Nicholas Georgouras, The Thinker (1980), Pentelicon marble


In this essay, I will argue that theories can create dilemmas for artists when they wish to create spontaneously or expressively. However, the knowledge of the philosophy of art and art history is important as a background for artists upon which they can base their works. I will use the prescribed text Why theory? and the essay Artist’s Labor by Derek Whitehead  to show how I have shaped my understanding of theory and the thought processes used in the creation of an artwork.

Paul Klee (1879-1940) once declared, ‘The artist does nothing other than gather and pass on what comes to him from the depths. He neither serves nor rules- he transmits.’ (Ed. Read 1948, p.15) It may be argued that when an artist states that they do not want to contaminate themselves by theories, they are forgetting that theory can be thought. However when, as Klee says, “they gather from the depths” the artist is collecting all from his subconscious that he has felt, experienced, touched and seen during his particular moment in history, he is deep in thought. So, if ‘thought’ is ‘theory’ then it does not ‘inhibit spontaneous creation’ nor does it ‘insert a barrier’ but if ‘theory’ is ‘thought’ it can become a philosophical dilemma rather than a work of art.

A good example of this philosophical dilemma is Arthur C. Danto, the American art critic, who in 1984 proclaimed ‘the end of art’. After studying at WayneStateUniversityhe moved to New Yorkwhere he had a short-lived career as an artist in the 1950s. But Danto was studying philosophy in addition to pursuing art. He decided that he preferred writing about the philosophy of art to art practice and, finding that it was like living two lives, became a professor of philosophy at ColumbiaUniversityin 1966. (The Philosophy of Art, Degen, 2005)

Very few artists do not have preconceived thoughts about their work at all. The Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) said that all men are philosophers as they are involved in ‘thinking language’, ‘common sense’, and a system of beliefs. He draws our attention to the fact that as we grow up in our different environments we acquire sets of meanings and beliefs. Language is more than just a label for different things; it is a dynamic form of communication for ideas. We are rarely aware of these thoughts all of the time, they remain in our subconscious and this is referred to as ‘spontaneous philosophy’.  Systemised theory, on the other hand, highlights thought and transforms pre-existing thought into a more coherent and organised form. (Carter, M. pp 31-43)

This systemised theory or philosophy of art has come to interest many academics over the last half of the twentieth century. Art theory has come to be seen as an increasingly important way of making comprehensible lengthy artists’ statements which accompany exhibited material. It is considered by academia a weakness if the modern art student has no understanding or knowledge of art theory. If they are an artist their position is also likely to be undermined. For a student or artist to reject a discourse in theory they must have the full knowledge of background study to place themselves in a strong position.

Both the philosophers Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) contributed to this new way of thinking in the early part of the twentieth century. Freud’s approach was to decentre the consciousness from ideas of human subjectivity. He wrote that we are not aware of the content of our subconscious and this has a direct result on the influence of behaviour. Reason, said Freud, is a willing tool of the unconscious ready to make rational justifications of our actions. Marx wrote of the concept of totality, looking at social issues from the totality of interacting factors. Neo- Marxism is responsible for more sophisticated versions of Marxist concepts, bringing together cultural concerns such as identity, race, gender and sexual orientation.

During the twentieth century, science was taken by academia as a model for art, using the test of objectivity and a strict criterion of verifiability. This influenced the rise of Analytical Philosophy. InEurope, however, they rejected Analytical Philosophy as boring and instead of science, adopted literature as their model. This was known as Continental Philosophy. These different schools of thought were deeply divided by technical language, truth criteria and different accounts of history. There was a general acceptance by both camps that each was not nonsense and therefore both were taught in universities as separate subjects.

A further change came when the theoretical basis of the arts moved from analytical aesthetics to Continental Philosophy. Some felt a social embarrassment at perceived elitism in traditional attitudes. Visual culture has continued to be theorised by Analytic Philosophy but now aesthetics has been incorporated into cultural theory. This concentration on meaning in a work of art comes from the view that traditional aesthetic thinking was not adequate to deal with the explosion of cultural imagery in the twentieth century. The modernist movement, which began in the late nineteenth century, emphasised aesthetic theory especially in the development of pure abstraction. However, this tendency to consider only the formal elements of a piece of work was considered by critics such as John Berger (1926) to be incorrect. He argued that both meaning and aesthetics should be considered and intimately related. (Berger, J. 1972)

While academia argued about the new language for the ‘new art history’, Marcel Duchamp and his artistic descendants considered life and art matters of chance and choice. Each act that an artist took was individual and unique. This philosophy of utter freedom underpinned the fundamental anarchy of later twentieth century art. (Mamiya & Kleiner, p.983) Yet, at the same time as Duchamp, a more rigorous goal of art was proclaimed by another part of the avant-garde. On one side there was a belief that art was an expression of humanity’s spiritual nature. On the other were the Futurists, the Constructivists and the Productivists, whose theory that art must be directed towards creating useful products for the new society was aptly stated in this quote from their manifesto: “Art is a social product, conditioned by the social environment.” (Mamiya & Kleiner, p.1005)

Then other groups were founded with their own particular theories, such as De Stijl (The Style) founded by Theo Van Doesburg (1883-1931) and Piet Mondrian (1872-1944). They declared in their first manifesto: ‘There is an old and a new consciousness of the age. The old one is directed towards the individual. The new one is directed toward the universal.’ De Stijl also demanded that the construction of the environment be in accordance with creative laws based on fixed principles, such as those of economics, mathematics, technique, sanitation etc., leading to a new plastic unity. (Mamiya & Kleine, p. 1006)

These modernists, fleeing a Nazi-dominated Europe for a liberal USA, influenced artists there, thereby shifting the centre of Western art from Paristo New York. These avant-garde artists provided a great directional impetus for art production in the post-war years. The Abstract-Expressionists, Post-Painterly Abstractionists and Minimalists expressed the most interest in modernist experimental art in the language of resolute abstraction. However, other artists felt that the insular and introspective theories of the avant-garde had resulted in public alienation. They believed that it was their task to use art as a tool of communication and felt that they needed to reach a wider audience. These artists, while still the avant-garde themselves (such as Pop Artists, Super Realists and Environmental artists), did not really want to focus on just the formal issues of modernist art theory. (Mamiya & Kleiner, p.1051)

As modernism became entrenched in orthodoxy, another paradigm shift occurred in the late twentieth century. Begun by the Pop art movement and, more likely still, a direct descendant of Duchamp’s Dadaists, the Post Modernist movement began in the 1970s. It was a reaction to the harsh, disciplinary theories of the modernists. Through all these different schools of thought during the century stood the towering figure of  Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) who stated, ‘Painting isn’t an aesthetic operation, it’s a form of magic designed as a mediator between this strange, hostile world and us, a way of seizing the power by giving form to our terrors as well as our desires.’ (Ed. Clark, 1993 p.11)


The critic and artist Derek Whitehead (Artist’s Labor, 2007) writes that the making of an artwork is primarily concerned with the communication of an artist’s internalized responses which remain untranslatable other than by being created. He writes that art is the outward expression or representation of an artist’s inner world, or an indefinable aspect of the world which, unless it has an artist’s aesthetic judgement, would have no other way of giving itself over to human appreciation. This considered consciousness of the artist is an antithesis to much of the hyperactivity of the contemporary age. Also, authentic art practice must find a legitimate place for the illogical and the irrational. To demonstrate art’s power to work through the different intellectual spaces of theoretical discourse, our reason and judgment must be taken to a threshold where artworks take on non-objective values and unrecognized meanings. The challenge to art in the future is to aspire to what is unthought, resisting the coercion of market forces which promote image as style, that is mirrored in the excesses of art theory.

This essay has argued that if one believes that ‘spontaneous philosophy’ is an essential part of the coming into being of a work of art, then systemised theory must be an obstacle in its creative path. That effort of thought allows the artist to enter another world and express a new language which, without systematic theory, discovers what is seen within.

Reference List:

Degen, Natasha, 2005, The Philosophy of Art: A Conversation with Arthur C. Danto

Retrieved: August 31 2007 from

Carter, M. Why Theory?Framing Art: Introducing Theory and the Visual Image (pp. 31-43). Hale and Iremonger Pty. Limited, Sydney

Berger, J 1972,  Ways of Seeing Penguin Books Ltd

Mamiya & Kleiner,  Gardner’s Art through the Ages p.983-1051

Whitehead D., 2007 Artists Labor Retrieved: August 28 2007 from

Read, H. 1948, Paul Klee On Modern Art p.15 (UK: Faber and Faber,

Wiltshire, 1948/1987)

Clark, H. Editor 1993, Picasso in his Words, Collins PublishersSan Francisco p. 11



Berger, J., 1972, Ways of Seeing Penguin Books Ltd. London


Carter, M. Framing Art: Introducing Theory and The Visual Image, Hale and Iremonger Pty. Limited, Sydney


Degen, Natasha, 2005, The Philosophy of Art: A Conversation with Arthur C. Danto

Retrieved: August 31 2007 from 


Klee, Paul, On Modern Art, Intro., Herbert Read (UK: Faber and Faber,

 Wiltshire, 1948/1987)


Mamiya & Kleiner, 2005, Art Through the Ages, Wadsworth /Thompson Learning, USA


Whitehead, D., 2007 Artists Labor Retrieved: August 28 2007 from


Wieland Schmied, Max Ernst: Inside the Sight Houston, Texas: Institute for the Arts, Rice University, 1973


Clark, H. Editor 1993, Picasso in his Words, Collins Publishers San Francisco