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Jack Bankowsky on Scene & Herd

Cover of Artforum 42, no. 1 (September 2003).
 
Click here for Alison Gingeras, “Paris-a-Go-Go,” November 18, 2004

WHAT WOULD IT BE LIKE to run a magazine within a magazine, a forum inside Artforum, and one whose purview, rather than art itself, would be “the art world,” the 24-7 social whirl the parent publication’s very identity depends on holding at arm’s length? How might it feel, after a decade of heavy exposure to the soul-numbing (OK, occasionally amusing) panels and openings and gallery dinners and galas that froth atop the making and showing of contemporary art, to go out armored with “literary” purpose––or, better still, to command a battalion of junior Prousts to go out for me? Would the art world’s wearying rituals, its symptomatic excesses, its chatter (I mean, discourse), come back ennobled as self-knowledge—even as, er, art?

Such was the lightbulb, the little string of them, that flickered behind what must have been a discernible glint in my eye in 2003, when, having recently bumped headlong into midlife and in a panicked reflex spontaneously terminated my own eleven-year tenure as Artforum’s longest-running editor in chief, I kicked myself upstairs and accepted my first assignment as editor at large. My mandate: to bring more traffic to Artforum.com, the website the magazine launched in 1997.

Such practical assignments, aimed at attracting readers and revenue, were nothing new to me, having shepherded the magazine through nearly a dozen, mostly lean years. In fact, I had always enjoyed the challenge of massaging the form (devising novel formats, creating fresh packaging tricks, dreaming up new sources of revenue) in the interest of simply getting what we did—and do—out there into the world. Scene & Herd, my solution to the increased-hits challenge, was in this respect more practical than perverse, though I will admit I took some pleasure in tweaking the sensibilities of the most pious factions of our following.

On a publishing level, my wager was that the Artforum brand, like, say, Carnegie Hall’s, was strong enough to bear the equivalent of an evening of cabaret with Michael Feinstein—just as long as we kept the early-music fans supplied with early music. On an editorial level, my modus operandi was a bit more—I should not go here—aspirational. I gloried in the prospect of walking the infrathin line that separates Scene & Herd from, say, Suzy or, closer to home, Bob Colacello’s Out, the social diary he kept in Andy Warhol’s Interview during the 1970s—of “performing” the unavoidable bondage of art and publicity (in the print media’s dissolute final hours). All this under the improbable banner of high art and serious criticism.

My muses in this endeavor, beyond literature’s canonical chroniclers of mores and manners, consisted in a line of AF talent I had championed at the magazine, including Wayne Koestenbaum, Hilton Als, Dennis Cooper, and Bruce Hainley—but in particular David Rimanelli and Rhonda Lieberman, two voices from the earliest days of my editorship. Because this pair exist (precariously) between the institutionalized safe havens of tenure-track propriety and mass-magazine pure product, they are ideally poised to out the art world with respect to its enabling “contradictions.”

I am not suggesting that all these writers necessarily warmed to my project, only that their examples provided the bread-crumb trail that led me to my experiment. At stake for me (this is the aspirational part) was a way of thinking about writing, of thinking about writing about art, indeed a way of thinking about art itself—one that runs through my 111 issues, from my very first, in September 1992 (featuring Lieberman’s still-not-past-its-expiration-date “The Loser Thing”), to my last, a Biennale-focused number, the cover of which featured a photograph of an illicit street vendor, in Venice, no less, hawking knockoffs of the handbag Takashi Murakami infamously customized for Louis Vuitton. Here I am forcing a link between a way of being on the page, of working one’s persona and agency as a character at the level of the text, and (I’m moving too fast here, I know) a strong current in recent artmaking that, analogously to my mind, depends on inhabiting “the symptom,” on working one’s relationship to the systems one traverses—the art system (Scene & Herd’s beat) among them.

For a decade-plus, the magazine had been my medium, and now, improbably, so was the Web. I have to laugh at my Luddite self for launching the magazine’s first blog—or not really a blog, because, in defiance of the form’s built-in temporalities, I pathetically attempted to burnish each scrap of prose to the highest luster, even as the bons (or not yet bons) mots were yanked out from under my pencil to etherize in the blogosphere. I really did picture our writers as munchkin Prousts, popping out from between the miles of Versace pant legs in a startled patron’s dressing room (the obligatory collector’s home art tour seldom spares the boudoir) or staring up at Larry Gagosian from his plate of rubber chicken.

When the Scene & Herd “mirror, mirror” proved especially finely silvered, lines were inevitably crossed and feathers ruffled. Rimanelli “worked” the several degrees of separation that link the art critic to the collecting class with perfect comic pitch when he tipsily wandered upstairs at a curator’s opening after-party and, with artist chum Hanna Liden in tow (“Hanna and Her Sisters,” June 9, 2006), donned the athletic apparel of his hosts’ teenage son (“Apologies to Rothschild fils; we put everything back as we found it, promise”). Lieberman nearly cut the umbilical cord clean through when, inspired by what she witnessed on the walls of the Park Avenue home of a respectable collector, she recounted a certain T&A tendency in the collection—and a punitive dearth of refreshment (“Pad News,” March 18, 2005). The host, we quickly learned, was not amused, but that flurry was nothing compared with the two-week shit storm that followed our visit (Rimanelli again) to a local grandee’s Art Basel Miami Beach bash (“Cruz Control,” December 1, 2004), over which the fiery hostess threatened to cancel her “beloved” annual fete for all time in protest—and blame it on Artforum!

It was curator and critic Alison Gingeras who in November 2004 penned the very first entry for Scene & Herd, a knowing take on the Parisian gallery world (“Paris-a-Go-Go,” November 18, 2004). By the time the diary launched, the two of us were in the early planning stages of an exhibition we called “Sold Out” (the cocurated effort would open at London’s Tate Modern in 2009 under the somewhat tamer banner “Pop Life”). Inspired by the networked initiatives that characterized Warhol’s late-phase “Business art” endeavor (and showcasing the work of artists from Warhol himself to Jeff Koons, Martin Kippenberger, and Reena Spaulings), our exhibition—and the fledgling online diary—were cobbled together on the same worktable, one floor above Artforum’s main office. Having just penned an essay on Damien Hirst for these pages as a less than first-rate Business artist, I might be uniquely qualified to explain why Scene & Herd is not quite to the art magazine what Murakami’s Louis Vuitton boutique at the heart of his MoCA retrospective was to the museum, but I will admit that we felt some solidarity with our artist betters.

Party photo that accompanied Rhonda Lieberman’s “Pad News,” from Scene & Herd, Artforum.com, March 18, 2005.

I am making all this sound more premeditated than it was. When, for instance, I decided to ply my entrée as a longtime editor to file an undercover report, my move had more to do with the exigencies of the velvet rope than with any conscious strategy: We were simply having a tough time getting our Scene & Herd moles into the fanciest art-world dos. I went under the not very effective cover of diarist “Trân Dúc Vân,” a more or less spontaneous inspiration, lifted, as it happened, from the title of a photograph by Jeff Wall, the guest of honor at the first luncheon I infiltrated in my new double identity (“Wall to Wall,” October 22, 2005). Wall guessed right away and followed up with a thoughtful thank-you e-mail just to let Trân know he knew. Meanwhile, back at lunch (sometimes life truly is better than art!), Sheena Wagstaff, the Tate curator behind the Wall exhibition we happened to be celebrating, offered me a generous nod in her toast, having just agreed to mount the show I had been planning with Gingeras—and unaware, of course, that in raising a glass to the new “Sold Out” curator she was simultaneously toasting the insipid Trân!

I suppose I feel less equivocal in my sense of accomplishment with respect to the founding and development of Bookforum (1994) and the special issues devoted to the art of the 1980s (March and April 2003) and the legacy of Pop art (October 2004)—but having effectively missed the fabled frontier days of chat rooms (in our office, I recall, the sole computer with an Internet connection back then belonged to a whip-smart editorial assistant whose futurism made me feel old and anxious), I do feel somehow redeemed, or at least relieved, for having belatedly caught the wave of what must surely have been the biggest next big thing of my Artforum tenure, or for that matter of any Artforum editor’s––unless, as one artist I know insists, it was the fax machine that was the real game changer!

In Holy Terror (1990), the memoir of his Warhol days, Colacello makes a point that, having assiduously toiled (ultimately in vain) to professionalize Interview and turn it into a viable commercial concern, he finally realized that Andy never really wanted the magazine or the TV shows or the movies to “succeed,” at least not on a Hollywood scale. For Andy, the art (as art itself, as brand, and inevitably as cash cow) was all that counted—and it was only in failing as a real magazine that Interview triumphed as a work of Business art, as a facet of his multichannel Gesamtkunstwerk.

By the time I stepped off the Scene & Herd merry-go-round (more copy, more writers—fewer Prousts) in 2007, the diary was “working.” It had exponentially increased Artforum.com’s traffic (almost instantly, as it happened), and it continues to rack up the hits today under the festive (and capable!) editorial direction of David Velasco, holding strong as the website’s most visited and widely read (or at any rate viewed!) column. Did the infrathin gap we aimed to ply between the real gossip column and our own clamp shut as the “individual hits” started to mount? Did it ever even exist?

Whatever the case, Scene & Herd provides an invaluable service, especially if, like Andy, you prefer to hear about the night before the morning after rather than suffer its rigors in the flesh. The record suggests that the indefatigable gadabout may have been telling a white lie when he claimed as much, though when it comes to last night’s Liam Gillick Bard College opening with dinner following in nearby Woodstock (minibus transport provided!), his logic is unimpeachable.

I should really log on.

Jack Bankowsky, Artforum editor at large, is a critic and independent curator. He served as the magazine’s editor from 1992 until 2003.