By, Luis Quintanilla
Theoretical perspectives! They’re my favorite light hearted dinner conversation starters. Firstly, because they’re a fickle bunch of ideas that hold no bonafide influence over designers and artists who can just as easily refute a critical analysis with a myriad of other theoretical perspectives. I believe that the never ending back and forth dialogue between audience, critics, and artist is sine qua non to genuine art. Needless to say, there are issues that arise when approaching discourse with art through theoretical perspectives. The least of which being that critic, artist, and audience are, mostly, involved with their own concerns. Because of this, we must approach perspectives with an unbiased eye void of emotional and intellectual contaminates.
Many students have, undoubtedly, thought to themselves “why must we learn theoretical perspectives when it is the artist who decides what embedded meaning lies within a work of art?” This is the first fallacy we must combat head on; it is true that the artist will embed meaning, but it is the audience and the critic who will bring a work into crisis and ultimately judge artistic value. As Terry Berrett suggests, “the more perspectives we can gain on a work of art, the richer and deeper will be the experience of that work” (Berrett, 2000, p.29). Theory also informs artist how aesthetics shift and mold themselves, ultimately being used as tools for designers to exploit in contemporary design.
We must first begin with the fundamental understanding of what a theory is. Theory is only a reflection of language, culture, and period of where it derives from. It is temporal and regional context that gives us insight in theory, therefore, theory does not equal reality. In the same way that rational thinkers such as Rene Descartes, Immanuel Kant, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel informed the conceptualization of Modernity, we must also look at other thinkers and philosophers to inform our understanding of other theoretical perspectives.
The first theoretical perspective I will introduce derives itself directly from a rational thinker, Karl Marx. Within the Marxist lens art is always viewed as an expression of the class struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. It was Karl Marx himself who wrote that there was a continuous war in society to control the materials and means of production. The means of production are physical and non-physical things that are used as inputs to produce economic value, in this case, economic value is art and design. Furthermore, within the Marxist perspective art is valued solely in its attempt to sympathize with the proletariat and show hostility towards the bourgeoisie.
Freudianism also shares its roots with a rational thinker, Sigmund Freud, who extensively studied the inner desires of individuals through psychoanalysis. When applying the Freudian lens to art we look at the inner life of the artist through an analysis of symbolic representation within a work of art. This is primarily a look at the artists deepest desires but it could also be a metaphorical representation of society’s taboos and fears. In addition, art is seen as a disguised representation of the artists painful memories, unresolved conflicts, and deepest sexual desires. The easiest way to approach art with a Freudian lens is to approach artwork as if it was a dream meant to be unpacked by the viewer.
Straying from the pattern that philosophers are the only ones who inform theory we must take a look at contextualism. Contextualism is the primary way of looking at art when approached by students, art historians, and the general public. As the name implies, contextualism looks at the context of an art work. With the contextualist lens we look at things such as religion, politics, philosophy, and economics because they all deal with period and location. Not only does contextualism discount deeper meaning within works but it is extremely prone to circular reasoning when using it; for example: classical art made by a classic artist in a period of classicism.
Similarly to contextualism, we take a look at Phenomenology. Phenomenology is the complete suspension of critical judgement in the form of preconceived ideas and biases. Phenomenology focuses primarily on the perceptual powers of the critic and on the formal features of the artwork by looking at aesthetic and formal choices within the work. This is the most self-evident of the theories because it forces the viewer to look at things that are not up for discourse, such as material worth, weight, size, craft, and presentation.
All of the theoretical perspectives I have presented deal with the liminality of humans. It is only fitting that there is an alternative running counter to them. Posthumanism is the ultimate detachment of these perspectives and is the only theoretical perspective that tries to rid itself of our human constraints through exploration and play. To take up a posthuman perspective we must firstly acknowledge and validate other non-human perspectives, extending from algae to water to pumice stone. Within the posthuman perspective we must realize that the human body is only a prosthesis to the consciousness and the mind. By giving agency to non-human creatures and objects we call back to the countless times throughout history where privileged individuals and groups have stripped other humans of their agency through slavery, genocide, and oppressive social structures. A concrete, beautiful, example of posthuman design is “typography based on the qualities of a black hole” by designer Jonna Mayer. Not only does it play with our basic understanding of typography, it also introduces a totally nuanced approach to shedding our human baggage. In our interview with Jonna we asked her if she thought we could ever achieve a non-theoretical purely objective posthuman perspective, she said this: “No. I don’t even think we can truly understand another human’s experience, but as we all know, trying to do so still makes a world of difference, and I believe the same is true for grasping a nonhuman perspective.” Needless to say this was a surprise to all of us, we thought it was really interesting that someone who has extensively studied and participates in the field of posthumanism believed that it was inherently flawed in its assumption that we could ever shed our human prosthesis.
Human-centered design is founded on the understanding that to be human is to be a discrete, individual subject. This is no longer true, our new relations to the natural world and to socio-technical systems are calling these previous understandings into question and it is imperative that we consider the relevance of emerging social theory. As we adjust our fundamental understandings of human and non-human knowledge and ways of being in the world, it is likely that we will also develop corresponding design methods, frameworks, and practices that better address the challenges we face as a planet.
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Barrett, T. (2000). Criticizing art: understanding the contemporary. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Pub. Co.
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Cromer, J. (1990). History, theory, and practice of art criticism in art education. Reston: National Art Education Association.
Forlano, L. (2017). Posthumanism and Design. She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation, 3(1), 16–29. doi: 10.1016/s2405-8726(17)30113-2
Pynn, G. (2016). Contextualism in Epistemology. Oxford Handbooks Online. doi: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199935314.013.12