S385, S386 and S387, Craig Owens slide collection, held by James Meyer, Washington, D.C.
In his application to the University of Rochester, Owens formulated a program within the context of the “expansion and revitalization” of the university’s art department. In 1988-1989, Rochester established the first Visual and Cultural Studies Program in the United States to bring together students in art and art history,115 an environment that Owens described in his cover letter as a “rare opportunity—which [he] welcome[d].”116 The course proposals that Owens drew up in concomitance with the developments of his theoretical thinking thus sought to educate cultural producers rather than artists or art historians. He envisioned not just a set of courses, but rather an environment in which theory and practice could come together in a way that would encourage students to think critically about the social function of culture and the economic and political conditions of its production. The aim was to embolden students to arrive at the particular position and kind of actions they wished to adopt within the professional field, understood as a totality of cultural practices engaged in by artists, critics, art historians, curators, dealers, administrators, educators, and members of the viewing public. As the editors of Beyond Recognition noticed, this wider range of possibilities already applied to Owens’s own professional practice: “A critic, editor, curator, and teacher, Owens refused to be confined by a simple definition.”117
A Vision Inspired by the Educational Models of CalArts and the ISP
As he explained in his cover letter to the University of Rochester, Owens drew inspiration from two alternative educational models in particular: the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) and the Whitney Independent Studies Program (ISP). As he wrote in 1982 in the review of the CalArts ten-year anniversary exhibition, this program represented for him an important model to uphold “in a period of conservative revanche.”118 “[A]nimated by the adversary culture of the ‘60s, not only by its sense of imminent cultural revolution, but also by the student movement’s critique of the American university,”119 In 1971, John Baldessari and Paul Brach had created a form of art school training where mandatory courses were replaced with a system of mentoring and meeting with visiting artists and lecturers. These interactions situated art education “within the context of on-going discussion of the economic, ethical and political ramifications of art-making.”120 In response to the recent emergence of site-specific and post-studio practices, particularly encouraged at CalArts, the presence of artists and their dialogue was central to the school’s teaching program, an approach that would spread to other M.F.A. programs across the country in the 1970s.121 Insisting on the need to keep Rochester’s studio program informed of the most recent developments in the art world,122 Owens proposed creating a Visiting Artists Program like the one at CalArts. He envisioned inviting ten artists a semester for two-day visits to present their work in the form of talks and seminars, and to hold critical sessions with students.123
Alongside the visiting artists program, Owens wanted to hold workshops on important issues to engage students in “an active, hands-on approach” to organizing exhibitions, conferences, or film programs.124 Even though his proposals remained vaguely formulated in his cover letter, the combination of theory and practice as well as the variety of formats he proposed recall the organization of the ISP, where Owens had taught from 1984 to 1987. The program, created in 1968, was characterized by a dialogue between artistic, critical, and curatorial practices, and was organized around a weekly visiting artists seminar led by a guest theoretician and by a reading group in critical theory “that examine[d] the historical, social, and intellectual conditions of artistic productions.”125 The result was a public presentation of projects at the end of the year by participants in the Studio Program in the form of a group exhibition, and a conference or an exhibition organized by participants in the Art History/Museum Studies Program together with curators from the Whitney Museum and ISP teachers.126 In 1987, this latter part of the program was renamed the Curatorial and Critical Studies Program; it was one of the first curatorial programs, long before their extensive proliferation beginning in the early 2000s.
S514, Craig Owens slide collection, held by James Meyer, Washington, D.C.
The Curatorial Space: A Field of Inquiry into Cultural Practices
Owens formulated his proposal for Rochester in 1989, at a time when the curatorial function was gaining prominence. It would eventually dominate the 1990s art world as the new means of brokering and producing meaning, supplanting the art critic. Owens was well aware of artists’ interest in incorporating curating into their work as a means of extending the exhibition into other formats than those traditionally imposed by the art institution. In “From Work to Frame,” he specifically discussed the work of Louise Lawler, who was already acting as both curator and artist in the early 80s. He mentioned, for example, the first room of her solo exhibition “Arrangements of Pictures,” which ran from November 20 to December 18, 1982 at the Metro Pictures gallery, in which she exhibited and offered for sale works by Cindy Sherman, Laurie Simmons, James Welling, Jack Goldstein, and Robert Longo, charging a ten percent commission for herself.127 Lawler came to be prominent figure for a number of Owens’s students, as Andrea Fraser’s aforementioned 1985 essay on Lawler’s practice, “In and Out of Place” exemplifies.128
By organizing workshops to encourage the art and art history students in Rochester’s art department to put on exhibitions and events, Owens wanted them to “learn that there is more to the production of culture than the manufacture of art objects.”129 The area of inquiry that the curatorial opened up represented a space in which artistic, curatorial, theoretical, and pedagogical practices could interact and rub up against one another. As Beatrice von Bismarck, Jörn Schafaff, and Thomas Weski explained: “The curatorial not only implies a genuine mode for generating, mediating, and reflecting experience and knowledge developed in artists’ studios and cultural institutions, but also encompasses a whole field of knowledge relating to the conditions and relations of the appearance of art and culture and the difference contexts by which they are defined.”130 Considered a generator of “events of knowledge,”131 the curatorial shed light on various practices within the field of culture, and made it possible to recognize them as research as such. It thus offered a means of interaction between these practices.
The pedagogical environment that Owens imagined when he was hired at Rochester seemed to allow for the generation of a collective space for research and the production of knowledge that decompartmentalized practices and disciplines. The two bibliographies on AIDS that concluded the section “Pedagogy” in Beyond Recognition confirmed his initial proposal to hold a curatorial workshop in conjunction with his theory courses. Entitled “Visualizing AIDS”, the workshop sought to articulate theoretical and artistic responses to the emergency of the AIDS crisis, and to familiarize participants with the economic and practical issues inherent in a professional project. The workshop “Visualizing AIDS” was envisioned not from a supposedly neutral standpoint, but rather from one of awareness and commitment. The project entailed organizing an on-campus exhibition addressed to the community of the University of Rochester that analyzed the way in which AIDS was depicted in medical and legal discourses, and, at the same time, alerted viewers to the dramatic socio-political scale of the epidemic. In the blurb for “Visualizing AIDS,” Owens insisted on the specific attention the project should pay to the ways in which the AIDS crisis highlighted problems of racism, homophobia, and classism ingrained in society.
Owens imagined that the students involved in the workshop would conduct research on artistic approaches that responded to the epidemic. He also wanted this research to be put in perspective with the bibliography he proposed, which included texts on science and sexuality by Michel Foucault, queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, cyberfeminist Donna Haraway, feminist anthropologist Gayle Rubin, as well as references from the history of medicine and the very recent literature on AIDS. At the same time, Owens proposed the course “Visual AIDS,” whose bibliography developed the one of the “Visualizing AIDS” workshop and proposed eight pages of mainly English-language reference texts on the epidemic. He thus provided his students with a practical and conceptual multidisciplinary framework that directly encompassed both the thought and action that was literally in the process of being formed with regard to “a fundamental part of U.S. history of the twentieth century,”132 to quote the essayist and activist Sarah Schulman. Although no information remains about the realization of this workshop, this project nevertheless testifies of Owens’s desire to use the curatorial space as a way to promote research that was not restricted to one particular field, practice, or kind of artifact, and which brought an activist stance to the field of culture.
An opening towards Visual and Cultural Studies
The opening in Owens’s teaching to a larger cultural field demonstrated by the “Visualizing AIDS” workshop allows to glimpse the approaches and questioning towards which Owens seemed to be turning in his writing. Even though he had not published new essays on sexual politics since “Outlaws: Gay Men in Feminism” appeared in the anthology Men in Feminism, the advocacy in his teaching revealed that this essay marked an important turning point for Owens. The essay was published in 1987, when AIDS activism became more radical, as evidenced by the formation of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) in New York that same year. People within Owens’s circle soon became involved with ACT UP, people such as Gregg Bordowitz, one of his former students at the SVA and the ISP, who then published the essay “Picture a Coalition” in October’s special Winter 1987 issue “AIDS: Cultural Analysis, Cultural Activism.” This issue, which included pieces by intellectuals, activists, and artists, was entirely edited by Douglas Crimp, who had also joined ACT UP. Although Owens was not himself an activist, it was nevertheless in this context that he decided to come out as a gay male author in “Outlaws.” Tom Burr, another of his former students, described the significance of this gesture in Owens’s presentation of this essay at the ISP as follows: “in some of the most devastating moments of the ongoing AIDS crisis, this position had urgency and political currency, and both the audience and Craig felt the full pressure, and power, of that acknowledgement of stakes.”133 Lastly, it was in 1987 that he also published “The Yen for Art,”134 the only text, along with “Outlaws”, in which he discussed, albeit briefly, the AIDS epidemic. In this brief essay, he denounced the “protectionist” rhetoric that was then used in the United States in the art press, in museum institutions, as well as in government policy in response to the AIDS epidemic. For Owens, the use of this rhetoric was intended to obscure acts of power and control, even historical destruction and genocide. Moreover, the dynamic of inversion that this rhetoric generated allowed those who destroyed culture to present themselves as its protectors. Owens linked this reflection to the political appropriation of the AIDS crisis operated by neoconservatives as a means to control the private realm of non-reproductive sexual activities and to redefine private space as public space in the name of public protection.
These various elements reveal the stance that Owens began to adopt in 1987, and which led him in 1989, when he himself contracted HIV, to envision teaching as a way to respond to the urgent question that Crimp asked in the introduction to October’s special issue on AIDS: “we need cultural practices actively participating in the struggle against AIDS. We don’t need to transcend the epidemic; we need to end it. What might such a cultural practice be?”135 Taking political control of the representations lay at the heart of the workshop “Visualizing AIDS.” This project, informed by Queer Studies and the tragic urgency of the AIDS crisis, represented a new development in Owens’s work on sexual difference. Turning the stereotype against itself was one of the major stakes in his thinking about Appropriationism and the various approaches he considered in “Posing” (1984). The frame of investigation in “Visualizing AIDS” extended past the art world to consider the larger field of culture, thus marking the growth of his interest in Visual and Cultural Studies.
Because of his premature death in 1990, it is hard to know how Owens specifically imagined his own trajectory in this wider field. To the extent that his teaching was, as mentioned before, intrinsically linked to his writing projects, might he have wanted to write an essay following the “Visualizing AIDS” project to react to the homophobic attacks launched by neoconservatives in the Culture Wars?136 The uncompleted exhibition “Exoticism: A Figure for Emergencies” that he was preparing for the Institute of Contemporary Art in London in 1989 suggests that he was well on his way to opening a new chapter in his thinking on the politics of representation and vocalization initiated in “The Discourse of Others” (1983). With a goal set “to deconstructing Europe’s images of its ‘others’,”137 the exhibition attests to his interest in the emerging fields of Subaltern and Postcolonial Studies that was already palpable in his 1987-1989 course bibliographies, as well as the courses on twentieth-century visual culture on the issues of colonialism, orientalism, and primitivism that he proposed in his cover letter for the University of Rochester. Lastly, the last piece he published in July 1989, titled “The Global Issue: A Symposium,”138 reveals his lucidity concerning this new field of inquiry. In this short essay, he drew a distinction between the dangers of the well intentioned Western metropolitan Third-Worldism, and the attempt at deconstructing imperialism by intellectuals whose work he asked his students to read. His conclusion resonates with the ICA exhibition and “Visualizing AIDS” projects: “Perhaps it is in this project of learning how to represent ourselves—how to speak to, rather than for or about, others—that the possibility of a ‘global’ culture resides.”139
S556 and S557, Craig Owens slide collection, held by James Meyer, Washington, D.C.
This new phase in Owens’s thought, marked by his growing interest in the field of Visual and Cultural Studies, helped him to develop the decompartmentalization of the disciplines inherent to the critique of the history of art and representation that he had set forth in 1982. In his essay “Representation, Appropriation, and Power,” Owens championed the refusal of post-structuralist thinkers, specifically Louis Marin and Michel Foucault, “to remain decorously within the boundaries of a single area of competence […] because they view the ‘humanities’ themselves as products of a systematic activity of restriction and exclusion engineered to control the production of knowledge in our society.”140 In his essay, Owens brought to art history his critique of the humanities, which he viewed as emblematic of the desire to perpetuate the hegemony of Western culture. He pointed specifically to ways in which art history regarded representation as a disinterested, politically neutral activity, whereas it instead constituted “the founding act […] of power in our culture” and “an integral part of social processes of differentiation, exclusion, incorporation, and rule.”141 Owens felt the urgency of developing a critique of art history informed by the post-structuralist performative understanding of representation in that “they are interested less in what works say, and more in what they do.”142 As evidenced by the recurring presence of Foucault in his writings and teaching, the post-structuralist critique of representation was fundamental for Owens, and he would revisit it throughout the 1980s in response to the issues that arose in the various bodies of theory he would investigate.
Moreover, his main objection to the work of Rosalind Krauss, who is known for her incorporation of structuralist and post-structuralist theories in art history, lay in not taking this critique of representation to its fullest, logical conclusion.143 In his 1985 review of The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, he found that Krauss’s analyses “overlook the ideological function of the modernist ‘myths’ she unmasks”144 and still express value judgments—even though Krauss insists in her introduction on her desire to detach herself from art critic Clement Greenberg’s understanding of criticism as an evaluative statement. For Owens, because Krauss’s analysis lacked an articulated notion of ideology, it did not sufficiently acknowledge, as the poststructuralists had, the complicity of the humanities with the dominant social and cultural order.145 In this somewhat personally charged piece, he criticized Krauss for ultimately remaining an art historian involved in debates that “are academic: that is, they invariably take place within institutionally prescribed limits.”146 As Owens noted in “Representation, Appropriation, and Power” in 1982, the post-structuralists’ critique of the humanities could, indeed, only be undertaken on the condition that they “have examined to varying degrees their own implication in an academic system that submits and thereby confines the intellectual to a discipline.”147
Disciplinary decompartmentalization was a constant concern of Owens’s theoretical trajectory over the decade in which he wrote, and which took him across Post-Structuralism, Feminist, Post-colonial, Subaltern, Visual and Cultural Studies. Owens promoted this transdisciplinary approach in his teachings as evidenced by the different bodies of theory he included in his 1987-1989 course bibliographies. The “Visualizing AIDS” workshop proposed to deploy this approach into a new pedagogical dimension by generating a collective situation of research and production of socially engaged knowledge that extended beyond the confines of art to the culture as a whole. This workshop fulfilled the wish he had expressed in his cover letter for Rochester that his teaching would “regard art as a profession as important to our society as scientific or technological research.”148 He did not, however, seek to promote a figure of the artist as researcher reasserting the academic disciplinary model in which the stakes are to develop an expertise by using systematic and objective procedures to produce new knowledge submitted to the evaluation of a professional community, as envisioned by the advocates of “research in art” or of “Practice-Based Doctorates.”149 The ambition of Owens’s teaching project was rather to promote an artistic investigation conceived as research that takes a stand on current and pressing issues in society, and thus to situate the world of art within the wider field of culture.
It was precisely the threat to the autonomy of individual disciplines generated by such an approach that Krauss pointed to as a danger when she joined the debate that arose in the mid-1990s over the success of Visual and Cultural Studies at U.S. universities.150 In her defense of established disciplinary boundaries of art history, which Owens had foreseen in 1985, she expressed her concern over the decentering of art history as an academic discipline, based on specific skills, in terms of deskilling.151 Borrowed from the Australian artist Ian Burn, a member of the Art & Language collective, this concept referred to the abandonment of traditional forms of expertise in painting and sculpture that characterized Conceptual art in the 1960s and 70s. This phenomenon went hand in hand with the loss of specialized forms of knowledge whose acquisition demanded a rigorous period of apprenticeship. Burn argued that deskilling contributed to the difficulty many art students encountered in the 1980s, once their studies were completed, “in sustaining such [avant-garde] attitudes outside of the school and to then discover that they have not been taught skills to allow them to work in any other way.”152 The notion of deskilling considered this transformation of the art field in the context of a Post-Fordist economy, in which technological developments and divisions of labor have led to the disappearance of individual competencies and confine workers to specialized tasks.153 As Owens passed away in 1990, he was unable to participate in this debate, but the formulation of his teaching project for the University of Rochester leads one to think that breaking down disciplinary boundaries does not lead so much to “deskilling” as to a “retooling” that would educate cultural producers by giving them the tools to orient and position themselves actively and politically in professional fields.
- 115. See the section “Overview” of the Graduate Program in Visual & Cultural Studies of the University of Rochester, online: http://www.sas.rochester.edu/vcs/graduate/index.html, accessed on October 15, 2019.
- 116. Craig Owens, Final version of the CLUR.
- 117. “Editor’s Note,” in Craig Owens, Beyond Recognition, 328.
- 118. Owens, “Back to Studio,” 102.
- 119. Ibid., 100.
- 120. Ibid.
- 121. See Howard Singerman, “Professing Postmodernism,” 157–159, 178–179.
- 122. Owens, Draft of the CLUR.
- 123. Ibid.
- 124. Craig Owens, Final version of the CLUR.
- 125. “The Independent Study Program 1968-2008,” in Independent Study Program: 40 Years (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 2008), 11.
- 126. Ibid.
- 127. Owens, “From Work to Frame, or, Is There Life After ‘The Death of the Author’?,” 135. Views of this show are kept in the Owens’s slides collection. See the slides no. 514, 517, 518, 521.
- 128. See Andrea Fraser, “In and Out of Place,” Art in America (June 1985); reprinted in Museum Highlights. The Writings of Andrea Fraser, ed. Alexander Alberro (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2005), 17–28. See the draft of this essay, annotated by Owens, reproduced in this present collection.
- 129. Craig Owens, Final version of the CLUR.
- 130. Beatrice von Bismarck, Jörn Schafaff and Thomas Weski, “Introduction,” in Cultures of the Curatorial (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2012), 8.
- 131. Irit Rogoff, Beatrice von Bismarck, “Curating / Curatorial,” in Cultures of the Curatorial, 27.
- 132. Sarah Schulman, The Gentrification of the Mind. Witness to a Lost Imagination (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 28.
- 133. Tom Burr, “Architecture of Influence: Thinking through Craig Owens,” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory, vol. 26, no. 1 (2016), online: https://www.womenandperformance.org/ampersand/tom-burr, accessed on October 15, 2019.
- 134. Owens, “The Yen for Art,” 316–323.
- 135. Douglas Crimp, “AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism,” October, no. 43 (Winter 1987): 7.
- 136. See Jonathan D. Katz, “’The Senators Were Revolted’: Homophobia and the Culture Wars,” in A Companion to Contemporary Art Since 1945, ed. Amelia Jones (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), 231–248.
- 137. Owens, Final version of the CLUR. The essay Owens was writing for the exhibition catalog was also to be used as the script for a television documentary the ICA was then developing in collaboration with the BBC.
- 138. Craig Owens, “The Global Issue: A Symposium,” Art in America (July 1989); reprinted in Beyond Recognition, 324–328.
- 139. Ibid., 328.
- 140. Craig Owens, “Representation, Appropriation, and Power,” Art in America (May 1982); reprinted in Beyond Recognition, 92.
- 141. Ibid., 91.
- 142. Ibid.
- 143. Craig Owens, “Analysis Logical and Ideological,” Art in America (May 1985); reprinted in Beyond Recognition, 272.
- 144. Ibid., 269.
- 145. Owens, “Representation, Appropriation, and Power,” 92.
- 146. Owens, “Analysis Logical and Ideological,” 272.
- 147. Owens, “Representation, Appropriation, and Power,” 92.
- 148. Owens, Draft of the CLUR.
- 149. The model of the artist as a professional academic was promoted by William C. Seitz in his Ph.D. dissertation Abstract-Expressionist Painting in America: An Interpretation Based on the Work and Thoughts of Six Key Figures, of 1955. See Howard Singerman, “Subjects of the Artist,” in Art Subjects. Making Artists in the American University, 154. This model has recently re-emerged in defense of a “Practice-Based Doctorate” and “research in art” with the risk of reinforcing the myths and stereotypes associated with research and the hard sciences and of essentializing the figure of the “artist as researcher” in mimicking the scientific model of academic research. See Janneke Wessling, “Introduction” and Graeme Sullivan, “The Artist as Researcher. New Roles for New Realities,” in See It Again, Say It Again. The Artist as Researcher (Amsterdam: Valiz, Antennaz, 2011), 1–17, 82–84; Mika Hanula, Juha Suoranta, Tere Vadén, Artistic Research: Theories, Methods and Practices (Helsinki: Academy of Fine Arts; Gothenburg: University of Gothenburg, 2005). For a critical approach to these debates, see Sandra Delacourt, Katia Schneller, Vanessa Theodoropoulou, “Introduction,” in Le Chercheur et ses doubles (Paris: B42, 2016), 5–22.
- 150. October adopted the same critical stand toward Visual and Cultural Studies. In its Summer 1996 issue, the journal published 120 responses to a “Visual Culture Questionnaire” addressed to art-world personalities by the editors and an editorial affirming the journal’s negative opinion of the new theoretical field. See “Visual Culture Questionnaire,” October, no. 77 (Summer 1996): 25–70, and “Krauss and the Art of Cultural Controversy. Interview with S. Rothkopf,” The Harvard Crimson, published on May 16, 1997, online: https://www.thecrimson.com/article/1997/5/16/krauss-and-the-art-of-cultural/ accessible October 15, 2019.
- 151. Rosalind Krauss, “Der Tod der Fachkenntnisse und Kunstfertigkeiten,” Text zur Kunst, no. 20 (1995): 60–67.
- 152. Ian Burn, ”The ‘Sixties: Crisis and Aftermath (or the Memoirs of an Ex-Conceptual Artist),” Art & Text, no. 1 (Fall 1981): 49–65; reprinte in Alexander Alberro, Blake Stimson eds., Conceptual Art: An Anthology (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999), 395.
- 153. Krauss refers to Harry Braverman, Travail et capitalisme monopolistique. La dégradation du travail au XXè siècle (Paris : François Maspero, 1976). See Krauss, “Der Tod der Fachkenntnisse und Kunstfertigkeiten.”