November 11, 2015

Should Artists Read "Critical Theory?"

Recent interactions with former art theory students have inspired me to flip open my notebook and discuss the reading choices of artists, particularly with regard to whether or not they should be reading “critical theory.” Because I am currently taking time off from teaching I won’t assign any readings here but simply express my thoughts on the subject and my personal belief that critical theory is required reading for artists.  

Today’s post was partially provoked by Nicolas Bourriaud’s elegant but perplexing statement regarding critical theory, or rather his “answer” to a single question posed to him in an recent “interview.” In the veritable tsunami of information that washes over us hourly, this little gem of a text could’ve been easily lost and I am grateful that a student shared it with me. There are a few ex-students that share my passion for theory and I’m empowered by their continued pursuit of the discourse that it ensures with me.

Side-stepping for the moment the mystery of why Ryder Richards, himself an artist, would ask only this one question, what rankled most was Bourriaud’s meandering around the topic. Bourriaud deigns not to define “critical theory” but instead begrudges us with a “yes and no” answer. To whit:

“If the question is ‘do they have to’ the answer is ‘no,’ obviously. You can think in very critical terms without referring to any critical theory pre-existing to your investigations…I read a lot of artist’s interviews and texts, so you see that the opposite can be true also…if the question is ‘do artists need to read such-and-such’ type of literature, the answer is definitely ‘no.’ You never know where ideas come from.”(1)

To be fair, Nicolas did warn us that he wasn’t sure “one can be dogmatic with this type of question.” But certainly Nic is no stranger to dogma; his Relational Aesthetics veered very close to a doctrine when first published in 1998, and still has some miles on it. Highly “opinionated?” Yes, but as a theorist Nic was more than able to back up his beliefs that objects as conveyers of meaning were passé and that the new approach of socially enabling, community activist-artists was here to stay.

Yet Nicolas wasn’t able to get that worked up about critical theory as a necessary evil. Perhaps Nic sensed the confrontational taunt buried in Richards’ single question interview. It was a challenge more than a question, really.

The closest Nic came to addressing critical theory was when he teased Richards with this:
“Critical theory, if it’s meant to describe a very specific type of literature – it’s very narrow. I think the ideas come from so many different places. Critical theory is not the critical sound that is produced in the art world.”

If this statement was merely Nic’s superficial dismissal of his interviewer, we might forgive and forget. After all, Richards is actually asking what is so important about critical theory for artists. But I think that Nic was attempting to deflect the question, by briefly alluding to the lesser important branch of critical theory as used on literary texts. Bourriaud’s own Relational Art takes its very germination, however, from the broader branch of critical theory espoused by the Frankfurt School and their view that their Marxist, political philosophy “ought” to integrate with the social sciences.(2)    

And at this moment in the “interview” an interviewer worth our time might have jumped on that idea of “texts” and parried Nic with this:

“But haven’t we understood – certainly informed by the work of Derrida, Barthes and others – that artworks themselves are texts? Are you so naïve as to suggest that the art world produces only the “sound” of critical theory instead of the substance?”(3)      

To produce these texts, our artworks, the art experience that dear old Bourriaud championed nearly 20 years ago, one must constantly “position yourself in front of all the other artists, then all the artists of your times, and the critical voices of today and the past.” This is where Nic gets it right and his view meshes with one of the Core Mantras of my pedagogy: before you make a painting, do a performance or an installation, you need to familiarize yourself with the theory and practice of all that has come before. 

Thankfully, you have the Internet and a smartphone; that's where most critical theory resides now. You’ll be a better artist for it, or at least a critically savvy one.    


2. Bourriaud defines Relational art as "a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space." Relational Aesthetics, Dijon: Les presses du réel, 2002, p. 113.

3. Certainly in this interview Richards missed an opportunity to ask Bourriaud what he makes of Relational Aesthetics evolving into Social Practice Art in the last two decades.

October 31, 2015

On Chibchan Languages

In a few months I will be creating a site-specific, participatory installation in San Jose, Costa Rica. The curatorial theme is “Reflections on Diversity” and I have decided to incorporate Spanish, the national language of Costa Rica, with English on my text-based panels for this installation.

My research and development for the textual content of this installation has led me to discover Costa Rica's many indigenous native languages. Some of these languages are classified as Chibchan and were spoken by tribes in Costa Rica such as the Bribri, Brunka (or Boruca) and Cabécar, and their languages are considered endangered:   

To prepare for this bilingual, possibly multi-lingual, installation I am seeking informational resources about the Bribri, Brunka, Cabécar and other indigenous native languages of Costa Rica, particularly with regard to their phonetic and/or phonologic relationship to Spanish. Any links to texts, documentaries, lectures or dissertations about these indigenous native languages would be most appreciated; please contact me via

September 19, 2015

Summer Seminar

Administrator’s Note: Last month I had the pleasure of mentoring a young Chinese artist named Mei Tou Chan during her first visit to the United States. I had prepared a two-week seminar for her on the “relationship between art theory and important painting practices of the late 19th Century through mid-20th Century.” My goal for Mei Tou was to explore some essential painters and, as my syllabus further states, “touch upon the ideas that empowered their painting, supported by a selection of readings by critics and art historians, along with commentary by the instructor, to further educate the student’s theoretical knowledge and practical studio experience …”

Mei Tou truly exceeded my expectations, completing over 20 paintings and drawings and delivering an excellent essay on Jackson Pollock. I have posted the entire essay here for my readers’ enjoyment and edification, along with the Letter of Recommendation that I wrote for her and sent to her home back in Macau. Remember her name, because Mei Tou Chan has the potential to become an extraordinary artist in the near future.

UPDATE: I neglected to mention Mei Tou's age: she turned 17 during her visit.

“Jackson Pollock and Action Painting”

Jackson Pollock’s early works are populist series of American rural life, but later he developed an inimitable abstract style, which is different from Impressionism and realistic[s]. Rather than drawing actual objects such as buildings or fruits, abstract painting is a kind of way to express feeling.

Pollock began to do away with recognizable and traditional images, and to drip, splatter and pour paint onto canvas which spread on the floor of his studio, and is called “action painting.”

Under the law of gravity, Pollock understood how the pigments are going to behave in different conditions. When using liquid paints, the painting will have lots of dots, instead of hard straight lines, which also looks like a mop of tangled hair. By dripping and splashing, it helps to spread the paints all over the canvas.

Pollock used multimedia elements in his painting such as different tools for painting and they often have unexpected colours [sic] so as to create a cheerful harmony. Moreover, the strength of dripping the paints by the arm can affect the result. The harder dripping, the denser and thicker the painting gets.

As Pollock painted on the floor, he feel [sic] nearer and comfortable as at home. He used all of the floor and walked around to his work and paint, and be a part of the painting. He wrote “I feel more at home, more at ease in a big area, having a canvas on the floor, I feel nearer, more a part of a painting.”

Through the paintings, we can see dancers’ movement or music rhythm. We can imagine the motion and gesture of the painter. Moreover, we can feel how the painter’s feeling by the dots and lines, whether he [is] sad or energetic in the painting, using the colors to represent himself.

It was my first time to have [sic] "action painting." I found fun and freedom throughout this period when painting. There is no limitation and I paint whatever I feel in my heart and brain.

After painting yesterday, I deeply understand what Pollock means "When I am in my painting, I'm not aware of what I'm doing...the painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through." Just follow the heart and do what it wants, maybe the consequence is astounding. Don't care if the painting is aesthetic.

It was such a great experience to learn "action painting." Though it was hard to understand abstract painting, people can feel the emotional expression from the painting. I feel very glad and am very privileged to have a thoughtful and patient, Professor Boyd to teach me things I have never learned before.

Mei Tou Chan
August 21, 2015

September 8, 2015

To whom it may concern:

I am writing this Letter of Recommendation for Mei Tou Chan who studied painting and art theory with me in Washington, D.C. during her first visit to the U.S.A. in August 2015.

I am an artist, independent curator and art educator with 19 years of experience teaching college-level coursework in painting, drawing, design and art theory at many institutions, including George Washington University, Corcoran College of Art and Design and the University of Maryland in the metro D.C. area. Mei Tou is my wife’s Grandniece, and after viewing her paintings last year while visiting family in Macau, R.O.C., I was so impressed with the maturity of her paintings that we invited her to come to the U.S. to study painting with me.

I knew Mei Tou was an intelligent and talented young artist who had created a strong body of representational work in landscape and still-life painting in classes she undertook through her own diligence as an extra-curricular activity. Mei Tou’s rendering ability and observational skills are remarkable for her age and will undoubtedly continue to develop if she pursues Realist painting. My goal of the two-week seminar that I designed for Mei Tou was to introduce her to Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and the painting theories that evolved to Modernism to show her that abstraction can be another way to reveal subjective expression as an artist.

My seminar, Theories of Painting: From Impressionism to Action Painting, was designed to teach Mei Tou about the relationships of theory and practice in late 19th to mid-20th Century painting and the significant painters of this period. Her studies included tours of the National Gallery of Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum and Baltimore Museum of Art, accompanied by my lectures as we viewed paintings by Monet, Seurat, Van Gogh, Matisse, Pollock and others. Mei Tou also was given reading assignments and asked to apply what she learned in this seminar in two written essays on painting theory and practice, and to create her own paintings in practical studio assignments.

In my role as Mei Tou’s mentor, I was delighted to discover that she has a genuine appreciation and curiosity for fine art, art history and theory. I also observed how quickly Mei Tou comprehended complex theories like “pointillism” and “action painting.” Mei Tou’s ability to communicate her thoughts effectively in writing was evidenced in her written assignments, and her essay on Jackson Pollock was particularly exceptional. She was also able to clearly express how her theory studies enhanced her experience in the studio, and how those relationships helped her learn about abstract painting. Her sensitivity and eloquence in conveying the connection between the readings, our museum talks, and her studio time creating abstractions were quite wonderful to read. Moreover, she exceeded my expectations by producing eight paintings in three days of studio time during her two-week seminar. 

In my view, the paintings that Mei Tou made and the essays she wrote are worthy efforts for one so young and they hold the promise of great possibilities for a future career for her, either in the arts, academia or art education. The verbal and written communication skills that Mei Tou has exhibited in this seminar, combined with her developing practice as a painter, would make her an excellent candidate for further studies in college-level Fine Arts or an academic pursuit of her choice, and she has my enthusiastic and unwavering support. 

I am available for correspondence via email or cellular at for additional information or assistance on behalf of Mei Tou Chan.   

Mark Cameron Boyd

Image: Untitled, mixed media on canvas, H16 x W20 inches. 
© Copyright 2015 by Mei Tou Chan.