With the American economy reeling from the global financial crisis and conspicuous consumption floundering in its wake, now may be the time to reconsider the particular spell that glossy print magazines (glossy for short) have cast over consumers for the past 50 years. It'd be easy to let the glossy be another example of a sender/receiver relationship. But looking at the example of Artforum, through its particularly circuitous relationship to its content, may hold some clues to our love of slick pages.
MEDIUM SPECIFICITY OR R.I.P. HAROLD ROSENBERG
Born in 1962, Artforum has been a dominant force in art journalism since its inception. Emerging as the art world transitioned from the heroic angst of Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock to the Pop sensationalism of Andy Warhol, Artforum was the publication of the first art boom. It was a time of market pressure for novel works and expanding ranks of art buyers. While Warhol is remembered as the preeminent market-oriented artist, it's important to remember that his strategies, while the cheekiest, were common among his generation. While Warhol presented store-bought Brillo boxes as his own work, Carl Andre would soon after do the same with bricks. The tone is different, but the procedure of appropriation the same.
While before the '60s art was understood as a creative genius's transformation of materials into artistic form, the procedures of many American artists, now categorized under headings like Pop, Minimalism, and Conceptualism, simply didn't fit that rubric. With the ranks of collectors swollen in speculative newcomers, art appreciation became a double entendre and a dominant force to legitimize artistic endeavors beyond the layman's grasp was needed: enter Artforum.
The magazine quickly gathered a stable of editors whose art-critical method had been passed down from Clement Greenberg, Godfather of American Modernism. Rosalind Krauss, Michael Fried and Lucy Lippard all found departure points for their own work within Greenberg's call for art criticism in formal terms. Greenberg's model was an attempt to judge art according to each medium's specific competencies. For painting this would mean embracing flatness of the supports and the fluidity of the paint, and abandoning figuration, representation, and any other form of illusionism. While this may seem a poor model for discussion of a piece like Warhol's Brillo Boxes, Greenberg's broader moves in art criticism were much more pliant. His employment of Kantian girding for his arguments on the nature of art, brought a dose of logic into a discipline that had been previously based on a critic-as-poet model.
Greenberg's contemporary Harold Rosenberg was the premier example of this. The poetic lyricism that rang through his criticism was a poor fit for innovative artists of the '60's. For the past generation, his dramatic depiction of "Action Painting" (as he would coin the Abstract Expressionists) may have been palatable. But in an age of appropriation, poetic insight provided little assurance to the new collector class.
The critical mass of vanguard art theorists and editors that Artforum housed in its early days was not without problems. The approaches Greenberg bequeathed them would be the key to Artforum's early success, as well as the flash point that would undo its unquestioned dominance. Debates on how to contextualize the medium specificity exposed ideological fault lines in the all-star editorial team. In 1976, Rosalind Krauss and Annette Michelson would leave the publication to found its rival, October for the MIT Press, stealing Artforum's dominant hand in art theory.
Looking back at the April 2008 issue of Artforum, sporting its looming reproduction of Damien Hirst's For the Love of God (2007), we're faced with an uncomfortably distant relic. Hirst's diamond encrusted skull grins from the cover; its caption reads, "Art and Its Markets." The conversations it inspired about art and the economy haven't left us, though it's been almost a year since those heated discussions tried to draw a line between complicity and critique. Their uncomfortable tone has stuck around, but for very different reasons.
The boom conditions that enabled Hirst's reported ¬£50 million sale of his iconic skull have all but vanished. While mainstream media has focused on the global financial crisis and the increasingly insolvent situation of American banks, the art world has been the recipient of its own unwelcome news. Panicked auction houses like Christie's and Sotheby's, report dismal sales records and 2009 seems poised to become "The Year of Gallery Closures." The only good news has been President Obama's $50 billion boost to National Endowment for the Arts' previously anemic budget. Artists are worried about money, but not about having too much of it.
This month's Artforum chimes in on the discussion, but, tellingly, it's not the articles that speak to art's recent belt-tightening-- it's the weight of the magazine itself. Looking at issues released in the headiest days of the 2000's art boom, it's not uncommon to find issues tipping the 500-page mark. Gone are the days of a hefty Artforum bloated with advertisements. While the April 2008 edition weighed in at a robust 400 pages, the current issue has sloughed off more than 100 pages' worth of advertisements, coming in at a lean 264.
Artforum's current weight-loss comes after two decades of fattening on liberal advertising budgets from galleries, museums and their cosmopolitan outposts--the art fairs and biennials that seasonally pepper the globe. Starting after the recession years of the early '90s, a time when Artforum hovered around an anorexic 150 pages, the publication began to expand decisively.
The boom years of the Clinton administration produced the usual lifestyle fantasies: money, success, fame and glamour. Demand for glossies grew along with American consumers' buying power. There were, of course, hiccups when the dot-com bubble burst and September 11 certainly didn't help. But as we shopped our way through the War on Terror, the glossy marched on.
Artforum successfully balanced readers' desire for critical content along with their penchant for luxury goods, be they Dana Schutz paintings or Bottega Veneta bags. Though the editors forewent perfumed pages, in both its iconic design and full-page advertisements, Artforum was fairly indistinguishable from other glossy contenders like Vogue and New York Magazine. While the lifestyle proffered in its pages was never discussed explicitly, Artforum in the 1990s and 2000s was a key publication in the definition of a cultured lifestyle.¬†
ON THE WHITE PAGE
Artforum's collision with the '60s art boom culminated in a productive relationship that expanded both Americans' general understanding of art and their tolerance for experimentation. But looking back on the early 2000's' art boom, it is difficult to discern whether there are any grand moves left to make, or whether, instead, the time simply didn't allow it. Certainly the sheer volume of Artforum decidedly expanded with the market. But, while an issue from 50 years ago could engage an ontological discussion about art, today readers are faced with an onslaught of homogenous announcements for gallery openings and fashion ads, peppered by a petite selection of paintings of which many blend in with the fashion ads that face them. (Karen Kilimnik and Elizabeth Peyton, both painters who work in celebrity portraiture come to mind.)
In a series of essays titled Inside the White Cube: the Ideology of the Gallery Space (1976-1981), artist and writer Brian O'Doherty argued the idea that a gallery could be value neutral. Looking back on his seminal attempt to identify how a gallery space informs a viewer's understanding of a work, his critique seems obvious, and in fact almost quaint. Artists now accept that even the whitest of white walls inflect certain meanings onto their work. Strangely there was never a counterpart discussing the ideology of the glossy white page, the mail art counterpart to O'Doherty's site-specific installation.
At this point extended discussion seems a bit awkward. After all, works that appeared on the pages of Artforum have found the same acceptance into canon accounts as other conceptual pieces. Linda Benglis and Robert Morris's famous vying portraits--displayed in Artforum advertisement space purchased by the artists--are scandals that have gone down in history; Benglis upped the ante on Morris' self-portrait in S&M gear by donning sunglasses and a huge dildo, striking a pose of mock masculinity.
But of course there is a difference between the legible intent in both Morris and Benglis' work that falls away in larger discussion about art and its publicity engines. After 50 years of juggling the same publicity apparatus, it may be time for the art world to admit that we know the game a little too well.
Read it and weep, SEAN MONAHAN RISD'09.