Taming the Beast

Bridging Critical Theory and Studio Art

Alexandra Phillips

Have you ever found yourself surprised when a student makes a theoretical connection between the ideas in their academic courses and their studio work? The apparent disconnect between theory and practice got me thinking about why this should be, and why so many of us studio Foundation instructors leave the introduction of theory to our colleagues in the art history or visual culture departments.

Now it goes without saying that everything that is known or imagined is assigned a category which excludes its complement, and that without these categories it would be impossible to navigate one’s way in the world. Some more obvious examples of these complements might be time and space, matter and anti-matter, perhaps being and nothingness. On a more mundane level I ask you, could the English exist without the French, fast food without slow cuisine, Hummers without Hybrids, what about disgraced celebrities without a tabloid press?

Although categories owe their existence to boundaries, defense of these boundaries obscures the fact that these restless co-dependents not only uphold each other’s existence but actively inform their meaning.

Likewise doesn’t theory inform the practice of art I wondered, and why were these categories often addressed at the institutional level as separate and apart? At Vancouver’s Emily Carr Institute where I teach in the Foundation program we pride ourselves on offering an array of interdisciplinary electives as well as the more traditional classes such as drawing, design, and sculpture. It seemed especially ironic then that many of us teaching studio art persisted in this disciplinary division between theory and practice.

But as any of us knows getting the widely varied ability levels of an incoming freshmen class to chew the “bitter pill” of theory beyond their required academic assignments is another thing altogether. Not only is the vocabulary beyond most students’ comprehension, but the concepts often originate in disciplines outside their acquaintance. How, I wondered, would it be possible to introduce Lacanian psychoanalytic theory or Marxist economics to a class whose most recent conversation about art involved meeting the portfolio requirements for admission?

While pondering these questions I came across an intriguing analysis of the distinction between found objects and readymades in an essay by Margaret Iverson in the summer 2004 edition of Art Journal. Iverson’s article: “Readymade, Found Object, Photograph” examines the difference between these seemingly interchangeable categories of artmaking based on an analysis of Kant’s idea of the aesthetic. Like most instructors I had used these terms indiscriminately. Iverson’s article elegantly argues respect for their categorical distinctiveness, forcing the definitions apart from a close inspection of their historical origins at the 1936 Surrealist Exhibition of Objects. To show how I integrate the main ideas in this article into my studio courses I will briefly trace its central themes.

Citing the jumble of “items including natural objects, interpreted natural objects, incorporated natural objects, found objects, perturbed objects, readymade objects, American objects, Oceanic objects, mathematical objects, and Surrealist objects” at the exhibition she notes that “only the readymade and the found object still retain any currency, and the readymade can no longer be subsumed under the Surrealist umbrella. Duchamp’s readymades and Andres Breton’s found object have such different legacies that they now arguably constitute a categorical distinction.”

Iverson’s article traces these legacies in relation to aesthetic theory which she argues extends beyond the concept of beauty but does not terminate in the notion of the anti-aesthetic. Arguments for and against beauty, writes Iverson, overlook the “continuity of certain aesthetic attitudes and ideas that stretch from Kant through the early avant-gardes and re-emerge in contemporary art practices.” Citing Kant’s notion of “disinterestedness” as a defining feature of aesthetic judgment Iverson traces this principal emerging in Symbolist poetry and photography’s celebration of the impersonal and objective. These qualities she says, are also present in the factory-made mass-produced, manufactured object. “The celebrated autonomy of the work of art, it turns out, implies the obliteration of the poet or painter in his or her medium. It is fundamentally about the displacement of one’s own agency so that something other can surface. The aim is to cut through stereotype and sentiment so as to discover what Mallarme called “a strange new beauty (Iverson 47).” Iverson shows that Duchamp pushed this principle of the object’s disinterestedness to an extreme with the readymade, which, she quotes Arthur Danto as calling a “limit-case” of the anti-subjective, anti-aesthetic” which calls into question ideas of personal taste, expressive gestures, craft, or even originality. “The readymade,” writes Danto, “ is a limit case that throws into sharp relief our deeply embedded expectations of a work of art (Danto quoted in Iverson 47).”

Iverson goes on to say that “the legacy of the Duchampian disinterested attitude can be seen in Minimalist, Pop, and Conceptual art” where for example, Robert Morris allowed the materials to determine the form. She argues that the so-called anti-aesthetic tradition in 20th century art is in fact a “development of one of the defining features of the aesthetic itself, one that became a strategy for short-circuiting the imposition of subjectivity. (Iverson 48).”

Iverson argues that while the found object shares its lack of obvious aesthetic quality and minimal artistic intervention with the readymade it differs in almost every other respect because as Breton put it “the found object is situated in the space of the unconscious (Iverson 48).” Breton denied the possibility of disinterestedness, saying that there was no such thing as “spontaneous generation in mental reality” and that Surrealist images and objects are the “visual residue” from past experiences that turn up in dreams. Breton, like Kant, saw art as a means of overcoming the “breach between mind and world.” Objects found by chance in his view, are “situated at the point of connection between external nature, perception, and the unconscious,” a space “carved out by traumatic experience… which has failed to achieve a representation, but on which nonetheless, one’s whole existence depends (Iverson 49).”

Iverson describes the subject implied by the found object as a Lacanian one influenced by the notion of the found object that emerges as the “Petit object a-the lost object which sets desire in motion and which, paradoxically, represents both a hole in the integrity of our world and the thing that comes to hide the hole (Lacan quoted in Iverson 49).”

I will pause here to describe how I have integrated these ideas into a studio art course. Recognizing that many people, when confronted with complex and unfamiliar material simply give up, I have devised a method of evaluation that puts the onus of interpretation on the instructor while the student remains responsible for participation.

Most important, readings are chosen for their relevance to a specific project so that students make a connection between the texts they’re reading and the art they’re making. In the case of the Iverson article the project: “The Object Journal” asks students to take a journey, either real or metaphorical and to collect objects during that journey which they then use in an assemblage that conveys a sense of motion through time and space.

To begin I introduce the subject of the reading, in this case readymades and found objects, establishing first that most students have heard of these categories. I then ask them to define the difference, and when they are unable to do so use this knowledge gap as the opportunity for introducing the article. The practical value of the reading to their studio practice is immediately established, providing a short-term payoff for reading the article. During my introduction I raise the principal points discussed in the article, specifically here the nature of the readymade as an unaltered manufactured object arbitrarily chosen by the artist as opposed to the found object which resonates with repressed subconscious trauma. This gives students a framework of reference.

Second, I assign a study sheet asking questions which highlight key points in the order they occur in the article. Students are required to fill in the study sheets by parroting the answers given in the text. Some examples would be: “How did Andres Breton define readymades?” Answer: Breton defined readymades as “manufactured objects raised to the dignity of works of art by the choice of the artist,” or: “what did the celebrated autonomy of art imply?” Answer: “the celebrated autonomy of art implies the obliteration of the poet or painter in his or her own medium.” Its a given that most students won’t entirely grasp these ideas, but highlighting key points gives you an opportunity to explore major themes critical to an understanding of contemporary art practice, such as the autonomy of art and its relation to modernism and postmodernism.

Questions are chosen for their focus on central illuminating points and continue until the end of the reading. Students are also directed to research unfamiliar terms in reference works held on reserve in the library. I have found texts such as The Dictionary of the Social Sciences particularly helpful.

Expressing sympathy with students’ limitations is critical to this process, consequently evaluation is based on a system that only penalizes lack of participation. That is: that while students are required to read the essays and answer the questions quoting directly from the text, they are only penalized for failure to complete the study sheet. By shifting the focus of evaluation away from comprehension onto involvement students at all levels are encouraged to work towards engagement.

I make a point of telling students that many of these readings have been written by people who have immersed themselves for years in the arcane recesses of art historical or social scientific studies, emerging every so often from the library stacks to share their discoveries with a largely indifferent world. I tell them that is up to them, the studio art student, to provide encouragement to these underappreciated scholars by reading their work. I give them advance warning that these theories often span a range from psychoanalysis to economics, anthropology, history, and sociology. Establishing the authority of the writer and the breadth of the text presents students with the prospect that they are embarking on a voyage of discovery with the possibility of developing an understanding of their own artistic impulses and contemporary art practice which was formerly inaccessible.

In addition to reading the article and completing the study sheets, students are also given a short practical assignment related to the essay. In this case they are directed to bring to class their own found object or readymade, writing a short statement as to why they believe their object falls into either category. By requiring that students translate their choice into a written form they acquire their first experience of assimilating meaning on a personal level through both language and experience.

A critical component of this process is a group review of the reading. With everyone’s study sheet at the ready the instructor reads from the text, asking questions, expanding on specific points, and above all, inviting students to interpret the article. During these reviews students reflect deeply on the ideas contained in the readings, easily making connections with their own experience. Its helpful to provide a social or historical context for the concepts, for example the crisis of representation with the invention of photography and the rise of the avant-garde. Another useful strategy is to show slides and/or videos of works cited in the text.

Article reviews are often accompanied by a lot of laughter, cries of outrage, snorts of derision, and the occasional “Oh, I get it!” During a recent review of this article students were delighted by brain teasers such as Carl Andres observation that “a thing is a hole in a thing it is not (Iverson 54)” or that sculpture could be “a rupture in the continuum of space (Iverson 54).” These quotes followed a description of Orozco’s notion of photography as a “hole” and a sculpture’s inverse relation of object to viewer so that the “spectator becomes the object of sight” similar to Lacan’s speculations on the gaze.

Through careful reading of texts students acquire an appreciation for the depth of the material, but more important, its utility and relevance to their own practice. Although I doubt most of them obtain a complete appreciation of Kant or Lacan from this brief acquaintance most will absorb and remember the main points such as the Duchampian attack on originality and the psychological significance of the narratives revealed in found objects. A reading review can enjoyably absorb more than half a class period leaving time for a show and tell of individual examples of found objects and readymades.

When the larger found object project is due, I require that students also submit an artist’s statement with at least one reference to the article, further reinforcing its relevance. This same approach to introducing critical theory into the studio has been equally effective in explicating other texts such as Rosalind Krauss’s “Sculpture and the Expanded Field” with its perplexing references to the Mandlebrot set of “landscape/not landscape” etc.

In conclusion I have found that by establishing the relevance of complex readings to a studio project based on the same concepts, and by guiding students through a reading using a system that requires only rudimentary comprehension without penalty for failure to comprehend, that Foundation students engage fully in an enthusiastic embrace of advanced theory, incorporating these ideas into an understanding of their own studio practice.