I have been thinking about your invitation and the questions you’ve posed—though not, I must say, as questions. I don’t know how your prompt will appear when it is polished for the Rail, but something a bit more polemical would have been easier to speak to or push back against. What follows is a kind of reading of your email exchange with Phong, written mostly in the conditional tense.
While I take the point from that forwarded exchange that “the transcendent and awe-inspiring term ‘theory’ has lost its prime grip,” I’m not sure how much that says, given your adjectives and the scare quotes around theory. While I would like to think that theory as it emerged in art schools and in the American academy in the 1970s, even in quotes or with a capital T, was more permeable and less imperial than your adjectives suggest, there was something like the moment you describe—a moment when those texts seemed crucial—and it’s likely that I am a product of it. Let me say, in shorthand, what I would want the word theory to designate here: the various discourses that emerge from the meeting Barthes describes at the beginning of “From Work to Text,” the encounter of linguistics, anthropology, Marxism, and psychoanalysis with one another in relation to the work of art. I learned to read Barthes and Foucault and the essays in Hal Foster’s The Anti-Aesthetic in uncorrected proofs in front of a group of U.C.L.A. M.F.A. students whose practice may have benefited from those shared and stumbling readings, but more likely from their work with Robert Heineken, or Jeff Weiss, or Chris Burden, or Charles Ray. I went on to learn to read more formally with Mieke Bal, Norman Bryson, Michael Ann Holly, Kaja Silverman, and Janet Wolff at the University of Rochester, and to write a dissertation about the M.F.A. and the role that language, broadly speaking, and theory, more narrowly, play in the fitting of art to the university. I understand how theory in that moment might come to be described as “awe-inspiring,” or more often these days as terrorizing or cold, but one particular pleasure of the moment was that reading lists of theory and debates where something seemed at stake was shared across the humanities and, to a certain extent, the social sciences, across the university.
So let’s say that is gone, which I am still somewhat reluctant to do, not just out of nostalgia, but also from a sense that you may have drawn your sample too small. Perhaps whatever reading list I had now belongs just to historians of contemporary art, M.I.T. Press, and maybe a handful of curators. But I am not so sure, and maybe it is a question of how long ago it was “thrown out the window,” and just when, assuming that it is no longer current to artists, the “fairly recent past” begins. It may be that studio students are tired of “The Death of the Author,” Gender Trouble, and by now even “The Ignorant Schoolmaster,” but were Utopia Station and Commonwealth or, for that matter, Occupy and the readings it generated, really that long ago? Or Thomas Hirschhorn’s Gramsci Monument? To finally come around to answering your question and to turn it a bit, it’s my sense that what younger artists are thinking about now, what they are reading for, is a space for their work. Sometimes that boils down to real estate and career—studio space or gallery space. But more often what they’re after, what they are reading for, is a place where their work fits not just pragmatically or professionally, but intellectually and emotionally: a space—critical, affective, and usually in writing—in which they can recognize themselves and where their work might be recognized outside the market and its values. Most insistently, they read to find whether such a space exists any longer.
It may be, as Paul de Man wrote in 1982, that “the resistance to theory is in fact a resistance to reading,” and that our students may no longer be readers. While I would note that de Man was writing about teachers rather than students, the resistance has been on the ground and around seminar tables for a while. Well over a decade ago Laura Owens offered this joke in response to Jerry Saltz’s search for an ideal syllabus: “If you have 10 art students and you give them each two weeks to read 200 pages, how many pages in total would be read by class time? Answer: 200—there is a kiss-up in every class.” And yet it’s hard to imagine Owens’s work, or that of her L.A. art school peers Sharon Lockhart and Frances Stark, without reading—the readings the works refer to, that they open out on to, that they elicit. Owens’s joke was a set-up to a rather different lesson: make your own list, read for what you need. What theory provided in its imperium, or maybe only in the moments before it reached its awesome status, was a lesson in how to read. And it may be that that is what we are still trying to teach with or around the name theory. At its best, reading turns out to be what we teach in M.F.A. programs, or at least most of what we do, as we trade back and forth readings of paintings and video installations, of Marcuse or Moravia, of current exhibitions, or the lay of the art world, or Girls. For most of our students, reading the past, and the just past, and one’s distance from it is a way to construe a present and practice, to find a space to work. De Man’s essay “The Resistance to Theory” begins with the line, “this essay was not originally intended to address the question of teaching directly”; neither were my three paragraphs here, but it turns out they do.
HOWARD SINGERMAN is Caroff Chair of the Department of Art and Art History at Hunter College. He is the author most recently of Art History, After Sherrie Levine, published by the University of California Press in 2012.