PRINT September 1993

*ARTFORUM ’80 - ’93*

Sweet Thoughts

CRACKING OPEN A MAGAZINE can be like opening a box of chocolates: knowing more or less what is inside does not diminish the delicious anticipation. In the case of a magazine of contemporary art, the reader expects confections of creative vision, critical thought, and graphic design, those tasty details that one knows will feed one’s habits in just the way one wants.

Transcending those details, and transcending even the question of their cohesion into unity, is the fact that any magazine that has existed long enough to develop self-knowledge and identity knows itself as the incarnation of a tradition. It is a tradition, at the same time that it views and senses that tradition from a stance that is perpetually in development.

The idiosyncratic “personality” of a magazine that has attained the maturity of a genuine identity arises from many sources. There is, for example, the question of the area of the art system on which the magazine focuses. The art world has at least seven or eight sectors, represented by the figures of, say, artist, critic, dealer, collector, curator, administrator, and educator, and also, of course, the interested viewer, who can be any or none of these things. Part of the art magazines’ role is to act as membranes of communication between these sectors. Some are aimed primarily at just one, which is why they are called trade mags. And of course within each sector there are different constituencies too: one magazine reviews for conservative collectors, another for liberal. One magazine reports on prices and dealers and shifts in gallery cabals, another specializes in sumptuous reproductions. All these approaches, and many others, are legitimate—but all are also superficial, essentially just facilitating the functioning of the system with the fuel or lubricant of information.

But art magazines can exert a more creative force. A regional art magazine, say, or one with a specialty (performance, for example), can have a shaping influence on an emergent craft group or stylistic movement or local art scene, externalizing its consciousness in a certain form. Some art magazines focus on news, but others are homes for criticism, and constructive criticism from inside a cultural milieu tends both to stimulate and to unify a community’s vision—the vision of both artists and art viewers. Meanwhile, a network of these specialized and regional magazines joins different parts of the world and the art world in a shared discourse.

There are still deeper functions that an art magazine may perform. In the late-Modernist period (by which I mean more or less the ’60s and some of the ’70s) there was a keen sense of this—of the vibration of thick significance in what an art journal could do, and sometimes did. The feeling was based on an assumption understood at once vaguely and intensely by art world readers: that the art magazine is the entranceway to art history. This is actually an assumption I share, for the first framing, analysis, contextualization, and evaluation of art takes place in the magazines, and that early formulation powerfully affects artworks’ subsequent reception. The authors of the books that deal with contemporary artworks as they recede into the past, either to disappear there or to take their shadowy place in the museum and the enduring record, rely on various sources of information—notably exhibition catalogues, which are enormously influential records—but it is the magazines that stitch the history of their time in the most complete and seamless fabric. For an art history of the last thirty years, for example, one could do worse than read a full run of Artforum.

In the late-Modernist period, though, this sense of the magazines’ significance went beyond the notion of record-keeping. If history, as Modernists assumed, was advancing toward some goal; and if art, as many believed, was the leading edge of this advance (what Ezra Pound called the antenna of the future); and, finally, if the art magazines were where art’s intuitions of the future were first deciphered and analyzed, then the art magazines could seem to exercise a “world-historical” consciousness. And in the ’60s and ’70s, one could indeed feel a certain frisson of excitement on opening Artforum—an expectant sense of the deeper truths underlying the sweetness of the confections in the box.

The seeming obsolescence of this theory today does not alter the fact that history makes us what we are, and that in the visual realm the art magazines remain the entranceway to history. The fact that we no longer agree on the shape, direction, or meaning of history only makes their work more complicated—and also in a way more crucial, since at such a loose or floating moment the push a magazine can give in one direction or another may have surprising weight. As a stirrer-upper, a standard-bearer of controversy, in an uncertain time, a magazine can shape history rather than merely recording a moment that feels sure of itself. In this interventionist approach one can hear an echo of earlier eras when things were equally up in the air, as when Allen Tate, in an essay called “The Function of the Critical Quarterly” (1936), remarked that the editor “owes his first duty to . . . his sense of the moral and intellectual order upon which society ought to rest.”1

Beyond information, beyond inscribing history, and beyond the advocacy of a certain moral and intellectual order, what is perhaps the most important part of the art magazine is its dedication to the critical intelligence of its society. Its critical purview, in other words, is not exclusively visual, though starting from there. Here is where the sense of the magazine’s mission, isolated from the system that in lesser ways it facilitates, comes to the fore. For the magazine, in order to preserve critical writing—not so much for its own sake as for that of society’s sanity—must navigate the pitfalls of commerce, curatorial hobby-horses, and artistic careerism. The sea on which the system floats is perilous, and it is in critical writing first of all that its course is charted.

Thomas McEvilley is a contributing editor at Artforum. He is Professor of Art History at Rice University. His most recent book is Art and Otherness: Crisis in Cultural Identity, published by McPherson & Co. of Kingston, NY.



1. Allen Tate, The Collected Essays of Allen Tate, Chicago: Swallow Press. 1959, p. 71.