Dr Michael Paraskos, FRSA


When I was a student at the University of Leeds in the early 1990s the dominant ideology of the Fine Art Department was unashamedly marxist. The department was famous for it. There is no doubt the proponents of that world view were sincere in their beliefs as the only thing they hated more than the patriarchal dogs of capitalism was each other. In that they were typical socialists.

I never really fitted in with this marxist conception of art which seemed to impoverish art by reducing it down to nothing more than a mirror held up to the ills of society. The simple joy at seeing the handling of paint in a Rembrandt, the astonishing jumps in colour in a Tiepolo and the almost cubist contortions of space in a Titian were discounted as bourgeois formalism. Paradoxically, despite this attempted indoctrination, it was whilst at Leeds I discovered what became my niche in the art world. It was based on an alternative radical theory of art, with roots going back to the likes of Herbert Read, John Ruskin and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, that I found sympathetic.

At this point I expect some readers will start to baulk at my suggestion that the solution to the marxist art theory I was faced with at Leeds was an alternative set of art theories. The assumption amongst some artists and art lovers outside the mainstream British and American art worlds is to think of art theory as the enemy. It is a view sometimes expressed in The Jackdaw. No doubt this is due to the dominance of conceptualism which is in its pure form the illustration of a concept, or we could say the illustration of a theory. As so much contemporary conceptual art seems to rely on weasel words to justify its significance, and so much art theory is couched in words that are not always the language of everyday life, we naturally conflate the two as acts of sophistry. So perhaps I should not have simply rejected marxist art theory, but theory itself.

My answer to this rests on two principles. The first is that as far as I can see there is very little art theory in mainstream art. Conceptualism as it is practised today is pretty vacuous and empty of concepts to the point where it probably deserves a new name, deconceptualism. Deconceptualism retains the forms of conceptualism, including the justificatory verbiage, and it claims descent from Marcel Duchamp. But it is Duchamp as filtered through the empty head of Andy Warhol rather than the French cultural theorists so dreaded in England. No contemporary artist illustrates this better than Martin Creed, whose justifications for sending runners up and down the Duveen Galleries at Tate Britain in 2008, or for getting everyone to ring their doorbells on the opening day of the Olympics last year, amount to little more than it would be a good wheeze. A vacuum seems to fill the cavity in Mark Wallinger’s head too. When asked if his plan to erect a giant sculpture of a white horse at the Eurostar railway terminal at Ebbsfleet in Kent was a reference to the white horse being the emblem of Kent, he seemed unaware of the connection. The conceptualist missed the only concept that could possibly justify such a blot on the landscape. So I don't think we should assume there is much thought, let alone theory, in conceptualist art now.

The second principle is that the opposite of an art theory one might despise is not no art theory. I defy anyone to name a great artist whose work has not been underpinned by art theory. That is not the same as saying art illustrates theory or the corollary of this that art illustrates a theory of society like a form of visual sociology. Rather it is to say that art operates within a particular framework and it is that framework that defines it as art. If we do not have this framework then we risk accepting that anything and everything can be art if someone says it is art. Ironically that idea is at the heart of conceptualism, and without it we would not have deconceptualism. If we accept that art has to have a framework to distinguish it from non-art then what we are really saying is that there is a theory of art that defines that framework. In other words art is underpinned by theory.

For me the rejection of a marxist theory of art was also a rejection of conceptualism. This is not because marxist and conceptualist art are synonymous, a fact proven by the decidedly unsocialist attitudes of some of the leading promoters of conceptualism, Serota, Saatchi, Jay Joplin and so on. But they share a common belief that art is earthbound, reflecting the world rather than helping to shape it. They make art illustrative, mundane and dull, rather than creative, astonishing and exciting. I would also reject most pop art and photorealism for the same reasons. Thankfully the rejection of marxist art theory has become increasingly common, so that even at Leeds it does not really exist any more. Arguably what is replacing it is a form of art theory whose name alone will probably get the green ink brigade in a real fluster. It is anarchist art theory.

For most people the word anarchism will conjour up images of youths on the streets of Athens throwing petrol bombs at banks. I am not going to pretend there is not a connection with anarchists who try to fight against a society they see as inherently wrong. But whereas marxism and conceptualism view art as either the reflection of the world or the illustration of ideas in the world, anarchist art theory suggests that art is creative. It can create new things. It can show us things that have never existed before. It can take us outside our world, in the way that great artists have taken us outside our world in the past to show us visions of the gods and saints in heaven, mythological Arcadias, or even extraordinary abstract spaces that are unlike anything we see in our world. Whilst anarchist art theory might accept a framework for art it denies limits being place on what art can reveal to us within that framework. In fact anarchist art theory suggests this is the real purpose or function of art, to show us new worlds and even create those worlds for us.

The logic behind this is simple. In the same way anarchist political activists reject society because it imposes on us predetermined ideas about social life, so anarchist art theory rejects the illustration of society because it too imposes predetermined ideas. In both cases if you reject that which already exists you have by default to create something new. And that becomes the starting point for a theory for the creative possibility of art.

Anarchy in the UK

by Michael Paraskos

Published in the British art journal

The Jackdaw, January 2013