Archive for the ‘ Theorist ’ Category


Dates: 1944-

Nationality: Belgian

Thierry de Duve is a Belgian professor of modern art theory and contemporary art theory, and both actively teaches and publishes books in the field. He also curates exhibitions. He has been a visiting professor at: the University of Lille III (France), the Sorbonne (France), MIT, and Johns Hopkins University, and was the Elliot and Roslyn Jaffe Distinguished Visiting Professor in Contemporary Art in Penn’s History of Art Department. He was a fellow at the Center for the Advanced Study of the Visual Arts (CASVA) at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Wikipedia contributors, ‘Thierry de Duve’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 22 October 2010, 06:55 UTC, <>

Thierry de Duve is professor at Université Lille 3, département des arts plastiques in Villeneuve d’Ascq, France. He writes and teaches on modern and contemporary art. Committed to a reinterpretation of modernism, his work has long revolved around Marcel Duchamp’s readymade and its implications for aesthetics. His publications include: Pictorial Nominalism: On Marcel Duchamp’s Passage from Painting to the Readymade, with D. Polan (Minneapolis,1991); Clement Greenberg between the Lines, translated by Brian Holmes (Paris, 1996); Kant After Duchamp (Cambridge, 1998); and The Definitively Unfinished Marcel Duchamp (Cambridge, 1993).



Dates: 1941-

Nationality: American

Rosalind Krauss is an American art critic, professor, and theorist who is based at Columbia University. Like many, Krauss had been drawn to the criticism of Clement Greenberg, as a counterweight to the highly subjective, poetic approach of Harold Rosenberg. The poet-critic model proved long-lasting in the New York scene, with products from Frank O’Hara to Kynaston McShine to Peter Schjeldahl, but for Krauss and others, its basis in subjective expression was fatally unable to account for how a particular artwork’s objective structure gives rise to its associated subjective effects.

Greenberg’s gifted way of assessing how an art object works, or how it is put together, became for Krauss a fruitful resource; even if she and fellow ‘Greenberger’ Fried would break first with the older critic, and then with each other, at particular moments of judgment, the commitment to formal analysis as the necessary if not sufficient ground of serious criticism would still remain for both of them. Decades after her first engagement with Greenberg, Krauss still used his ideas about an artwork’s ‘medium’ as a jumping-off point for her strongest effort to come to terms with post-1980 art in the person of William Kentridge. Krauss would formulate this formalist commitment in strong terms, against attempts to account for powerful artworks in terms of residual ideas about an artist’s individual genius, for instance in the essays “The Originality of the Avant-Garde: A Postmodernist Repetition” and “Photography’s Discursive Spaces.” For Krauss and for the school of critics who developed under her influence, the Greenbergian legacy offers at its best a way of accounting for works of art using public and hence verifiable criteria (unsurprisingly, Wittgenstein could also be found in Krauss’s arsenal); at its worst, in a repetition of the late Greenberg, an apodictic monologue in pseudoscientific jargon cloaks essentially unverifiable judgments of taste in a mantle of spurious authority.

Whether about art from earlier moments of modernism (Cubist collage, Surrealist photography, early Giacometti sculpture, Rodin, Brancusi, Pollock) or about art contemporaneous to her own writing (Robert Morris, Sol LeWitt, Richard Serra, Cindy Sherman), Krauss has a gift for translating the ephemeralities of visual and bodily experience into precise, vivid English, which has solidified her prestige as a critic. Her usual practice is to make this experience intelligible by using categories translated from the work of a thinker outside the study of art, such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Ferdinand de Saussure, Jacques Lacan, Jean-François Lyotard, Jacques Derrida, Georges Bataille, or Roland Barthes. Her work has helped establish the position of these writers within the study of art, even at the cost of provoking anxiety about threats to the discipline’s autonomy.

In many cases, Krauss is credited as a leader in bringing these concepts to bear on the study of modern art. For instance, her Passages in Modern Sculpture (1977) makes important use of Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology (as she had come to understand it in thinking about minimal art) for viewing modern sculpture in general. In her study of Surrealist photography, she rejected William Rubin’s efforts at formal categorization as insufficient, instead advocating the psychoanalytic categories of “dream” and “automatism,” as well as Jacques Derrida’s “grammatological” idea of “spacing.” See “The Photographic Conditions of Surrealism” (October, winter 1981).

Concerning Cubist art, she took Picasso’s collage breakthrough to be explicable in terms of Saussure’s ideas about the differential relations and non-referentiality of language, rejecting efforts by other scholars to tie the pasted newspaper clippings to social history. Similarly, she held Picasso’s stylistic developments in Cubist portraiture to be products of theoretical problems internal to art, rather than outcomes of the artist’s love life. Later, she explained Picasso’s participation in the rappel à l’ordre or return to order of the 1920s in similar structuralist terms. See “In the Name of Picasso” (October, spring 1981), “The Motivation of the Sign” (in Lynn Zelevansky, ed., Picasso and Braque: A Symposium, 1992), and The Picasso Papers (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998).

From the 1980s, she became increasingly concerned with using a psychoanalytic understanding of drives and the unconscious, owing less to the Freudianism of an André Breton or a Salvador Dalí, and much more to the structuralist Lacan and the “dissident surrealist” Bataille. See “No More Play”, her 1984 essay on Giacometti, as well as “Corpus Delicti”, written for the 1985 exhibition L’Amour Fou: Photography and Surrealism, Cindy Sherman: 1975–1993 and The Optical Unconscious (both 1993) and Formless: A User’s Guide with Yve-Alain Bois, catalog to the exhibition L’Informe: Mode d’emploi (Paris: Centre Pompidou, 1996).

Years after her time at Artforum in the 1960s, Krauss also returned to the drip painting of Jackson Pollock as both a culmination of modernist work within the format of the “easel picture”, and a breakthrough that opened the way for several important developments in later art, from Allan Kaprow’s happenings to Richard Serra’s lead-flinging process art to Andy Warhol’s oxidation (i.e. urination) paintings. For reference, see the Pollock chapter in The Optical Unconscious, several entries in the Formless catalog, and “Beyond the Easel Picture”, her contribution to the MoMA symposium accompanying the 1998 Pollock retrospective (Jackson Pollock: New Approaches). This direction provided intellectual validation for the explosive Pollock markets; but it exacerbated already tense relations between herself and more radical currents in visual/cultural studies, the latter growing steadily impatient with the traditional western art-historical canon.

In addition to writing focused studies about individual artists, Krauss also produced broader, synthetic studies that helped gather together and define the limits of particular fields of practice. Examples of this include “Sense and Sensibility: Reflections on Post ’60s Sculpture” (Artforum, Nov. 1973), “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism” (October, spring 1976), “Notes on the Index: Seventies Art in America”, in two parts, October spring and fall 1977), “Grids, You Say,” In Grids: Format and Image in 20th Century Art (exh. cat.: Pace Gallery, 1978), and “Sculpture in the Expanded Field” (October, spring 1979). Some of these essays are collected in her book The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths.

Wikipedia contributors, ‘Rosalind E. Krauss’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 20 October 2010, 01:21 UTC, <>


Dates: 1929-2007

Nationality: French

Jean Baudrillard (July 27, 1929 – March 6, 2007) was a French sociologist, philosopher, cultural theorist, political commentator, and photographer. His work is frequently associated with postmodernism and post-structuralism. As he developed his work throughout the 1980s, he moved from economically-based theory to the consideration of mediation and mass communications. Although retaining his interest in Saussurean semiotics and the logic of symbolic exchange (as influenced by anthropologist Marcel Mauss) Baudrillard turned his attention to Marshall McLuhan, developing ideas about how the nature of social relations is determined by the forms of communication that a society employs. In so doing, Baudrillard progressed beyond both Saussure’s and Roland Barthes’ formal semiology to consider the implications of a historically-understood (and thus formless) version of structural semiology. The concept of Simulacra also involves a negation of the concept of reality as we usually understand it. Baudrillard argues that today there is no such thing as reality.

Wikipedia contributors, ‘Jean Baudrillard’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 19 November 2010, 22:22 UTC, <>

French theorist and contemporary critic of society and culture who has had a central role in French postmodern theory. As a prolific author who has written more than twenty books, Baudrillard’s reflections on art and aesthetics are an important, if not central, aspect of his work. Although his writings exhibit many twists, turns, and surprising developments as he moved from synthesizing Marxism and semiotics to a prototypical postmodern theory, interest in art remains a constant of his theoretical investigations and literary experiments.



Dates: 1926-

Nationality: American

Since the early 1960s Dickie has made numerous important contributions to the philosophy of art. Among the most influential of his contributions are his attacks on key aspects of widely held aesthetic theories and his creation and critical development of the institutional theory of art. His critique of aesthetic theory addresses a number of theses about what is involved in people’s experiencing something’s aesthetic qualities (and associated theses about aesthetic objects), whereas his Institutional Theory provides an account of the concept of art that locates art’s essence within a special category of social practices attributed to a social group Dickie calls the artworld.

A widely held view among aesthetic theorists is that someone must in some way invoke a special mode of perception in himself or herself in order to experience something’s aesthetic qualities (or in order to experience something as an aesthetic object). Invoking this special mode of perception is commonly equated with adopting a special attitude toward what is being experienced, a disinterested attitude, for example. Speaking generally, Dickie shows that experiencing aesthetic qualities cannot require adopting a special attitude by providing counterexamples to the various attempts philosophers have made to show that there is a distinct kind of experience (properly classified as aesthetic experience) that people must have in order to experience something’s aesthetic qualities, and that having this kind of experience requires adopting a special attitude.

Early on in his attack on aesthetic attitude theorists, Dickie argued against the view that experiencing something’s aesthetic qualities required attending to it disinterestedly. He did this by providing examples to show that the difference between people who are experiencing something’s aesthetic qualities and people who are experiencing the same object without being aware of its aesthetic qualities merely is a function of which characteristics of the thing each person is paying attention to, regardless of the interests motivating his or her attention. Since the difference in what is experienced is explained by what is being attended to, not the mode of attention, it is not necessary to introduce notions like disinterested attention or other special modes of perception (identified in terms of the perceiver’s interests, purposes, or motives) in order to understand the experience of something’s aesthetic qualities.

Bailey, George W. S.. “Dickie, George.” Encyclopedia of Aesthetics. Ed. Michael Kelly. Oxford Art Online. 13 Mar. 2010 <>


Dates: 1924-1998

Nationality: French

Jean-François Lyotard (August 10, 1924 – April 21, 1998) was a French philosopher and literary theorist. He is well-known for his articulation of postmodernism after the late 1970s and the analysis of the impact of post-modernity on the human condition.

Lyotard was a frequent writer on aesthetic matters. He was, despite his reputation as a postmodernist, a great promoter of modernist art. Lyotard saw ‘postmodernism’ as a latent tendency within thought throughout time and not a narrowly-limited historical period. He favored the startling and perplexing works of the high modernist avant-garde. In them he found a demonstration of the limits of our conceptuality, a valuable lesson for anyone too imbued with Enlightenment confidence. Lyotard has written extensively also on few contemporary artists of his choice: Valerio Adami, Daniel Buren, Marcel Duchamp, Bracha Ettinger and Barnett Newman, as well as on Paul Cézanne and Wassily Kandinsky.

He developed these themes in particular by discussing the sublime. The “sublime” is a term in aesthetics whose fortunes revived under postmodernism after a century or more of neglect. It refers to the experience of pleasurable anxiety that we experience when confronting wild and threatening sights like, for example, a massive craggy mountain, black against the sky, looming terrifyingly in our vision.

Lyotard found particularly interesting the explanation of the sublime offered by Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Judgment (sometimes Critique of the Power of Judgment). In this book Kant explains this mixture of anxiety and pleasure in the following terms: there are two kinds of ‘sublime’ experience. In the ‘mathematically’ sublime, an object strikes the mind in such a way that we find ourselves unable to take it in as a whole. More precisely, we experience a clash between our reason (which tells us that all objects are finite) and the imagination (the aspect of the mind that organizes what we see, and which sees an object incalculably larger than ourselves, and feels infinite). In the ‘dynamically’ sublime, the mind recoils at an object so immeasurably more powerful than we, whose weight, force, scale could crush us without the remotest hope of our being able to resist it. (Kant stresses that if we are in actual danger, our feeling of anxiety is very different from that of a sublime feeling. The sublime is an aesthetic experience, not a practical feeling of personal danger.) This explains the feeling of anxiety.

The feeling of pleasure comes when human reason asserts itself. What is deeply unsettling about the mathematically sublime is that the mental faculties that present visual perceptions to the mind are inadequate to the concept corresponding to it; in other words, what we are able to make ourselves see cannot fully match up to what we know is there. We know it’s a mountain but we cannot take the whole thing into our perception. What this does, ironically, is to compel our awareness of the supremacy of the human reason. Our sensibility is incapable of coping with such sights, but our reason can assert the finitude of the presentation. With the dynamically sublime, our sense of physical danger should prompt an awareness that we are not just physical material beings, but moral and (in Kant’s terms) noumenal beings as well. The body may be dwarfed by its power but our reason need not be. This explains, in both cases, why the sublime is an experience of pleasure as well as pain.

Lyotard is fascinated by this admission, from one of the philosophical architects of the Enlightenment, that the mind cannot always organise the world rationally. Some objects are simply incapable of being brought neatly under concepts. For Lyotard, in Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime, but drawing on his argument in The Differend, this is a good thing. Such generalities as ‘concepts’ fail to pay proper attention to the particularity of things. What happens in the sublime is a crisis where we realize the inadequacy of the imagination and reason to each other. What we are witnessing, says Lyotard, is actually the differend; the straining of the mind at the edges of itself and at the edges of its conceptuality.

Wikipedia contributors, ‘Jean-François Lyotard’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 7 November 2010, 19:03 UTC, <>


Dates: 1901-1981

Nationality: French

Jacques-Marie-Émile Lacan (April 13, 1901 – September 9, 1981) was a French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist who made prominent contributions to psychoanalysis, philosophy, and literary theory. He gave yearly seminars, in Paris, from 1953 to 1981, mostly influencing France’s intellectuals in the 1960s and the 1970s, especially the post-structuralist philosophers. His interdisciplinary work is Freudian, featuring the unconscious, the castration complex, the ego; identification; and language as subjective perception, and thus he figures in critical theory, literary studies, twentieth-century French philosophy, and clinical psychoanalysis.

Wikipedia contributors, ‘Jacques Lacan’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 13 December 2010, 04:59 UTC, <>

Jacques Lacan complicated his position on the Gaze as he developed his theories. At first, gazing was important in his theories in relation to the mirror stage, where the subject appears to achieve a sense of mastery by seeing himself as ideal ego. By viewing himself in the mirror, the subject at the mirror stage begins his entrance into culture and language by establishing his own subjectivity through the fantasy image inside the mirror, an image that the subject can aspire towards throughout his life (a stable coherent version of the self that does not correspond to the chaotic drives of our actual material bodies). Once the subject enters the symbolic order, that narcissistic ideal image is maintained in the imaginary order. As explained in the Lacan module on the structure of the psyche, that fantasy image of oneself can be filled in by others who we may want to emulate in our adult lives (role models, love objects, et cetera), anyone that we set up as a mirror for ourselves in what is, ultimately, a narcissistic relationship.

In his later essays, Lacan complicates this understanding of the narcissistic view in the mirror by distinguishing between the eye’s look and the Gaze. Gaze in Lacan’s later work refers to the uncanny sense that the object of our eye’s look or glance is somehow looking back at us of its own will. This uncanny feeling of being gazed at by the object of our look affects us in the same way as castration anxiety (reminding us of the lack at the heart of the symbolic order). We may believe that we are in control of our eye’s look; however, any feeling of scopophilic power is always undone by the fact that the the materiality of existence (the Real) always exceeds and undercuts the meaning structures of the symbolic order. Lacan’s favorite example for the Gaze is Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors. When you look at the painting, it at first gives you a sense that you are in control of your look; however, you then notice a blot at the bottom of the canvas, which you can only make out if you look at the painting from the side at an angle, from which point you begin to see that the blot is, in fact, a skull staring back at you. By having the object of our eye’s look look back at us, we are reminded of our own lack, of the fact that the symbolic order is separated only by a fragile border from the materiality of the Real. The symbols of power and desire in Holbein’s painting (wealth, art, science, ambition) are thus completely undercut. As Lacan puts it, the magical floating object “reflects our own nothingness, in the figure of the death’s head” (Lacan, Four Fundamental 92).

Lacan then argues in “Of the Gaze as Objet Petit a” that there is an intimate relationship between the objet petit a (which coordinates our desire) and the Gaze (which threatens to undo all desire through the eruption of the Real). As I stated in the previous module, “at the heart of desire is a misregognition of fullness where there is really nothing but a screen for our own narcissistic projections. It is that lack at the heart of desire that ensures we continue to desire.” However, because the objet petit a (the object of our desire) is ultimately nothing but a screen for our own narcissistic projections, to come too close to it threatens to give us the experience precisely of the Lacanian Gaze, the realization that behind our desire is nothing but our lack: the materiality of the Real staring back at us. That lack at the heart of desire at once allows desire to persist and threatens continually to run us aground upon the underlying rock of the Real.

This concept has been particularly influential on a group of feminist film theorists who explore, on the one hand, how female objects of desire in traditional Hollywood film are reduced to passive screens for the projection of male fantasies, and, on the other hand, how the male desire for the mastery of the look is, in fact, continually undercut by a certain castration at the heart of cinema: the blank space between the frames that, only in its elision, can create the illusion of cinematic “reality.” That blank space between the frames is analogous to the ever-threatening Real over which we project our narcissistic fantasy of “reality.”



Dates: 1879-1940

Nationality: Russian

Leon Trotsky, born Lev Davidovich Bronstein, was a Bolshevik revolutionary and Marxist theorist. Trotsky’s ideas form the basis of Trotskyism, a term coined as early as 1905 by his opponents in order to separate it from Marxism. Trotsky’s ideas remain a major school of Marxist thought that is opposed to the theories of Stalinism. He was one of the few Soviet political figures who were never rehabilitated by the Soviet administration.

Wikipedia contributors, ‘Leon Trotsky’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 12 December 2010, 02:30 UTC, <>

The quarrels about “pure art” and about “art with a tendency” took place between the liberals and the “populists.” They do not become us. Materialistic dialectics are above this; from the point of view of an objective historical process, art is always a social servant and historically utilitarian. It finds the necessary rhythm of words for dark and vague moods, it brings thought and feeling closer or contrasts them with one another, it enriches the spiritual experience of the individual and of the community, it refines feeling, makes it more flexible, more responsive, it enlarges the volume of thought in advance and not through the personal method of accumulated experience, it educates the individual, the social group, the class and the nation. And this it does quite independently of whether it appears in a given case under the flag of a ‘pure’ or of a frankly tendentious art.

In our Russian social development tendentiousness was the banner of the intelligentsia which sought contact with the people. The helpless intelligentsia, crushed by czarism and deprived of a cultural environment, sought support in the lower strata of society and tried to prove to the “people” that it was thinking only of them, living only for them and that it loved them “terribly.” And just as the populists who went to the people were ready to do without clean linen and without a comb and without a toothbrush, so the intelligentsia was ready to sacrifice the “subtleties” of form in its art, in order to give the most direct and spontaneous expression to the sufferings and hopes of the oppressed. On the other hand, “pure” art was the banner of the rising bourgeoisie, which could not openly declare its bourgeois character, and which at the same time tried to keep the intelligentsia in its service.