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The Theory Demon and the Mad Traveller  

Edward Colless


I taught a subject that was universally if obscurely called ‘art theory’ for over ten years at the School of Art in Hobart; a period which, apart from a little spillage, was neatly packed into the decade of the 1990s. By the time I arrived in Hobart the ‘theory’ word had been well established in art school pedagogy across the country, due to an enforced rehousing throughout the preceding decade of art schools from within colleges of advanced education to universities. I now fondly remember the suspicion if not resentment, fear and loathing occasioned by the word ‘theory’ at that time. Its pariah status within, and parasitical injection into, art schools was undeniably awkward back then: but deserves to be celebrated now. Alas the word has nowadays been pacified, if not disowned. It’s time to reinvigorate its dark menace.


In the ‘90s, theory could be quarantined within essay writing – usually reducible to a modified user-friendly form of art history that policed literacy levels of students. But its integration with studio activity at that time was imposed through a weirdly bureaucratic mantra that was, despite its seeming vacuity, shrewdly sophistic: that an art student’s practice ought to be ‘informed’ by theory. This chant (used by artists more than theorists) bestowed an academic sanctity or absolution to a work of art, made possible because it strategically mixed up the word’s descriptive with its honorific significance. Descriptively, being ‘informed’ refers to receiving information deemed appropriate to a situation. This information can take form as advice, instruction or mere data for which there’s no need to assure validity, only relevance to the matter at hand; and so, while this has restricted value as knowledge (the information sources can range from observable facts to hearsay to gossip or secret police files), there’s an evident connection with practical action – whether that’s picking up a paint brush or clicking a camera shutter.


In its honorific function, however, being ‘informed’ implies something quite different: a prestige. It implies being ‘in the know’, being smart, canny; and this suggests initiation, erudition and scholarship. In these terms what actually ‘informs’ artistic practice can be anything at all – a course of academic study, a sporting interest, a perceptual mannerism, a sexual perversion; in short, a lifestyle preference or compulsion – since this is information given to the practical action of making art; as long as this assumes the rank of knowledge, if an impractical rather than practical knowledge. Being so ‘informed’, artistic practice accumulates theory around it as an aura or halo of knowledge. What is still fascinating about the now obsolete phrasing of art being ‘informed by theory’ is that the bureaucratic conformism of the unnameable ‘Informant’ perversely yields ‘theory’ as a spectral knowledge, with the demonic potency of the spectre. Alas, what an opportunity for mayhem, for unleashing the dark arts, we missed!


We ought to keep this in mind these days, for by the time I left Hobart around 2000 the phantasmic lure of theory-informed art had been supplanted by an even more bureaucratic formulation of wider compass: research-driven art. Trying to define research in the visual arts has become throughout the past decade an educational consultative industry. Yet here, too, there’s the opportunity for an exquisite perversion of institutional norms and discipline. For lurking within the research higher degree programs of art schools is a bogeyman deployed by the institutional idiom with similar facile vacuity as was ‘the Informant’, but whose potency remains politely unstated, indeed politically repressed: mastery. We disavow this term with the sort of timid superstition that the occupants of the Ministry of Magic, in Harry Potter, display toward Voldemort when they call him ‘you-know-who’. So let us defy the bureaucratic protective protocols of the institutional discourse and christen this figure of our art schools’ new research culture by its most dangerous manifestation as ‘the Master’.


The Master of course alludes to the atelier tradition that art schools strive to hold to, in modified and depleted forms, politically corrected but exposing the withered state of that tradition. And nothing can be done to restore this institutional custom: its condition is incurable. The Masters degree, to be specific, is the atelier’s Chernobyl: a prosthetic sarcophagus encasing interminable decay; for what else is this unmentionable name encrypted within the common usage of the Master’s degree but the revenant, undead ‘Master’ who haunts the art school, and what else is its mastery but a new form of ‘theory’? Postmodern culture was expertly described by Jean-François Lyotard as the sceptical turn of disbelief in the master narratives that had fuelled modernist progressivism and vanguardism. But this scepticism was equally characterised by a disposition to mourning the loss of legitimation provided by that mastery of history: a mourning that became identified throughout the later ‘90s with conspiracy theory (exemplified in Fox Mulder’s plaintive slogan for The X-Files, ‘I want to believe’), and in the early years of the new millennium with trauma theory and forensic aesthetics – from which perspective we might see Bones and CSI representing the task of mourning humanism.


Yet, just as the corpses in Bones refuse to die by continuing as informants beyond their death, we ought to relinquish the obligation of mourning respected by postmodernity. Modernity continues as an informant beyond its death in its ‘alter-modern’ resurrections. The Master returns as a vampiric parasite. Do not bemoan this fate: embrace its undead, unmanageable predatoriness as a perverse love object. Live dangerously. Love your Master, for it is your demon.


And is there not now a new claimant entering the scene? Perhaps a greater lover than the Master; certainly in battle with it, and perhaps beyond even the pedagogical and managerial horizons of research culture. The new demonic figure of ‘theory’ will be the one who possesses not the capacity for secretive consecration of art conducted by the Informant, nor the voluble expertise and vampiric allure of the forensic Master, but instead one who possesses a hermetic knowledge – the academic prospect of which is aesthetics as an occult science, or (obversely yet in no way symmetrical or commensurate) science as an occult aesthetics.


What designation would we give this prophetic daemon but that of an equally unnameable legend that embodies the weird knowledge formulated in the visual arts PhD? When we are asked for its identity, we can only call this new thing of theory ‘the Doctor’! Who? The Doctor, like its sci-fi exemplar, is not a flaneur but a fugueur or mad traveller, who collects (and disposes) travelling companions by appearing and disappearing within amnesiac fugue states. Feel free to accompany this fugueur; but beware: do not underestimate the madness of this Doctor’s theory.


This essay first appeared in Journeys Through History, Theory and Practice, an exhibition catalogue celebrating 37 years of work by Jonathan Holmes at the Tasmanian School of Art, curated by Paul Zika, 29 July - 28 August 2011.

from Issue 2: Devils


© Edward Colless 2011.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.