To “[E]ducate Artists to Become Professionals”6
In the cover letter to his Rochester application, Craig Owens alleged that the way that art departments were teaching was disconnected from the reality of the art market and art institutions. These university departments, which had come of age in the 1950s, sought to promote the moral concepts and democratic values associated with a liberal arts education,7 and as such, they saw themselves as havens for artistic creation.8 Their relative isolation from professional art world rules, values, and issues had routinely elicited criticisms9 similar to the ones expressed by Owens. In 1968, for example, the artist Dan Flavin published an acerbic article in Artforum, in which he claimed that the sole merit of the “‘professional’ art educators” in university art departments was their accumulation of degrees and their expression of “bureaucratic persistence, social stamina, and ideological conformities.” Their teaching remained totally cut off from the issues with which the art world grappled outside the walls of academia. It perpetuated a “formal indoctrination of students in art historical media,”10 along with an education in esthetics and art history that Flavin deemed outdated.
For Flavin—an artist whose work was beginning to receive significant institutional recognition associated with the label “Minimalism” at the time—the only reason to get a Master of Fine Arts degree (M.F.A.) was to get “a teaching permit or, often, only to absent [one]self from military service.”11 Even though the number of M.F.A. programs and students enrolled in them has never ceased to grow since the degree was created in the 1920s,12 its value has often been called into question. In the United States, since the passage of the Morrill Acts in the 19th century,13 universities have existed as privileged spaces that, through the production of academic expertise and teaching, have come to establish the standards that apply to each profession. By validating skills and theoretical proficiency, university degrees legitimize their own standing and monopoly of expertise.14 An M.F.A. thus offers “a guarantee of a high level of professional competence in the visual arts” and validates “the ability to make art.”15 But it does not hold an exclusive right to grant the title of artist, as it is possible to have an art career without earning this degree. Furthermore, the number of MFA graduates who manage to earn a living from their artmaking is negligible.
And yet, an independent institution such as the School of Visual Arts in New York, which grants M.F.A.s and where Owens taught in the mid-80s, built its reputation on the notion of the professionalism of its training.16 Becoming one of the largest art schools in the US in the 1970s, it sold its students on the idea that it could help them build a career and enter the art world more readily. Its faculty of artists and theoreticians—already integrated and active in the New York professional art world—, its rich cultural program, and its geographic proximity to Downtown galleries and institutions ensured students’ initiation into the contemporary art world and the formation of a professional network vital for anyone hoping to build a career. Its pedagogical model was conceived as adapted to the structure of the contemporary art market that emerged in the 1960s, which Allan Kaprow summarized in a single sentence as: “If artists were in hell in 1946, now they are in business.”17
The professionalism that Owens envisioned for art education was nevertheless different from SVA’s approach. As indicated by the numerous quotations from Griselda Pollock scattered throughout the draft of his Rochester cover letter and in the unfinished piece “Snuff, Tobacco and Paintings or, The Yen for Art,”18 Owens seconded the British art historian’s sense of indignation when she wrote: “The rationale of the art schools is to train rather than educate artists to become professionals who must compete with other professionals in a difficult market for jobs and sales. Yet the training leaves them totally unequipped to grasp their place in the competitive world of business, professionalism or, no longer so inevitable, education.”19 Thus, becoming an art world professional did not mean, for Owens, to learn the rules of the game, but rather to critically position oneself in relation to these rules in the hopes of forcing them to evolve.
“From Work to Frame…”, or The Persistent Need to Question the Institutional Framework
In his Rochester letter, Owens in fact expressed surprise that, in art education, “little attention is paid to the description and analysis of the relations of artistic production.” This seemed all the more pressing to him given that it “has become the central issue of contemporary art and criticism.”20 He reiterated the main argument he had developed in “From Work to Frame, or, Is There Life After ‘The Death of the Author’?” which appeared in the catalogue for Implosion: A Postmodern Perspective, an exhibition curated by Lars Nittve at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm in 1987. Seeking to take stock of the postmodern art of that decade, Owens characterized postmodernism in his contribution as the shift of “attention away from the work and its producer and onto its frame,”21 the frame being understood both as the physical space where artwork is shown and the social space of its production and reception. To do so, he reflected on the practices of Barbara Kruger, Louise Lawler, Sherrie Levine and Cindy Sherman from the 1980s, often labelled as Appropriation, and the works of Marcel Broodthaers, Michael Asher, Daniel Buren and Hans Haacke from the 1970s, usually called Institutional Critique. Paraphrasing Robert Smithson, Owens underscored the ongoing relevance of “the investigation of the apparatus the artist is threaded through”22 and vigorously contested the argument that this approach was historically limited to the 1970s, which he perceived as an attempt to marginalize and neutralize its radicalism.
While Owens had already written extensively about Kruger, Levine, Lawler and Sherman’s practice, the considerable interest Owens expressed in Institutional Critique in this essay from 1987, one of the last of his career, constituted a new strand of thought. Only once before, in his review of Documenta 7 in 1982, had Owens saluted “[these artists’] ability to maintain dialectical tension in the face of a general cultural implosion.”23 More specifically, his slide collection contained a number of pictures of this exhibition—possibly taken by Owens himself—of Marcel Broodthaers’s Décor, A Conquest (1975), of Haacke’s Homage to Marcel Broodthaers (1982), and of the partial restaging in the Orangerie of a site-specific installation by Michael Asher, previously presented in June 1982 at Haus Lange in Krefeld. Asher’s installation consisted of white dividing walls that recreated the architectural floorplan of Haus Lange, rotated at a 90-degree angle. At the same time, Daniel Buren was invited to present a site-specific installation at Haus Esters, where he reproduced the Haus Lange’s floorplan using walls covered with striped fabric. Even though Owens only briefly referred to the Krefeld project in his review of Documenta 7, he gathered fifty or so slides of it, which made it the most documented project in his entire collection.
For Owens, the works of Broodthaers, Haacke, Asher and Buren all succeeded in resisting the assimilation produced by the formalist arrangements that curator Rudi Fuchs had created to highlight Neo-expressionist painting, and which Owens felt had turned this edition of Documenta into a “monument to cultural implosion, for it ultimately testifies to that sensibility which no longer perceives difference, opposition, contradiction.” What Institutional Critique did was to employ strategies that deconstructed the institutional framework. “Sometimes the postmodernist work insists upon the impossibility of framing,” wrote Owens in “From Work to Frame…,” “of ever rigorously distinguishing a text from its con-text (this argument is made repeatedly in Jacques Derrida’s writings on visual art).”
Reflecting on the notion of frame was also an important theoretical issue for Owens. It was initially inspired by Derrida’s essay “Parergon,” which Owens translated and introduced in the Summer 1979 issue of October , and to which he referred in the footnote on the passage cited above from “From Work to Frame.” Silvia Kolbowski, who had written a review of Buren’s show Change of Scenery at the John Weber Gallery in 1978 for a course taught by Owens at Hunter College, recalled: “My text was so much about the framing of the work. A similar structure exists in Craig’s writing. […] I think the way Craig’s particular approach lodged itself in my head had to do with the attention he gave to structure and framework.” In particular, the English translation of Peter Bürger’s Theorie der Avantgarde (1974) in 1984 led him to associate the notion of frame with institutional concerns, as he expressed in his review of Rosalind Krauss’s The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths in 1985. In his review, Owens criticized Krauss for not having pushed her art criticism from a normative evaluation of individual artworks to a functional analysis of the institutional framework defended by Bürger. In this same spirit, he also regretted her failure to consider the practices associated with Institutional Critique.
Reacting to the Institutionalization of Critical Art and Theoretical Practices
Such was the program that Owens appeared to set for himself in 1987 in “From Work to Frame,” at a time when the art market has begun to take an interest in “Appropriationist” artistic practices, which had since the late 1970s been understood as critical gestures. 1987 was the year Kruger and Levine joined the Mary Boone Gallery, known for showing figurative expressionist male painters who were highly successful on the art market such as Julian Schnabel, David Salle, Francesco Clemente, Georg Baselitz, and Anselm Kiefer. Levine and Kruger’s decision to be part of the roster of the Mary Boone Gallery created some confusion in the critical reception of their work.34 Their notoriety had been built on their radical opposition to the understanding of art as a celebration of masterpieces and of the artist as a heroic figure, thus placing them squarely at the crossroads of postmodernism and feminism as Owens maintained in “The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism” (1983).35
When Levine responded—not without provocation—to journalists who questioned her decision to join Mary Boone, she had this to say: “I don’t think what Julian Schnabel was doing was all that different from what I was trying to do.”36 At the time, Levine had already taken some distance from the initial Appropriationist reading of her work which had been developed essentially by critics tied to October,37 and she had returned to painting with her Knot Paintings, starting in 1985. The big surprise, however, was Kruger’s decision, as she continued to make her trademark photomontages after joining the gallery. Kruger responded to questions about her shift from exhibiting at non-profit art galleries such as Artists Space to a major commercial gallery: “I wanted to enter the marketplace because I began to understand that outside the market there is nothing.”38
The difficulty of maintaining a position independent from the institution also affected the art critics who championed the group of artists designated as the “Pictures Generation,” such as Douglas Crimp, Hal Foster, and Benjamin Buchloh. Indeed, at the turn of the 1980s-1990s, they found themselves validated by academia, which had recruited them to teach.39 Owens had himself been looking for a university position since 1987 when he applied for a teaching position at Rochester. These recruitments contributed to academia’s recognition of so-called “theoretical” art criticism as a means of producing contemporary art history.
It was in this context of the institutionalization of critical art and theoretical practices that Owens wrote “From Work to Frame” and began to consider the systemic questioning of cultural production, such as that of Institutional Critique, as more necessary than ever. He concluded this essay with the declaration: “For a recognition of the de facto social nature of artistic activity is essential if we ourselves are to employ, rather than simply being employed by, the apparatus we all—‘lookers, buyers, dealers, makers’—are threaded through.”40 This galvanizing call resonated especially with an emerging generation of artists, which included some of his former students, who shared his same concerns. The explanation in footnote 31 in “From Work to Frame” that his “reading of Lawler’s practice is indebted to Andrea Fraser’s ‘In and Out of Place’”41 testifies to the attention that Owens was paying to these new voices. Having himself edited her piece, originally an assignment given in a class he was teaching at SVA, he had closely followed the development of Fraser’s work. In “The Yen for Art,” also published in 1987,42 he analyzed the staged “guided tour” that the then twenty-one year-old artist performed, under the title Museum Highlights: a Gallery Talk, as part of the 1986 exhibition at the New Museum titled Damaged Goods, as a new iteration in “the tradition of intellectual critique instituted in the ‘70s.”43 Several of his former students, such as Fareed Armaly, Gregg Bordowitz, Tom Burr, and Mark Dion, who were beginning their careers in the late ‘80s-early ‘90s, would, like Fraser, come to be associated with what would be called “the third generation of Institutional Critique,” alongside other artists such as Renée Green, Fred Wilson, and Christian Philip Muller.44
The professionalism that Owens promoted in his Rochester application, which he viewed as a way to help students analyze the conditions of artistic production, grew out of the context of the late 1980s in which he wrote “From Work to Frame.” As the critical practices that had appeared at the beginning of the decade became increasingly institutionalized, and aware of the emergence of a new generation of artists concerned with issues of Institutional Critique, Owens saw the need to develop a “materialist cultural practice” that, quoting the philosopher Lucio Colletti, “subverts and subordinates to itself the conditions from which it stems.”45 This program formed the basis of his teaching and of the pedagogical vision he developed in the late 1980s.
- 6. Griselda Pollock, “Art, Art School, Culture. Individualism After the Death of the Artist,” BLOCK, no. 11, 1985-1986; reprinted in The BLOCK Reader in Visual Culture, ed. George Robertson (London: Routledge, 1996), 54.
- 7. See Howard Singerman, “Art Journal at Fifty,” Art Journal 50, no. 4 (Winter 1991) online: http://artjournal.collegeart.org/?p=54, accessed October 15, 2019, and “Excellence and Pluralism,” Emergences 12, no. 1 (2002): 71–89.
- 8. See for instance William C. Seitz, Abstract-Expressionist Painting in America: An Interpretation Based on the Work and Thoughts of Six Key Figures (Ph.D. dissertation, Princeton University, 1955), 444; Ben Shahn, The Shape of Content (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1957). On the rise of the art departments in the US in the 1950s, see Morris Risenhoover and Robert T. Blackburn, Artists as Professors (Chicago: University of Illinois Press Urbana, 1976).
- 9. See for instance the condescending letter sent by Mark Rothko to Herbert Ferber, written while Rothko was resident at the University of Colorado during Summer 1955, quoted in James E. B. Breslin, Mark Rothko: A Biography (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 351.
- 10. Dan Flavin, “…On an American Artist’s Education…,” Artforum 6, no. 7 (March 1968): 28.
- 11. Ibid., 29.
- 12. The first M.F.A. degrees were awarded in the 1920s by Washington University, the University of Oregon, Yale University, and Syracuse University. Enrollments in M.F.A. courses in the US went from 60 per year in 11 institutions in the 1940s to 1,365 in 1960 in 72 institutions. 31 M.F.A. programs opened in the 1960s, and 44 in the 1970s. By 1994, 7,100 students were enrolled in MFA programs throughout the US. See Howard Singerman, “Toward a Theory of the M.F.A.,” in Art Subjects. Making Artists in the American University (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999), 6, 187 and footnote 12, 216.
- 13. See Nicolas Gachon, “Les Morrill Acts de 1862 et 1890 et l’ajustement de l’enseignement supérieur américain aux normes de marché,” Revue de recherche en Civilisation Américaine, “Post-racial America?,” no. 3 (2012): https://journals.openedition.org/rrca/410, accessed October 15, 2019.
- 14. See Harold Wilensky, “The Professionalization of Everyone?,” American Journal of Sociology 70, no. 2, (September 1964): 137-158 ; Magali Sarfatti Larson, The Rise of Professionalism : A Sociological Analysis (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977), xvii, 34.
- 15. Directory of M.F.A. Programs in the Visual Arts, rev. ed. (New York: College Art Association, 1996), 5; Singerman, “Toward a Theory of the M.F.A.,” 188.
- 16. Katia Schneller, “Professionalism in the Arts. L’enseignement à la School of Visual Arts entre 1965 et 1975,” in Valérie Mavridorakis, Christophe Kihm, eds., Transmettre l’art. Figures et méthodes – Quelle histoire? (Dijon: Presses du réel, 2013), 153-171.
- 17. Allan Kaprow, “Should the Artist Be a Man of the World?,” Art News 63, no. 6 (October 1964): 35; reprinted with the title “The Artist as a Man of the World,” in Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, ed. Jeff Kelley (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 47.
- 18. See Craig Owens, draft of CLUR and “Snuff, Tobacco and Paintings or, The Yen for Art,” in Lynne Tillman Archives, Fales Library, New York City, N.Y.
- 19. Pollock, “Art, Art School, Culture,” 54.
- 20. Craig Owens, Final version of the CLUR.
- 21. Craig Owens, “From Work to Frame, or Is There Life After ‘The Death of the Author’?,” in Implosion: A Postmodern Perspective, eds. Lars Nittve, Germano Celant (Stockholm: Moderna Museet, 1987); reprinted in Owens, Beyond Recognition, 126.
- 22. Owens, “From Work to Frame, or Is There Life After ‘The Death of the Author’?,” 136. See Robert Smithson, “Conversation with Robert Smithson on April 22nd 1972,” ed. Bruce Kurtz, in The Writings of Robert Smithson, ed. Nancy Holt (New York: New York University Press, 1979), 200.
- 23. Craig Owens, “Bayreuth ’82,” Art in America (September 1982): 191.
- 24. See the slides no. 115, 116, 586, 587.
- 25. See the slides no. 111, 112, 599, 600, 602.
- 26. Designed in 1927 by Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe, the two adjacent houses, Haus Lange and Haus Esters, form the Kunstmuseen in Krefeld.
- 27. Owens’s slide collection includes 21 slides of Asher’s Haus Lange installation (slides no. 60, 61, 76, 77, 539–542, 544, 552–560, 604–606), four slides of Asher’s Orangerie installation (slides no. 75, 79, 324, 543), and 32 slides of Buren’s Haus Esters installation (slides no. 57–59, 117–118, 240, 313–323, 325, 326, 545–551, 613–618). These slides appear to have been taken by Owens himself and not by a professional photographer. Their number is considerable compared to the majority of artists represented in the collection, whose work includes, on average, one to five slides. With a total of 32 and 40 slides respectively, Asher and Buren are among the four artists (along with John Baldessari and Richard Prince) whose work is the most represented in the collection, which includes more than 90 artists.
- 28. Craig Owens, “Bayreuth ’82,” 191. The photographs were presumably taken by Owens during his visit to Documenta 7 and show combinations of artworks from artists with divergent styles such as A. R. Penck, John Chamberlain, and Daniel Buren (see slide 238). Such conflicting curatorial choices contributed to establishing artificial similarities between works rather than affirming their existing differences. Owens thus writes: “What was intended as a dialogue degenerates into a curatorial monologue.” Ibid., 139.
- 29. Craig Owens, “From Work to Frame, or, Is There Life After ‘The Death of the Author’?,” 126.
- 30. Jacques Derrida, “Parergon,” in La Vérité en peinture (Paris : Flammarion, 1978) ; “The Parergon,” trans. Craig Owens, October, no. 9 (Summer 1979) : 3-41. Owens defines the parergon as that which “marks the limit between the intrinsic and the extrinsic (hence, the parergonal function of the frame),” Ibid., 34. He mentions Derrida’s deconstructionist reading in reference to Buren’s work for the first time in “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism, Part 2,” October, no. 13 (Summer 1980); reprinted in Beyond Recognition, 78. Owens subsequently refers to the notion of frame in his analysis of the way in which Trisha Brown incorporates the proscenium in her work Glacial Decoy (1979). See Craig Owens, “The Pro-Scenic Event,” Art in America (December 1981): 128–131.
- 31. See the interview with Silvia Kolbowski, by Katia Schneller and Dean Inkster, New York City, March 11, 2015, 4.
- 32. Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Michael Shaw (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984).
- 33. Craig Owens, “Analysis Logical and Ideological,” Art in America (May 1985); reprinted in Beyond Recognition, 270–271.
- 34. See Abigail Solomon-Godeau, “Living with Contradictions: Critical Practices in the Age of Supply-Side Aesthetics,” Screen 18, no. 3 (Summer 1987): 2–23; reprinted in The Critical Image: Essays on Contemporary Photography, ed. Carol Squiers (Seattle: Bay Press, 1990), 78.
- 35. Craig Owens, “The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism” in The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, ed. Hal Foster (Seattle: Bay Press, 1983), 57–77; reprinted in Owens, Beyond Recognition, 126.
- 36. Gerald Marzorati, “Art in the (Re)Making,” Artnews, vol. 85, no. 5 (May 1986): 92.
- 37. See Paul Taylor, “Sherrie Levine Plays with Paul Taylor,” Flash Art, no. 135 (June 1987): 55–56. On the shift in Levine’s strategy, see Howard Singerman, “4. Endgame,” in Art History, After Sherrie Levine (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 139–184.
- 38. Carol Squiers, “Diversionary (Syn)tactics: Barbara Kruger Has Her Way with Words,” Artnews 46, no. 2 (February 1987): 84.
- 39. The University of Rochester hired Owens in 1989 and Douglas Crimp in 1992. Benjamin Buchloh became Associate Professor of Art History at MIT in 1989; he left MIT for Columbia University in 1994, on completing his Ph.D. Hal Foster became Associate Professor of Art History and Comparative Literature at Cornell University in 1991, one year after he completed his Ph.D.
- 40. Craig Owens, “From Work to Frame,” 136.
- 41. Ibid., note 31, 139. See the draft annotated by Owens in the present collection. Andrea Fraser, “In and Out of Place,” Art in America 73 (June 1985): 6.
- 42. Craig Owens, “The Yen for Art”, in Discussions in Contemporary Culture, no. 1, ed. Hal Foster (Seattle: DIA Art Foundation/Bay Press, 1987); reprinted in Beyond Recognition, 318–320.
- 43. Ibid., 318.
- 44. This new generation of artists would contribute to such exhibitions as What Happened to the Institutional Critique? curated by James Meyer at American Fine Arts Gallery in 1993, and Project Unité in Firminy (France) curated by Yves Aupetitallot in 1993.
- 45. « materialist cultural practice » « subverts and subordinates to itself the conditions from which it stems » Owens, « From Work to Frame, » 136. Lucio Colletti, cité in Diane Elson, «The Value Theory of Labor, » in Value: The Representation of Labour in Capitalism, ed. Diane Elson (London: CSE Books, 1979), 171.