PRINT September 2012

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Eric Banks on Lawrence Alloway’s “Network: The Art World Described as a System”

Page from Artforum 11, no. 1 (September 1972). Lawrence Alloway, “Network: The Art World Described as a System.” Shown: Detail of jigsaw puzzle of Jackson Pollock’s Convergence, 1952.

IN SEPTEMBER 1972, in what would become a decennial ritual, Artforum published an issue marking a significant birthday for the magazine, in this case its tenth anniversary. The cover selected for the issue was a simple black-and-white photo taken in the Artforum office of a vacant desk. Behind the desk, a grid comprising ten years’ worth of the magazine’s covers hung on the wall. The desk, one surmises, belonged to founding editor Philip Leider, who had just stepped down. Whether intended or not, the empty desk signified that the editorial direction of Artforum, mapped out visually in the grid of covers, was now up for grabs. The issue featured articles by key members of the editorial board—Rosalind E. Krauss, Max Kozloff, Annette Michelson, Robert Pincus-Witten, and Lawrence Alloway—but as a group their collective contributions spoke less to a reflective stocktaking of the past ten years than to wildly diverging visions for the magazine’s future. Fittingly, the article that most bluntly pressed the claim for a radical new Artforum agenda—Alloway’s “Network: The Art World Described as a System”—came up first on the table of contents. Manet’s sources were out, McLuhan was in.

Alloway’s position in “Network” wasn’t new to the critic—he had first articulated the argument in the magazine Canadian Art in 1966––but in the Artforum piece he decisively shifted the frame of critical focus from an aesthetic, art-historical, or phenomenological experience to an unabashedly sociological one. In “Network,” he described the nexus of overlapping institutions and actors—artists, of course, but also critics, curators, collectors, museum directors, and magazine editors—within an expanded milieu for the distribution and consumption of art and with a lexicon drily appropriated from a mishmash of systems theory and management studies. “What does the vague term art world cover?” Alloway asked. “It includes original works of art and reproductions; critical, historical, and informative writing; galleries, museums, and private collections. It is a sum of persons, objects, resources, messages, and ideas. It includes monuments and parties, esthetics and openings, Avalanche and Art in America.” The story of art in the present was the story of communications and what Alloway called “a shifting multiple goal coalition.” Anyone who has ever complained about the purported linguistic opacity of art criticism should sample the wonders of a pen dipped in Parsonian ink. Yet it was in systems theory that Alloway found his inspiration. “What is the output of the art world viewed as a system?” he asked. “It is not art because that exists prior to distribution and without the technology of information”—to wit, hanging in a studio immediately after its creation. “The output is the distribution of art, both literally and in mediated form as text and reproduction,” which is to say, as information.

Alloway’s interests in “Network” were wide-ranging. He welcomed the radically nonhierarchical orientation of networks (thus demoting critics from their privileged position); he underscored the ever-increasing velocity of communications technologies and the growing mobility of the artwork and its conversion, through photography, into a form of information. But he also observed that formerly distinctive roles in the art world were already blurring. Critics were more and more playing the part of curators (and vice versa), dealers and museum personnel were increasingly linked, and collectors were inseparable from institutional programming. It was less a matter of nefarious motivations than the workings of the network. “All of us are looped together in a new and unsettling connectivity,” which had expanded to include mass-market magazines. He noted that it was in Harper’s Bazaar that Robert Smithson’s first writings had appeared, that by that time both Lichtenstein and Rauschenberg had designed covers for Time, and that the first article on Land art was to be found not in an art magazine but in the Saturday Evening Post. What had eroded the authority of traditional roles was the network’s conversion of seemingly everything into a basic unit of information: “Art galleries, museums, universities, publishers are all parts of the knowledge industry, producing signifiers whose signifieds are works of art, artists, styles, periods.”

You might expect a Benjaminian tone of mourning to infuse “Network,” but what’s striking is the almost evangelical glee behind the essay’s somber vocabulary. Alloway loved to be right, but he also loved to piss people off, especially other critics (“I think Lawrence Alloway was interested in theory but what he wanted was ammunition,” Roger Coleman said in 1983). From his early affiliation with the Independent Group in London in the 1950s, he had been the Saint-Just of a particular strand of political antielitism as it defined itself against an England shocked into a new, gaga consumerist agenda. His support of British Pop dovetailed with his loathing of traditional English art writing (criticism, he wrote in 1959, should “[extend] the recognition of meaningful pattern beyond sonnet form and Georgian elevations to newspapers, crowd behavior, and personal gestures”). In 1961 he left Britain for the United States, where for a half decade he served as the Guggenheim’s irascible senior curator, but he never lost his interest in the insights of the Independent Group—or in the particular homegrown force of that generation’s Look Back in Anger gestures.

Like the Independent Group more generally, Alloway’s writing is getting renewed attention, not least for its prescience. Long before the word became a yuppie verb, four years before it was the title of Peter Finch’s last film, and decades before the Internet became a fact of life, Alloway used the concept of “network” proleptically to describe a massive shift in how most people experience art, anticipating among other things how museums would abandon their older, custodial functions to meet consumer demand and become the privatized social-services centers for lifestyle enhancement we find today. And his interest in systems looks forward to contemporary critiques of art’s distribution and consumption, and to the conversion of everything, from a painting to a press release, into information ripe for circulation. When it comes to critical writing, you hear echoes of Alloway’s “Network” everywhere. All that’s missing, sadly, are the footnotes.

Eric Banks, currently president of the National Book Critics Circle, was a senior editor of Artforum from 1996 until 2007.