Craig Owens (–) was an American post-modernist art critic, gay activist and feminist. One of Owens’s most influential essays was The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism, an article in two parts in which he. from The Allegorical Impulse: Towards a Theory of Postmodernism – Craig Owens To impute an allegorical motive to contemporary art is to venture into. This net installation re-evaluates the essay “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism” by Craig Owens. Inside the website you will find.

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Every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns threatens to disappear irretrievably. Allegories appear in fact to represent for him the distance between the present and an irrecoverable past:.

I know that at one time impulss allegorical art was considered quite charming. We feel that, besides being intolerable, it is stupid and frivolous. Allegory first emerged in response to a similar sense of estrangement from tradition; throughout its history it has functioned in the gap between a present and a past which, without allegorical reinterpretation, might have remained crig.

A conviction of the remoteness of the past, and a desire to redeem it for the present — these are its two most fundamental impulses. They account for its role in psychoanalytic inquiry, as well as its significance for Walter Benjamin, the only twentieth-century critic to treat the subject without prejudice, philosophically. Allegory is also manifest in the historical revivalism that today characterizes architectural practice, and in the revisionist stance of much recent art-historical discourse: There are, as always, important precedents to be accounted for: Consideration of such works must be postponed, however, for their importance becomes apparent only after the suppression of allegory by modern theory has been fully acknowledged.

In order to recognize allegory in its contemporary manifestations, we first require a general idea of what in fact it is, or rather what it represents, since allegory is an attitude as well as a technique, a perception as well as a procedure.

Craig Owens (critic)

Let us say for the moment that allegory occurs whenever one text is doubled by another; the Old Testament, for example, becomes allegorical when it is read as a prefiguration of the New. It is this metatextual aspect that is invoked whenever allegory is attacked as interpretation merely appended post facto to a work, a rhetorical ornament or flourish.

Conceived in this way, allegory becomes the model of all commentary, all critique, insofar as these are involved in rewriting a primary owehs in terms of its figural meaning. I am interested, however, in what occurs when this relationship takes place within works of art, when it describes their structure.

Allegorical imagery is appropriated imagery; the allegorist does not invent images but confiscates them. He lays claim to the culturally significant, poses as its interpreter.

He does not restore an original meaning that may have been lost or obscured; allegory is not hermeneutics. Rather, he adds another meaning to the image. If he adds, however, he does so only to replace: This is why allegory is condemned, but it is also the source of its theoretical significance.

The first link between allegory and contemporary art may now be made: The appropriated image may be a film still, a photograph, a drawing; allegprical is often itself already a reproduction. However, the manipulations to which these artists subject such images work to empty them of their resonance, their significance, their authoritative claim to meaning. As a result, they appear strangely incomplete — fragments or runes which must be deciphered.

Allegory is consistently attracted to the fragmentary, the imperfect, the incomplete — an affinity which finds its most comprehensive expression in the ruin, which Benjamin identified as the allegorical emblem par excellence. Here the works of man are reabsorbed into the landscape; ruins thus stand for history as an irreversible process of dissolution and decay, a progressive distancing from impulde.

Modernism and Postmodernism: Allegory as Theory

With the allegorical cult of the ruin, a second link between allegory and contemporary art emerges: The site-specific work often aspires to a prehistoric monumentality; Stonehenge and the Nazca lines are taken as prototypes. Work and site thus stand in a dialectical relationship. Site-specific works are impermanent, installed in particular locations for a limited duration, their impermanence providing the measure of their circumstantiality.


Yet they are rarely dismantled but simply abandoned to nature; Smithson consistently acknowledged as part of his works the forces which erode and eventually reclaim them for nature.

In this, the site-specific work becomes an emblem of transience, the ephemerality of all phenomena; it is the memento mori of the twentieth century. Because of its impermanence, moreover, the work is frequently preserved only in photographs. This fact is crucial, for it suggests the allegorical potential of photography. As an allegorical art, then, photography would represent our desire to fix the transitory, the ephemeral, in a stable and stabilizing image. In the photographs of Atget and Walker Evans, insofar as they self-consciously preserve that which threatens to disappear, that desire becomes the subject of the image.

If their photographs are allegorical, however, it is because what they offer is only a fragment, and thus affirms its own arbitrariness and contingency. Here we encounter yet a third link between allegory and contemporary art: One paradigm for the allegorical work is the mathematical progression. Allegory concerns itself, then, with the projection — either spatial or temporal or both — of structure as sequence; the result, however, is not dynamic, but static, ritualistic, repetitive.

It is thus the epitome of counter-narrative, for it arrests narrative in place, substituting a principle of syntagmatic disjunction for one of diegetic combination. In this way allegory superinduces a vertical or paradigmatic reading of correspondences upon a horizontal or syntagmatic chain of events. The work of Andre, Brown, LeWitt, Darboven, and others, involved as it is with the externalization of logical procedure, its projection as a spatiotemporal experience, also solicits treatment in terms of allegory.

This projection of structure as sequence recalls the fact that, in rhetoric, allegory is traditionally defined as a single metaphor introduced in continuous series. If this definition is recast in structuralist terms, then allegory is revealed to be the projection of the metaphoric axis of language onto its metonymic dimension. As much as this may recall the linguistic conceits of conceptual artists Robert Barry and Lawrence Weiner, whose work is in fact conceived as large, clear letters on the wall, what it in fact reveals is the essentially pictogrammatical nature of the allegorical work.

In allegory, the image is a hieroglyph; an allegory is a rebus — writing composed of concrete images. Thus we should also seek allegory in contemporary works which deliberately follow a discursive model: The allegorical work is synthetic; it crosses aesthetic boundaries.

This confusion of genres, anticipated by Duchamp, reappears today in hybridization, in eclectic works which ostentatiously combine previously distinct art mediums. Appropriation, site-specificity, impermanence, accumulation, discursivity, hybridization — these diverse strategies characterize much of the art of the present and distinguish it from its modernist predecessors.

They also form a whole when seen in relation to allegory, suggesting that postmodernist art may in fact be identified by a single, coherent impulse, and that criticism will remain incapable of accounting for that impulse as long as it continues to think of allegory as aesthetic error. We are therefore obliged to return to our initial questions: When was allegory first proscribed, and for what reasons?

The critical suppression of allegory is one legacy of romantic art theory that was inherited uncritically by modernism. From the Revolution on, it had been enlisted in the service of historicism to produce image upon image of the present in terms of the classical past.

This relationship was expressed not only superficially, in details of costume and physiognomy, but also structurally through a radical condensation of narrative into a single, emblematic instant — significantly, Barthes calls it a hieroglyph — in which the past, present, and future, that is, the historical meaning, of the depicted action might be read. This is of course the doctrine of the most pregnant moment, and it dominated artistic practice during the first half of the nineteenth century.

Syntagmatic or narrative associations were compressed in order to compel a vertical reading of allegorical correspondences. Thus to Robespierre ancient Rome was a past charged with the time of the now which he blasted out of the continuum of history. The French Revolution viewed itself as Rome reincarnate.


It evoked ancient Rome the way fashion evokes costumes of the past. But why this allegory? What need to pass through Thermopylae and go backward twenty-three centuries to reach the heart of Frenchmen?

Had we no heroes, no victories of our own? Baudelaire conceived modern art, at least in part, as the rescuing of modernity for eternity. And does not collage, or the manipulation and consequent transformation of highly significant fragments, also exploit the atomizing, disjunctive principle which lies at the heart of allegory?

The Allegorical Impulse Part I | Rhizome

These examples suggest that, in practice at least, modernism and allegory are not antithetical, that it is in theory alone that the allegorical impulse has been repressed.

The art work is, to be sure, a thing that is made, but it says something other than the mere thing itself is, alio agoreuei. The work makes public something other than itself; it manifests something other; it is an allegory.

In the work of art something other is brought together with the tbe that is made. To bring together is, in Greek, sumballein. The work is a symbol. By imputing an allegorical dimension to every work of art, the philosopher appears to repeat the error, regularly lamented by impulsw, of generalizing the term allegory to such an extent that it becomes meaningless. Yet in this passage Heidegger is reciting the litanies of philosophical aesthetics only in order to prepare for their dissolution.

The point is ironic, and it should be remembered that irony itself is regularly enlisted as a variant of the allegorical; that words can be used to signify their opposites is in itself a fundamentally allegorical perception. Allegory and symbol — like all conceptual pairs, the two are far from evenly matched. In modern aesthetics, allegory is regularly subordinated to the symbol, which represents the supposedly indissoluble oens of form and substance which characterizes the work of art as pure aplegorical.

For essence is nothing but that element of the whole which has been hypostasized as its essence. The theory of expression thus proceeds in a cgaig The symbol does not represent essence; it is essence. On the basis of this identification, the symbol becomes the very emblem of artistic cgaig This association of the symbol with aesthetic intuition, and allegory with convention, was inherited uncritically by modern aesthetics; thus Croce in Aesthetic:.

Now if the symbol be conceived as inseparable from the artistic intuition, it is a synonym for the intuition itself, which always has an ideal character.

There is no double bottom to art, but one only; in art all is symbolical because all is ideal. But if the symbol be conceived as separable — if the symbol can be on one side, and on the other the thing symbolized, we fall back into the intellectualist error: But tje must also be just towards the allegorical. Sometimes it is altogether aklegorical.

This allegory that arrives attached to a finished work post festum does not change the work of art. What is it then? It is an expression externally added to another expression. In this way modernism can recuperate allegorical works for itself, on the condition that what makes them allegorical be overlooked or ignored.

Still, the allegorical supplement is not only an addition, but also a replacement. It takes the place of an earlier meaning, which is thereby either effaced or obscured. Because allegory usurps its object it comports within itself a danger, the possibility of perversion: The latter, by xraig, is what reveals poetry in its true nature: Wade Baskin, New York,p. Rosemond Tuve, Allegorical Imagery: