PRINT February 2010



James Cameron, Avatar, 2009, still from a color HD video, 162 minutes. Jake (Sam Worthington, left) and Quaritch (Stephen Lang, right).

I REMEMBER MY FEELING seven years ago, on first arriving at Artforum, that the situation of art could best be described using a relatively simple triangulation—a course any art magazine calling itself relevant would have to chart. First, there were critically engaged artists, writers, and historians: those for whom the idea of art’s possessing a discursive character (perhaps even a dialectical one) was a given, and for whom, one hoped, art was supposed to generate new and revealing ways to encounter, grapple with, and understand the world around them. Second, there were those who still needed to be convinced that such dialogues in art were actually worthwhile—that critical analysis did not of necessity preempt pleasure or beauty, say, but rather gave rise to new possibilities for and new experiences of those very things. Here arose, however, a most intriguing and troubling perspective on the contemporary art world (and the third coordinate plotting that system’s dimensions): Art had become an unknowing extension of the experience economy—a system no longer at the forefront of engagements with mass culture but instead its most elaborate fruition. Art in its own inward-looking setting was, in other words, a stand-in for all the adaptable, gently disarming and alluring, interrogatory and intimate commercial enterprises sprouting up everywhere in postindustrial society as it sought to both prompt and fulfill consumerist desire. (For every example of art-fair art, there was a Prada store conceived of as a community center; for every “relational” installation of art, there was a social nexus online.) Our greatest possible mistake in art, I suspected, was to think we were so special, or even that we were somehow set apart.

But today such a triangulation strikes me increasingly as a configuration of the past, with the tensile strain among these different constituencies largely dissipated, perhaps allowing the structure at last to collapse. No doubt this impression arises only because so much critical effort has already gone into articulating art’s relationship to mass culture, with the dialogues of the past decade finally becoming a subject for art-historical debate. Indeed, the basis for such debates—analyses that went into volumes such as Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello’s The New Spirit of Capitalism—has been on hand for roughly fifteen years. In the current issue, then, artist and critic Joe Scanlan is able to consider the “flexibility, organicism, accessibility, [and] eloquence” of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s installations through the prisms of networked communities and nonhierarchical corporate management structures designed to enhance both creativity and productivity—and this comparison, though provocative, seems deeply resonant, even intuitively correct, in its vocabulary. The various models of such art may have migrated and given shape to a larger corporate sphere long ago, but today, as in a feedback loop, the context provided by the latter introduces distortions and requires us to revisit the language of this work using a different syntax.

At the same time, beyond these pages, everyday circumstances in the art world likewise prompt a reconsideration of art’s supposedly differential relationship to culture at large. To cite just one prominent example, the appointment of Jeffrey Deitch as director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, is a call for a new perspective. Taking the helm at an institution long associated with the development of Conceptual art is an individual who once proposed (onstage as part of Artforum’s “Art and Money” roundtable at the New School in New York in 2008) that museums would eventually be superseded in their role by private ventures, and that artists might appropriately occupy a place in culture comparable to that of “starchitects,” the implication being that art should exist on the same plane and scale as media and culture industries more generally. Noteworthy as well is a quote in the New York Times, from Deitch’s first press conference as director, regarding the creation of design studios at MOCA—“I’m very interested in art as an economic engine”—indicating a readiness to import the lessons of Boltanski and Chiapello back into the institutional framework for redistribution. (It’s important to acknowledge here that Deitch’s perspective is both earnest and earned: Having come of age in the New York of the 1980s, he possesses a view shaped by the living proximities of art and media that characterized those times. Also, it is possible that his appointment merely reflects changes that have already come to pass in museums, and is jarring only on the symbolic level.)

Undoubtedly, a changed language in criticism will arise to address this changed artistic context—but it can only derive from the context. Which is not to say there are no longer battle lines to be drawn around art and culture. In this respect, my attention was drawn to a passage in this issue from George Baker’s interview with Kaja Silverman about her new book, Flesh of My Flesh (Stanford University Press, 2009), in which the author says, “What we call ‘reason’ is essentially negation: the definition of what things are through the specification of what they are not. It is thus profoundly divisive.” What’s needed instead, she continues, is analogical thought, which privileges the affinities rather than the differences between things—without falling prey to those pernicious stratifications of “Platonic and Christian analogies [that] link our world to a ‘higher’ world.” As I read those words, however, I cannot help recalling (and not without irony) the Vatican’s recent denunciation of Avatar because, as portrayed in the film, “nature is no longer a creation to defend, but a divinity to worship.” Who’d have expected the papacy to make it starkly clear that the (post-Brechtian?) propositions of a mass-media film—suggesting as it does that our world is not set apart from any “higher” world but is rather the very embodiment of it—have much in common with the analyses of one of our most adventurous theorists! And where does the art world fall in relation to these opposing worldviews? Can it somehow retain its privileged position, standing apart from—indeed, floating loftily above—lived reality? Or, seeking a different critical language for an altered landscape, must it see itself reflected in this other image as well?