Art theory for working artists

All arts are art

I love being an artist. It’s the only profession where you can get paid for being mentally ill. – James Lee Burke

I truly hated theory at art school. In technical education, theory was taught as an orthodox narrative to be learned by rote. At university it was taught as a trope of Continental critical theory with a zeal that established said theory as a kind of alternate orthodoxy despite the obvious contradictions implicit in this. Neither of these approaches are much use if what you have is an intense drive to create and no idea why this might be or how to husband it; or worse, whether (given the global ecological and social crisis we are experiencing) making art is even something worth doing – are we just rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic?


In this context it’s my intention to establish a form of art theory that’s both factually supportable and of practical use to as many working artists as possible. In practical terms this will involve discussing why the process of making art involves the sort of “magical” or “illogical” or “childish” mental processes that in the rest of life in Western societies are at best derided and at worst censured, sometimes lethally. Why do we do it to ourselves? How, exactly, do we go about making art professionally without going batshit crazy? To find out I’ll need to address some difficult questions. For starters, what exactly is art anyway?

This initial point is where most arts writing gets beached on the controversies that have bedeviled it over the centuries and the purported “mystery” of the human creative impulse. I do not accept that the traditional impasse over what can acceptably called “art” is actually any kind of aporia at all. What if refusal to admit such-and-such a person or their work to the canon is nothing but the fatuous laziness of the over-privileged? What if deferring to the “mystery” is a cop-out, a pusillanimous failure to engage with the intimidating complexity of human behaviour?

Let’s just ditch all the traditional hangups about qualified persons and admissible techniques out of hand. If we take the broadest possible view, if we allow that anything anyone has ever referred to in any culture as being art is in fact art, then we are beginning with a vast range of physical and mental techniques in a loose analogical relationship to one another. What do they all have in common?

Art, if the above is what we mean by art, is any process of human environmental intervention used specifically and primarily to sensorially induce altered internal states in other people. Stories, songs, dances and cave paintings; Keats, Ginsberg and the whining, cliché-ridden gothic doggerel of a brain-melted junkie; Xhosa ritual masks and Turkish rugs; Rembrandt and Tracey Emin; Indigenous Australian bark paintings and the Buddhas of Bamiyan; superhero comic books, shitty pop songs, the inane piddlings of a community hall watercolour society and the territorial piddlings of the graffitists despoiling the walls outside; the muddle of texta squiggles my kids have stuck on the fridge; pulp fiction, Pulp Fiction and Joyce’s Ulysses; Star Trek; Hamlet; Verdi and Merzbow; ballet, figure skating and pole dancing; Duchamp’s urinal, Reinhardt’s solid black canvases and Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. All these things and more have a shared origin: not communication but induction, even coercion, an inchoate push from the spirit of one into the spirits of many.

“Spirit” of course is a dirty word these days, implying as it does belief in free-floating incorporeal personalities such as the disembodied souls of the dead. This is not what I intend by it. In fact, far from a higher or heavenly aspect I mean that aware-but-not-self-aware part of the mind which is close to what is often described as an animal state: somatic, sensory and desirous of simultaneous feedback from as much of what philosopher Timothy Morton calls “the mesh” – the interconnected everything of which we are part – as possible.

As Morton points out in The Ecological Thought, the idea of a separation between self and environment breaks down under scrutiny, as do the very ideas of “self” and “environment”. All systems of matter and energy, living and nonliving (however you decide to draw that distinction) exert pressure on one another to a greater or lesser extent. The survival and subsequent expression of a particular genotype occurs out of a chaotic process that defies any single linear narrative of causality. It is therefore problematic to talk about evolutionary “strategies” being “successful” (as I did in the previous entry, naughty me) because the necessary teleology to call such a random pattern a “strategy” is simply unavailable. It’s not even a tactic.

It’s not as if God or Grandpa Sasquatch sat down and planned it all out one afternoon in the Pleistocene and lo! here we are; more just that given all the random things that happened, we somehow managed to carry on not dying. To describe something that we did during this period (like art, for example) as being therefore necessary to our survival, no matter how much time we spent doing it while also not dying, is a bridge too far. As art has been with us some 75,000 years now, it would be fair to say it has at least thus far been mostly harmless. This, however, gets us nowhere in terms of understanding how we came to be doing it, why we keep it up or what effects it might be having.

Let us, then, be bold, and suggest that art has a root cause or series or network of causes and that we might be able to point to at least some of them; let us also suggest that art may have had some effects over the 75,000 years that we are known have been making it and that we may be able to see some of them. All knowledge may well boil down to scale-specific heuristics but rules of thumb do have their uses. If I were to bang my head on the table here (I have frequently felt like doing so during this writing process) it will hurt, despite both the table and I being made of atoms that are mostly space. Let us look then for some useable heuristics that might allow us to foster and guide our creative praxis in this ailing world or else choose a more useful career.


Art is not communication

Art is not thoughtful, symbolic communication whose primary purpose is the exchange of information. I mean, ask yourself why you make art, or why you seek to experience it. You aren’t just looking for specific information or trying only to accurately broadcast it. As communication, art’s a blunderbuss not a scalpel. Art is a modality in which people work rather than a tool for any individual purpose.

As Marshall McLuhan famously taught, the medium is the message. What he meant by this is that any given technology has side- and knock-on effects that dwarf any informational content that might be delivered using said technology. Any technology may be considered a medium, any medium can be deployed in art, and art need not contain a specific informational payload. McLuhan himself specifically pointed this out with reference to Picasso’s paintings, stating that the paintings themselves were the entirety of their own message.

As Roland Barthes wrote, “Art is without noise,” meaning that it is all signal, that every aspect of a work is important to the experience of the work, requiring of us a broad but intense focus. This signal, however, is inductive rather than symbolic. It happens to you like an alarm rather than being presented to you for decoding like a telegram. By appealing to a range of senses, it seeks to cut through the abstract level of communication directly to somatic affect.

Bear in mind here that that the main mechanism of the senses is the brain; art’s initial address may enter the skull through only one sense, as in poetry for instance, but more senses are engaged in the experience once it is internalised. Various studies have shown how speech centers in the brain light up when we read dialogue, how visual centers light up when we imagine colours, how auditory centers engage when we think of music and so forth.

Art may well employ direct communication and often does, but it’s not necessary for it do so. Art directs you to believe rather than to merely know; to experience rather than to simply consider.

Art involves the conferral of sensory abilities. It addresses both the artist and the audience, making no distinction between them. It insists, like a toddler, “This! This!” and won’t shut up until you play along and have the experience. This is why bad art makes us cringe – like a nasty taste, it must be internalised before it can be assessed. Like the gates of Troy you’ve opened yourself to the experience; then suddenly the art erupts inside you! It’s all in there with the pointy bits and the chopping! You’re suddenly full of blood, fire and screaming! How mortifying!

How did this happen? How did this inanimate thing sneak past your clever, cynical defenses to become part of you? Why did you agree to open yourself like that? To address these questions we will have to take a rather cold look at who, and more to the point what, “you” actually are. The skin of humanity lies rather thinner over the upright ape than might be immediately apparent in a gallery with a glass of chardonnay in one hand and a little cube of cheese in the other.

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