French Critical Theory and the Culture Wars of the U.S.

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    • Presentation speakers
      • Andrea Liu, UDK Berlin/ Counterhegemony: Art in a Social Context


    My paper looks at how various European post-structuralist theorists of the 70´s and 80´s (Foucault, Derrida, Barthes, Baudrillard) had a far greater influence on the American art world and the formation of art discourse in the U.S. than on the intellectual milieu of their own countries, igniting what might be understood as a “postmodern revolution” in academia, cultural production, and discourse that is now the taken-for-granted starting point from which a great deal of art discourse in the U.S. is derived. Jan Verwoert once said “October killed painting.” October, an American art journal started in 1976, was a stronghold for art critics (Hal Foster, Benjamin Buchloh, Douglas Crimp, Rosalyn Deutsche) who were essentially the progeny of the discursive space opened up by Derrida, Foucault, Barthes, and French critical theory. Rejecting the highly commercialized cult of “beauty” and art-as-an-expression-of-autobiography as found in the rise of Abstract Expressionist painting in the 1980´s, October art critics instead largely theorized art in a post-structuralist vein: rejecting notions of originality, authenticity and “aura” to instead embrace quotation, appropriation and repetition of existing images; a shift from conceptualizing artwork as a monolithic finished totality with a centered subject to, instead, an unstable field of contending valences; a de-fetishizing of the autonomy of the art object; and the post-studio post-medium condition. With the impact of post-structuralist theory from Europe came the rise of “social constructionism” in the U.S.: that is, a rejection of the notion of a timeless, universal, self-evident “truth,” nor the existence of “objective knowledge,” “human nature,” nor an unproblematic coherent “self” at the core of human experience, nor “history” as a teleological progression. How is it that French theory such as Foucault, Derrida, and Baudrillard were so influential in American academia, giving rise to the field of “cultural studies” and queer discourse, but were largely ignored by the intellectual establishment of their own country? This paper unpacks the cross-pollination of French critical theory with the culture wars of the U.S.—a seminal time in the U.S., post-1968, after which the embattled Left retreat into academia. Moving their site of contestation from the streets to instead the politicization of the production of knowledge, French critical theory was their most potent ally.