Critical theory. What is it? Why does it matter?
Critical theory is a means by which we consider the contexts associated with art and culture. It provides a system for the identification, investigation and evaluation of the social, historical, economic and philosophical backgrounds, or contexts, which give rise to a specific work of art and which have helped to both shape it and constrain it during its production.
It is a system of evaluation which allows art to be viewed from various differing perspectives rather than being viewed solely from the viewpoint of the creator.
By “critiquing” work, we assume that there is no real pre-determined knowledge relating to a specific piece of art or to the art movement with which it is associated. Instead, we assume that any knowledge relating to a work of art is the subjective opinion of those putting forward an argument at any one particular time. Consequently, the validity of anything that is offered as a “fact” is brought into question as are the motives and methods of the author wishing to establish that fact.
Artists, including photographers, need to research their subjects. However, not all pieces of art have the same level of quality, nor do all sources of information appertaining to those works of art have the same degree of integrity.
Critical theory allows artists, and viewers of art, to evaluate existing works of art and appraise them, together with any opinion relating to them, in a systematic manner.
Critical thinking, the act of applying critical theory, facilitates the difference between “consciously viewing” or “passively consuming” images to alluded to in Presentation One: “Looking at Photographs”.
Hodgson (“Quality Matters”, 2012) states that because photographs are so easy to create (implying in a way that other types of art are not), it is only some form of discrimination which allows us to identify which images are worth “attention, concentration and further distribution”, critical theory provides the “shared vocabulary” which allows different viewers to begin to evaluate and then communicate objectively about art in a standardised way, analysing them in a manner which is free from bias due to previous personal experiences and circumstances.
An important way to develop as a photographer is to study the work of artists and photographers in order to achieve greater awareness and understanding.
Critical theory is a means of realising this technical and creative growth because it provides a vehicle for constructive criticism, criticism which achieves something – facilitating reflection and aiding improvement.
Such reflection could be based on critical evaluations provided by others, or self-evaluation. Whichever the case may be, ultimately the outcome is a greater understanding of one’s own practice. As Presentation One: “Looking at Photographs” informs us, looking critically at photographs:
“Is important for the development of your own practice as the clearer your understanding of what you are doing becomes, the easier it will be to take photographs, edit and reflect on them, as well as talk or write about them.”