I’m very pleased to share a review of Theorem 2018 by Robert Good, director of Art Language Location.
Doctoral research in the visual arts and design
Theorem 2018 (Boyer, 2019) comprises 15 essays and one Q&A transcript in 57,193 words, 66 figures, 69 footnotes and 330 references. In the present review (Good, 2019) I suggest that it is an excellent collection of essays that introduces a range of doctoral enquiries in the field of visual arts and design. I consider the nature of the relationship between art and text and I enquire into the particular landscape of academic discourse. I compare the essay format to the Q&A transcript and conclude by congratulating the contributors on their endeavours.
Keywords: Cambridge School of Art, art practice research, doctoral research, Nina Danino, art and text, academic writing
Theorem 2018 brings together in one volume 14 introductory essays by selected PhD researchers alongside an essay and Q&A transcript byTheorem keynote speaker Dr Nina Danino. It covers a diverse range of topics such as the organisational history of New Contemporaries (Emily Gray), typographic design in novel writing (Zuyi Kang) and Western Identity Theory (Clareese Hill). The book is one manifestation of the wider Theorem project, organised by series editor Jane Boyer, herself a fine art doctoral researcher, in which visual arts and design PhD students from invited UK universities come together to share outcomes and feedback via symposia, exchanges and peer reviews. The 2018 gathering took place at the Ruskin Gallery, Cambridge School of Art, with delegates from eight universities (Birmingham City, Cambridge School of Art, Anglia Ruskin University, Derby, Goldsmiths, Leeds, Nottingham Trent, Plymouth and York) participating in the symposium and exhibition event.
Visually, the layout of Theorem 2018 is pleasingly open and accessible, with generous use of images and white space: the browsing reader is certainly tempted to enquire further within. Verbally, the content is, as you would expect, subject to the rigours of academic discourse: claims are fully referenced, assertions are amplified in footnotes, and content is located firmly within established cultural discourses (Barthes, Benjamin, Bourriaud…) whilst also making many new connections to more contemporary and lesser-known commentators.
This topography of Theorem 2018 got me thinking about the relationships between art and text: what is the role of explanation and elucidation in the visual arts, and how does the nature of academic discourse impact upon the work that is produced?
For example, my eye was caught by the images of Rebecca Court’s work Front Stage: Back Stage, in which gallery visitors are confronted by a doormat which states that ‘SHOE COVERS MUST BE WORN IN THE GALLERY SPACE’. Subsequent images show visitors dutifully viewing the show with shoe covers over their footwear even though there is clearly no good reason for them to be doing so. I smiled at these pictures, and felt that, before having read any text, I had already made some sort of connection with the work itself and its implied commentary on the niceties of gallery etiquette. Reading the text would enrich and amplify a connection that had already been made. By contrast, other images revealed far less and I felt that I would need to consult the text to find a way in to the work being represented.
Of course, in many ways I am skating on thin ice here: the images in Theorem 2018 are not the same as the work itself and there are many other factors at play. But the dynamic between art and its supporting text is a fascinating one and some art seems to need more text than others to enable the viewer to get to first base. Beyond that, however, Theorem 2018 reminds us that writing about art also enables a deep dive into both the interpretation and contextualisation of a work, such that the best writing about art provides the reader not just with a nudge to first base but with the thrill of a home run.
There is a peculiarity to the rhythms and cadences of academic discourse and some turns of phrase and points of reference are instantly recognisable. Theorem 2018 is no different and I confess to being tempted to play Where’s Wally (Benjamin) as I scanned the text for sightings of the great man (I was not disappointed). The language used in Theorem 2018 shows us the precision and clarity that is a prerequisite for observation, enquiry and discussion at this level and it enables a depth and richness of discourse, but might this also be problematic? The very word ‘academic’ suggests a certain cool, dispassionate objectivity, and I wonder if that tends to drive out feelings of warmth, joy and spontaneity in academic literature. For PhD students in the visual arts and design, does this cause a particular conflict or, perhaps subliminally, promote the head over the heart in either their writing or their practice outcomes?
Yet it should be remembered that all discourses, whether political, cultural, scientific, sporting or business, have their own unwritten rules and can appear idiosyncratic to outsiders, for each is a shared language between members of a peer group that outsiders need learn, or that needs to be translated for them. In this respect in particular both this book and the wider Theorem project are to be applauded. For the outsider, the mix of essays, discussion and exhibition provides a range of accessible entry points into the subject matter being researched. For insiders (the PhD students themselves) the project provides multiple opportunities to translate their ideas into different formats that in turn allow a wider engagement.
The value of such variety is evident in the two contributions to Theorem 2018 from Dr Nina Danino, who provides both an essay and the transcription of a Q&A session held after her keynote address to the Theorem symposium. Her essay describes the relationship between theory and practice in the making of two films drawing parallels between which both have as their subject the monastic lives of nuns and the art of feminist filmmaking. Alongside cultural and theoretical considerations, a good part of the discussion revolves around the series of choices such as length of shot, type of edit, use of colour and sound and so on that need to be made in order to realise the theoretical ambitions for the work, which are to be faithful the nuns’ own self-definition of the value and aims of their monastic life whilst also situating the film within a feminist and art-historical theoretical framework. On one level it is perhaps possible to consider all artistic endeavours as a series of choices (canvas or board, portrait or landscape, oil or acrylic?) that cumulatively result in the finished work, and in this instance the choices described seem almost linguistic – what is the best filmic language to use to achieve the desired outcome? The careful exposition of approach that is laid out in the essay contrasts, perhaps not surprisingly, with the form and content of the Q&A. Here the questions are more informal and conversational and tend more towards the practical, observational and anecdotal. We learn of viewers’ responses to watching the films and hear their take on the wider cultural and critical context. It is pleasing that these contributions appear to provide Danino with some genuinely fresh insights and new avenues of enquiry, thus adding to her programme of research. Above all this relatively unstructured exchange makes a nice counterpoint to the essay and provides colour and surprise. It takes us beyond the interiority of the relationship between artist and artwork (and concommitant considerations of intentionality and form) and provides us with insights into the relationship between artwork and viewer – a sense of how the work is being received and the emotions, memories and connections that are being triggered. The two forms of information exchange work well together
In the age of Wikipedia, fake news and instant opinion, slow knowledge is perhaps becoming something of an endangered species. Undertaking a PhD is a very considerable enterprise. Students participating in Theorem are to be congratulated on their endeavours.