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California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Latest update: June 15, 2000
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Stealing Theory from Philosophy and Art

by Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata
Part of Peace Education Series
Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata, June 2000. "Fair Use" encouraged.
Today I stole a piece of theory, thanks to D. Wayne Osgood's teaching. I found a book at the Jewish Art Museum when we were in New York for the Justice Studies Association Meetings. Yesterday, while I was at the Social Science Research Institute Workshop, the book, along with several others, arrived. This morning, I picked it up and began to read.

The book is Meyer Schapiro's Theory and Philosophy of Art: Style, Artist, and Society, George Braziller, New York, 1994. ISBN:0-8076-1356-8. The theory I want to steal: why theory matters, why we need it. And I want to steal it because George Braziller spoke of theory in art in a way that clicked for me. For the first time, I saw concretely what an art theorist sees. Jerome Bruner was right. Once you see it clearly, it makes such good sense, you could explain it to a fourth grader. Theory, when we get it, organizes our thoughts, and helps us see patterns we might otherwise have missed.

. . .

Comments on Schapiro's text:

  • Evolution of rectangular frame from cave drawings
    • Parallels with grafitti: writing over old writing or painting because no sense of frame there. Similar pattern in grafitti. Same pattern in book underlinings and notes. Sociological meaning of this pattern.

  • Cultural meaning of rectangular two-dimensional space. Even with children's paintings, we hand them paper (bounded frame - note that some recent painters paint frame also and go out of rectangular space - sociological meaning to that. Cultural restriction of frame becomes normative. Happens when we give children colors.

    1. The colors are culturally dictated also.
      • The Fauve movement
      • Crayola's eight crayons
      • The accesibility of color in modern world
      • An argument with Panos Morphos on color in the Middle Ages, especially Villon.

    2. The boundary and the sanctity of the frame also culturally dictated.
      • Not to write over and destroy text or image. Why not?
      • Not to color outside the lines. Why not?

  • Comparison of early wall painting in Egypt to Degas painting.
    • Degas uses the same pattern to draw attention to foreground portrait.

  • By showing parallels in pattern Schapiro led me to see a pattern across centuries of art that I would not otherwise have seen, and led me to understand some of the concepts of artistic composition that I had previously thought were the product of intuition and creativity. Now I see how the constructs of "foreground, of frame," and of focusing the viewer's attention can be broken into understandable steps of learning for those of us without Degas' genius. It's a lot like California's abandonment in the 50s of teaching phonics. Many of us develop the natuaral skills of phonics. But many of us never see that pattern until someone points it out. Schapiro's juxtapostion of Egyptian wall art and of Degas helped me to recongize that many of our unstated assumptions about learning are wrong, but because they are unstated, those who do understand, don't realize that we need to be shown certain patterns that came to them naturally. It is structurally violent to make such assumptions.

Related Discussion

Since the cave painting used by Schapiro was not available to me, I searched for some reproductions on the Web that might give us the idea anyway. Schapiro's example is on p. 5 of the text.