ESR 8 Blog March 2021: Marteinn Sindri Jónsson

Theory with (rather than of) art

Last week I completed an intense two-day course in advanced qualitative methods, a fancy word for the use of interviews, participation and observation as well as documentary analysis in research. It was a small step towards conducting field studies at various art labs and hubs “beyond the gallery nexus”[1] in Germany in the coming months and years.[2]

I don’t have formal training in fieldwork but I’ve used the interview extensively in my work as a cultural journalist, and more recently as a research tool to some extent. Last year, I documented the history of a long-standing participatory art festival in Iceland called LungA, by interviewing several founders and organizers of the festival. I really appreciate the interview as a tool to establish a conversation, although I believe it is useful when it goes hand in hand with participation or observation in the field. For instance, I could not have produced the history of this art festival in the way I did, had I not participated on several occasions and developed an intuitive understanding of what goes on there.

My interest in using the interview for research purposes was piqued in 2018 as I was preparing to teach a course at the Iceland University of the Arts called Intersections of Art and Philosophy. I had just finished my Philosophy MA, writing about becoming in the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari.[3] One of the things I took away from writing my thesis was that the relationship between theory and practice is an unstable one, and that empirical reality is always in excess of the theoretical abstractions we use to navigate the world. Consequently, when preparing the opening lecture for my course, I found particular inspiration in a text by Kristine Stiles. There she highlights the emergence of a “veritable ‘theory industry’” in the 1980s and encourages art researchers, not directly engaged in researching their own practice, to complement any theory of art with the statement and writings of the artist whose work is being studied.[4]

This is indeed a valuable insight if we seek to interrogate the lateral relationship between an artist and a critical audience. However, with a shift ​away ​from “reception-oriented” towards “action-oriented art”[5] I believe this position needs to be expanded to involve others than just artists and their critics. As far as my fieldwork is concerned, I plan to engage with artists, curators and other contributors, communities, institutions, authorities and members of the public working within, and interfacing with the activities of, the art labs and hubs under study. In this way, my research seeks to respond to recent reviews of studies in the field of socially engaged art, in which researchers are criticized for limited engagement with collaborators and for focusing too much on “art professionals” as “individuals […], neglecting the many people, communities, authorities or villagers that get implicated in the process of a socially engaged art project”.[6]

In this context, social anthropologist Tim Ingold offers a useful ecological definition of artistic skill as a “property not of the individual human body as a biophysical entity, a thing-in-itself, but of the total field of relations constituted by the presence of the organism-person, indissolubly body and mind, in a richly structured environment.”[7] Elsewhere, Ingold opposes the classical view that skill is essentially an ​imposition of form​.[8] That view, which is often attributed to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, is rooted in what we call ​hylomorphism​, from the Greek ​hyle ​for matter and ​morphe ​for form. Ingold contrasts hylomorphism with the notion of morphogenesis​, which is essentially a biological concept denoting the growth of an organism. Skill, in his view, is not about a self-contained mind or soul giving form to passive matter but embodied beings dynamically collaborating and participating in the processes of the world to bring out the desired result.

Indeed, the formulation in the title — ‘theory ​with ​art’ — is inspired by Ingold’s notion of an anthropology ​with ​art, envisioned in opposition to an anthropology ​of ​art. The former makes use of qualitative methods, such as interviews and participant observation, but does not position itself ​outside ​the field which it is studying. Instead, it assumes a ‘learning’ disposition to the field in which it is situated.[9] ​In my view, such a disposition relates to the aim of socially engaged art as defined on the FEINART website, with its emphasis on “learning-through-participation and collective research”.[10]

[1]      van den Berg, Karen. 2019. “Socially engaged art and the fall of the spectator since Joseph Beuys and the Situationists.” In ​The art of direct action: Social sculpture and beyond​. Karen van den Berg, Cara M. Jordan and Philipp Kleinmichel, eds., 1-40, here 4. Berlin: Sternberg Press.

[2]      See my earlier blog on this page,

[3]      Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. 1987. ​A thousand plateaus​. Brian Massumi, trans. Minnesota and London: University of Minnesota Press. In my thesis, I focused particularly on chapter 10, “1730: Becoming-intense, becoming-animal, becoming-imperceptible…”, 232-309.

[4]      Stiles, Kristine and Peter Selz, eds. 1996.​ Theories and documents of contemporary art: A sourcebook of artists’ writings​, 5. Berkeley: University of California Press.

[5]      van den Berg, Karen, “Socially engaged art and the fall of the spectator since Joseph Beuys and the Situationists,“ 40. On this occasion, Karen cites Avanessian, Armen. 2014. “The speculative end of the aesthetic regime.” ​Texte zur Kunst ​93 (March): 40–46.

[6]        Corlin, Mai. 2020 “Meiqin Wang, ​Socially engaged art in contemporary China: Voices from below​ (New York: Routledge, 2019).” ​FIELD: A journal of socially engaged art criticism 15​. See also Bell, David M. 2017. “The politics of participatory art.” ​Political studies review​ ​15/1​.

[7]        Ingold, Tim. 2001. “Beyond Art and Technology: The Anthropology of Skill.” In ​Anthropological Perspectives on Technology​. Micheal Brian Schiffer, ed., 17-31, here 21. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

[8]      Ingold, Tim. 2013. ​Making: Anthropology, archaeology, art and architecture​. London and New York: Routledge.

[9]        Ibid., 1-8.

[10]     See elsewhere here on the FEINART website:

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