Introduction to Critical Theory (Art/Culture).


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As an ethnomusicologist I study ethno (people), music/sound (its uses and meaning), and  “ology,” the organizing principles behind the human use of music. Thus, I focus on discovering how a particular group of humans (in my own research, Japanese people) define and create music (ethnomusicology). To do this I must find out how Japanese people define such words as text, art, sound, performance, beauty, identity, etc. And often I must use what is known as Critical Theory to do so. This also applies to my own work as a graphic score composer (visual forms + music), and how one might understand what I do through aesthetics, sociology, psychology, and so on that all have been part of critical theory, especially in the twenty-first century. So, to understand the nature of human expression in art and music, I must often use and contemplate what is called Critical Theory as part of my research.

Critical Theory is at its core the study of and reflection upon culture through various forms of social science and philosophy, often through comparison. As an ethnomusicologist I research and assess the cultural significance of Zen Buddhism (Rinzai/Soto) and Japanese art culture/aesthetics in relation to Japanese traditional and improvisational music(s). Through this I attempt to uncover what is true about humanity in our music, and in the process hopefully find new ways to understand and explain it. Art though is more tricky, and the various debates over art and its meaning have been going on for millennia. A person studying art with critical theory, then, can look at the various qualities in a work of art that affect their feelings: its pleasing qualities (aesthetics), the relationship(s) it has with society, the economy, politics, and so on, the processes involved in its making, what might be the “right” way to understand a work of art, and what the work might “mean.” This raises an important question, one that lies at the very foundation of critical theory in art: should critical theory be normative, i.e. used to set a standard by which all art is interpreted, understood, or judged? This question may not have a clear answer, but many generations of artists, philosophers, and social scientists down through time have tried to answer that question, each generation coming up with a different response.

The process of studying and contemplating art through critical theory is a lot of fun, and thus I would encourage you all to spend at least a little time learning to see art from critical perspectives. Knowing how art has been discussed is as much fun as looking at it, especially when you get the chance to see the great works that have been debated over the years. The following then is a summary of the general schools of thought used to define and discuss art as culture, as something that teaches us about ourselves.

lobster telephone

Is this anything?

Formalism, for example, dictates that art can or should be studied in a purely formal manner: there is no need to study context or meaning. Art was purely composition, material, shape, line, and color, and nothing else need be considered. Modern art critic Clement Greenberg, for example, said that avant-garde art was the only path to true revolutionary change, and that the most important modernist paintings ceased trying to represent 3 dimensional space – their “flatness” was paramount, and the picture plane/brush strokes were the key elements in creating it. Critic Rosalind Krauss thought that using biographical and/or contextual information about Picasso was not necessary to interpret his (Cubist) art, because the works themselves do not represent the world.

In Marxist Theory art is considered from the standpoint of its production: who makes it, and how are those who make it organized: socio-economically and politically. Art is a commodity to be made and sold, and/or a tool of revolution. Art should be a tool of a class to alter their social position for the better, not something pretty; concerned with romantic feelings and colors and beauty for their own sake. This is in opposition to philosophers like Immanuel Kant, who argued that the value of an artwork was directly related to its beauty, and/or its ability to contain aesthetic ideas. Kant’s view of art is, in light of Marxism, not properly focused on art’s true socio-economic nature. Alternately, to philosopher Martin Heidegger, the more beautiful aesthetic qualities of art obscured the great truths contained within paintings, e.g. a painting of old boots, rendered “too” beautiful can keep us from empathizing with the farmer who toiled in them. The great struggle of the common farmer is “hidden” by the pleasing colour and form.Linguists, anthropologists, and others, though, also used scientific paradigms as critical theory to explain the greater questions of art in humanity, through such ideas as Structuralism.

Structuralism was a way of looking at art making and art that claimed art must be understood in its relation to a greater system of techniques and ideas, with grand unifying principle(s) overlying them all. The meaning of such work is best understood in a greater system of signs and symbols, thus all works of art can be read as signs in a unified system. This idea was rejected by Post Structuralists, who claimed that art is best understood through the recipient (the viewer) not the artist; individuals interpreting art objects uniquely no matter what the structure is. What the viewer perceives is the meaning of something, not its greater position in a structural system, and therefore meaning is always changing.



Some linguists and philosophers discussed art and culture in terms of Semiotics, the study of signs. According to linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, for example, a sign has two parts: the signifier – the form that a sign takes, and the signified – the concept it represents. This process of signification, according to philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (pronounced ‘purse’) had three parts: the representamen – the form that the sign takes, the interpretant – the sense made of the sign, and the object – the thing to which the sign refers. This process was applied to what Peirce thought were the three basic types of signs: (1) the symbol – like the Roman alphabet, the signifier is conventional; it doesn’t actually “look like” the signified, (2) the icon – the signifier looks like or resembles the signified, and (3) the index – the signifier is not arbitrary, but connected in one way or another, e.g. smoke is an index of fire. There is overlap though, as a photograph for example is both an index and an icon: a direct trace of a subject using light, and an image that resembles the subject. Canadian composer and semiotician David Lidov (pictured above) wrote a brilliant book about semiotics entitled “Is Language A Music?” which I highly recommend to anyone interested in the topic. Click here to read more about it.

But the idea that there is a meaning, or even any meaning was challenged by those influenced by Postmodernism – which is concerned with how art is reproduced (mechanically and in huge numbers) in our modern age, who the “author” of a work or a work’s meaning actually is, and the nature of how we interpret works (after 1970 with the rise of computers, hyper-consumerism, and Internet culture as a dominant forces) in modern life. Postmodern theory too is based on anti-aesthetic ideas of social critique, skepticism, cynicism, criticism of mass consumption and commodity fetishism, although this idea, as a type of iconoclasm, may itself be an aesthetic stance. But it also gave rise to an increased role of chance, indeterminacy, improvisation, and culture jamming in art and society, aspects of art formerly considered avant-garde, or on the fringes of the mainstream. Postmodernism in art was also a challenge to Institutionalism, the idea that art is what we put in museums, thus we need a standard criteria for defining and curating museum-worthy ergo true art.

In terms of critical theory Postmodernism approaches music, philosophy, literature, and other subjects from the perspective that (1) there is no one grand narrative that guides society and thus (2) there is no such thing as objective knowledge, as (3) knowledge is based in individual perception. But this idea has become a big negative in the work of many Postmodern thinkers, according to English professor Christopher Norris. In his book What’s Wrong With Postmodernism? Norris states:

we have reached a point (1990) where theory has effectively turned against itself, generating a form of extreme epistemological skepticism which reduces everything – philosophy, politics, criticism and “theory” alike – to a dead level of suasive or rhetorical effect where consensus-values are the last (indeed the only) court of appeals.

Though this book was written over twenty years ago, the idea that Postmodern thought is highly flawed still remains. One the reasons is that many believe Postmodern critical theory has taken scientific language and rendered it meaningless through misuse – that Postmodern literary theory and so on is a type of pretentious academic rhetoric without actual meaning.



In fact, physicist Alan Sokal even went so far as to publish a paper in Social Text (a Postmodern cultural studies journal) that was thoroughly meaningless, but used the language of Postmodern cultural studies itself to disguise its completely nonsensical content. He revealed the hoax in the magazine Lingua Franca, and thus had proved that Postmodern critique was highly flawed and pseudo-scientific, at least in this one instance. This seemingly belletrist misuse of scientific words still continues to this day as a major point of criticism in Postmodern critical theory and philosophy.

The rise of Postmodern thought occurred in relative conjunction with Deconstruction, a method of studying literature that questioned the ability of words to reflect actual reality. Though it began as a method of textual analysis used most famously by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, Deconstruction has since become a general philosophy to some, this being not without some controversy. Simply put, Deconstruction questions the ability of words to properly describe and represent reality. Words are defined by other words in a binary system: good/bad, black or white, and thus words only reflect their relation to other words. Therefore, a text does not actually have a stable foundation of meaning – a single work has no one single meaning when deconstructed, apart from what meaning a reader/viewer holds within (basic Post Structuralism).

For example, the frame of a picture can affect how a viewer sees a painting, and thus the frame plays a part in the art’s beauty. The frame is not automatically neutral, thus to define it simply as something separate from, or attached to, a painting does not accurately describe its position or potential.  This deconstruction of the frame around a painting highlights just how unstable the idea of the frame is when we look at it apart from a binary relationship: attached/not attached, inside/outside, or beautiful/ugly.

Deconstructing art in terms of Feminism, the critic or philosopher seeks to understand the nature of authority, institutions, and ideologies inherent in the art world, and studying the cultural roles women have either occupied or have been forced to occupy. Since historically women have been denied access to the higher echelons of art education and training, and the power positions within, often the critic must look to forms not considered high art for an understanding of women’s creativity through the media of quilting, sewing, and various crafts, etc. This can also include examining and critiquing the male-oriented, Eurocentric basis for most art history and thought. But this raises the question of the definition of woman and femininity: is there only one “legitimate” way of defining a woman, or what is feminine? Does being a “woman” in New York mean the same thing as being a “woman” in Tokyo?

Essentialism is the idea that a thing has a true, definable essence: fixed properties in each thing of a type. Is there an inherent (and invariable) property of being ‘a women’ in all women? In trying to find an answer to this question, often race is an issue. The colonial (European/Western imperial) occupation of other countries was (and to some still ongoing) aggressive and highly exploitative. Thus the experience of the colonizer and the colonized are vastly different. But this still does not address the complexities of those somewhere in the middle: various colonized persons gaining partial or full access to the exploited resources. Thus, it is hard to say or prove that any ‘colonial’ experience is completely typical.

Postcolonial Theory then seeks to discuss and understand this relationship between Western colonialism and its aftereffects in modern society. Palestinian culture critic Edward Saïd* argued that the West portrayed the East as mysterious, sensual, and exotic as a way to subjugate them: make them seem naïve, stupid, primitive, and/or evil and you educate the public to see them as lesser beings compared to the evolved, educated, logical, rational “civilized” citizen of the West. This took on both a racial and sexual aspect as well, and thus various forms of institutionalized racism kept people of color, minorities, women, homosexuals, and others from being considered equal members of a society: unable to advance themselves socially and economically. Focus on colonial and gender oppression is also the subject of Subaltern studies (“subordinate” studies), a field of enquiry concerned with how certain people (especially in South East Asia) in society are dominated and silenced by those in power, especially those who seek to maintain power through hegemony** – manipulating the economy, politics, popular culture and society to their exclusive (and perpetual) benefit.

These aforementioned theories, though, have mostly focused mostly on the art objects themselves, and thus we must look at the individual more closely: the experience of art from the standpoint of the artist and viewer as individuals. This is the subject of Reception Theory: gazing upon the canvas to fill it, and/or gazing upon the canvas to interpret it.

Art historian Ernst Gombrich though that the mental storehouse of images one brings to mind when viewing art (the beholder’s share”) helps a viewer makes sense of i.e. complete the work in their mind. Thus, the meaning of an artwork lays in its reception, not in its own formal properties. Polish literary theorist Roman Ingarden thought that works were “read,” from the standpoint of three interrelated worlds: the world of the author, the reader, and the book itself. Meaning thus happens in “reading,” and this also occurs in the ‘reading’ of art as a type of text. Thus, in art, the conditions of reception play an important role in understanding art. A Picasso displayed in a church for example, will be seen differently, in context, than if it is hung by itself in a white gallery room. At this point then it is important to include critical theory based in Psychoanalysis, how one’s psychological make-up affects the artist or viewer’s experience of art.

Austrian doctor Sigmund Freud created psychoanalysis as a type of therapy involving dream interpretation and free word association, among other things. He argued that repressed desire was at the heart of modern society (then late Victorian/European), we must repress certain urges in order to go out and work, ergo survive. We can’t just run around and play like children; we must repress the drive to pleasure to be “functioning” adults in a world of factories, taxes, and such. Managing the various repressed desires and drive to gratification is the key to functioning well as a person, and Freud considered the unconscious mind the location of these desires. By working out our more socially unacceptable desires through acceptable means (sublimation), we can ‘work them out,’ and thus we can exercise to deal with sexual frustration. But this doesn’t mean the acceptable sublimation is healthy, as often humans will self-medicate inner pain or frustration through emotion-based overeating: a drive to use an acceptable act (eating) in an unhealthy way.

Carl Jung


The Swiss psychoanalysis Carl Jung (pronounced “yoong”), once a collaborator with Freud, thought that the unconscious was not entirely an individual thing; rather we collectively share much of a certain type of unconscious knowledge. We share certain archetypes: fundamental images and signs that appear and reappear in our art, philosophy, myths, etc. These include shadows, the mother, the trickster, and other archetypes that unconsciously drive our pleasures and our fears. By understanding these Jungian archetypes and their relationship within a particular individual, a person can be guided to heal or affect personal growth.

Trivia: the lyrical content on the album Synchronicity by The Police was heavily influenced by Carl Jung’s ideas, and on the cover (middle right) you can see bassist/singer Sting reading his work.


British psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott argued, for example, that babies become attached to stuffed animals and blankets, etc, as transitional, archetypal objects in the process of an individual, an “I,” separating from the mother, and this idea of the transitional object filling in for something else could act as a template for all art works as psychoanalytical transitional objects of some sort. The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, though, argued that the idea of being an individual symbolized by the word “I” (as in “I am”) is actually an illusion created by the unconscious itself. His idea was that the unconscious is structured like a language: wishes, desires, images, etc, all came together to form a chain, which gives meaning to the thinker. These signifiers of meaning don’t refer to their individual signs, but rather are read as a type of collected sign in itself. Because they create a sign with no one fixed meaning, they are constantly changing and evolving and thus the person evolves, shifts, and changes; they grow.


*I taught saxophone and clarinet at the Edward Saïd National Conservatory Of Music in Jerusalem as well at its branch in Ramallah, Palestine.

** Hegemony is pronounced “heh-GEM-ony,” not “HEDGE-eh-mony.”


4 thoughts on “Introduction to Critical Theory (Art/Culture).

  1. Thank you very much. I decided to re-post this as many people who have subscribed lately have not read it. Plus, I will be talking more about critical theory in upcoming posts, so I thought it might be nice to have a little refresher.

    Then again, who needs critical theory when one is a master “Minnemalist” like yourself! 🙂

    1. Well, thank you very much. I like posting these kinds of articles/columns, as a lot of people think critical theory has to be dry and extremely complex sounding to be significant. But having a running knowledge of critical theories/theorists is fun when you start to see the world un-coding itself before your eyes; knowing where and how to look. I mean one could argue for years over Heidegger’s “anti-aesthetic” view(s) alone….

      Thank you for reading my work, I appreciate it. 🙂

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