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Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power, and Culture.

The great value of this posthumous collection of Craig Owens' essays lies in how resolutely each one speaks of the moment in which it was written. They are seldom hedged; they do not cling to authoritative artistic achievements in the past, nor do they worry overmuch about how the future may treat their conclusions. One reason they endure is that Owens never strove for finality in a medium that by its nature can never achieve it.

A plainspoken and instructive interview from 1987, one of the last pieces Owens was able to produce, reflects on the period when his work as a writer on art took shape. He recalls that moment as one in which an earlier experimentalism in crossing boundaries in the arts had begun to diminish: "Already by the end of the '70s there was less of this, less heterogeneity, less mixing of voices, and it may well be that this was relocated into a kind of theoretical practice in order to keep it going." Because art suddenly seemed more closed, it was for him imperative that criticism open up, and he made this his mission, incorporating a succession of now familiar, largely continental theorists into the discussion of contemporary art. No one who has been at all close to the art world needs to be told what a decisive contribution he made to that larger enterprise, one that has changed the landscape of practice as well as critical writing. The names and ideas are less important now than they once were; what remains most fascinating is the opportunity retrospectively to watch him at work and to reckon the considerable consequences of his intervention.

One factor that firmly locates this collection at a particular historical juncture is its author's preoccupation with the phenomenon of neo-Expressionism. One essay in particular, "Honor, Power, and the Love of Women," with its sights centered on Sandro Chia, contains some of the most incisive polemic against the return to figurative painting anywhere in the literature, but the theme is rarely far from view throughout the book. It is as if the dismaying dominance that this art seemed to enjoy in the period around 1980 had blotted out the accomplishments of Conceptualism and post-Minimalist objectmaking. One exception is Robert Smithson, whose writings figure centrally in Owens' adaptation of literary thinking on allegory to the situation of the visual arts and performance. But the medium of this influence is again very much of the moment, in that Smithson's own posthumous collection of written work appeared in 1979. In this way the latter's example survived where his living contemporaries from the later 1960s seemed eclipsed.

What Owens found insupportable about neo-Expressionism was that these paintings were "artificial masterpieces"; they spoke in the present as if they had been made in the past. His consequent aversion to all pastness in art saved him from the fascination that the museum as institution continued to exert over his closest colleagues, even when they covered themselves by calling it a ruin. (And when he concentrates in one essay on artists who base their work on the museum as a site--Marcel Broodthaers, Daniel Buren, Hans Haacke, Michael Asher--his perceptions seem uncharacteristically secondhand). Instead he positioned himself in what he hoped was an alternative, emerging sphere of art that did not already imagine itself as institutionally enshrined.

It hardly needs to be said that this was a risky way to win a reputation for critical acumen, at least in the conventional sense of picking winners. In the same 1987 interview, from the vantage point of a decade in the game, he casts some revealing light on the artists he had then championed as exemplary of a strong, critical post-Modernism: "The problem is that you either impute it back into the art . . . or there isn't any actually existing postmodern production but a call for something different. . . . Desperate reaching around for practices to pull into this, often recognizing a little bit later that you were really mistaken." In rereading his lengthy and rightly influential "The Allegorical Impulse" of 1980, one indeed wonders whether the level of thought is genuinely sustained by the example of a Troy Brauntuch or even that of Laurie Anderson's performances.

His interview remarks do not specify exactly what revisions he would have made in his earlier judgments on artists. But one can readily see, attending to the essays in chronological sequence, that he was no respecter of coterie values when past allegiances had manifestly outlived their usefulness. He is on occasion prone to the polemicist's mistake of concentrating so much on an opponent that he overvalues an ally of the moment, but such commitments were continually subject to change. The objects of his cool reevaluations include a distant eminence like Michel Foucault and a closer-to-hand authority like Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, who comes in for a sharp rebuke in one of the last essays he completed, the trenchant "Outlaws: Gay Men in Feminism" of 1987.

That constant self-revision means that it is probably a mistake to approach these essays in search of an exacting philosophical rigor (his unrevised view that to represent is always to subjugate being especially difficult to sustain). They in fact draw their principal strength from this restless character, in that they offer a strong counter-example to the formulations of academics--from literary criticism as well as philosophy--who come to art too sewn up in their own disciplinary protocols to react to what is actually taking place in art practice. The result of that myopia is, of course, that such writers become passively dependent on what they can find handed them on a plate in--where else?--the museum. For Owens of course this is the great trap, and he subjects Fredric Jameson in particular to some pointed criticism for falling into it.|1~

A graduate student at my university, writing recently on the artistic developments of the 1970s, came up with the happy phrase "professionalization of the audience."|2~ Owens' essays enact such a process in its best sense. They show the way toward an optimal mode of active intellectual and moral receptivity, one equipped with the strongest available tools for generalizing analysis but never overawed by theoretical consistency established at a distance from the actual arena of art. Such an audience performs the most valuable service in articulating productive responses for artists who aspire to the same level of seriousness--and indeed for artists who do not.

In 1980, Owens was "reaching around" for practices that would manifest "appropriation, site-specificity, impermanence, accumulation, discursivity, hybridization." At our present moment, no effort at all is required to find installation work describable in these terms, but they have unfortunately come to signify a weakly generic norm for the international exhibition circuit rather than strong dissent from market-led traditional media. But the ascendancy of the "personality installation" is paradoxically a concrete mark of the actual effectiveness of Owens' ideas in the subsequent conduct of art, and of the importance of the essays in Beyond Recognition as a crucial part of the recent historical record. Strong ideas retain their power even when turned against their original aims. Considering the invaluable public life of its author, the greatest sense of loss that emerges for me in reading this collection comes from knowing that his critical reckoning with this art would have made the same kind of difference now as did his interventions of a decade ago.

1. Confirming that insight, no more complete contrast to Owens' position could be imagined than the blinkered effort of Philip Fisher, Making and Effecting Art: Modern American Art in the Culture of Museums (Oxford: at the University Press, 1991). Fisher, who is chair of the Harvard English Department, is pleased to accept the museum as sole arbiter of value in modern art. Criticism, for him, "must move closer and closer to a historicization of the present, determining on the spot what the historical place of new objects might eventually be even as they are produced."

2. Rachel Scott, "Alison Wilding and the British Sculptural Tradition," M.A. dissertation, University of Sussex, 1993.

Thomas Crow is a contributing editor of Artforum. He teaches history of art at the University of Sussex and is the author of Painters and Public Life in Eighteenth-Century Paris. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.
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Author:Crow, Thomas
Publication:Artforum International
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1993
Words:1379
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