Critical Theory has a narrow and a broad meaning in philosophy and in the history of the social sciences. “Critical Theory” designates several generations of German philosophers and social theorists in the Western European Marxist tradition known as the Frankfurt School.
According to these theorists, a “critical” theory may be distinguished from a “traditional” theory according to a specific practical purpose: a theory is critical to the extent that it seeks human “emancipation from slavery”, acts as a “liberating … influence”, and works “to create a world which satisfies the needs and powers” of human beings (Horkheimer 1972, 246). Critical Theory is concerned with the identification of power structures within specific social contexts, and the provision of ideas and practices that influence the dismantling of oppressive power structures. Because of this active interest in practical and ideological emancipation, Critical Theory is closely related to social movements and activism.
Critical Theory in the narrow sense has had many different facets and distinct historical phases that cross several generations, from the effective start of the Institute of the Institute for Social Research in the years 1929–1930, which saw the arrival of the Frankfurt School philosophers and an inaugural lecture by Horkheimer, to the present. Its distinctiveness as a philosophical approach that reaches to ethics, political philosophy, and the philosophy of history is most apparent when considered in relation to the history of the philosophy of the social sciences.
Critical Theorists have long sought to distinguish their aims, methods, theories, and forms of explanation from standard understandings in both the natural and the social sciences. Instead, they have claimed that social inquiry ought to combine rather than separate the poles of philosophy and the social sciences: explanation and understanding, structure and agency, regularity and normativity. Such an approach, Critical Theorists argue, permits their enterprise to be practical in a distinctively moral (rather than instrumental) sense. They do not merely seek to provide the means to achieve some independent goal, but rather (as in Horkheimer’s famous definition mentioned above) seek “human emancipation” in circumstances of domination and oppression.
In terms of Critical Theory within the arts, the approach is to look beyond dominant modes of operation, and the dominant voices that reinforce a mainstream approach and set of values. Critical art theory cannot limit itself to the reception and interpretation of art, as that now exists under capitalism. Which means looking beyod the recognition of the value of art through the act of procurement, investment and the associated price tag attached to the work. Critical art theory is an approach that understands and details that art as it is currently institutionalized and practiced – business as usual in the current “art world” – is in the deepest and most unavoidable sense “art under capitalism”. Identifying that dominant international art markets, practices and cultures is under the thumb of capitalism, critical art theory is focussed on initiating a clear break or rupture with the art that capitalism has brought to dominance. Specifically, break the system that dictates that art that is to be created and valued through a commodity market lens. What happens when artists position their work within frameworks that sell art to elite collectors and audiences for extortionate prices; the artist is complicit in reinforcing art as a commodity and a signal of wealth and power within a society interested in expression power and influence through means of the assimilation of capital.
A key question for anyone interested in challenging dominant capitalist power structures and ideology is to ask, what is the social and economic function of art beyond creating new commodities that signify the financial and cultural wealth of already powerful individuals. Where else is the social function of art, and how can art contribute to the emancipation of individuals and communities, and how can art be part of the process of critical enquiry into who is setting the ideological agenda and why.