Part One – Exercise 1.2 Theory or Not

Prior reflection:

Before digging into the exercise I had to clarify for myself the base of differentiation of theory as such and theory based artwork. So what is theory in art? Or should I say theory of art interpretation?

Should we differentiate science from social theory? Common theories are around social, feministic, or psychoanalytic interpretations. In the course material it is differentiated between science theories and human and cultural theories. As if science theory is something non-negotiable. In the context of John Searle also scientific concepts e.g. ‘the heart has the function of pumping blood because it does pump blood ‘ (Searle, 1996, 16-17) are observer-relative as they describe non-intrinsic features of nature and therefore are subject of the intentionality of the observer. And would this not mean that also scientific theories are not objective and open for discourse? And artists who illustrate e.g. color theories in their work would they not to be considered as theory driven artists?

I do struggle a bit with the differentiation and have to see how my found examples will be able to clarify this.



Works of art in which theory plays a decisive role:

Salvador Dali (1904 – 1989) Archeological Reminiscence of Millet’s Angelus’, 1933-5
=> based on Dali’s psychoanalytic fantasies of Jean-François Millet’s painting ‘L’Angélus [The Angelus]‘. Dali made this surrealist painting based on the symbolism tradition of the femme fatale and associated her with the female praying mantis. She represents the sexual thread for the male linked with male impotence (Dali Museum).

Judy Chicago (b.1939) ‘Dinner Party’, 1974-9
=> icon of the 1970s feminist art movement. The settings have gold ceramic chalices and porcelain plates painted with butterfly – and vulva-inspired designs. With the names of 999 other women.   Feminists focus was to re-discover lost role models for women and re-writing the past with only male voices.

Barbara Kruger (b.1945) ‘Your Body is a Battleground‘, ? [Online image] Available from:  [accessed 20 Jan 2017]
=> a feminist perspective in a positive and negative (from photography) approach and differentiation of how a woman’s body has become an object

Works of art in which theory seems absent:

Jackson Pollock (1912 – 1956) ‘Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)‘, 1950
=> based on action and direct painting, mostly unconscious approach based on chance but still with some control from the artist to obtain a balanced painting.

Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890) ‘Zonnebloemen (Sunflowers), 1889.
=> expressive direct painting from life, use of color to express the subjective perception of the artist.

Helen Frankenthaler (1928 – 2011) ‘Mountains and Sea‘, 1952
=> Pouring and brushing paint onto unprimed canvas in a poetic way

I add here a fourth example  – after some struggle about the concept – where according to Greenberg the artist is rather testing a theory through practice.

Georges Seurat (1859 – 1891) ‘Study for “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte”‘, 1884

=> this painting is based on the color contrast and harmony theories by Charles Blanc (1813 – 1882). The style is called Pointillism  – or as Seurat preferred Divisionism – as the main principle is to separate color into small blots placed side-by-side. Viewed from a distance a mixed color would blend in the eye of the observer and an increase in luminosity would occur. In reality the blots were too large and the resulting perception is not  convincing.

Reflection on the distinction between both approaches:

Theory based art works are often an illustration of an idea or concept and the images do get at times a rather symbolic meaning that the artist is trying to convey to the observer. Although the observer might have different experiences with associated meanings towards the image. Therefore those artworks might become dull or deprived in a different cultural settings or other time periods.

Artworks that are led by practice and perception are rather timeless and ambiguous. In modern art the attention of the artist is related to the surface and not the illusionary representation of a subject. They provide the observer more space to be engaged with her/his own experience and emotional response to the work.

(117 words)


At this point I would like to cite Jorge Luis Borges who refers in his film ‘The Duel’ to the artist who must keep her/his role as the creator of the imaginary reality apart from that of the onlooker/reader’s. The artistic motifs should not be excessive or overly dramatized, because our ‘imagination will reject them. (in: Pallasmaa, J., 2011). Basically it means that the artist cannot control the observer’s perception.




  • Billes, R. (2010) ‘Poured Paintings: Pollock and the Artworld‘ Available from: (accessed 21 Jan 2017)
  • Dali, S. (1998) The collected writings of Salvador Dalí. Edited by Haim N. Finkelstein. Cambridge, UK ;New York, NY ;Melbourne: Cambridge University Press. Available from: [accessed 20 Jan 2017]
  • Elkins, J. (1999b) Why are our pictures puzzles? On the modern origins of pictorial complexity. New York: Taylor & Francis.
  • Greenberg, C. (1995) ‘Collected Essays and Criticism, Volume 4, Modernism with a Vengeance‘, Chicago: University of Chicago Press
  • Pallasmaa, J. (2011) ‘The embodied image: Imagination and imagery in architecture’ (paperback). United Kingdom: John Wiley and Sons Ltd, United Kingdom
  • Searle, J.R. (1996) The construction of social reality. London: Penguin Books.

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