Thursday, 8 November 2012

ARTFORUM 50th Anniversary Edition, September 2012

Artforum celebrated its 50th anniversary with a bumper September edition, running to 540 pages (not counting the pages of ads and still reasonably priced) surveying its history of editors, their changing ideals and aesthetics and devoting the remainder of the magazine to articles on new media. From its humble beginnings concentrating upon the West Coast scene in the early sixties, the magazine has moved from peripheral or radical concerns to the mainstream, broadening its coverage until it eclipsed its older, more established rivals, Art News and Art in America. These days Artforum does not so much boast a staff of bold critics as invite distinguished commentary from elsewhere in the global art world and consider general questions of philosophy or policy, which increasingly run to matters of culture rather than just art. Inevitably, it has become an organ of consensus and the establishment and one looks to its pages now for endorsement or approval of trends rather than protest or provocation.
This steady entrenchment hardly guarantees infallibility, naturally. If anything; sharpens scrutiny, raises the stakes of criticism. Since AF uses such an auspicious issue on which to advance the cause for new media, indeed, invokes the entire history of the magazine in support of advanced or progressive art, the claims duly acquire a certain weight and warrant careful consideration. This review takes issue with the history presumed, with the priority assigned new media and the historicism implicit in such aesthetics. Current editor Michelle Kuo spells out AF’s position in her introduction (p 66-9) and while aware of the pitfalls in building a case for technology in art, can no more than acknowledge the dilemma of ‘lapsing into a retrograde medium specificity or a technological determinism’ (p.66). But what else can a devotion to new media be, if not attention to specifics of technology? If not, a deterministic acceptance of the ‘new’ or ‘progress’?  Kuo would need to spell out what is retrograde about past medium specifics that are not so about current versions; and in what way an acknowledgment of technological progress is not then deterministic for her point to be persuasive. She does neither. Nor does it occur to her that it is the matters between the horns of her dilemma that need articulation; that resisting the excesses of formalism requires content of some kind. Again the omission fatally weakens her argument. She is happy to accept that technology prompts as much nostalgia as optimism, on the basis that the term media shares an etymology with the middle ground but the real problem is  media in themselves are not the basis for aesthetic judgement, nor strictly, even the established categories of the plastic (or fine) arts – architecture, sculpture, painting and printing.
Painting, for example, need not actually involve paint or brushes and where paint is involved, varieties of pigment and solution allow for quite distinct effects and finishes. Yet painting as a plastic art is not firstly sub-divided into frescos, oils, acrylics, watercolour, gouache, enamels or lacquers, for instance, nor by variety of application for these. Rather, painting promptly appeals to classes of content or genres, which often have historical, national or local constraints and then aid location of the work in terms of style, enable valid comparison, discernment of shared and individual traits. But again, these distinctions are rarely to do with medium. If we unpack painting as a fine art category generally, we at best recognise works devoted to two-dimensional representation. But is two-dimensionality sufficient to qualify as a medium? At best it begs further qualification. Then again a 'progress' in category looks even more doubtful on these terms. Is three dimensions more advanced than two? Then is four (as time/motion) better than three? Or for that matter, is two and a half an improvement on two and three? Actually they hardly make sense without the distinctions. Unless we know what two-dimensions are, we do not really know what three are. Is the same content strictly available to each category? This is a matter that has exercised analytical philosophy for some time. Here it is enough to point to a deeply flawed understanding of painting as a category of fine art. In truth, rigour of medium is rarely an issue in painting. Its long history records constant experiments in chemistry and supports, their acceptance and failures – when applied to various genres, styles and departures from them. Contrary to Kuo’s endorsement, medium is not the message. Actually the inverse is closer to art practice.
Why then the fixation on technology or materials? This is really the unfortunate legacy of AF’s formative years, when their team of young, radical critics, including Michael Fried, Rosalind E. Krauss, Max Kozloff and Barbara Rose, espoused a view of painting granting primacy to abstraction and in particular Minimalism.  Under this view abstraction was taken as an absolute which depended upon exclusive self-reference or the display of only intrinsic properties. This quest for a chimerical essence needless to say, could not be sustained and the notion of ‘medium specific’ properties soon fell into disrepute. This is why Kuo flags her disavowal of ‘medium specificity’. But rather than rethink abstraction, the tendency throughout the intervening years at AF and elsewhere has been to assume that it was painting had therefore run out of options, rather than critics, and that further development awaited artists looking to the next ‘medium’, understood as the next category or combination of categories of fine art. Partly this is the folly of a dedication to progress and an implicit historicism on the part of critics; partly it is a consequence of greater consolidation by AF within the art world. When an institution grows large enough, foundations tend to become too awkward to revise.
The result has been that distinctions within fine art are habitually pressed by hybrids, prized for adventure and inevitably fine art then eyes off terrain in the performing arts and literature, and where motion pictures are granted status as the seventh art, in film or video. But it is notable that such efforts are rarely reciprocated. Literature does not look to texts used or generated in exhibitions as a promising avenue of publication; performance rarely surrenders a reliable theatre and performable script or score for site specific composition. Cinema sees little profit as yet in multiple screens or channels, imaginative décor or setting. Yet this hardly condemns them to stagnation or obsolescence. Vital changes continue to occur across the other arts, are easily recognised without invoking an absurd exclusive means or relentless progress. As is sometimes observed, it is only in fine art that an anxiety with history accompanies valid interpretation; that there is the need for a history of art to underpin style and evaluation.
A commitment to making art history and a flawed theory of abstraction and its pre-eminence prove a fatal combination. Advocates cannot accept changes in abstraction following Minimalism, cannot properly applaud hybrid categories, without conceding a dependency upon traditional ones. Art history grows impossibly brittle and stunted for the period. For example, Kuo confidently glosses developments in 1967 as ‘when artists were attempting to leave behind the good old medium categories of painting and sculpture, the stuff of so many museum departments. It was the moment when innumerable artists traded flatness and turpentine for intermedia, language, video, systems, information, expanded cinema and theatricality’ (p 66-7). Could not these concerns be pursued just as validly in painting?  To assume their content is intrinsic to new technology sounds pretty much like medium specifics, surely? As for ‘Innumerable’ artists - is one to suppose this represented the vast majority of artists of the time, an overwhelming trend? Since it is an appeal to history, we are right to scrutinize such details. Was there really no more significant painting occurring? This will come as a surprise to Lyrical Abstractionists, Surface/Support painters, Photorealists, Funk artists, nascent Painting and Decoration, New Image, Neo-Expressionist and “Bad” painters. It will come as a disappointment to advocates of the Cubist years onward, that consistently expanded the materials of painting and sculpture, to embrace or integrate with architecture, interior and industrial design, (see the Bauhaus and similar), to find deft intermediates, such as the work of Schwitters or Rauschenberg, to broach kinetics for sculpture (from Duchamp to Giacometti to Calder to Tinguely, for example) exhibition to installation (Richard Hamilton’s Growth and Form exhibition at the ICA, London in 1951, say, or Lucio Fontana’s lighting fixtures at the Milan Triennale from the same year); expanded performance to happenings, such as John Cage’s Theatre Piece No 1 (or The Event) from 1952 at The Black Mountain College, where the spirit of the Bauhaus and integrated aesthetics were vigorously maintained. The ‘good old mediums of painting and sculpture’ actually seem to have been restless for some time. In short, 1967 does not figure as a pivotal moment in these developments, no matter how convenient it may be to Kuo’s purpose. Moreover, they are not the only or even the most important developments of the time – unless one wishes to advance some dubious notion of superior technology and Kuo all but concedes this removes the argument from the sphere of art, implies a disturbing determinism.
Unquestionably technology progresses; our instruments improve on those of the past. But that does not make them art (despite the common phrase, ‘state of the art’) and it does not make art that uses the latest technology necessarily more advanced than older versions, a point several artists make under the brief reports titled Media Studies, in the issue. An acrylic painting is not automatically better than an oil painting. Typing does not improve prose over long hand. A digital video need not be superior to an analogue one. As noted, key differences are decided by content or ends as much as medium or means, and these ultimately rest with appreciation of style and precedent. Art history actually need make no claim for progress, it is enough to discern differences and trace their influence and changes. To buy into a master plan for history is to buy into slavery. We do better to leave progress to science, and allow art to merely digress. It is not that AF is simply unaware of other developments in painting over the period; almost all of the examples from 1967 onward were reviewed there. But increasingly, there is a gulf between focussed reviews and loftier features or editorials. At the level of theory or policy, their model for innovation remains too crude to register vital differences within a category, an excess of ambition leaves them too longsighted to acknowledge the proximity of tradition.  Even as a model for progress it rapidly loses traction.
However, where institutions are held hostage to yesterday’s dogma and confined to gimmicks and gadgetry, the issue is greater than simply an inadequate art history. We lose a vital cultural confidence. It robs us of crucial sensitivity, engagement and judgement. A more sobering prospect on this occasion might have been how AF has consistently failed to foster a younger generation of critics, the equal in stature of their original team, and why those that did show promise, left. The exception is probably Robert Pincus-Witten. AF has moved on, not just from Minimalism or Conceptual Art, but from art criticism. In this regard the twenty three features dedicated to issues of new media and technology make for a depressing read, scattered across architecture, cinema, experimental film, photography, digital printing technology, video, web presentations, theatre and sociology, we have so many nerdish, inconsequential turns,  to even sweep them under the umbrella of culture studies is to grant them exaggerated scope. They are merely the upbeat capsules or friendly updates for those that do not have the time for more than keeping up appearances. Who reads AF these days? To judge from its sprawling concerns and fleeting attention span, it looks like the expansive generalist, the frantic cultural butterfly, and mostly an aspirant management sector. The art world has evidently moved on as well.

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