Robert Storr: Most theory has little bearing on art
The critic and curator speaks to The Art Newspaper
By Helen Stoilas. From Frieze daily edition
Published online: 16 October 2009
Robert Storr, US critic, curator and dean of the Yale School of Art, is visiting Frieze Art Fair for the first time, to take part in “Scenes from a Marriage: Have Art and Theory Drifted Apart?”, a panel discussion today at 12pm with artist Barbara Bloom and philosophy professor Simon Critchley. He spoke to The Art Newspaper about the role of art theory, and what advice he is giving to his students in today’s artistic climate.
The Art Newspaper: The topic of the Frieze panel is “Have Art and Theory Drifted Apart?” What are your thoughts?
Robert Storr: I’m not sure that art and theory were ever that close to begin with. There are some artists who read theory seriously but not all that many. And some of the theoretical writing that was done about artists was very important, but what people now call theory is a vast field and a relatively small amount of it bears directly on art, or at least on art production.
We’re in a very strange situation where some artists have derived a lot from their theoretical reading but never as systematically as people are inclined to think. Felix Gonzalez-Torres, who I know read theory carefully, nonetheless made a point of saying that it was not to be read in a kind of rigorous, academic way, but to help unblock thoughts and open up questions.
A lot of artists don’t want to tip their hands and show how selective and shallow their understanding is; a lot of people who do theory full time don’t really want to acknowledge that the process of making art is fundamentally different from the process of writing theory. And, therefore, even though you may share a vocabulary, you don’t share at all the same kind of generative process or goals.
TAN: What do you think the future of art theory is?
RS: I think the future of all kinds of philosophical discourse depends on their utility, their accuracy and description. Having been partially educated in France I was aware that a lot of French theory is conditioned by specifically French situations. The decline of a unified left in French politics, the death of existentialism as a movement…those terms are not applicable to America in a direct way, so you can read French theory in an American context but you also ought to read American history to counterbalance it. Thirty years ago everyone read Wittgenstein—how many read him today? If you want to talk about Jasper Johns, if you want to talk about Bruce Nauman, you should read Wittgenstein. People who have real theoretical minds read widely, they read selectively and they read for use.
TAN: Are there any new projects you’re working on?
RS: I am finishing a new Gerhard Richter book on a painting he’s giving to MoMA about 9/11, and I’ve finished at long last my big book on Louise Bourgeois. I’m running an art school and I’m trying to give good and reasonable criticism to young artists who are entering into an art world not at all like the one they imagined.
TAN: What kind of advice are you giving art students now?
RS: I’m telling them that this is actually a fine time to be in art school because, when I was in art school, when a lot of people I admire were in art school in the 1960s and 1970s, there was no money. If you go into it knowing that you will probably not be rewarded lavishly, but you can in fact continue to work, you’re on a much better footing than if you go into it trying to make a huge impact when you’re 23 or 24, and then maintain that for the next 60 years. You know John Baldessari is someone whom everyone admires, but people by and large forget that he destroyed all of his “successful work” and started all over again. I’m interested in people who make good art, whenever they make it, and I think a lot of the best artists today are late bloomers. I’m a big fan of both Raoul De Keyser and Tom Nozkowski, who I put in the Venice Biennale . Tom is 65 and Raoul is 78 and neither one of them really hit it until they were way past the age when most people think it would be the end of your career.
TAN: Maybe there’s less of a focus on the cult of youth.
RS: There isn’t less of a focus yet, but it’s going to dawn on people that it’s not working. It’s always nice to be a coming attraction, but it’s murder to be a has-been. If it hasn’t happened for you yet, you can at least console yourself with the idea that it might. It’s a fashionable world and even good artists go out of fashion. If you’ve never really thought about what you’re going to do when you go out of fashion because you’ve never been out of fashion, it’s much harder to take than if you’ve gradually come into your own, gotten through difficult times and know that you can survive.
TAN: Do you think the recent economic problems will make artists stronger?
RS: I’m not a believer that hardship makes people stronger, but I do think that too much of certain things can make them weaker. Strong people can be distracted by things that come too easy. Maintaining a career nowadays is extraordinarily complicated, even if you’re just doing your work and showing up for required occasions. You can waste an amazing amount of energy, time and goodwill by chasing after stuff that’s not worth chasing after. Really wise artists know how to make dramatic appearances and how to make dramatic disappearances.
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