The relationship of a discipline with theory is like the link between a human being and his/her dress. Perhaps the history of costume can match the development of theory. In the beginning, it was simple, elementary and met basic purpose; later it turned more elaborate, decorative, attractive, yet still performed the function. Till the time, when it liberated itself from the essential need – of dressing a natural entity/expression into a man-made layer, through which we – either see, or hide the actual matter; and became an independent entity itself, which is admired far from its function – and purely on its formal features; and transforms according to changes in fashion.
Words serve/substitute as layers of fabric. Necessary, but could be disposed of, if conditions are favourable. Often – resembling the relationship of man and his dress – an art work is made, then the appropriate theory is formed in order to embellish the raw product. It provides a passage, connection and context to engage with the art work. And like the garments, it ends up as a shield in order to protect the sensitive surface/skin. Now we have become so used to seeing works of art, behind and underneath a complex structure of theory – that any such absence puts us into disappointment, embarrassment – shame.
If one traces the history of theory, one realizes that it is partly reflection, partly analysis, partly philosophy and partly conjectures. A maker of images – like every other human being is a thinking individual and whether he is conscious of the sources, spread and survival of his creations, he is certainly doing it because of a certain sophistication of mind. A high level of intellectual thinking which may not be transcribed, translated or transformed into text, but which may exit in other forms. Which can be detected while looking at the art work – regardless if the viewer belongs to same period or happens to be from another era and area.
However, one cannot dismiss the importance of theory in art, and just assume that artist is a sort of noble savage – operating on his whims and impulses, whereas in most cases (if not all) the maker of images is a conscious person clear about his expressions carefully put on/in a surface/format. Often a writer, critic, theorist is a guide who is not adding anything new to the work made by the artist, but just clearing the way between the art object and the individual who is trying to reach it. Art theory in most cases provides a safe passage but in its course, it can become an end itself. Thus, apart from being a supportive substance, it is a body of knowledge that survives merely on its own. Enticing and inspiring a considerable number of writers, who are known for their contributions towards the world of knowledge that is connected to art, but exists beyond it as well. In the two essays, and book reviews a reader would experience the power and extent of art theory, but while talking about it anyone can relate to and remind of a fable re-narrated by Jorge Luis Borges, in which a flock of birds leave their place to find their king, Simurgh. Many perish during the long and harsh journey; only thirty being able to reach the Kaaf mountain, the mythological abode of their king. Realizing that they are the king, because Simurgh means thirty birds.
Art theory, an interdisciplinary frame of knowledge in the end turns into an independent activity, is the theme of this month’s Art Now Pakistan, but like a person who changes and discards his clothes, art practice also alters, modifies and rejects its theory. Yet theory exists, here and now.