If you have taken a senior seminar, proseminar, capstone course, or whatever your university calls such things, then you have probably begun to explore the world of critical theory. This is the third (and most advanced) category of art historical analysis. It is rarely covered in introductory or even intermediate courses, but it is a mainstay of graduate work in most departments, these days. Critical theory can be very off-putting to many student, when they first encounter it, but it can be very helpful and even rewarding, if pursued rigorously. It tends to be written in a rather different style of prose that can seem somewhat obscure or impenetrable. Most students take a bit of time and exposure to warm to theoretical writing, but it can be fascinating and exciting, so it is worth the effort.

In essence, critical theory is the study of history, literature, art, culture, etc., from perspectives that assume that there is no “objective” academic stance possible, and that all knowledge is situated in particular circumstances. That is, the “facts” are rarely really facts, and instead reflect the biases and beliefs of whomever is writing them down. The authoritative voices of textbook authors, for example, should be called into question, as they tend to attempt to conceal the actual author and his or her motives (consciously or otherwise). Instead of accepting as fact what is presented as such, scholars engaged in critical theory examine the methods employed to establish these facts. In essence, then, critical theory asks us to question our assumptions.

Critical theory has many branches these days, and it is likely that your own interests fall within more than one of them. I cannot hope to provide a full introduction to the subject, here, but I can suggest a few good texts for those just getting their feet wet in the topic. The best place to start is Art History: The Basics. My students find this basic, clearly written introduction invaluable!

After this, I’d suggest Critical Terms for Art History. This excellent text contains brief thematic chapters on many of the more popular topics in current art history. The include gender, sexuality, the body, the gaze, visual culture and others. These essays are written by major figures in their respective sub-fields: Homi Bhabha on postcolonialism, Michael Camille on the simulacrum, W.J.T. Mitchell on word and image relations, Whitney Davis on gender, Wolfgang Kemp on narrative, and so on.

Art history is now more centered on themes than on -isms/-ists. That is, there are more people working on gender or sexuality than there are people practicing feminist art history. These essays are clearly written and intended for non-specialists, so they are the perfect place the start. They also contain excellent lists of the top texts on each theme, so they can help you dive more deeply into the subject.

The other text I’d highly recommend is The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology. Unlike Critical Terms, which contains essays written expressly for this collection, The Art of Art History is a compilation of major works in art history. The introductions to each by Donald Preziosi help explain why these figures and articles are important in the history of art history.

Some of these are classic essays by the figures who helped to define the field (eg. Vasari, Winckelmann, Kant, Hegel and Wölfflin), others mainstays of art history as it developed throughout the twentieth century (eg. Panofsky, Schapiro and Gombrich), and others inspiring or engaging with some of the more current issues and debates in the field (eg. Derrida, Foucault, Bulter, Krauss and Benjamin). Many of these are not really art historians, but have been used extensively in art historical writing (called, in critical circles, “discourse”), and it would be wise for you to get to know them, if you plan on heading to graduate school in art history, or if you are already there.

Neither of these texts are intended as an introduction to art history for freshmen. They are specialized resources for those pursuing the field at more advanced levels, and can be invaluable companions for senior majors and graduate students (as well as for some trained professionals, like me!).

I would also suggest that you explore these links, as they contain not only information about critical theory but also primary sources and examples by major authors:

Introductory Guide to Critical Theory
Contemporary Philosophy, Critical Theory and Postmodern Thought
“Critical Theory” entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Illuminations: The Critical Theory Website