Second in a series focused on the 90s in France, our initial ambitions for this issue of May was to discuss the interests of art theory and art history that allegedly took place in the early 90s to generate a view on the theoretical context for artistic production then. It was not to engage in a comprehensive review, but approach the subject by working in the inverse to emphasize the background and proceed with minimal means.
Thus, this issue was first built around an extensive interview with Jean-François Chevrier, art historian specializing in the history of photography and professor at the École des beaux arts in Paris. Paul Sztulman’s lengthy essay recounts this meeting, in which one becomes aware of the insular way Chevrier has built his system of thought based on a structuralist historical method centred around individual experience rather than an analysis of artworks. Indeed, until the recent publishing of his writings by the publishing house L’Arachnéen, his theories remained relatively confidential, and kept away from major international debates and magazines such as Artforum and October, even though he importantly constructed an art history based on concepts of modernity in which the spheres of politics and the spaces of art are undifferentiated.
The text of Stefan Germer on French theorists, published in 1993, offers another perspective, that of the German art historian and co-founder of the journal Texte zur Kunst, who attempts to explain the absence of a historiographical dimension to the theory and criticism of art at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales.
Finally, two texts, the first by John Rajchman on the emergence of French Theory in New York between 1975-76 and up until 1988, and secondly, François Cusset on the use of critical theory since the 90s gives measure to what happened in France at that time and what was missing in terms of critical theory in the field of art. In line with the frame of this issue, Rajchman also calls for a “pedagogy of context” for understanding the phenomena of import-export theories.
Moreover, it could be said that throughout the 90s, France remained extremely unreceptive to theoretical debates occuring in artistic circles across the Atlantic and in German speaking countries. And it seems that the main theoretical influences in contemporary art came from a group of art theorists based at the EHESS or from new art journals such as Documents sur l’art, Bloc Notes and Purple; producing singular forms of writing that were definitely non academic in evoking the remarkable sub-cultural development of the Parisian scene involving music, fashion, design, architecture. This period gave also rise to a new jargon which one should now overtake to experiment “new operating practices” of the theory, according to Cusset.