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2. Treating Cultural Activity “as a profession”: Owens’s Teaching of Theory between 1987 and 1989
2.  Treating Cultural Activity “as a profession”:  Owens’s Teaching of Theory between 1987 and 1989 - Holobionte

S113 and S114, Craig Owens slide collection, kept by James Meyer, Washington, D.C.

The Integrative Function of Theory

Between 1987 and 1989, Owens taught theory in art and art history departments at Yale University, the University of Virginia, Barnard College, and The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He envisioned these courses as a way to treat cultural activity “as a profession.”46 In the cover letter of his Rochester application, he explained that this means providing students with “usable knowledge” to understand what it meant to work as an artist or art critic. He emphasized that he had developed these teachings on the basis of his own professional experience in the New York art world since the late 1970s as an art critic, editor, curator, and professor.

The courses he developed analyzed contemporary art and theoretical practices in the context of debates in which he himself had participated, and offered a situated reading of what he considered the main issues that structured the conversation of the field of Western contemporary art. For Owens, a cartography of the most recent artistic practices could not be reduced to a group of artworks selected according to formal and aesthetic criteria. On the contrary, this mapping had to be elaborated in connection with a close reading of the issues affecting the contemporary cultural field. Owens then considered it mandatory to introduce students to analytical and methodological tools taken from various contemporary theoretical fields he had used in his writings that fell under the general umbrella of “Theory,” such as French Theory, Psychoanalytic Feminism, Film Theory, and the philosophy of the Frankfurt School. He explained about his teachings: “a great deal of time is devoted to texts on historiography, sociology, language, subjectivity and ideology, in an effort to provide students with the tools necessary to map places—as artist, critics, historians, administrators, even as (informed) audience members—within the complex social world to which cultural production belongs.”47 For Owens, the aim of theory courses was not to encourage a purely abstract speculation. On the contrary, their goal was, first, to help students understand their role in the professional field they participated in and to see what type of action they could develop within it. Secondly, theses teachings led students to assimilate elements of language and thought that were shared in the art world and that they needed to master to enter it.

In 1988, Thomas Crow stated that Theory “knits the art village together on all levels […]. The language of high theory has come to serve a genuinely integrative function for the art community as it actually exists, gathering a wide variety of practices under its wings.”48 Owens was all the more aware of this phenomenon for being a part of it himelf. In 1980s New York, often presented as “the golden age of theory,”49 Owens belonged to a community of artists who liked to write, which included Joseph Kosuth, Robert Morris, and Yvonne Rainer, as well as critics and academics such as Benjamin Buchloh, Rosalyn Deutsche, Hal Foster, and Rosalind Krauss, who contributed to the journal October and taught in the same programs (SVA, ISP, Hunter College, the Graduate Center at The City University of New York (CUNY), and the Institute of Architecture and Urban Studies). Through its participation in the same debates, events, and recognized academic spaces, this community developed, integrating as it did so a new generation of upcoming artists and intellectuals, still students at the time, an artistic culture fascinated by Theory. This also bore testimony to the collusion of academic and artistic worlds.
The infatuation with Theory had grown since the 1960s parallel to the rise of a discursive artistic posture associated with the set of practices that fell within the category of Conceptual Art. In 1971, the artist Mel Bochner, whose work had often been associated with Conceptual Art, and who was teaching art history at SVA at the time, wrote in the school newspaper: “Many contemporary artists find a combination of disparate disciplines necessary to the continuing vitality of their art. The articulate artist is now the rule rather than the exception… If a goal for education were to be proposed, perhaps it could be to unseat the mind and inflame the intellect.”50 This manifesto-like declaration resonated with the professional ambitions of SVA, which developed its theory program in the mid-1960s by hiring art critics and artists who advocated for and emulated the emerging role of the artist-as-theorist, a position that would gain in visibility in the following decade on the New York art scene.51 In her 1979 book Artists in Offices, the sociologist Judith Adler thus noted that Conceptual Art, characterized by its emphasis on text as an artistic medium, its “aesthetics of administration ” (to quote Benjamin Buchloh’s famous expression), and its predilection for publication and theory, “appears to be a genre of academic art finely adapted to the pressures of the new university habitat.”52

In the 1980s, while M.F.A. programs sought to train “articulate artists” by structuring their pedagogy around conversational situations developed around the student’s work,53 Owens noted that: “the theoretical discourse is not in any way dominant within art schools. But it seems interesting that there are various people positioned throughout the academy that introduced this.”54 The various institutions where Owens taught testify to this growing interest within renowned academic art programs in the US for rigorous theoretical teaching as a way to help students learn to speak more precisely about their work and thus enter the professional field of art. The introduction of Theory evoked by Owens went hand in hand with the growth of contemporary art history as an academic field in its own right in US universities in the late 80s: the history of contemporary art developed notably with the recruitments, as previously mentioned,55 of several “critic-theorists” associated with October and who were also students of Rosalind Krauss. In the mid-80s, this specialization was still almost nonexistent, with only three faculty members in this field in the entire country, according to the CAA.56 Art departments wishing to provide such teaching became interested in hiring personalities who, like Owens, gained recognition within the professional field while they were rubbing shoulders with the academic field as students. Owens himself had begun a thesis with Krauss that he abandoned in the early 1980s. This phenomenon contributed to the emergence of a new figure of the art historian who, instead of studying works of the past, embraced the approach of the art critic rooted in the theoretical preoccupations and political concerns of the present day, and who built a bridge between the professional and academic worlds.

Owens understood the need within academic institutions to develop a contemporary art education. In his cover letter for his Rochester application, he explained that the theory courses he had taught between 1987 and 1989 led him to develop a handbook that offered a “much needed conceptual and historical framework for courses in ‘Postmodern culture.’”57 Aware that this knowledge was at the crossroads of academic and professional worlds, he added: “I believe that such a book will also interest non-academic readers.”58

Owens’s Theory Courses from 1987 to 1989

Writing this handbook would also be an opportunity for him to undertake a general reappraisal of his own work, which he had come to view as necessary by that point, “especially given the fact that many positions I would no longer defend have proven to be rather influential,” he explained.59 The courses he would use as a basis for such a volume correspond to the first three bibliographies in the “Pedagogy” section of Beyond Recognition.60 They in fact bear witness to Owens’s reappraisal of his own intellectual trajectory in light of his current thinking at the end of the 1980s, especially as expressed in “From Work to Frame” (1987). These bibliographies reveal the practices and theoretical references that Owens used to summarize the various debates that he wanted to transmit to his students to provide them with an overview of the main issues at stake in the US art world at the end of that decade.

Dating from 1987 to 1989, they correspond chronologically to the period when Owens taught at Barnard College, Yale University, and the University of Virginia. Their content and organization into sections were quite similar. However, “Postmodern Art 1971-1986” and “Bibliography: Contemporary Art and Art Criticism” used artistic practice as a way to broach theoretical issues, whereas “Seminar in Theory and Criticism” took the opposite tack. The introductory blurb to “Seminar in Theory and Criticism” summed up his teaching approach in these three courses: “A consideration of the recent displacement of critical practice away from the interpretation and evaluation of individual works of art and onto the analysis of the multiple frames within which artistic production and reception are contained.”61 Its evocation of the functional analysis promoted by Peter Bürger recalled his discussion of issues surrounding the institutional framework and the conditions of artistic production in “From Work to Frame” (1987) that he reiterated in his Rochester application. For that matter, the sections titled “From Work to Frame” and “Cultural Confinement” in the three bibliographies referred to essays and books he mentioned in his 1987 essay or which concerned the practices of artists he analyzed in that essay. Reproductions of these works, made in November 1987, most likely for his course “Contemporary Art and Art Criticism,” appeared in Owens’s slide collection.62

2.  Treating Cultural Activity “as a profession”:  Owens’s Teaching of Theory between 1987 and 1989 - Holobionte

S95 and S96, Craig Owens slide collection, kept by James Meyer, Washington, D.C.

“The Death of the Author” and “The Birth of the Viewer”

In all three bibliographies, the sections “From Work to Frame” and “Cultural Confinement” were linked to those entitled “The Death of the Author” and “The Birth of the Viewer.” Moreover, all of these were situated in the first part of the reading list as the necessary first steps into the course. Associating these sections reflected the development of his thoughts as set forth in “From Work to Frame,” interestingly subtitled “or, Is There Life After ‘The Death of the Author’?” Before presenting his own thoughts on the frame and the practices of Institutional Critique, Owens pointed out in the first part of his essay that contemporary art practices that registered “The Death of the Author” that Barthes identified in his eponymous 1967 text did not totally break with modernist practice.

Gerhard Richter, Guilio Paolini, and Sherrie Levine, mentioned in this first part of the 1987 essay, were thus listed as case studies at the beginning of the section “The Death of the Author” for the course “Postmodern Art 1971-1986.” Owens discussed their work using Barthes’s text, as well as Michael Fried’s “Art and Objecthood” (1967), and Rosalind Krauss’s “The Originality of the Avant-Garde” (1981), which recurred in all three bibliographies. The sections “The Death of the Author” and “The Birth of the Viewer” listed reading material that investigated the status of the viewer and the concept of originality as a way to revisit the debate about modernism and postmodernism that characterized Owens’s early writings. At that time he was a doctoral candidate studying under Krauss in the brand-new “History of Art Criticism” program created in 1977 at the Graduate Center CUNY, alongside Douglas Crimp, Rosalyn Deutsche, and David Deitcher. Owens thrived in the lively academic environment of the doctoral seminar and the journal October, to which he contributed until 1980, publishing his first essays influenced by French Theory.63

It was in the context of his association with October and his studies with Krauss that Owens discovered the artists associated with the influential exhibition Pictures organized by Crimp at Artists Space in 1977, artists such as Sherrie Levine, all of whom Owens discussed in the second part of “The Allegorical Impulse” (1980). The sections “The Birth of the Viewer” of the course “Postmodern Art 1971-1986” covered the Minimalist and Post-Minimalist practices from the 1960s-1970s of Robert Morris, Dan Graham, and Bruce Nauman, along with artists engaged in strategies of appropriation such as Jack Goldstein and Richard Prince. These artistic practices were examined using texts by Buchloh and Crimp, specifically the version of “Pictures” that appeared in 1979 in October.

The issues discussed in the first part of “From Work to Frame,” highlighted Owens’s decision not to structure these sections around the questions that characterized his early work on the postmodern rereading of photography that had prevailed in his collaboration with Crimp and Krauss. For example, issue number 5 of October was devoted to photography, and included essays by all three, originally written in the context of Krauss’s doctoral seminar. After investigating photography, Krauss developed her understanding of postmodernism, as it presupposed the return of the repressed copy in modernist discourse and enabled a “discourse of reproductions without an original”65 for painting and sculpture. In Owens’s three bibliographies, the only section devoted to photography, entitled “Reinventing Documentary,” prioritized the socio-political interpretation of modes of representation in documentary photography adopted by Martha Rosler, Allan Sekula, and Fred Lonidier.

This decision not to include his early readings of photography reflected the distance that Owens had taken from his early career as an art critic. About his involvement with October, he stated in 1984: “To some extent my work was a series of footnotes to Rosalind’s writing. I wrote in the margins of her writing, to reinforce her theoretical position, which is as good a way as any, perhaps, to begin to write.”66 Indeed, Owens’s writings from this time were always conceived as a dialogue with Krauss’s and Crimp’s work, as if they “were writing to each other”.67 His early essays, such as “Earthwords” (1979) or “The Allegorical Impulse” (1980), nevertheless testify to a predilection for hybrid practices and fragmentation that they brought to the very notion of a medium. That being said, as Hal Foster remarked in 1982, a preeminence of medium resisted and subsisted in October’s interpretation of postmodernism. He considered Krauss’s emblematic piece “Sculpture in Expanded Field” (1979), which proposed a definition of sculpture not in terms of its inherent properties as a medium, as modernism did, but rather in terms of an expansion that included landscape and architecture alongside sculpture to create the new set of categories “marked sites,” “site-construction,” and “axiomatic structures.” Foster asserted: “the work is freed of the term ‘sculpture’… but only to be bound by other terms, ‘landscape,’ ‘architecture,’ etc. Though no longer defined in one code, practice remained within a field. Decentered, it is recentered: the field is (precisely) ‘expanded’ rather than ‘deconstructed’.”68 Aside from personal differences, Owens’s break with Krauss perhaps reflected her underlying attachment to the medium, which appeared to contradict her emerging theorization of postmodernism.69


2.  Treating Cultural Activity “as a profession”:  Owens’s Teaching of Theory between 1987 and 1989 - Holobionte

S398 and S399, Craig Owens slide collection, kept by James Meyer, Washington, D.C.

The Conventional Attitude

Although he resigned from October in 1980, Owens never ceased to argue against the artist’s heroism and authority, as they came to be associated with the success of figurative expressionism on the Western international scene in the late ‘70s-early ‘80s. In fact, this phenomenon compelled the editors of October, starting in the fall of 1979, to argue for a postmodernism that “distinguishes it from that nostalgic attachment to a set of exhausted conventions which characterizes today’s neomodernism.”70 Owens’s continued opposition at Art in America to the conventional understanding of art that underscored this movement showed its significance in debates in the first half of the 1980s. Indeed, Owens devoted the sections “The Conventional Attitude,” “History/Memory/Archeology,” and “Revivalism” in his bibliographies to this very issue.

As a member of the brigade that disputed the discourse underlying Neo-Expressionism in the early 80s, Owens included in his reading list for “Postmodern Art 1971-1986” and “Contemporary Art and Criticism” the essay “Condensation and Dish Placement” by the mysterious “Holy Ghost Writers,”71 which had criticized Julian Schnabel and his gallerists for perpetuating the myth of the artist as a genius. He also included Benjamin Buchloh’s essay “Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression: Notes on the Return of Representation in European Painting” (1981).72 Owens, like Buchloh, understood the success of figurative painting as a contribution to the formation of an authoritarian cultural climate. In his essay “Honor, Power, and the Love of Women” (1983), Owens asserted that modernism’s inherent anti-authoritarian emphasis on transgression had become the norm in the art world, and as a result: “What we are witnessing, then, is the emergence of a new—or, renewed—authoritarianism masquerading as antiauthoritarian. Today acquiescence to authority is proclaimed as a radical act.”73 For Owens, Neo-Expressionism was emblematic of this process of reversal, within which all contradictions were erased, and which was a sign of the general cultural implosion described by Jean Baudrillard in “The Beaubourg-Effect, Implosion and Deterrence.”74

Owens did not, however, limit his teaching to a simplistic duel between artists labeled the Pictures Generation and Neo-Expressionism. He also examined painting that incorporated photography, starting in the early 1980s. In his syllabus “Postmodern Art 1976-1981”, David Salle and Thomas Lawson appeared alongside Julian Schnabel as case studies in the section entitled “The Conventional Attitude”.75 The essay “Last Exit: Painting,” written for Artforum in October 1981 by Lawson, the painter, art critic, and founder of REAL LIFE Magazine, was included in the same section and reappeared in the section “Revivalism” in the syllabus “Contemporary Art and Art Criticism”.76 Responding to Crimp’s proclamation of the end of painting,77 Lawson argued that artists associated with the exhibition Pictures and working with photography should instead apply their practice of appropriation to the pictorial medium in order to develop a strategy of infiltration to destabilize the art market. Owens’s response to this article in January 1982 allows us to imagine how he might have put this text into perspective in his teaching: Owens returned to the case of David Salle’s work, whom Lawson had put forth as an example of this strategy of infiltration developed with painting. He found that Salle’s painting, far from yielding a critical deconstruction of the rhetoric of images, “strips images of their public resonance in order to reclaim them for subjectivity” and thus merely produced a “retreat into the psyche.”78

In the section “The Conventional Attitude” of his course “Postmodern Art 1971-1986,” Owens also chose to link these debates from the early 1980s to those that emerged in 1986 around Jeff Koons, Haim Steinbach, and Ashley Bickerton, who were initially grouped under the term “Simulationism.” The reading materials selected by Owens were Peter Halley’s “The Crisis in Geometry” (1984) and Hal Foster’s “Signs Taken for Wonders,” published in Art in America in June 1986. For Foster, the works of these “new quasi-abstract painters” such as Halley defused the critical potential of the historical modes of abstraction they simulated by reducing them to nothing more than a set of conventional styles among many others. For Foster: “Far from critical… this conventionalist attitude complies with our economy of signs and simulations.”79 Owens, who never wrote about these artists, agreed with this criticism. In a 1987 interview, he stated that the Simulationists “have appropriated a certain figure of the artist who is someone who reads, who writes, who talks theory,” such that “[t]he theory has lost any kind of critical edge.”80 Where Neo-Expressionism transformed all emotions into a repertoire of signs through the use of quotation,81 Simulationism was characterized by the “fetishism of the signifier” and the “passion for the code” considered by Jean Baudrillard as emblematic of contemporary society in “Fetishism and Ideology,”82 a text that Owens included under the section “The Conventional Attitude” in his bibliography “Seminar in Theory and Criticism.”

Included in the various case studies listed in the section “The Conventional Attitude” in the syllabus “Postmodern Art 1971-1986” was Allan McCollum. Although McCollum was also associated with Simulationism, Owens considered his approach to be different from other artists associated with the label. In his review of McCollum’s work in 1983, he argued that while his quasi-generic, more or less identical monochrome paintings titled Surrogates embodied a consumer culture where difference was nothing but a repetition, they all the while managed to imbue this repetition with “critical—even revolutionary—power.”83

2.  Treating Cultural Activity “as a profession”:  Owens’s Teaching of Theory between 1987 and 1989 - Holobionte

S268, S269 and S270, Craig Owens slide collection, kept by James Meyer, Washington D. C.

Representation and Sexuality

As his engagement with these debates show, Owens viewed art criticism as a partisan, political undertaking. In 1981, in his review “The Critic as Realist” dedicated to the recent translation of Essays on Realism by Hungarian Marxist philosopher Georg Lukács, Owens wrote: “Given the non-interventionist policy of contemporary art criticism, the time has come, I believe, to reiterate Baudelaire’s plea for critical commitment.”84 In this manifesto-like text, Owens pleaded for an art criticism that would thwart the modernist nostalgia inherent in Neo-Expressionism. Following Lukács, he envisioned “criticism above all as a form of political activism, intervening in and directly shaping the development of art.”85 The conception of art criticism as praxis became an important concern in Owens’s writings on issues of representation and sexuality, which also appeared as the specific section “Representation and Sexuality” in the bibliographies “Postmodern Art 1971-1986” and “Contemporary Art and Art Criticism,” and in “Seminar in Theory and Criticism” as a series of theoretical references emblematic of feminist theory, inserted in the section titled “The Birth of the Viewer.”

Owens initiated his thoughts on Feminism in his famous essay “The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism” (1983), in which he asserted “the presence of an insistent feminist voice”86 as one of the most important aspects of postmodern culture. As such, Owens challenged Fredric Jameson’s Marxist approach in The Political Unconscious (1981), which argued that, for subjective realities excluded from hegemonic culture to be taken into consideration, they first had to be “rewritten”87 in terms of social class. For Owens, this approach revealed a persistent attachment to the notion of a master narrative and, as such, a “desire for modernity.”88 He felt that the totalizing ambitions of a theoretical discourse such as Marxism to explain all forms of social experience established “a distance which objectifies and masters” the object being studied. In a 1987 interview,89 he added that this Marxist thrust also translated into Jameson’s prevalent treatment of artworks as symptoms to be diagnosed.

Rejecting the division of labor between artist and art critic, Owens believed that feminist artists such as Martha Rosler, who did not conform to the modernist opposition between theory and practice, produced cultural analyses that were as valuable as those of art critics and theoreticians. Consistent with this principled position, Owens invited feminist artists such as Silvia Kolbowski, Jane Weinstock and Lynne Tillman to publish in Art in America, where he was editor.90

Moreover, looking back at his work as an art critic in 1987, Owens claimed that it was not a question of writing “about these critical and oppositional practices but alongside them.” He added: “There was an exchange there, and one’s criticism was conducting the same work in a different arena and in a different way.”91 The exhibition “Difference”: On Representation and Sexuality92 was emblematic of this exchange between critic and artist. Curated by Kate Linker and Jane Weinstock at the New Museum during the winter of 1984-1985, the exhibition examined how representation is informed by sexual difference. The show brought together works by Ray Barrie, Hans Haacke, Barbara Kruger, Sherrie Levine, Jeff Wall, Marie Yates, Martha Rosler, Dara Birnbaum, Mary Kelly, Victor Burgin, and Silvia Kolbowski, among others.93 Owens contributed to the show with his essay “Posing,” in which he theorized a rhetoric of posing as a protection strategy: he elaborated on Lacan’s thoughts on scopic fascination and Joan Riviere’s approach of feminity as masquerade as a way to analyze the works of Burgin, Kolbowski, Kelly, Levine, Wall, and Haacke.94 Owens’s theoretical references came from Film Theory, Gaze Theory, Lacanian theory and its feminist re-reading, as these were notably expounded in the British journal Screen and shared by the artists in the show. These references were clear in the discussions that took place during the panel moderated by Kate Linker, “Sexual Identity: You Are Not Yourself,” held as part of the exhibition and which brought together Jane Weinstock, Victor Burgin, Judith Barry, Mary Kelly, the theoretician Laura Mulvey, and Owens himself.95

The reading material listed in the sections “Representation and Sexuality” in his course bibliographies “Contemporary Art and Art Criticism” and “Postmodern Art 1971-1986” tied back directly to this exhibition and attested to its importance for Owens. To study the practices of Mary Kelly, Victor Burgin, Silvia Kolbowski, and Cindy Sherman, which he had chosen as case studies in the bibliography “Postmodern Art 1971-1986,” Owens selected texts and interviews by Kelly and Burgin as well as the influential essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” (1975) by Laura Mulvey, cited extensively in the catalogue essays.96 In Owens’s syllabi, these texts were flanked by the article “Representation and Sexuality” (1983) by curator Kate Linker, whose essay for the catalogue for Implosion (1987)—in which “From Work to Frame” was published—was also included in the bibliography for “Contemporary Art and Criticism.”97 This essay, entitled “When a Rose Only Appears to Be a Rose: Feminism and Representation,” discussed the various Lacanian concepts used by the artists in the catalogue of the Difference show, and referred extensively to Owens’s writings. Finally, texts by Mary-Ann Doane, Jacqueline Rose, and Stephen Heath, from the same feminist field of reference, were also listed in the section “The Birth of the Viewer” for the course “Seminar in Theory and Criticism.”

The wealth of the artistic and theoretical practices of this feminist context contributed to establish Difference as a 1980s landmark exhibition to such an extent that the terms “postmodern feminism” and “theoretical feminism of the 1980s” are often associated with it.98 But these artists and theoreticians represented just one portion of feminist practices at the time, not taking into account, for example, the practices associated with Black Feminism.99 The widespread reception of “The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism,” an essay in which Owens exemplified feminism in the art field through the practices of feminist artists such as Rosler, Kelly, Sherman, Birnbaum, and Kruger, who were also featured in the exhibition Difference, certainly contributed to this over-representation. However, even if they only represented white feminism, we must nevertheless recognize that Owens devoted considerable space to these feminist-informed works in his thought and teaching, at a time when Griselda Pollock deplored the prevalence of sexism in art schools.100

Owens also sought to articulate this feminist theoretical and artistic context with perspectives taken from queer theory, which he turned to at the end of the 1980s in one of his last essays “Outlaws: Gay Men in Feminism” (1987). In this essay, he advocated for an alliance between feminist and gay politics, emphasizing “the profound link between misogyny and homophobia in our culture.”101 In the section “Representation and Sexuality” of the course “Postmodern Art 1971-1986,” Owens thus suggested the study, alongside the feminist practices of Cindy Sherman, Mary Kelly, Silvia Kolbowski, and Victor Burgin, of the work of Canadian filmmaker, artist, and activist John Greyson, whose films from the late 1980s such as Pissoir (1988) dealt with police raids on gay meeting places.102

In the same section, “Representation and Sexuality,” Owens chose to address the surveillance of bodies in the modern era. He included “The Eye of Power” (1977), the interview where Michel Foucault presented Jeremy Bentham’s thought on the panopticon that he would later analyze in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975).103 Owens was an admirer of Foucault’s writings and referred to him in several of his essays. Following this interview, he titled a section “The Eye of Power” in the course “Seminar in Theory and Criticism.” In this section, he listed several books by Foucault as well as texts in philosophy, anthropology, and cultural analysis by Jacques Derrida, Michel de Certeau, and James Clifford to analyze the technology of power and the political economy of bodies.

Finally, Owens also wanted to expose his students to Postcolonial literature and issues of imperialism and colonialism. That the issue had interested him since the mid-1980s is evidenced by his essay on the work of Lothar Baumgarten, “Improper Names.”104 The German artist appeared as the case study around which Owens structured the section “Legacies of Imperialism” of the course “Postmodern Art 1971-1986,” while the section “Criticism from the Margin” that concluded the bibliography “Seminar in Theory and Criticism” offered a selection of Subaltern Studies texts by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Homi Bhabha, Stuart Hall, and Edward W. Saïd.

These three bibliographies provided an overview of the major issues structuring Owens’s development as an art critic in the late ‘80s, centered around institutional frameworks, sexual politics, and imperialist oppression. Through this gathering of case studies and texts central to debates in which he himself had participated, as he sketched out a history of contemporary art, Owens shed a partisan light on the theoretical issues central to the professional art world in the US in the 1980s. These theoretical discussions must also be considered in the context of Owens’s concrete understanding of the political economy of his milieu that he developed over the course of his career, and into which his 1987 interview with Anders Stephanson for Social Text provides extensive insight.

2.  Treating Cultural Activity “as a profession”:  Owens’s Teaching of Theory between 1987 and 1989 - Holobionte

S470 and S471, Craig Owens slide collection, kept by James Meyer, Washington D. C.

The Seminar “The Political Economy of Culture” in 1988

Alongside these courses, Owens gave a graduate seminar in the spring of 1988 at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Titled “The Political Economy of Culture,” this seminar gave Owens the opportunity to expand the Peter Bürger-influenced functional approach that he had advocated for in “From Work to Frame.” As shown by the nine-page bibliography reproduced in Beyond Recognition,105 various references from the 1987 essay, including the writings of Martha Rosler, Mary Kelly, and Allan Sekula, were present alongside writings and reviews of the work of artists associated with Institutional Critique, as well as Marxist-leaning works consisting of articles on the social history of art, the sociology of art, Media Studies, French Theory, the philosophy of the Frankfurt School, Postcolonial Studies, Film Theory, and New Economic Criticism.

It was Owens’s ambition to offer classes in the political and economic conditions of artistic production in an academic art education program, which he described as dedicated to “self-exploration and self-expression.”106 The value of an artwork was no longer considered as emanating solely from the artist, but as the “collective enterprise”107 encompassing an ensemble of actors in the art world, from the critic to the art historian, the art educator, the art handler, the collector, and the dealer. Owens’s seminar focused in particular on commodity production and value as described in Volume One of Karl Marx’s Capital.108 In the summer of 1985, Owens had led a reading group on this book with Mark Dion, Gregg Bordowitz, and Jason Simon, who were students at ISP at that time. As Owens explained, dealing with the political economy of art entailed “a shift from a politics of production to a politics of circulation, or rather, rejecting the separation of the two. The tendency to regard artistic production in advanced capitalism as the survival of an artisanal mode of production—of non-alienated labor—must be rejected.”109

Such an approach reflected the economic changes that the art world was undergoing in the late ‘80s-early ‘90s, which saw the emergence of artistic practices termed “project work.” In the introductory text to the “working-group exhibition” Services in 1993, Andrea Fraser and Helmut Draxler described these practices which “involve the expense of an amount of labor that is either in excess of, independent of, any specific material production and which cannot be transacted as or along with a product. This labor […] in economic terms would be called services provision (as opposed to goods provision).”110 As providers of cultural services rather than producers of art objects, artists involved in project-based activities found themselves subject to the neoliberal professional dictates of network, self-discipline, flexibility, and mobility. They became emblematic of the emerging figure of the creative worker in the knowledge economy. The morphology of the project-based practices in fact evoked the temporality, the methodological investigation, the production of knowledge, the forms of transmission, as well as the economic precariousness of academic research in the shadow of the neoliberal restructuring of universities. As Andrea Fraser explained: “Artists are often highly entrepreneurial, and project work is among the most entrepreneurial of contemporary practices… I would go even further and say that we are the very model for labour in the new economy, a fact that’s not an odd irony or quirk of fate, but deeply rooted in our ‘habitus.’”111

Owens saw his teaching as a laboratory for testing ideas. At the outcome of the seminar “the Political Economy of Culture,” he sketched out the main ideas of a book whose working title was Cultural Economy. Although he passed away before he could write it, this project had already elicited interest in 1989 from the University of Minnesota Press and the British publisher Methuen.112 The project was intended as a study of the growing influence, on artists and their work, of the massive investment of international capital on the art market starting in the mid-1970s.113 His reference, at the beginning of his essay “The Yen for Art” (1987), to the record sale of Vincent Van Gogh’s Still Life – Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers (1888) on March 30, 1987 for 38.9 million dollars to Yasuda Fire and Marine Insurance Company in Tokyo, would no doubt have been included in the book.114

The theory courses Owens taught from 1987 to 1989 sought to give his students tools to treat cultural activity “as a profession.” By going through his three bibliographies, we can map the positions through which he engaged as an art critic in the professional field, and how these positions were articulated in a precise reading of the complexity of contemporary society. For Owens, art practices were opportunities to reflect on the theoretical stakes of postmodern culture, and to analyze the multiple institutional frameworks in which they were produced and received. In this regard, the seminar “the Political Economy of Culture” at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago focused specifically on analyzing the conditions of artistic production in the art world. In the different courses Owens taught, students were introduced to a mapping of methodological tools derived from various theoretical corpuses and manipulated by those very actors who constructed the conversation within the field of contemporary art, thus enabling students to situate themselves within it. These courses testified to Owens’s desire to teach and thereby promote the “materialist cultural practice” that he extolled in the conclusion of “From Work to Frame.” The relationship between theory and practice that such an approach entailed crystallized in the teaching proposals Owens imagined for his teaching position at the University of Rochester, in which he affirmed the widening of his critical purview from the realm of contemporary art to the realm of culture.

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  41. 41. 
  42. 42. 
  43. 43. 
  44. 44. 
  45. 45. 
  46. 46. Owens, Final version of the CLUR.
  47. 47. Ibid.
  48. 48. Thomas Crow, “Versions of Pastoral in Some Recent Art,” in American Art in the Late Eighties: The Binational, eds. David. A. Ross, Jürgen Harten (Boston: Institute of Contemporary Art and Museum of Fine Arts, 1988), 20–22.
  49. 49. Jean-Michel Rabaté, The Future of Theory (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002), 1.
  50. 50. Mel Bochner, “Some Thoughts,” The Utterer (April 1970): n. p. In 1972, the same type of analysis was formulated by the art critic Harold Rosenberg in “Educating Artists,” in The De-definition of Art (New York: Collier Books, 1972), 39–49.
  51. 51. See Katia Schneller, “’Professionalism in the Arts.’ L’enseignement à la School of Visual Arts entre 1965 et 1975,” in Transmettre l’art. Figures et méthodes – Quelle histoire?, eds. Valérie Mavridorakis and Christophe Kihm (Dijon: Presses du réel, 2012), 153–171. On the tight relationships between art and theory, see French Theory and American Art, eds. Anaël Lejeune, Olivier Mignon, Raphaël Pirenne (Brussels: SIC, 2013), and Anaël Lejeune, La théorie à l’œuvre – L’art conceptuel américain (Brussels: SIC, 2017).
  52. 52. Judith Adler, Artists in Offices (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books, 1979), 17.
  53. 53. See Howard Singerman, “Professing Postmodernism,” in Art Subjects, 157–159, 178–179.
  54. 54. Craig Owens in Anders Stephanson, “Interview with Craig Owens, February 27, 1987,” Social Text, no. 27 (1990); reprinted in Beyond Recognition, 313.
  55. 55. See note 39.
  56. 56. In 1984, the College Art Association’s 1984 guide to doctoral programs in art history mentions only 3 faculty members specializing in “Contemporary Art” in the 47 Ph.D. programs then existing in the US. In 1995, that figure rose to 16 in the 55 programs presented. In the 1984 guide, only Ann Gibson, with whom Owens would work at Yale, is mentioned as specializing in “Art since 1945.” “Dup. Ann Gibson” appears on several slide frames in Owens’s collection. See the slides no. 32, 33, 67, 88, 104, 200, 443–445, 446, 447, 450, 451, 453, 456.
  57. 57. Owens, Final version of the CLUR.
  58. 58. Ibid.
  59. 59. Ibid.
  60. 60. See the section “Pedagogy,” in Beyond Recognition, 329–344.
  61. 61. Craig Owens, “Seminar in Theory and Criticism,” in Beyond Recognition, 339.
  62. 62. As indicated on slides 201, 205, 202 and 203, Owens had 2 reproductions (slides no. 46, 621) of Marcel Broodthaers’s work, from Catalogue des Livres 1957-1975/Catalogue of Books/Katalog der Bücher: 1957-1975 (Cologne: Galerie Michael Werner; New York: Marian Goodman Gallery; Paris: Galerie Gillespie, Laage & Solomon, 1982); 5 (slides no. 28, 569, 570, 580, 585) from Marcel Broodthaers (London: Tate Gallery, 1980); 13 (slides no. 20, 21, 22, 36, 37, 73, 280, 281, 282, 571, 572, 573) from Michael Asher: Writings 1973-1983 on Works 1969-1979, ed. Benjamin H.D. Buchloh (Halifax: The Press of Nova Scotia School of Art and Design; Los Angeles: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1983); and 11 (slides no. 589, 590, 591, 598, 603, 619) taken from Hans Haacke: Unfinished Business, ed. Brian Wallis (New York: The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1986). These series named “CO 87 11-14” may have been made for Owens’s class at Barnard or the University of Virginia, since the other institutions where he taught normally labeled slides with the institution’s name.
  63. 63. On the different positions Owens took at October, see Owens’s Chronology here in this collection. On his time at October, see Craig Owens. Portrait of a Young Critic, eds. Lyn Blumenthal, Kate Horsfield (New York: Baldlands Unlimited, 2018). On the infatuation with French Theory, see for instance François Cusset, French Theory. Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze et Cie et les mutations de la vie intellectuelle aux États-Unis (Paris: La Découverte, 2003); Peter E. D. Muir, Against the Will to Silence : An Intellectual History of the American Art Journal October between 1976 and 1981, Ph.D dissertation in Philosophy, Advisor: Julie Sheldon (Liverpool: John Moores University, 2003); French Theory and American Art, eds. Anaël Lejeune, Olivier Mignon, Raphaël Pirenne (Brussels: SIC, 2013).
  64. 64. The fifty slides, reproductions of Richard Prince’s works from the series of men in suits, such as Untitled (Pen) or Untitled (Sunset) from the late 1970s and early 1980s, were likely made during the period in which Owens wrote for October. Owens briefly mentions Prince in his essays “The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism” (1983) and “Under Arrest” (1984), but he may have used these slides in the context of his teaching at Hunter College between 1978 and 1981, where Krauss was professor or at the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies in 1979.
  65. 65. See Rosalind Krauss, “The Originality of the Avant-Garde” (1981), in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1985), 168.
  66. 66. See Craig Owens. Portrait of a Young Critic, 66–67.
  67. 67. Ibid., 67.
  68. 68. Hal Foster, “Re: Post,” Parachute, no. 26 (Spring 1982); reprinted in Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation, ed. Brian Wallis (New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1984), 189–202.
  69. 69. Since the end of the 1990s, in the face of what she perceived as an obsolescence and explosion of media—of which installation art is exemplary—Krauss has affirmed her deep attachment to medium specificity. In response to the post-medium age transformation of art into art-in-general (i.e., independent of any specificity and traditional medium), Krauss launched a reconquest of medium, which she also refers to as a “technical support.” She went so far as to deplore the literal interpretation that has been made of Greenberg’s emphasis on medium specificity. For the past fifteen years, she has thus assigned artists the “obligation to wrest from that support a new set of aesthetic conventions to which their work can then reflexively gesture, should they want to join those works to the canon of modernism.” Rosalind Krauss, “Two Moments from the Post-Medium Condition,” October 116 (Spring 2006): 55–56.
  70. 70. The Editors, “Editorial,” October, no. 10 (Fall 1979): 4.
  71. 71. The Holy Ghost Writers, “Condensation and Dish Placement,” REAL LIFE Magazine, no. 9 (Winter 1982-1983): 9–13.
  72. 72. Benjamin Buchloh, “Figures of Authority, Ciphers of Regression: Notes on the Return of Representation in European Painting,” October, no. 16 (Spring 1981): 39–68.
  73. 73. Craig Owens, “Honor, Power, and the Love of Women,” Art in America (January 1983); reprinted in Beyond Recognition, 149.
  74. 74. Jean Baudrillard, “The Beaubourg-Effect, Implosion and Deterrence,” trans. Rosalind Krauss, Annette Michelson, October, vol. 20 (Spring 1982): 3–13. Owens had already formulated this critique in “Bayreuth ‘82,” Art in America (September 1982): 32–139, 191.
  75. 75. See the section “The Conventional Attitude,” in “Postmodern Art 1971-1986,” in Beyond Recognition, 332. Three works by David Salle from 1984-1985 (slides 109, 131, 478) were reproduced for Owens’s class at the SVA; Julian Schnabel’s St. Francis in Ecstasy (1980) was reproduced for his class at the SVA (slide 366) and Yale University (slide 104 and 200).
  76. 76. Thomas Lawson, “Last Exit: Painting,” Artforum 20, no. 2 (October 1981): 40-47. See the section « Revivalism, » in « Contemporary Art and Art Criticism, » in Beyond Recognition, 338.
  77. 77. Douglas Crimp, “The End of Painting,” October 16 (Spring 1981): 69–86.
  78. 78. Craig Owens, “Back to Studio,” Art in America (January 1982): 103.
  79. 79. Hal Foster, “Signs Taken for Wonders,” Art in America 74, no. 6 (June 1986): 80.
  80. 80. Owens in Anders Stephanson, “Interview with Craig Owens, February 27, 1987,” 315.
  81. 81. Owens, “Honor, Power, and the Love of Women,” 148.
  82. 82. Jean Baudrillard, “Fetishism and Ideology: The Semiological Reduction,” in For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, trans. Charles Levin (St. Louis: Telos Press, 1981), 92.
  83. 83. Craig Owens, “Allan McCollum: Repetition and Difference,” Art in America (September 1983); reprinted in Beyond Recognition, 120.
  84. 84. Craig Owens, “The Critic as Realist,” Art in America (September 1981); reprinted in Beyond Recognition, 255.
  85. 85. Ibid., 254.
  86. 86. Craig Owens, “The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism,” 171.
  87. 87. Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious (Ithaca: Cornell University, 1983), 84.
  88. 88. Craig Owens, “The Discourse of Others,” 176.
  89. 89. Owens in Anders Stephanson, “Interview with Craig Owens, February 27, 1987,” 307.
  90. 90. See for instance in the Art in America Summer 1983 issue: Jane Weinstock, “A Lass, A Laugh, and A Lad,” 7–10 and Silvia Kolbowski, “Covering Mapplethorpe’s Lady,” 10–11. See also Lynne Tillman, “Madame Realism Asks: What’s Natural about Painting?,” Art in America (March 1986): 102, or “Dynasty Reruns,” Art in America (June 1986): 35–37.
  91. 91. Ibid.
  92. 92. “Difference”: On Representation and Sexuality, New Museum, New York, December 8 1984–February 10 1985. The exhibition was then shown at the Renaissance Society, University of Chicago (March 3–April 7, 1985), The List Visual Art Center at the MIT (Summer 1985) and The Institute of Contemporary Arts of London (July 19–September 1, 1985).
  93. 93. In conjunction with the exhibition, Jane Weinstock organized a film and video program, which included work by Chantal Ackerman, Marguerite Duras, Valie Export, Sheila McLaughlin, Lynne Tillman, Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen, and Yvonne Rainer.
  94. 94. Owens had initiated this strand of thought on the rhetoric of posing when considering Kruger’s work in “The Medusa Effect, or The Specular Ruse,” in Barbara Kruger, We Won’t Play Nature to Your Culture (London: Institute of Contemporary Arts, 1983), 5–11; reprinted in Art in America 72, no. 1 (January 1984); reprinted in Beyond Recognition, 191–200; “Posing,” in “Difference:” On Representation and Sexuality (New York: New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1985); reprinted in Beyond Recognition, 201–17.
  95. 95. See the recording of the round table “Sexual Identity: You Are Not Yourself” that took place at the New School for Social Research on December 12, 1984, online:, accessed October 15, 2019
  96. 96. Victor Burgin, “Photography, Phantasy, Function,” in Thinking Photography, ed. Burgin (London: Macmillan, 1982), 177–216; Tony Godfrey, “Sex, Text, Politics: An Interview with Victor Burgin,” Block, no. 7 (1982): 2–26; Mary Kelly, “No Essential Feminity,” Parachute, no. 26 (Spring 1982): 31–35; Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16, no. 3 (Autumn 1975): 6–18. All these references are listed in the sections « Representation and Sexuality » in Beyond Recognition, 332 et 337.
  97. 97. Kate Linker, “Representation and Sexuality,” Parachute, no. 32 (Autumn 1983): 12–32; “When a Rose Only Appears to Be a Rose: Feminism and Representation,” in Implosion (Stockholm: Moderna Museet, 187), 391–415.
  98. 98. See for instance, Thalia Gouma-Peterson, Patricia Mathews, “The Feminist Critique of Art History,” Art Bulletin 69, no. 3 (September 1987): 326–357; Kate Mondloch, “The Difference Problem: Art History and the Critical Legacy of Feminism,” Art Journal 71, no. 2 (Summer 2012): 18–31.
  99. 99. See for instance the exhibition catalogue We Wanted a Revolution: Radical Women, 1965-85: A Sourcebook, eds. Catherine Morris, Rujeko Hockley (New York: The Brooklyn Museum, 2017). On the Whiteness of 1980s Postmodern debates in the United States, see bell hooks, “Postmodern Blackness,” in Yearning, Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1990), 23–33.
  100. 100. Griselda Pollock, “Art, Art School, Culture. Individualism after the Death of the Artist,” 50–67.
  101. 101. Craig Owens, “Outlaws: Gay Men in Feminism,” in Men in Feminism, eds. Alice Jardine et Paul Smith (New York: Methuenn, 1987); reprinted in Beyond Recognition, 219. See also David Deitcher, “Elusive Affiliation: Craig Owens and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick.”
  102. 102. See Brenda Longfellow, Scott MacKenzie, Thomas Waugh eds., The Perils of Pedagogy: The Works of John Greyson (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013).
  103. 103. Michel Foucault, “The Eye of Power,” in Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977, ed. Colin Gordon (New York: Pantheon, 1980), 146-165; Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Pantheon, 1977).
  104. 104. Craig Owens, “Improper Names,” Art in America (October 1986); reprinted in Beyond Recognition, 284–297.
  105. 105. See “Bibliography: The Political Economy of Culture,” in Beyond Recognition, 345–354.
  106. 106. Craig Owens, Final Version of the CLUR.
  107. 107. Craig Owens, “The Institution of Criticism / The Criticism of Institutions,” conference given in April 1986 for the Baldwin Lectures at Oberlin College; partial transcription kept in Lynne Tillman Archives, Fales Library and Special Collection; MSS-180, Box: 32; Folder: 2; Fales Library and Special Collections, New York University Libraries.
  108. 108. See Craig Owens, “Snuff, Tobacco and Paintings or, The Yen for Art,” Lynne Tillman Archives, Fales Library and Special Collection; MSS-180, Box: 32; Folder: 2; Fales Library and Special Collections, New York University Libraries.
  109. 109. Ibid.
  110. 110. Helmut Draxler, Andrea Fraser, “Services: A Proposal for an exhibition and a Topic of Discussion,” 1993, in Games, Fights, Collaborations: Art and Cultural Studies in the Nineties, eds. Beatrice von Bismarck, Diethelm Stoller, Ulf Wuggenig (Lüneburg: Kunstraum der Universität Lüneburg, 1996), 196–197.
  111. 111. Andrea Fraser, “A Museum is not a business. It is run in a businesslike fashion,” in Beyond the Box. Diverging Curatorial Practices, ed. Melanie Townsend (Banff: Banff Centre Press, 2003), 120. See also Pierre-Michel Menger, Portrait de l’artiste en travailleur. Métamorphoses du capitalisme (Paris : Seuil – La république des idées, 2002), 8–9 ; Miwon Kwon, One Place After Another. Site Specific Art and Locational Identity (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2002), 46.
  112. 112. See Owens, Final version of the CLUR.
  113. 113. See Craig Owens, Final version and draft of the CLUR.
  114. 114. Another example of the relationship between teaching and writing, this case seems to have eventuated during a class at the SVA, as indicated by the painting’s slide labeled “School of Visual Arts Library” in Owens’s collection. See slide no. 471 in the Owens’s slides collection inventory.