price to pay. Indeed it may be that the arrival of these unwelcome guests from the real world is not simply incidental to one’s sudden revival, but actually a crucial part of your miraculous recovery.
We have all been exposed to the kinds of obtuse, conservative ideas that ordinarily accompany the notion of ‘art sans art theory’. Today one need only recall the paternalistic, theory-negative approach to teaching young black artists in the apartheid era. The official line was that a kind of purity of production had to be maintained by removing theory from the equation, a deeply colonial approach. In brief, it was thought that artistic expression somehow came naturally to black artists and that the introduction of any critical thought into their practice would ultimately ruin it. Today it is clear that this attitude served to further apartheid’s radical dehumanizing program by, for example, keeping black artists uneducated.
But what underpins the current trend towards ‘art theory sans art’? I have recently become acutely aware of the normalization of this within art academia. I say ‘normalization’ exactly because there seems to be nothing out of the ordinary or problematic about this rather postmodern state of affairs. In this regime, artworks are routinely included in exhibitions about this or that curatorial premise because, on the surface at least, they clearly illustrate the issues at stake, the curatorial brief. Specialized scholars may no longer bother with the tedious business of looking at the artworks that form the basis of their study. Or, more worrying than all the aforementioned, such specialists may actually end up looking at artworks whilst forgetting to pay careful attention to their materiality and its relation to the senses.
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