PRINT March 2008



Erik Bulatov, Trademark, 1986, oil on canvas, 78 3⁄4 x 78 3⁄4".

AMONG MY PRIMARY AIMS as the editor of Artforum has been to create a greater sense of dialogue and exchange both within its pages and without. This very column, in fact, is designed to force me to step “outside” the magazine and publicly take a closer look within. The task of facilitating dialogue beyond the printed page has perhaps been the more elusive goal. When it comes to interactions on the street, for instance, a disconcerting proportion of them revolve solely around just how large the publication has become. (“Adforum,” someone will quip, unaware he is far from the first to make that joke.) Letters to the editor are similarly apt to repeat the line that our issues have gotten as “big as Vogue.” But these hoary criticisms were nowhere to be found in the remarkable missive I received last month from a certain T. Gimenez, who reserved his opprobrium not for the advertising (quite to the contrary, he wrote: “I love getting the chunky mag in the mail, checking the ads one by one”) but rather for the essays. Here, I felt myself to be in familiar enough territory, as Gimenez asked me to “get rid of the stuffiness, the boring articles, and the Bourriaud-in-every-page type of writing.” But then, in his conclusion, Gimenez, threatening to cancel his subscription, made an observation that was totally unexpected—something that suggested we were reading the publication from radically different vantages: “Artforum, tough and unmovable as the Soviet bloc, won’t even miss me, even though I’ll miss its luscious ads and delectable chunkiness, its strangely schizophrenic capitalist Marxism.”

While I like to think the magazine has a slightly softer touch than the Soviet bloc did—and, on a personal note, Mr. Gimenez, I hope you keep subscribing—the final phrasing above is well worth contemplating. For our disgruntled reader has a point. Considering just the issues published over the course of the past year, where else might a reader find, say, Jacques Rancière alongside an advertisement for Yves Saint Laurent? Or, for that matter, Michael Fried opposite Tom Ford? To say nothing of the galleries and institutions the publication depends on for its very existence—without whom, in other words, we could present no theoretical speculations on, for instance, art and its relationship to the dominant visual culture, the market, and, more broadly speaking, mass commerce. In this regard, Artforum might seem uniquely positioned to productively skirt any neat categorization as either “critical” or “complicit” (to borrow a little Soviet-era lingo) and to suggest the ways in which these perspectives, however distinct they may appear, might instead be subtly entwined: The art-world relations underwriting the creation of meaning (and of value, intellectual or financial) are all there in an open book, at the ready for our conjecture.

And yet, reading the current issue, one wonders whether this scenario is so unique to our situation—so unprecedented historically—after all. Indeed, apropos of the seeming conflicts detailed above, I must admit to feeling a strange affinity for the subject of two texts that appear in this issue, by theorist Boris Groys and curator Margarita Tupitsyn, dealing with the exhibition “Sots Art: Political Art in Russia from 1972 to Today.” (The survey of the movement was recently on view at La Maison Rouge in Paris, after debuting last year at Moscow’s State Tretyakov Gallery.) In particular, while the situation Groys and Tupitsyn describe is far removed from our own—and should be recognized first and foremost on its own historically specific terms—I couldn’t help but think of the potential applicability of Sots art’s double bind in the present context. As both writers explain, the original Sots art progenitors—Alexander Kosolapov, Leonid Sokov, and, most famously, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid (who coined the movement’s name in 1972)—emerged amid complex social circumstances in which these artists’ desire to critically engage the orthodoxies of dominant Soviet culture ended up, paradoxically enough, alienating their colleagues within the alternative artistic milieu. However much the Sots artists may have vexed government authorities, Groys writes, for these other artists the only “true protest” was to completely ignore the visual regime comprising everyday Soviet experience; to adopt any artistic stance other than a kind of high-modernist remove was understood by these dissidents to adulterate “the supposedly pure space of independent culture with the vulgar signs of Soviet-ness.”

The questions posed by Sots art, then, still resonate powerfully today: When seeking to make, or discuss, art with any critical attitude toward our own dominant visual culture, are we merely supposed to turn away from that culture? Or could there be benefits to assuming a greater intimacy with these commercial spheres—employing their language and even acting within them, regardless of vulgar appearances—as we grapple with and even seek to affect their shape and behavior? To return specifically to the context of this magazine, the predicament of the Sots artists—utterly distinct from ours, of course, inasmuch as their activities put them in political peril—reminded me of those criticisms often levied at Artforum by parties on either end of the art-world spectrum: specifically, that our texts are too abstract and arcane (whereas they ought to entertain and, by extension, promote) or else our advertising pages are too copious (with the overtly commercial venue rendering suspect any contrarian attempt to theorize art and culture more generally). Indeed, after reading Groys’s outlining of Sots art’s prophetic quality, wherein radical juxtapositions of name-brand products and political iconography forecast the living proximity in contemporary Moscow of Lenin’s mausoleum and Gucci and Armani boutiques, I began to see the juxtaposition of Rancière and Saint Laurent just a little bit differently.

In truth, there are much broader and more ambitious parallels yet to consider between Sots art and art in the West, given their respective paths during the past few decades. One thinks, for instance, of how the Pictures generation similarly appropriated popular imagery to reveal the socially constructed meanings embedded therein—and of how the motives of these artists, like those involved in Sots art, were held in suspicion for making work not immediately announcing itself as “critical” or “celebratory.” (The analogy is easily extended when considering the work of subsequent generations. If, as Tupitsyn argues, younger Russian artists currently working within the vernacular of Sots art rarely bring a sense of cultural specificity to their images, so it also seems in the West that appropriation too often merely underscores the empty circulation of images in media, rather than revealing any systemic meaning that might rest just under the surface.) Yet, in this regard, Artforum perhaps benefits a great deal from a comparison to Sots art: Literally bound into its pages is a context, a social reality, whereby every reader can and should interpret the object before him or her in its entirety—surmising the various meshes and clashes of its different parts, each of which inevitably complicates, and implicates, the others.