Fairs United Kingdom

Robert Storr: Most theory has little bearing on art

The critic and curator speaks to The Art Newspaper

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 [2007]. 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.

More from The Art Newspaper


28 Jan 14
14:59 CET


Wonderfully put, as someone who puts a lot of time into theoretical concepts and then when the time comes- completely deviate from them, its uplifting and refreshing to have a better insight into the "theory" of the process. Thanks!

18 Jan 13
15:20 CET


@ QW Walead wasn't one of Storr's students. Richard Benson was dean during Walead, Mickalene Thomas, Kehinde Wiley's... Term. As I see it, many artists read theory and literature. The good ones tend to read a lot, as it helps sort ideas, but few illustrate theory. I've noticed that the readers' works tend to be more varied, nuanced and complex.

16 Jul 12
19:10 CET


I thought this was a really interesting talk and I wonder what counts as "art theory" nowadays? Are there specific authors who just write "art theory" or are people referring to the same authors that every other academic discipline in the humanities reads and are television shows or books about television shows included as "art theory? Also I'de really like to hear more about your belief that hardship does not make you stronger? Do you think hardship makes people more interesting? I think I disagree with you. Have you seen any of the Rocky movies? Are these questions ever going to be answered? I think I might be 3 years too late.

28 Dec 10
18:11 CET


Dear Storr, Great to know present process of art and theory. In the process of art I mean creative way artists never follow the theory. In reality artists create their own theory. It won't be possible or creative if theory create art. Govinda

4 Feb 10
23:46 CET


Artists produce a visual comment on the human condition-.The language used to make this comment is different to the language used to theorise on the comment and also different to the the language used to theorise on the human condition .Art theorists are attempting to interpret the visual language but much may be lost in translation or changed in translation. Sometimes things are created in the interpretation, sometimes the interpretation is more interesting than the original comment , and , indeed,sometimes the visual language (the form)is more interesting than the actual comment... ..we could go on. The only thing that is certain is that although we can never answer the question “what is art?”, the more we explore and hear these different languages the more creative we become.

17 Nov 09
16:27 CET


Thank you Rob for your insight it is refreshingly honest and real.

3 Nov 09
18:49 CET


As an interpreter of music --a concert pianist-- who performs a great deal of new music in addition to the "standard" repertoire, I found this heartwarming and fascinating. Many of the ideas Storr articulates obtain also in music: it's always wonderful to me to see what we share across disciplines. I have long felt, in musical terms, exactly what he so cogently sums up talking about González-Torres. Theory can indeed be useful if taken in that sense, to provoke questions ... but we should never, ever lose sight of the importance of the artifact itself!

30 Oct 09
1:4 CET


Congrats to Rob on the finishing the Louise book. A great project. His comments are insightful as always. Artists, like birds do what they do, ditto critics. Theroists are another whole species as he so rightly points out. Some of those of us who write criticism as I do and Rob has done attempt to integrate all three modes into our work. Gracefully when it all comes together and insightful when we communicate in the ways we strive for. Try to remember that critics are not paracites, theorists are not without pragmatics and artists are not always the last word.

29 Oct 09
17:34 CET


The problem with the headline of this article is that knee-jerk theory haters are seeing it and wetting their little panties and rushing to say ME TOO! without actually reading the whole article and realizing that what Storr is saying is much more nuanced.

26 Oct 09
14:15 CET


Never met a theory I didn't want to ignore or destroy. Let the academics sort us out.

23 Oct 09
14:57 CET


With an eye for drama and a mind for theory, what should a modern and emerging artist gear and target his or her inquiry toward? After wading through theory in context to one's artistic process in a MFA journey, I come out on the other side to read about the basic acknowledgment artists do not incorporate theory into their work, nor theorist know about the artistic process. Right. Any more questions?

22 Oct 09
19:44 CET


I'd like to hear Mr. Storr discuss at greater length the implications of his non- or anti-theory statements on conceptual art specifically, and more generally, on artists' over-reliance on the Artist's Statement and other ways of explaining rather than simply presenting their work. Dealing with this can be especially rough for those of us who work in process oriented, performance, interdisciplinary, and/or participatory practice. How can we circumvent the need to over-contextualize the static visual work we might present as part of a larger, ongoing work... and must that contextualization use pompous, theoretical, or current art world insider-speak to get its point across?

21 Oct 09
14:55 CET


Animals, children and a computer program controlling a pin on pad, have their Art in galleries or museums, do they know anything about theory. It seems to me its more to do with the Art of the sell, rather than the Artist depicting the theory of Art and humanities. If a solid white painting can sell just by the reputation an Artist has acquired, what does that say about the buyers theory of deep thought. Humanity in the Arts is DEAD, because some fear its story of its Inhumanity to mankind. A true Artist can produce pieces of any artistic expression. We differ in our interest, maybe its due to our intelligence and experiences but the theory of the sell is what it is all about, to buy that piece of Art an place it over the couch.

21 Oct 09
5:9 CET


The only art theory of value is that written by an artist about his work.

20 Oct 09
22:6 CET


"Art theory is to artists as ornithology is to the birds" (meththinks jules olitzky). Anyway, if the birds had any sense they would send a delegation right now...same goes for art fairs

20 Oct 09
15:43 CET


I think we artists all have our own ever-changing theories and insights as to what makes art while we are making it. It is always in the next work.

20 Oct 09
15:41 CET


Thank you for once again putting things in perspective. Most artists do need to be literate, but once that studio door closes the it's about doing as well as thinking. So much gets lost in the race to be something other than what we really are, and having been around for some time now, perspective seems to disappear in the quest for rhetorical justification in the art school world.

20 Oct 09
15:41 CET


As a mature artist entering the art world in a more serious way I feel as though my life experience and perspective DO have something meaningful to add. It is with great relief that I receive your thoughts regarding mature artists. I cannot agree more. In every other culture since the dawn of time it is the sage and seasoned that are looked to for wisdom, why not in art? The rat pack was obnoxious in Hollywood and it is so in the art world. Frieze 2009 reflected technology of medium and the incredible speed of our culture but not human topics that are relevant in a non sensational way. I am looking for art of substance and meaning and I think everyone else is too.

19 Oct 09
18:14 CET


Yes, that may be so, but Storr's whole point is that artists typically do NOT make art based on "Theory." Just because one reads theory doesn't mean that it affects "method," especially "overtly" as Krauss puts it. Krauss is the complete opposite of Robert Storr. She's all about obfuscation and finding mystery where none exists. Storr is about stripping away all the B.S.

19 Oct 09
5:29 CET


This is a particularly interesting interview to me in light of recently finishing Rosalind Krauss's "The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths," wherein she argues (as early as the introduction) that "Postmodern art enters...the theoretical domain of structuralist and poststructuralist analysis...openly. And it is this phenomenon, born of the last two decades, that in turn has opened critical practice, overtly, onto method." Effectively saying that in a Postmodern framework art is created as a direct reaction to, or support of theoretical ideas. A prime example of that is one of Storr's own former Grad students, Walead Beshty. Not only is he a prolific artist but he is an avid reader and writer of contemporary art theory.

19 Oct 09
2:59 CET


Interesting article. I find theory often very overblown. It seems to me to be an attempt to translate something, or put something into words, that people are afraid to just trust their own minds and intuitions to by just looking at the work. Which is funny because a lot of art theory is unreadable.

18 Oct 09
23:7 CET


The past is the past. The future is now. I like the Torres quote, which I feel really says something about an artist/painter who is always trying to learn about their medium and how to push with it even further. Great interview.

18 Oct 09
17:44 CET


The article is truncated. Art, theory, and the influence of the market is where the rubber meets the road. Just look at the road, my fine feathered colleagues — the tolls are full of lanes with Easy Pass. It's easy to change positions on theory when no one remembers that Storr threw integrity in the dumpster for one African collector for the 2007 Venice Biennale. It's all kissy-poo and Cambridge woo hoo.

18 Oct 09
17:42 CET


IF there is such a thing as zeitgeist then it rubs off on both artists and theorists. This may create affinities rather than influences.

17 Oct 09
21:44 CET


IMHO, making art involves process and discovery while theory relies on product and analysis, ultimately they live in very different parts of the psyche. Thanks for the insightful and grounded pov presented here.

17 Oct 09
21:46 CET


Really insightful, and very encouraging. I would like to look at that Bourgeois book as well.

17 Oct 09
15:57 CET


Dramatic disappearances and dramatic appearances. Got it, thanks!

17 Oct 09
2:28 CET


Thank you Mr. Storr. That was extremely refreshing. You have precisely articulated what I have been feeling is true for the past twenty years.

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