PRINT September 1993


Etc. Etc.

EDWARD RUSCHA'S DEADPAN charge of redundancy on the cover of this anniversary issue reminds us that what is true for rock stars and pop artists also holds for a magazine whose identity is synonymous with vanguard culture: the onset of deep adulthood is cause less for jubilation than for dread. It’s no secret that Artforum has become something of an institution over the last three decades; Ruscha’s dig, in fact, is only the most recent in a minitradition of artists-tweaking-Artforum that dates back at least as far as John Baldessari’s 1966–68 THIS IS NOT TO BE LOOKED AT. And indeed it is not the reminder that we are an institution that lets the air out of our 30-year boast, so much as an un­dertone that seems to chide: “Is that all that Artforum is?”

Determined to answer this challenge (and despite the very real temptation to lose ourselves in the riches we discovered in virtually all of Artforum’s 324 back issues), we chose from the start to skip the customary magazine­ anniversary parade of reprints. The material in this issue has all been newly commissioned, and calls not only on eloquent voices from the near and the distant past, but on some edgy new ones we are still getting to know. For Artforum’s status as a fixture of contemporary culture, earned more than two decades ago, is not at issue here; the question is rather what kind of institution we have become. As the solicited opinions (reminiscences, meditations on the state and fate of the art magazine or on art writing more generally, selections of single works that permanently rearranged 16 writers’ personal canons, reflections on the roles and responsibilities of criticism today) came home to roost—from Ruscha’s cover commission, to Stuart Morgan’s finger-wagging pout, to John Coplans’ crotchety paean to the good old days, to Thomas Crow’s measured meditation on the art magazine as institution—a conditional answer began to suggest itself: at least on this occasion, it seemed Artforum was going to have to be an institution self-reflexive enough to let it all hang out.

Of course, the larger answer, of which this disputatiousness is a reflection, is that Artforum is not, and never has been, a single institution. Just as the familiar stereotype of the magazine as a bastion of high-toned pedagogy is too easy, so too the notion of “the old Artforum,” much invoked in these pages, on inspection proves vaporous and elastic. Artist Chuck Close and art historian Crow both remember the Artforum of Phil Leider’s editorship in the mid ’60s as especially vital, yet I suspect they each recall something different: Close, a vivid sense of a community he experienced firsthand; Crow, the rich intellectual texture gleaned perusing our “old bound volumes.” Artforum has never put forth the unified front we sometimes retrospectively imagine.

Still, the everyday fables exert an appreciable force. Indeed, the myth of an Artforum of exclusively austere and hermetic intellection endures in perennial charges of inscrutability, reflecting a signature that has been none too easy to shake. Here Artforum stumbles into the long-standing turf war between academic art writing and the nimbler craft of the “man of the crowd.” Similarly, in the face of an expanding art world, an art world ever more aware of other art worlds elsewhere, the idea of an “old Artforum” often reflects a nostalgia for a smaller community—a community in which, if opinions differed, the language they were voiced in was at least a common one. That nostalgia reduces, in other words, to a longing for a moment when New York was sure of its centrality, and Artforum of its status as the primary organ of thought on the vanguard arts.

Both Crow and Close acknowledge that the art world of the ’60s has mutated almost beyond recognition, and indeed Crow cautions against the deforming agency of nostalgia for the magazine of that earlier time. There is, of course, an extraordinary standard to be recognized in those issues of the middle ’60s, but the temptation to conclude that this could or should be duplicated in the present is a sure road to the redundant academicism that has all too often been the art magazine’s special purview and bane. There is more than one kind of “difficulty” in art writing—there is laborious academicism, heavy with secondary ci­tation and bereft of style, and there is legitimate difficulty that registers genuine cognitive labor. Yet even this conditionally useful division, with the value it puts on the “legitimately difficult,” can too easily reinforce outmoded ideas about what art writing is. It is a stale dichotomy already rendered obsolete by the “new Artforum”—a designation, as conditional as the “old Artforum,” by which I mean the period corresponding to the rapid expansion of the art world in the ’80s. What I most relish in the “new Artforum” is the idea of Crow catching Glenn O’Brien’s shade as he does in the pages of this issue, or the frisson of Joan Rivers rubbing elbows with Hegel in Rhonda Lieberman’s appreciation of Jonathan Borofsky. We cannot anticipate where our culture is taking us; we can only be vigilant in monitoring the way it modulates. For we can be quite sure that the rhythms of the new “man of the crowd” will not mimic the dictions we have come to know, any more than what will come to be known as “art ” will be likely to inhabit readymade forms.

This issue, it should be noted, is a little “art-centric ” by comparison with those of the last decade. That is because it celebrates the history of Artforum, which, on balance, has been a little art-centric itself. Yet I do not believe that we can maintain a valid relationship to art without attending to the larger realm of visual culture, the advent of technologies, the movements of peoples, the broader field that has come to be called cultural studies. We must be open enough to let art modulate to the point where we will no longer recognize it in any more than a historical sense. Perhaps paradoxically, without a healthy disregard for the art we currently value we are in danger of missing the real movement of our culture, in the parochial act of protecting some outmoded idea of what art is, like the beret-topped painter pitched plein air before some Parisian monument. Where art is concerned, the loaded symptom is a more precious commodity than the mastered idea. It is Artforum’s job to enable these pressure points to find voice in writing, to allow these intensities to breath. Art history will no doubt take care of itself.

Jack Bankowsky