PRINT September 1993

*ARTFORUM ’80 - ’93*

The Graying of Criticism

THE TASK OF WRITING on the occasion of Artforum’s 30th anniversary entails far more than the usual procrastination and delay. Because the work necessarily involves going back over the past volumes of the magazine, particularly the decade from 1965 to 1975, it is nearly impossible to stop reading and return to the job at hand. Single issues from that period maintain a level of informativeness and intensity that put to shame whole books of recent critical writing. And that level is all the more impressive when one takes into account how frequently regular contributors appear and how quickly the work had to be done. But the fact may only be surprising from the perspective of the present, when articles like these have been to a great extent replaced by laborious essays in academic quarterlies and hardcover anthologies from scholarly presses. The time frame from conception to publication now has to be measured in years rather than weeks, and the writing tends to become thick with second-guessing in advance, the careful touching of theoretical bases, and worried anticipation of criticism.

In making this sort of comparison, the dangers of nostalgia are, I realize, enormous, and one’s autobiography and selective memory irresistibly intrude. The founding editors of October were quick to defend themselves from this charge as they framed their ambitions in 1976: “We do not wish to share,” they announced, “in that self-authenticating pathos which produces, with monotonous regularity, testimonies to the fact that ‘things are not as good as they were’ in 1967, ’57—or in 1917.”1 Yet to acknowledge that pathos in any form is to share in it, and the October project would have had far less justification if the state of art publishing had not declined since 1967. That date was of course the one most present to their minds, the year when—to cite the most legendary instance—one issue of Artforum could throw together Michael Fried’s “Art and Objecthood,” its diametric opposite in Robert Morris’ “Notes on Sculpture,” and for good measure, Sol LeWitt’s “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” which attempted entirely to transcend the terms of that epic disagreement and succeeded in looking forward to much that would come to pass over the next five years.

Other issues were only somewhat less consequential, and running through them all were the letters. The flamboyant sarcasm that Robert Smithson directed toward Fried holds perhaps the greatest documentary interest today, but his was just one shot in a continual ricochet of commentary and disagreement from the magazine’s community of readers; even the editors allowed themselves the extracurricular opportunity to be heard in the letters pages. Impressive as the verbal fireworks could be, perhaps the most arresting intervention of the era came in a few lines from Donald Judd in 1967: “Sirs: The piece reproduced on p. 38 of the Summer issue was put together wrong and isn’t anything.”2 The corollary of this objection was that, had it appeared in correct form, it would have been something, bespeaking a moment when the visual information provided by an art magazine could be expected by its community to go beyond embellishment to meet some standard of cognitive precision: the reproduction was not the thing itself, to be sure, but a stand-in provisionally adequate for purposes of advancing the discussion.

If the Artforum of today cannot be the magazine one rediscovers in those old bound volumes, that is because no magazine can be: the entire economy of writing about art has changed because the economy of art has changed in its scale and fundamental character. An essentially local community linked by open cognitive interests was no match for an emerging global service-economy in the luxury sector laying claim to the name of Art. The feeling of engagement in a common pursuit, as manifested in the Artforum letters column, always contains a healthy element of fiction, and that useful illusion could not survive too much testing by reality. Basic issues of access and survival made fine discriminations of form seem a mocking luxury, indeed the province of institutional apologists. By the early ’70s, the definition of community had hardened into one of left-political opposition acted out in groups like the Art Workers Coalition and Artists Meeting for Cultural Change. The magazine, under John Coplans and Max Kozloff, made a brave effort to stay with this direction in the life of a core constituency, but found itself caught by the very disparity of forces that had driven artists to these defensive maneuvers against the institutions of the art world. The crunch came between 1975 and 1976, cheered on in the New York Times by a triumphant Hilton Kramer—whose authoritarian instincts lead him to try whenever possible to extinguish critical voices contrary to his own—and Coplans had to go as editor. With his departure went the last personal link to the magazine’s California origins and its intervening history of fostering the climate for advanced art in America.

Of course substitutes soon emerged as vehicles for the writing Kramer and his allies wanted suppressed in the mainstream. From the midst of the dissenting political milieu, The Fox flared and sputtered. Art & Language continued as a disputatious British outrider (with a tangled role in the rise and fall of the former publication). October, with better funding and a secure arrangement in academic publishing, settled in for the long haul. Its implicit diagnosis of the impasse that had defeated the old Artforum was that serious art writing could only go on as before if it could call in sufficient reinforcements. Paris, for some time secondary in the practice of art, came to the rescue on the plane of theory, providing the amalgam of semiotics, psychoanalysis, and deconstructive skepticism that went under the name of poststructuralism.

Greatly reduced circulation was not the only thing that set these journals apart from the existing model of the art magazine: economy demanded that a visual parsimony be the new order of the day. The October editors made a measured iconoclasm into policy, declaring in a Quaker-like way that its look would “be plain of aspect, and its illustrations determined by considerations of textual clarity” in order to emphasize “the primacy of text and the writer’s freedom of discourse.”3 Conforming to ancient rhetorical formulae, illustration itself came under suspicion as an inherently “lavish” embellishment, and an elegantly austere graphic style was put forward as an outward sign of the gravity appropriate to the historical occasion. That quality was all the more appropriate in that the journal’s component of explicit theorizing came largely from writers whose main commitment was to the word.

On a more polemical level (in rhetoric one would say “forensic”), visual austerity stood as an indictment of the complicity of the mainstream art magazine with the corrupting commerce in art objects, the irredeemable enemy of “intellectual autonomy.” As someone who has happily contributed to October, I can say that the restraint and balance of its design, the crisp monochrome illustrations, can be admirably effective from the writer’s point of view. But what is lost in that approach is the text and the visual reproduction functioning on anything like equal terms. That equality may indeed entail an infringement on the freedom of writing when noncognitive values of publicity and display govern editorial decisions. But the strength of the best art criticism is its inner understanding that the visual confronts the written with the unthought of language; in the absence of the assertive, large-scale illustration provided by a magazine like Artforum, it can be too easy to speak of the visual without speaking to it.

Having fled from the oppressive priorities of commerce, serious art writing then finds itself vulnerable to another external regime of power: that of the literary academy. By “power” I mean less an abstraction in the manner of Foucault than the competition for concrete and relatively scarce rewards. Visual-art studies in the American university involve relatively small numbers; the combined disciplines of literary studies involve an enormous population of students and faculty. Overproduction of new holders of doctoral degrees in turn generates a need for a continually inflated quantity of publication. In the face of these linked problems, simplified lessons from French theory have provided a neat solution: to the extent that everything can be construed as “a text,” anything can become part of “English” or “French” or what have you. In a 1987 interview published posthumously in 1991, Craig Owens reflected on one lesson from his experience as an October editor: “because we are now over-producing comp-lit PhD’s, here is now a field (the visual arts community) that can be colonized. So we get the phenomenon of people moving into this field. The problem is not that they haven’t studied art history. So what? It is that they really haven’t got much identification with, or many connections within, this particular community.”4

Despite the great disparity in visibility and power between the few specialists in the image and the many specialists in the word, the credibility of the latter’s expansionism requires willing cooperation on the part of the former. Owens was evidently growing tired of providing that assistance, but many others have been more than willing. As a result, the expectation remains that art journals will gratefully solicit the opinions of literary critics, philosophers, and social theorists for the pretended novelty of hearing serious ideas introduced into their sleepy field. Such openness and generosity is ideal in principle and would be entirely to be applauded except for the fact that these gestures are hardly ever reciprocated. It is the rarest of art historians or critics who are even invited to speak to literary critics—or philosophers or social scientists—on their own ground about their core subject matter. Such enforced deference to other fields is no valid verdict on the relative advancement of art writing, but is merely one artifact of a developing medium of interdisciplinary dialogue that permits—for reasons of the relative power of disciplines—traffic in one direction only. Anxiety to secure a hearing in the literary academy accounts for a great deal of the overmanaged, overqualified prose that currently afflicts the field.

The strategy of restrained journal design proved open to another form of cooptation when it was aped by none other than Kramer in his New Criterion. As a prim declaration of highmindedness, he entirely eschewed illustration and limited advertising to decorous typography. A neoconservative journal can easily afford a show of fastidiousness about the demands of commerce when this stance implies no actual objection to the marketplace being run in the way its participants—major collectors, curators, and dealers—see fit. While Kramer may occasionally object to certain outcomes (the MoMA High and Low exhibition, for example), the system that generates an occasional embarrassment remains beyond scrutiny or reproach. But if colorless clothing entirely suits the disingenuous probity of the neoconservatives, there is a real price to be paid by those who would subject the system to critical scrutiny from a position of competence in matters of visual form. The latter are increasingly obliged to work in a publishing format that allows little participation in the way nontextual information is transmitted within the art world generally. That transmission then floats free into an incorrigible network where any effect—visual or verbal—is permitted.

The foregoing discussion, largely for reasons of focus and brevity, has been framed almost entirely in American terms. But the forces that ended the first phase of Artforum in 1976 were international in scope. As the boom that took hold in the late ’70s was to prove, the scale of commerce in art was generating a qualitatively different system beyond anything that a local community of cognitive interests could readily comprehend. The New York critics of the ’70s were right to enlist an international response on the level of theory to hold their own against the rapid globalization of the marketplace, though the forces in play were bound to be mismatched. Buyers, dealers, curators, and artists could operate halfway across the globe from one another; enthusiasm in Germany for certain artists from the American West Coast has meant New York as a center of intellectual mediation being largely bypassed, and this is just one example of many. There came an enormously expanded demand for exposure of works of art, for transfer of information, but this demand was more and more met by the luxury catalogue and by the tourist circuit for the wealthy and well placed that links Documenta to Biennale to SoHo and points between.

The fate of context-specific art points up the importance of the new art tourism. A decade ago, when international roundup exhibitions like “Zeitgeist” and “The New Spirit in Painting” aggressively promoted painting’s return to dominance, the medium was decried as a threat to the critical potential of installation art. But in the end, the same institutions that once gave room to neo-Expressionism and its variants have been just as happy to abandon them. Traditional media have proven to be too limited for the most effective projection of signature personalities and celebrity status. As in Documenta IX, every recent effort to mount up-to-date surveys has forcefully put installations—with heavy use of photography and texts to the fore in their representation of global art activity. Having sampled the exhibition, the consumer turns to the artist’s dealer for a suitably portable souvenir-object related to it.

The parallel demand for a vivid language of promotion and enthusiasm has been readily met by the European star curators—the likes of Achille Bonito Oliva, Rudi Fuchs, Jan Hoet, and Norman Rosenthal—who operate across borders with ease and who have revived the windy subjectivism and mystical excesses that hardnosed American critics of the ’60s had thought banished forever. The result is the same body of art being talked about in entirely incommensurable vocabularies. Certain artists—though not the current stars of the scatter installation—have begun to confront the anomalies of this new global network in their practice; it is up to critics to address it as well, to try to hold it in mind even when engaged in detailed examination of individual artists and works. One strong precedent that comes to mind, given the crucial role of Joseph Beuys in authorizing the new curatorial subjectivism, is Benjamin H. D. Buchloh’s thorough dismantling of the Beuys mythology, “The Twilight of the Idol,” which appeared in Artforum in 1980 and was all the more compelling for being there.5 The necessary confrontation between local artwork and global network should be staged in any available venue for criticism, but it gains a particular effectiveness, an added measure of realism, when surrounded by the actual matter under discussion: the clutter of advertisements, the page-filling color. The critical force of the old Artforum was never anything but a lived contradiction between thought and commerce. We have passed through a period when commerce has displayed the superior intelligence and outrun the theoreticians: simply getting back to effective contradiction is the task of the moment, and so far the fastidious ways of academic publishing have not been equal to its demands.

Thomas Crow is Chair of History of Art at the University of Sussex. The author of Painters and Public Life in Eighteenth Century Paris (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), he has just completed a book on a group of young painters coming of age in the time of the French Revolution, and is currently preparing a collection of essays centered on exchanges between contemporary and vernacular culture.



1. The Editors, “About October,” October 1 (Spring 1976), p. 3.

2. Donald Judd, “Letter to the Editor,” Artforum 6 no. 2, October 1967, p. 4. It concludes, “The upper surface is supposed to be three inches above another surface, flush with the rest of the box.”

3. “About October,” p. 5.

4. Anders Stephanson, “Interview with Craig Owens,” Social Text 27 , vol. 9, no. 2, 1990, p. 68. Also Beyond Recognition, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

5. Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Beuys: The Twilight of the Idol: Preliminary Notes for a Critique,” Artforum 28 no. 5, January 1980, pp. 35–43.