On Sullivan’s “artist as theorist”

Chapter 5 of Graeme Sullivan’s book “Art Practice as Research” is entitled “The artist as theorist”. In this chapter, the author focuses the discussion on sites of practice for artists-theorists.

According to Sullivan, in our post-modern times, the artist-theorist’s task is both creative and critical: it is her/his task to “create forms of representation that have the capacity to reveal, critique, and transform what we know” and to investigate and interpret such forms, “how image makers and meaning makers come to know the things they do”. While the first part is a description we already associate with a (good) artist’s work, the latter is mostly used to refer to the actions and aims of a researcher. Therefore the artist-theorist is a practitioner engaged both in creating and analysing meaning, and such position distinguishes her/him from a (supposedly) detached researcher who is not involved into artmaking.

As a researcher, an artist does not need to be committed to any specific methods of investigation, since research may be seen as a cultural activity whose outcome is evaluated in terms of of exchange and development (Sullivan’s reference to Stephen Wilson, 2002). This discussion on artist’s agency and her/his freedom to exchange knowledge (and, in doing so, expand it) reminded me of artists who are engaged in making change in society.

Swiss artist Claudia Andujar (based in Brazil since the 1950s) is an example of an artist “working in communities” – as one of many artists’ sites of practices -who has a public commitment to her work and her “subject matter”, the Yanomani people. Her photographic work with this indigenous tribe since the 70s has been crucial to the recognition of the Yanomani as a tribe and as a political movement requiring land demarcation on the Amazon basin. Andujar is not a detached researcher, she campaigns for people with whom she has established a relationship through art.


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