Bad at Sports Episode 32 features an extended conversation with Lane Relyea. Much of the talk centers on how Chicago is positioned in the global art system. The conversation evolves into a minor confrontation with Richard Holland (one of the Bad at Sports team) over the value/place of theory in contemporary art. In a nutshell, Holland believes it is too prevalent, and Relyea believes theory is dead. What I find strange is that Relyea seems to offer a linear/progressivist model of art theory. That is to say, writers of a certain era are only relevant to that era. We (as a community of critics/artists/etc.) must, and do, move on to new ideas (merely for the sake of newness, it appears) according to him. He offers that the theorists cited and promoted by the October crowd "are all dead," as if this somehow negates the usefulness or relevance of their work. I find this odd because I don't think Relyea believes this, but it certainly seemed implicit from his comments.
As to whether theory is dead, I suspect that the definition of theory is important. Relyea offers that theory is no longer to be found in Art Forum and cites the proliferation of top ten lists and "what's hot" sorts of articles as proof of this. While I despise Art Forum nearly as much as I despise the October crowd, I think again, that he is being a bit flippant, or hyper-specific about what "theory" is. LeisureArts cited a recent discussion of "relational" art criticism in Art Forum that could easily be offered as "theoretical." Our real contention, however, is not really in disputing the examples set forth by Relyea or Holland for that matter, but to point to material left out of the discussion. Cabinet magazine is a shining example of where theory has gone in contemporary art discourse. Many artists are still operating in the context of theory, but I suspect that in addition to a definition of theory (which is beyond the scope of this post), we also need to establish which art world "theory" is absent from. The art-market-world (the world of Frieze, Art Forum, Tema Celeste, and others cited by Relyea) may have dispensed with it, but the "fringe" art world that we inhabit still engages the "big ideas" Relyea says don't exist anymore (and really, just what was all of that "base and superstructure" talk Gareth James was laying out at Relyea's Post-Post-Studio discussion if not "theory?") .
As a side note, Relyea was making a historical comparison of how the Los Angeles art scene in the early to mid 80s is analogous to some degree to the current state of affairs in Chicago. A couple of things that don't fit into that (interesting) comparison are the role of podcasts and blogs in creating and augmenting an art culture. We recently ranted about this, and would like to offer that creating multiple "economies of conversations" (zines, blogs, podcasts, journals, panel discussions, etc.) is another dimension to creating a vital art culture.