PRINT February 1982


Whether we like it or not, much of the significant art of our century has been “inaccessible” even to the well-rounded and well-educated because full access depends heavily on one’s possession of a complex cultural and physical reference system, which expands not only with art-historical information, but with perceptual ability, a philosophy of looking, and a broad vocabulary of signs. Some of the most radical works have been articulated in such a specialized language that, as is often the case with scientific experiment, breakthroughs are recognized only by the immediate professional community. There have been, however, groundbreaking visual developments that have had a very different audience though they have been equally dependent on an evolved Modern system of perception, or even a Modern attitude of looking. This is the subject of this issue—why has some work “successfully” entered, or even affected, the public sphere? It is an important question because we are at a point from which we see, sadly, that the collective intention within the art community in the late ’60s and the better part of the ’70s—to broaden the audience for art and increase the intellectual and economic autonomy of artists by establishing alternative exhibition spaces and alternative distribution systems for technologically reproducible media like print and video—met with only very partial “success.” Attention is given here to artists and visual communication systems that did “make it.” This is an opportunity to analyze how and why, and to suggest a changing dynamic between the language of the avant-garde and the vulgate, both of which seem to be feeding on one another. (It is also an irresistible chance to hint that much of the current development in visual thinking is more likely to be rooted in, let’s say, a mannered Pop than in Expressionism.)

The tradition of Artforum is not to limit its territory to one visual world, and the borders of its coverage have fluctuated in order to maintain a fluidity toward, and a discussion of, the very definition of art, which needs to break down to affirm its strength. One could say, in fact, that the history of this magazine lies in examining the resulting fragments. In part, this issue seeks to confront artmaking that retains its autonomy as its enters mass culture at the blurred boundary of art and commerce, and partakes of the wandering multiplicities of the body of popular art. Today the threat to art no longer comes from the outside, but from within, from its isolation and conservatism.

In the specialized realm of art a distinction was always made: art that is autonomous and for the indoctrinated was opposed to art that is applied and for the masses. A reciprocal hierarchical order was established based on this opposition between serious and frivolous, high and low, pure and impure. These distinctions were determined by a dialectic between esthetic and utilitarian values, between the unique and the multiple, between the useless and useful, between elite and vulgar. More than any other ism Pop broke down the antagonisms and the illusions of such distinctions (which were the products of the marketplace as much as of ideology). Roy Lichtenstein claimed comic strips, Claes Oldenburg appliances, James Rosenquist billboards, and Andy Warhol promotion legends. The interest that artists and intellectuals showed in popular culture and its accompanying technology was not a brand of philistinism. It was based on a decision to suck up commercialization, to channel its images and make new images of them that in turn could go back to the public. (Salvador Dali, more than Pablo Picasso, must be credited as a pioneer influence in his clever tongue-in-cheek complicity with, and passion for, commercialization which resulted in his cultural consecration—not through criticism, but because of his public success and recognition.)

The offspring of this relationship between the avant-garde and mass culture production is an artistic pantheism affecting all aspects of the merchandising of culture and the culturalizing of merchandise. Art becomes capable of appearing anywhere, not necessarily where one expects it, and of crossing over and occupying spaces in all systems. The resultant linguistic orgy poses a constant challenge to the traditional model of art through visual procedures that function on the verge of all mechanisms of communication and take on a global dimension. To make clear the range of this dimension and its potential effects we have chosen what we feel to be key examples and/or influential conduits, including advertising strategies, early television legends, tabloid classics, catalytic political imagery, machines for entertainment, and the synecdoche of music. This issue is born out of the tradition of “Modernism as a convergence of languages” where boundaries disintegrate, allowing limitless permutations and commutations of signs, independent of any concept of territory. These signs are indeterminate; they alternate crazily and without finality, having a relationship only to the velocity of consumption and of information, which is altered or negated from season to season, like fashion. This is why we choose the icon of fashion for the cover.

We recognize that high fashion pictured on the cover of an art magazine is perplexing because it could represent fashionability which is definitely not artmaking. Bound feet, tight shoes, imprisoning corsets, and silicone implants are all cosmetic degradations promoted and adopted as pipe dreams of beauty. They mark sexual manipulation and chart ideas of the erotic as well as tell the political history of the body. The “playful” sado-masochism of Helmut Newton’s photographs and the coy exploitation of the subject of children in Irina lonesco’s images, published in the fundamentally conservative glossies, are examples of a more insidious, intellectual fashionability.

Articles on revolutionary designs intended for mass production by artists such as Alexandra Exter, Liubov’ Popova, and Vladimir Tatlin, articles on Balenciaga or on historic developments in photography focused on fashion do not require mediation. This cover—a picture of a woman modeling an outfit from this season’s collection by a “hot” designer—begs for mediation, not least of all because of the position of this clothing in the marketplace. But of greater complexity are the moral, social, and art-historical projections onto this highly connotative appearance. Don’t be deceived by the uniform of blue jeans, don’t be lulled by its surface image of right-mindedness. Perception that stops at the surface has forgotten the labyrinth of the visible—it fails to see the abstract in Chuck Close faces, the harmony in John Cage noise, the non-negotiability of Warhol’s super-negotiability. The invisible seems more persuasive—naked emperors are flattered on the cut of their robes.

Fashion is a system of abstract signs which have no meaning beyond that determined by a maximum acceleration and proliferation of messages. In fashion the speed of communication is such that meaning disappears and changes from year to year, and lives only within the cyclical notion of the collections. The perpetual turnover of style resurrects previous models. If Modernism’s vision of the future has been identified with hostility to the past, then fashion’s continual, reckless ingestion of the phantom of history could be what makes it a Modern idea—in fact an idea that relates to the most recent developments in art, be they in architecture, film, music, painting, or photography. This is work that depends on the manipulation of preceding “models” (neoclassicism, new wave, neoexpressionism, neorealism, neoromanticism, neofauvism, neolook). Such hyperconsciousness of historical styles, such facility with their renderings, recall the Mannerist attitude, which today is based not on originals, but on reproductions that transform art into legend—Pop icons. This kind of redesign, in fashion as well as in art, revamps figures, be they from Marc Chagall, Giorgio De Chirico, or from kendo and Shinto.

The bodice and skirt on the cover and the jacket by Issey Miyake shown here represent this Modern convergence of signs. Equivalences are created between carving and modeling, between rigidity and softness, between the natural and the painted-over, between representation and showing. The outfit is a charged mnemonic device representing event and cumulative information. The elements of fashion, of course, are there. So is the kind of dialogue with past and future, with the situation of the individual within a technocracy, that characterizes the mass-oriented avant-garde.

Issey Miyake’s jacket is a paraphrase of light Samurai practice armor, which was made of bamboo and often decorated with designs that doubled as a scoring system (fencing defeats could be counted by the number of pierce marks). It is also a metaphor for a certain relationship to nature. The outfit is a contemporary second skin—its bodice is both cage and armor, lure and foil. The artificial shoulders of this “iron butterfly” evoke the assertiveness and weaponry of a pioneer-woman-space-invader. Eastern and Western, a picture of fashion—she is a legend. Andy Warhol has become a legend. Laurie Anderson is becoming a legend. All are legends, seducing while being seduced, paradigms of Jean Baudrillard’s theory of seduction. “ . . . seduction acknowledges, and this is its secret, that there is no anatomy, there is no psychology, and all signs are reversible . . . it is useless to play off being against being, truth against truth: that only entraps one in a fundamental subversion, while it would be enough to just lightly manipulate appearances.”