PRINT October 2003



LESS THAN A WEEK BEFORE “PUTTING TO BED” THE SECOND half of Artforum’s two-volume look back on the ’80s, organized by my predecessor, Jack Bankowsky, I found myself seated across from sculptor Haim Steinbach at a Brooklyn kitchen table, a late winter light waning on the running tape recorder and half-finished plate of marzipan between us. Our interview had already lasted a couple of hours, and we had reached the kind of conversational pause that usually precedes a conclusion. But then Steinbach said something that caught me completely off-guard: “There seemed to be a reevaluation happening [in the ’80s]. But the discourse did not really challenge participants to try to figure out what was going on—actually, there was no discourse.”

Of course, Steinbach’s version may not ring true to many of the period’s active participants. Yet his implied desire (even hunger) for a venue to stimulate critical conversation among individuals with diverging artistic practices recalled the hunger I felt throughout the ’90s and still feel today, when the languages of art seep ever more deeply into the tissue of mass culture. Information-based industries knowingly repurpose the art-historical lessons of dematerialized objects. (“You see coffee,” reads one recent Sprint ad featuring the image of a single steaming cup. “We see data.”) Even something so intangible as emotion is today fully acknowledged in the business pages as a source of value, with products designed to transform living into lifestyle as part of the “experience economy.” (Consider “blue” becoming the more leisurely “Bondi Blue,” named after an Australian beach, in iMac coloration.) While one predominant theme of technology is ever more precise and pervasive control—which pertains to everything from subtle contouring on automobiles to genetic engineering and surveillance techniques—another is the mutability of perception. Extending the idea that depictions of space are determined by material (a trope of midcentury modernism), technology provides novel encounters with space and calibrates our experiences with traditional materials anew. In fact, the emergence of new media underscores the urgency of art-critical interest in medium specificity. (Investigations of such shifts will appear in Artforum’s new “tech” column; in the inaugural installment, Steven Shaviro explores the ramifications of the new medium of the moblog vis-à-vis photography’s relationship to the indexical.)

All these subjects give dramatic cause for discussion. Artistic discourse, as an interrogatory realm for emotions and ideas, provides the perfect analytical lens through which to consider developments in contemporary culture; and, in turn, looking back through culture compellingly illuminates questions long important to artists, art historians, and critics. This discourse must engage culture strategically in order to make art matter, to underline the gravity of contemporary problems such as the mass media’s relationship with art, criticism’s relationship with artistic practice, connoisseurship versus cultural studies, collectives versus institutions, emergent globalism versus identity politics and ethnicity, and simulation versus psychology.

Obviously, there will be failures in any attempted exchange—fragmentation, incompatibility, even intransigent opposition. In this issue, one need only turn to Jonathan Gilmore’s review of Art History After Modernism, the latest volume by the German art historian and theorist Hans Belting, to gain a baseline sense of the challenges for critical dialogue today: “Art history . . . must be defined so disjunctively that it often isn’t clear whether there is anything on which feminists, poststructuralists, social historians of art, queer theorists, iconographers, connoisseurs, and so on might agree such that their disagreements could offer a productive exchange.”

There are nevertheless models to engage. In her consideration of feminism’s influence on art practices (part of our roundtable on the subject), Catherine de Zegher cites artists who have “posed questions of audience and distribution . . . making art imbued with thoughtful reciprocity between artist and viewer.” (In this vein, de Zegher’s mention of “partial subjects co-emerging and co-affecting” is apt when considering how disparate entities may resonate with each other and yet remain resolutely themselves.) The tactical interplay she notes sounds among other voices throughout this issue. Collier Schorr’s discussion of photography and desire—as well as her reading of Richard Prince’s Spiritual America, 1983, through the prism of media critiques of the ’70s and ’80s—resonates with Prince’s fictional screenplay treatment “In My Movie.” (The presence of the latter indicates Artforum’s renewed commitment to artists’ writing.) The dynamic of exchange reverberates within the still-developing oeuvre of Roe Ethridge, who reasserts the discrete values of typologies within photography only to revel in their unmooring: their placement in a system activated by a millennial marriage of German typological and Pictures-generation photography. His artistic move in particular articulates the recurring theme of abstraction in this issue—of revisiting now-established categories, from photographic genres to feminism (and perhaps even “art”), only to see their value evacuated or transposed, at the risk of leaving the original form an empty shell. For me, what critic Kate Bush calls “postappropriation” is indicative of the shifting of terms inflected by new technology, when one era, shaped by mechanical reproduction, gives way to another, shaped by replication, with all its attendant metaphors.

The pervasiveness of fragmentation and abstraction perhaps signals that resolution is not an appropriate goal for this historical moment. I am reminded of a passage from Jean Genet, in which the author describes the practice of Japanese vase makers who, on encountering a flaw in the object before them, allow their work to both emanate and evolve from that imperfection. Artforum will explore and uncover (and inevitably produce) any number of such liminal flaws, both in art and its culture, and will migrate to them as the places from which new dialogue is most likely to unfold—and where pleasure promises to be the payoff. Indeed, for me the pleasure in this issue arises from any number of happy coincidences and correspondences. Genet’s vase makers find an interesting correspondent in the characters of Prince’s “In My Movie,” who play a round of poker called “accidentally on purpose,” a phrase that, in turn, describes Ethridge’s cover image of a bird in flight. The bird seems randomly caught in motion—and yet the simple image is only arrived at through an elaborate technique. Indeed, the bird itself is more than it seems, having been taught to perform for various films and rumored to have been trained by the same handler who worked on Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. This knowledge, there to be found just beneath the surface, creates a rich, unexpected tension that should always find its way into these pages—from this issue, my first as editor, forward.

Tim Griffin