Critical theory has rapidly become a center of attention and energy in the visual arts. By critical theory I mean the grouping of semiotic, structuralist, psychoanalytic, and postmodern theory that has taken a leading role in the direction of art criticism and contemporary art history.3 The writings of many critical theorists-e.g., Irigaray (1985), Jameson (1984), Lacan (1977), and Lyotard (1979)-have contributed to an awareness of the social context of artistic production, a focus on relations of power in works of art, and a mistrust of claims of authenticity and subjectivity in the modernist tradition. Since 1970 there has been a close relationship between developments in critical theory and the emergence of "new forms" in visual art, such as language-based and conceptual installations, that speak directly to that theory (Gottlieb, 1976; Harrison & Wood, 1993; Rorimer, 1989). Painting is discussed most often as an artifact of modernism, and therefore an object of dismissal rather than a medium of promise for speaking to contemporary issues (Baker, 1996; Crimp, 1981; Kuspit, 1996; Lawson, 1984; Rubinstein, 1997). If painting is not "dead," it is not very healthy within the critical climate of recent years.
Yet little rigorous analysis has actually been applied to the relationship between critical theory and painting. As new forms demand attention and funding, it is easy for painting to get lost in the excitement. At a time when changes are being considered in many visual art programs, it seems imperative that implications for change be reasoned and not assumed.
I will argue in this paper that there is a positive relationship between critical theory and the practice of painting. I will make this argument in three stages. First, I will review and critique the challenge from critical theory to painting. Second, I will set forth several concepts that are constructive points of contact between painting and critical theory. Third, I will use these concepts to create an alternative view of painting in an era of critical theory. I will suggest that painting continues to relate to experience and to education in specific and significant ways.
The Challenge From Critical Theory
One of the central arguments of critical theory holds that art is not a "figuration" (Jameson's term, quoted in Owens, 1982, p. 21) that is transparent to either the world or our experience of it. Following Lacan (1977), painting has lost its role both as a window to the world and as a window on experience. Both sides of the signifier/signified relationship are viewed as problematic. Communication through paint (the signifier) is problematic because the paint masks the word. Language is the form in which thought occurs. Signification based on language is arbitrary and socially contexted rather than authentic and universal. And the notion of an identifiable "experience" (the signified) is problematic, because that "experience" is also constructed by language as it used within a specific social positioning (Harrison & Wood, 1993, p. 232). Therefore, one cannot claim that art is related to experience.
This view refutes the modernist tradition of seeing increasingly deeper levels of human experience in art, and especially in the relationships among visual forms. An arrangement of forms by Kandinsky becomes a construction of signification within a particular social context and worldview rather than, as Kandinsky had hoped, a language for conveying the vibrations of the soul.
When the premise of art-as-arbitrary is substituted for art-as-experience, the stage is set for a variety of speculations about the contemporary function and direction of painting. Without confidence in the authenticity of the subjective, and believing that the plastic possibilities of expression are encrusted with dense layers of historical structuring, the argument for painting as a unique form of human expression loses its foundation. Speculations about the future status of painting follow. …