Jean Robertson & Craig McDaniel, “Introduction” to Themes of Contemporary Art



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Question Sheet #1

Elaine O’Brien

Art 206: Theory & Criticism

August 22, 2009



Jean Robertson & Craig McDaniel, “Introduction” to Themes of Contemporary Art


  1. What did artists selected for inclusion in the book have in common?

  2. How is the book organized? Why isn’t it organized according to media?

  3. What is a meant by the “theme” of a work of art?

  4. What does a thematic approach provide? Can there be more than one interpretation of work of art? Why?




  1. What do the authors say a critic looks at first in order to understand an artwork’s meanings? What questions does a critic ask him/herself next?




  1. Why would a critic look at and read about other photographs in Richard Misrach’s series, Desert Cantos, to interpret Outdoor Dining?




  1. What is the purpose of the mental framework constructed by the thematic approach?




  1. Is an artwork’s subject matter the same as its theme? How are they different in Roxy Paine’s Crop?




  1. Are the authors’ seven selected themes exhaustive? Are the authors’ interpretations of the artworks in the book the same as the artists’ intentions?




  1. Can the artworks in this book fit into different categories than the ones selected by the authors? Do the themes intersect?




  1. How is Chapter 1 different from the following chapters?




  1. What are the “two familiar footholds” that will help us understand the selected themes?



Dave Beech, “Art and the Politics of Beauty,” Introduction to Beauty


  1. How did “avantgardist rebellion” and “modern social disruption” create tension between art and beauty?




  1. What is contested in critiques of beauty in art – beauty itself or efforts to universalize it?




  1. Why is it impossible to define “beauty”?




  1. Is it true that the rejection of beauty by the avantgardism has itself been rejected?




  1. What are the reasons for the rejection of beauty in art?




  1. What are reasons for the revivial of beauty in art?




  1. How would an artist today attempt “to undo or unthink” the existing anti-aesthetic politics of the avant garde? What lies beneath the mere difference of “taste”?




  1. What are the two contradictory conceptions of beauty?




  1. Why did modern Western philosophers (after the Enlightenment) believe that “beauty” in art is socially determined when pre-modern philosophers did not?




  1. What is the “hermeneutics of suspicion”? (What are the birth-death dates of Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud? What is the dictionary definition of “hermeneutics”?)




  1. How did Max Weber and Theordor Adorno understand the position of the individual in modern society?




  1. What is the difference between the philosophy of beauty in the West before and after the modern era?




  1. How is individual subjectivity “turned into an object of instrumental reason”? (Google “instrumental reason.”) Why would the instrumental rationalism of contemporary society and individuals tie beauty up with marketing, style, and design?




  1. Why did modern art – Cubism, Constructivism, etc. – seek strategies to counter traditions of beauty altogether or create a new “counter-beauty”?




  1. What is the relationship between avant-garde “shock” and its subversion of beauty?




  1. How is the hermeneutics of suspicion related to the avant garde attack on bourgeois culture? (Why did Italian Futurist poet Marinetti say in 1905 that “Except in struggle, there is no more beauty”?)




  1. In the revival of beauty, what becomes of the hermeneutics of suspicion and the idea that the individual’s aesthetic taste is shaped by her society? What tension is undone by both views?




  1. Can we continue to gain pleasure from beauty without assuming it is universal?




  1. How are contemporary artists taken pleasure and critical purchase from the question of what is beautiful and what is ugly (vulgar, chaotic, etc.)?




  1. What is “aesthetics of suspicion” and how would an artist “play” (make art) within its contradictions and invent new shapes of “beauty”?




  1. How are the essays in Beauty about “universal human flourishing” and why is the politics of beauty important?


Stephen Johnstone, “Recent Art and the Everyday,” Introduction to The Everyday


  1. (first 4 paragraphs) What are all of the reasons Johnstone gives for why contemporary artists have been so interested in the “vast reservoir of the normally unnoticed”?




  1. Why are modern & contemporary artists so interested in the everyday (while few premodern artists were)?




  1. Does art’s attention to everyday life change the viewer or everyday life itself? Is there inevitably a separation between art and life?




  1. What does Henri Lefebvre mean by art being “transfunction” like play, with many uses and no uses at all? How is an artwork a“play-generating yeast” in the everyday?




  1. Why did Lefebvre think that James Joyce’s novel Ulysses rescued “each facet of the quotidian from anonymity?”




  1. What is the everyday as defined by Levebvre and Maurice Blanchot?




  1. Why does the everyday require an interdisciplinary openness?




  1. What are some examples of how the everyday has been approached by artists like Sophie Calle and Francis Alys?




  1. How is the art of the everyday linked to artists’ desire for “unpreciousness” and simplicity of gesture – a “rejoinder to played-out operatic tendencies and an overloaded academic (or pseudo-academic) discourse in the visual arts?




  1. Do all critics believe that quotidian phenomena can be represented without distortion?




  1. What is the focus of the section, “The Poetics of Noticing”?




  1. What is the focus of the section, “Documentary Style and Ethnography”


Conclusion: Four most important questions:

  1. What does a thematic approach provide? Can there be more than one interpretation of work of art? Why?




  1. In the revival of beauty, what becomes of the hermeneutics of suspicion and the idea that the individual’s aesthetic taste is shaped by her society? What tension is undone by both views?




  1. What is the “hermeneutics of suspicion” (in regards to beauty)?




  1. What does Henri Lefebvre mean by art being “transfunction” like play, with many uses and no uses at all? How is an artwork a“play-generating yeast” in the everyday?


I think these are key questions because to answer them we need to understand the authors’ aims in creating the books and the positions they take on contemporary art. Each of the four questions requires a grasp of a key theoretical concept. It’s essential, for example, to realize what the thematic approach of Themes of Contemporary Art is, what it’s good for and what it leaves out. The subjective nature of beauty may be a cliché, but to see why that’s true for contemporary art with clarity and certitude, and why it matters, is the promise of the Beauty anthology. The last question on the analogy of art and play is important and I don’t think it is much considered at Sac State. That art can be expanded by and expand the creativity of everyday life is a happy idea.


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