The One-Question Interview: What Nicolas Bourriaud Thinks Artists Should Be Reading

by Ryder Richards October 28, 2015

Para leer este artículo en español, por favor vaya aquí. To read this article in Spanish, please go here.

Nicolas Bourriaud. Image credit: Henry Roy Juin

Nicolas Bourriaud. Image credit: Henry Roy Juin

On October 15, writer/curator/theorist Nicolas Bourriaud gave a lecture at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth titled Politics of the Anthropocene. Humans, Things and Reification in Contemporary Art. 

Texas-based artist Ryder Richards interviewed Bourriaud during this visit by asking him one question.


The question I will ask is whether or not artists should read critical theory? 

To which Bourriaud answered (full transcript):

“There is something undermining your question, I think. In a way critical theory is not mandatory for an artist. Birds sing in the tree, but they don’t need to learn how to, right? I am not sure one can be dogmatic with this type of question.

If the question is ‘do they have to’ the answer is ‘no,’ obviously. You can think in very critical terms without referring to any critical theory pre-existing to your investigations.

If the question is ‘is it bad to read critical theory as an artist,’ the answer is ‘no’ again. Because we do not see how it could be bad. It is always good to confront your ideas to other people’s ideas. Not necessarily as a literary job. Critical theory, if it’s meant to describe a very specific type of literature–it’s very narrow. I think the ideas come from so many different places. Critical theory is not the critical sound that is produced in the art world. We have many others, hopefully.

I read a lot of artist’s interviews and texts, so you see that the opposite can be true also. So, my conclusion would be that it is always good to diversify as much as possible the types of fuel that you need. Critical theory is one source, but there are many others, including honest statements. Reading Matisse writings, for example, can be very interesting for today. Or the diary of Pontormo can be very interesting for me today, which is more technical.

Finally, if the question is ‘do artists need to read such-and-such type of literature,’ the answer is definitely ‘no.’ You never know where ideas come from. I believe in chaos for answers. And the most important thing today, when our tastes are calculated by algorithms, is to find things that you are not looking for. It is always good to follow something that you are not looking for, because if you are looking for something then you are just narrowing, narrowing, narrowing your own perspective. If you only listen to Beyoncé you will only listen to Beyoncé at the end. It is the same for theory, the same for ideas, the same for any material that we need as artists, or curators, or viewers to keep being alive.

Critical theory is not a user’s guide. It is discourse that we have to answer to as an artist. It is a matter of ping-pong: you have to position yourself in front of all the other artists, then all the artists of your times, and the critical voices of today and the past. There is not an exclusivity of critical theory in the field of reality, hopefully. How boring it would be.”


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Donald Carver III October 30, 2015 - 15:39

The best writing I’ve found is Kanye West’s tweets as well as Lil B’s. Ponty is pretty good too.

Bernard November 2, 2015 - 04:34

Art? … Gee that takes me back a few years!

Josh Ronsen November 2, 2015 - 09:27

“Birds sing in the tree, but they don’t need to learn how to, right?”

Wrong. There is a large body of scientific research into how baby birds learn to sing songs that they need as adult birds. Over-generalizing the complex situation of thousands of species of birds, the ability of how well a bird can sing, how it learns to sing, can have important effects to that bird for mating and territory control. A bird who can’t bring it, won’t get it.

Carolyn Cornell March 10, 2020 - 15:22

As an older artist…. it is sad that one has to limit themselves to other’s expectations as to what their ART is. Whatever it is – it is YOURS. If someone else response to it, fine – if not, fine. The selling of, ‘I can live with that’ type of art…. dismisses much of contemporary approaches. So, if you want to survive by making Art take up portraiture! Stop complaining and just do what you must do.


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