In the syllabus for Shelley Rice’s Toward a Critical Vocabulary, a cross-listed Art History and Photography seminar offered every fall semester, a five-paragraph description is given but barely scratches the surface of what the course covers. The course was about critical theory, specifically as seen through photography — or at least that was what I thought when I signed up for it.
There was some art theory on the syllabus. Our first reading was Marcel Duchamp’s “The Creative Act,” a two-page knockout about how the artist’s genius is secondary to his or her ideas. Those ideas don’t just sit there, Duchamp says. They need interpretation, which is where the viewer comes in. Ideas plus object equals art. The artist is the catalyst in that equation. According to Duchamp’s ideas, Toward a Critical Vocabulary’s texts were the objects, and we had to find the art by pulling out the ideas.
Shelley — who, unlike most professors, lets her students call her by first name — called me an “art historian” because I was one of three art history students in the class — the others were “photographers,” or photo students. My academic background taught me to pick up a text like “Camera Lucida,” Roland Barthes’ ode to the mysteries of photography and death, and begin using its nutty ideas — which, of course, are given Latin names — to point to things that aren’t really there in photographs.
Barthes’ book is smart, but the more you use “Camera Lucida” like an art historian, the less it makes sense. I had to start looking at photographs like a photographer — which is to say, through experience. As Barthes describes photography’s strange power: “It is what I add to the photograph and what is nonetheless already there.”
Toward a Critical Vocabulary became a process of unlearning, and one that, for me, is not yet finished either. Many of the texts we read after “Camera Lucida” were less scholarly, but all of them drew upon the same ideas of images and experience. Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis” — an autobiographical graphic novel about an Iranian girl who ultimately makes art to get away from an oppressive political regime. John Neihardt’s “Black Elk Speaks” — the somewhat true story of a Lakota chief who had visions and saved his tribe. Anne Carson’s “Autobiography of Red” — a postmodern epic poem about a Greek hero with red wings, now recast as a young gay photographer, and the most moving tale ever about being haunted by colors.
By the end of the course, I realized that for all of Shelley’s crazy-talk about me being a “theoryhead” because I was so quick to believe all the French philosophy I could get my hands on, she was onto something. Many times, unlearning is learning, and Toward a Critical Vocabulary tore apart everything I thought I knew about how to interpret images and put them back together again. To look is to experience, I realized, and then only through that experience could I begin looking again.
As it is written at the end of “The Tibetan Book of the Dead,” one of the strangest and hardest books I read for that class, “Even if the buddhas of the past, present and future were to search, they would not find a better teaching than this.”