Then I decided that this disorder and this dilemma, revealed by my desire to write on Photography, corresponded to a discomfort I had always suffered from: the uneasiness of being a subject torn between two languages, one expressive, the other critical; and that the heart of this critical language, between several discourses, those of sociology, of semiology, and of psychoanalysis – but that, by ultimate dissatisfaction with all of them, I was bearing witness to the only sure thing that was in me (however naive it might be): a desperate resistance to any reductive system. For each time, having resorted to any such language to whatever degree, each time I felt it hardening and thereby tending to reduction and reprimand, I would gently leave it and seek elsewhere: I began to speak differently.
Roland Barthes – Camera Lucida; part 1, chapter 3
I started looking at Photography Professor positions today for next fall. Aside from the insane lists of qualifications they are looking for in a candidate (which no mere mortal has the chance of possessing in entirety) almost all of them make a point to mention a “strong understanding of contemporary critical theory”. This makes sense of course, a perfectly reasonable requirement, but it made me start thinking of my own troubled relationship with critical theory. Sometimes I wonder if the mandate to be making and talking about work in the scope of critical theory stems from Artists trying to justify to the world the value of Artists. That we aren’t just beautifying the world or enriching culture, we are tackling deep sociological and psychological issues that are crucial to society’s advancement.
But that seems slightly false to me, which is why I’ve always remained wary of the critical discourse. Not that there isn’t value (for it certainly does) but that it feels like that is the only lens through which to make or talk about art.But as Barthes said, it is a reduction. Maybe it is an important part of the artistic puzzle, but it is not the essential quality that it is often made into. When I look at the situation I see a certain amount of circular reasoning. Art is talked about in standard contemporary art theory terms, so contemporary art theory is taught to students, who in turn make work that is framed within that reference, and when it is shown, must be talked about on those terms… and the cycle goes on. I know there are a lot of artists that talk about being fed up with the “art world”, but at the end of the day it smacks of bitterness that they have not been on the receiving end of its collectors. Thus far I harbor no bitterness towards the system (of which I am barely in) but I do long for the freedom that exists beyond its reach.
Another way of illustrating my frustration/realization is a story from last summer. One of our visiting artists was pushing all of us (as was his job), but it seemed to be towards the obscure or obfuscating (to use a word from my dad). He took us to several shows and it was clear that he most valued the work that was beyond difficult to “get”. As my classmate put it, “I think he likes to be confounded”. That is the complex which I think many artists don. If a viewer cannot understand it, then the work is inherently higher and therefor more valuable. But when I look at it all I see is something inaccessible that doesn’t draw me in.
So what can I do? Maybe not much. But I can at least agree with Barthes and resolve to “speak differently” about my work at the very least. Its not that critical theory isn’t valuable and not that I won’t use it, but why must we always begin with a reduction of something that is infinitely broader?