PRINT January 2004



No Movement

To the Editor:
The need for a retrospective look at feminist art [“Feminism & Art: Nine Views,” October 2003] is in itself debatable: It seems premature to “look back” when little real progress has been made. In the ’70s, women used their bodies in their artwork as a way to “own” their sexuality and take it back from the realm of male fantasy. While the body can be a powerful tool of personal expression, sex always sells. Outside the context of the original feminist movement, the use of the body can now sometimes seem, intentionally or not, like a marketing device for the work.

At its most didactic, feminist art alienates the male portion of its audience; but when it entices, it’s at women’s expense. Perhaps people are no longer interested in feminist art and discourse because in thirty years of existence it has been unable to change its focus and approach.

—Mindy Kaplan

Corrective Lens

To the Editor:
I would like to correct the recurring misperception that I was a fashion photographer before becoming an artist, as stated in Kate Bush’s article on Roe Ethridge [“All Systems Go,” October 2003]. My work and the way I disseminate it have often been inaccurately associated with that of fashion and advertising photographers who “cross over” into art. In fact, I did no fashion photography before my first art exhibitions in the late ’80s, and my magazine work in the early ’90s was primarily portraiture and documentary, along with the occasional staged utopian scenario that had fashion credits so it could get printed. The staff and editors at magazines like i-D and Interview were quite aware of my origins as an exhibiting artist.

I had a very specific agenda; the choices about the way I published my work were made with an eye to challenging art’s technical and disciplinary hierarchies. I moved my art practice partially into magazines in order to make and disseminate my work. I also just loved the beauty of the printed page; to make that point I eventually incorporated magazine pages—which I had laid out myself—into my installations of “fine” photographic prints. At no point did I intend to say that magazines and fashion per se are art (later suggested by the pointless fashion/art crossover projects that persist to this day). To me, both are fields of great excellence, and few good results have come from the act of “crossing over” for its own sake.

My magazine work was always “editorial” and limited anyway to a few independent magazines (which paid one hundred dollars a page on a good day). I consistently turned down advertising jobs and this is as true today as it was twelve years ago. It’s important to clear this issue up, not because I think making a living by making art is automatically “better” than doing so through advertising, but because I perceive either that my nonexistent “past in fashion” is seen as inferior—and this attitude is the exact opposite of my own feelings toward friends in fashion design and the media—or I’m misconstrued as an apologist for fashion photographers who did desert their million-dollar commissions for “redemption” in art.

—Wolfgang Tillmans, London

Crossing Over

To the Editor

I just wanted to say how much in agreement I am with the opinions expressed in your editor’s letter [October 2003]. Regarding those famous relations between fine art and so-called common culture: Something has got to give. Almost every class I’ve taught over the last five years has been based on a perceived correspondence between these two realms, and, as you’ve suggested, it’s an interaction that’s grown more intensive with time, not less. The terms “appropriation,” “simulation,” and “deconstruction” are only the latest to have “crossed over,” finding a more comfy fit, perhaps, within the precincts of popular music, fashion, and architecture. Accordingly, TV becomes “postmodern,” advertising becomes “conceptual,” and design becomes either “minimal,” “maximal,” or outright “surreal.”

My interest in these questions has taken shape in response to the study of the historical avant-gardes and, most notably, the theory of montage. A turn within modernism against modernism and, especially, against the concept of “autonomy” (autonomous institutions, artists, or objects), montage is underwritten by a concern for the reception end of the art experience. Displacing a former emphasis on the specificity of material or medium, it’s at the start of any workable strategy for reconciling the practice of art with the audience that either it has abandoned or that has abandoned it.

The question you raise—how to “make art matter” once more—takes shape, I suspect, in response to a sense of mounting irrelevance. Despite the fact that we see secondhand signs of its influence everywhere, in the general scheme of things art has probably never mattered less. Some would argue that if art can at least continue to matter a great deal to the audience it still has, that’s fine. Others might suggest instead that it’s precisely by way of its dissolution as a discrete cultural category that art will end up mattering most. If the concept of autonomy paved the way to art’s isolation behind institutional walls, then the struggle against autonomy is waged on behalf of those outside.

It’s not as if the art world has failed to take account of these developments. Artforum, like every other publication of its kind, has given over more and more space to “extra-artistic” works. In effect, it sometimes seems as though art is treated as a “third wheel” while critics seek to reconnect with their first loves in the popular sphere. The current situation in the UK, where art as such has become wholly annexed to the mechanisms of pop consumption, should be taken as a cautionary tale. The attempt to somehow “popularize” the discourse of art does both art and “the public” a disservice because the best and most salient dimension of the art experience—the analytical, the reflexive, the self-critical—is sacrificed in the process. (What if, conversely, this dimension were added to the popular discourse?)

It is not a question of “outreach,” therefore, nor of somehow coaxing back one’s former public with more accessible objects or terminologies. To mold one side to the demands of the other and vice versa is unnecessary; they’re already locked in state of mutual reflection. The gulf that once separated these two sides has narrowed to a faint line, but it is precisely at this point of greatest tension that a fundamental distinction appears: Art is never about “just looking” as much as it’s about looking at oneself looking. (Paradoxically, this fundamental point is the one that art has the hardest time getting across.) The object itself is only a pretext; what counts is gauging one’s relation to objects, to others, and, ultimately, to the world. Keep the faith.

—Jan Tumlir