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ARTH 4650/5650: Photographic Theory (Hershberger Fall 2016): Home

Critical Theory

“All forms of knowledge in art are intrinsically ‘theoretical,’ no matter how self-evident and commonsensical they may appear. Art is never divorced from the theorization of its meanings…As the contexts of art continue to shift and art approaches develop, as international exhibitions continue to be organized, as the role of art continues to be measured against political, economic, and technological transformations in society, so theoretical discourses continue to illuminate and ground the thinking of art.”

-- Zoya Kocur and Simon Leung, Theory in Contemporary Art since 1985 (2nd ed.). Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012, p. 3.

Applying theory in order to discuss art practices and artworks is an intrinsic part of our current practice of art history. But what does that mean? In its simplest form, it means using art to explore ideas: ideas about history, society, technology, institutions, processes, and even art history itself. Kocur and Leung define theory as "writings on history, culture, and other forms of representation from a variety of disciplines and intellectual perspectives (continental philosophy, post-structuralism, feminism, psychoanalysis, literary studies, new historicism, and postcolonialism, among others)." This definition reminds us that theory, especially in art history, is not ONE way of approaching the discussion of art, but a practice of mindfully exploring ideas through art that can draw from many traditions of thought and ultimately take many forms.

Not every tradition of thought (i.e. theory) is valid for every artwork or practice, of course. In a class focused on theory, one of the challenges if piecing together art and ideas that are mutually illuminating and address the traditions you discuss in the class.

Introductions and anthologies for theory

Your textbook is your primary guide to theory for this course. You should summarize the ideas from each piece in the anthology and your discussion of it in class to outline theoretical approaches to take in your final assignment. However, there are many other books that outline critical theories (including ones not included in this anthology) and illustrate their application by art historians. The sources below can augment your understanding of theory and how it is used by art historians to discuss artworks of all kinds.


Amy Fry
Jerome Library 230

Website / Blog Page


The author is indebted to Dr. Sara Witty for her help and feedback on this guide.

Keywords and cheat sheets

The central problem of theory and library research is that library research requires words to search on. To find information relevant to an artist, just using the artist's name is usually sufficient. But to find information relevant to an idea, you have to choose words that both meaningfully describe that idea and which also appear in research resources (catalogs and indexes) in conjunction with that idea. This is a process of trial and error. The following table attempts to group theories, descriptive keywords, theorists, and artists in ways that will aid the search process.

Keep in mind, however, that in the recent practice of art history, according to Buchloh, "distinct critical models...have been merged and integrated in various ways...mak[ing] it difficult, if not altogether pointless, to insist on methodological consistency, let alone on a singular methodological position" (Foster et al 2012, p. 22). The theories and their associated keywords and theorists are, in current practice, used together "in an increasingly complex weave of methodological eclecticism." It is not necessary to "pick a theory" and apply it in isolation. Borrow ideas and keywords and texts from many theoretical traditions.

Theory Description Keywords Theorists
Semiotics &
language structures understanding: visual elements in an artwork can be "read" as signs that structure culturally specific meanings in relationship to one another and the viewer's understanding of those signs. Reality is subject to the structures of language; language is a system in which all units are interdependent; objects are texts. sign, signifier, signified, slippage, codes, referent, poeticity, langue/parole Charles Sanders Peirce; Ferdinand de Saussure; Mukarovsky; Bal & Bryson; Barthes; Jakobson; Jameson
language structures understanding, but the underlying structure of language is based on individual understanding and interpretation. Reality is arbitrary and individualized; there is nothing but the text. deconstruction, différance, discourse, simulacrum, simulation, aura, authenticity, marked and unmarked terms, logos, supplement Barthes; Derrida; Foucault; Deleuze (also Deleuze and Guattari); Bataille; Benjamin; McLuhan; Baudrillard; Jameson; Fish; Merleau-Ponty; Levi-Strauss
Postmodernism opposition to the monolithic seriousness and homogeneity of modernism (Art with a capital A) pop, play, pastiche, appropriation, imitation everyone except Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried
Psychoanalysis an exploration of the formation of the subject in the social order, including through language; explores the effect of the work of art on the subject, artist and viewer subjectivity, fetish, gaze, primitivism, instinct, degenerate, repression, desire, fantasy, reality-principle, sublimation, metaphor and metonymy, parapraxis, gaze, glance, transposition Freud, Lacan, Kristeva; Judith Butler; Jung
Feminist theory and Queer theory objects can embody, critique and subvert gender identities and complex relationships of power based on gender identity. Women and non-heterosexual people are written back into art and art history gender & sexuality, patriarchy, gaze, heteronormativity Kristeva; Cixous; Irigaray; Judith Butler
Postcolonial theory explore the asymmetrical power relationships between cultures that are illustrated or critiqued through objects race, ethnicity, Orientalism, imperialism, essentialism, otherness, absence, authenticity, assimilation, resistance, mimicry, exploitation, reception, subaltern Said; hooks; Anzaldua; Babha; Fanon; Spivak
Marxist theory
objects can be used to explore relationships of economic power and oppression through the examination of their means of production and/or how they did/do function in the economy bourgeoisie/proletariat (class), base/superstructure, labor, cultural production, cultural hegemony, commodity fetishism, economics, high and low, hierarchy, privilege, "reflection" (Lukács), ruling class, desublimation Marx & Engles; Eagleton; Adorno; Benjamin; Lukács; T. J. Clark; Althusser; Schapiro (early); Raymond Williams; Stuart Hall; Marcuse; Thomas Crow
Phenomenology considers the human experience of phenomena and the world as a whole to be of primary importance   Heidegger; Merleau-Ponty
Posthumanism     Harraway

Subject headings

When searching in library databases (both catalogs and online indexes), it is usually important to do many different searches in order to find relevant results. This is especially true when your research involves wrestling with abstract concepts like those in critical theory.

One tool to use in searches are subject headings. They are most useful when searching for books in library catalogs, but major indexes also use them (these may differ from those applied in library catalogs; for example, they may be more specific to the subject covered in the index). Subject headings are descriptive words chosen from a limited list and applied similarly throughout the database.

These are how subject headings appear in library catalogs:

This is how they appear in indexes:

Limiting your search to "subject" will search just the terms that appear in the subject area for each item.

Here are subject headings related to critical theory.

Critical theory subject headings Critical theory subject headings specific to art
Semiotics; Iconicity; Intermediality; Intertextuality;
Signs and symbols; Structuralism
Art and philosophy; Difference (philosophy) in art
Poststructuralism; Deconstruction Deconstructivism (architecture)
Gaze Psychoanalysis in art
Feminist theory; Gender; Gender identity Feminism in art; Feminist art criticism
Postcolonialism; Race; Identity (philosophical concept) Identity (philosophical concept) in art; Postcolonialism
and the arts; Blacks in art; Multiculturalism in art
Homosexuality and philosophy; Queer theory Art and society
Marxist criticism