PRINT Summer 2010



FOR YEARS, I’ve periodically wondered about the merits of organizing an issue of Artforum around a single, relatively straightforward question: What is art today? That project never came to pass, of course, for reasons probably easy enough to imagine. The subject of inquiry is at once much too simple and much too complex, very specific and yet so broad and abstract as to seem nearly impossible to tackle. Most important, however, the question by itself induces no small amount of embarrassment. It requires that we make no assumptions and take nothing for granted regarding generally agreed-on understandings of art and its operations, whether in the studio, the classroom, the boardroom, or the museum, or behind the gallery desk. One must be willfully naive even while recognizing that critical discussions and artistic maneuvers that would seem to depart from or elaborate on such conventions are apt only to reinscribe them, essentially repeating one’s presuppositions under the guise of so many other gestures and words. The question, in short, requires a discomfiting honesty and vulnerability about belief and desire that most of us, at the end of the day, seek to avoid—and the value of which is debatable (certainly to those of us who typically espouse “analytic” models over “personal” ones).

And yet, somewhat surprisingly to me, the current issue could be said to be precisely about this inquiry, with all the tangles it entails. While the various essays and interviews here ostensibly take up the subject of the contemporary museum, anyone reading them together will gain a sense of the institution in light of its fast ties to culture more broadly speaking—forcing in turn a sense of art as it exists in a context radically altered even from that of just a decade ago. Indeed, although historical citations throughout this issue underline the museum’s intrinsic relationships with any given era’s civic and economic orders, turning these pages one is inevitably aware of the institution’s unique ability to act as a prism for our own social sphere, modeling and perhaps producing behavior at a moment when relationships between public and private, work and leisure, even between consciousness and commerce, are being sweepingly revised in society at large. One discovers as well fundamental correlations between museum infrastructures and technological developments, with novel global networks emerging among institutions and with classificatory schemes being reformulated due to radical changes in media—all of these circumstances not only reshaping the production and reception of art but also affecting decisions as to what precisely is put on display, where and how, by whom and for whom.

But when it comes to the question of what art might be today—of how, in other words, its essential nature has been inflected by these various societal constellations—such observations by themselves are simply not enough. In fact, as one reads through the various contributions here, taking note of different themes threading from text to text—many of the same words employed in different ways, and on occasion with notably different meanings—one cannot help but feel that a situation in art has arisen for which a critical language does not yet exist but seems to be compellingly in formation. (To draw out an implication of Diedrich Diederichsen’s column on recent theater, how does one find a critical perspective when criticality itself seems yet another role played among so many others?) And so it is important to recognize that the texts here are not put forward with the intention of a definitive discussion of the museum or the art within it. Rather, they should be read collectively as a kind of dossier or multiauthored report: a panoply of perspectives that suggests just how tenuous our assumptions about art have become. The terms for art are changing quickly, or, perhaps more accurately, these shifts have already taken place and are only now becoming discernible in the structuring of art’s institutions.

In the years ahead, there will be, one hopes, a language with which to address these shifts. And this, finally, is the purpose of a publication like Artforum. In the current issue, Helen Molesworth, chief curator of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, gives us a sense of the stakes: “The production and distribution system [of contemporary art] is so vast that anything like consensus . . . is at the threshold of impossibility. And if consensus is not quite possible . . . then how does one find and commit to the work that is important? How do we create the conditions for a discussion of criteria?” But it is crucial to recognize as well that such a dilemma is perennial. In fact, her words recall for me a discussion of Hans Belting’s Art History After Modernism (2003), which we published in my first issue as editor, some seven years ago: “Art history,” our reviewer observed, “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.” The path may not be clear, but we must attempt to find the grounds for shared dialogue in order to change conditions as they are.

Which is to say that although the disjunctive perspectives on art may be of a largely different complexion today, the task for this publication remains the same: to ask and pursue, continually, the question of how to create the possibility for a discussion and, indeed, to create a sense of possibility more generally. How, we must ask, does one forge the conditions for a discussion of criteria, even when the cultural context changes and the very ideation of art must be considered anew?

This is my final issue as editor of Artforum, and I am forever grateful for having had the chance to be part of its community and its ambition alongside so many remarkable individuals. To the publishers, I wish to express my deepest gratitude for your unflagging commitment to the magazine not only during my tenure but for the past three decades and more. To my fellow editors, I will always be in your debt for the incredible ideas you put forward (and incredible hours you put in) on a monthly basis. And to the artists and authors who have contributed over the years, I must say it has been humbling to be the beneficiary of your generosity. It is with a sense of excitement and deep appreciation that I will join so many other readers of your writings on art, not only as it is but as we desire it to be.