Does Artforum have a Future?

For critics of my generation, Artforum is the classic American art journal. It is the publication that, for all of our discontents, has defined the style and standard of contemporary art writing. My own relationship with Artforum has been slight. When in the 1980s I started doing criticism, Artforum was the first place in which I published. That arrangement didn’t last long, for soon the journal was sold and my editor Joseph Masheck replaced. Then, a decade later, thanks to support from a kindly art dealer, I reappeared in Artforum. But when I did an interview with Sir Ernst Gombrich, the editor was very disappointed. That was surprising to me, for Gombrich’s unenthusiastic appraisal of almost all modernist art was hardly news. In any case, when later I taught in China for a semester, I again published in Artforum. But my relationship with the journal was not extended.

There is, I think, nothing unusual about my story, for many writers have brief relationships with Artforum. In the 1980s the gifted journalist Janet Malcolm published in The New Yorker a famously controversial account of the journal. Of course, almost every publication is likely to have internal conflicts, but one doesn’t think of art criticism as provoking battles of interest to the larger public. But in this case, these struggles within a small circulation journal took on an epic dimension. One felt that the passionate debates about how to cover contemporary art exhibitions had larger cultural significance. Certainly I was always fascinated by the stylistic experimentations of Artforum, which has gone through radical changes under its successive editors. I was specially interested in linking the visual arts to the worlds of fashion and mass entertainments.

Coming to art criticism from academic philosophy, I had a lot to learn. The Journal of Philosophy, where I also published early on, is entirely uncommercial. Its only advertisements are for philosophy books, which means that the publication needs academic institutional support. But Artforum depends upon its advertisers, and it pays contributors And so there is always an obvious, much discussed worry about conflicts of interest. Editors want an effective firewall between the necessary gallery advertisements and the reviews, for otherwise those reviews are just paid advertisements. When I went to China, I was shown a statement about these conflicts of interest. The problems are obvious. On one hand, a reviewing journal needs financial support, and the most likely serious source of that support are art dealers. There also are reviewing journals published by the College Art Association, which are supported by member dues. I have written for them, too, but these publications are not as widely read in the art world as the commercial journals. And of course there also is newspaper coverage, but in the United States the only publication providing national coverage is The New York Times. And nowadays it doesn’t devote close sustained attention to the galleries.

When I first wrote for Artforum, many of the reviews were highly critical, and the journal was relatively thin. Then in the 1980s, it attracted massive gallery advertising. And there were often more sympathetic reviews. But of course these changes are difficult to understand, for there was an enormous expansion of the gallery system and the entry into the art world of many new critics. If a writer criticizes too many shows too harshly, then maybe they deserve to find some other occupation. But if you like almost everything, then your praise is meaningless. Achieving a balance is tricky. Art galleries are commercial businesses, and so it would be illogical for them to support a journal that did not support their exhibitions. Here then is a basic tension. The art world desires journalistic coverage, which provides essential publicity. But it’s devilishly difficult to find some plausible way of supporting that activity. Art criticism requires an editor and staff, who have to be paid, And since it’s written by independent scholars, they also need to be paid.

Artforum has recently been in the news. After a dispute about coverage of politics the editor was fired. I don’t have any information to add to that well-reported event. (See the very instructive account by Barry Schwabsky, art critic for The Nation) But the potential implications of this change reserve discussion. As long as I have been a critic, I have been fascinated by the distance between the announced leftist politics of most writers and artists, and the obvious practical concerns of the collectors who make that art world possible. As I have noted repeatedly in my reviews, it was as if these political concerns had no effect on the functioning of this system. Now, however, that has changed, for it’s turned out that politics divides the art world. And just as some grand donors at upscale universities make political demands, which is another news story; so the same is happening at Artforum. For several years political conflict has inspired debates about museum funding. Now it’s extended to art journalism.

As Schwabsky notes, this situation is hardly unexpected. One would assume that the people who pay for our expensive cultural institutions would take some interest in how they function. Usually the distinction between top down patronage of the old regime and democratic rule of the art world defines modernism. Louis XIV chose what art to support without any need to consult his populate. But when his palace the Louvre became the people’s museum during the Revolution in 1793, then the foundation was established for public aesthetic judgments. That artists responded to the public’s interests was the goal of the Enlightenment. Needless to say, this always was a utopian demand. That said, what has happened now is that modernism is being replaced by a renewal of a top down system. The Neapolitan philosopher Giambattista Vico thought that the basic historical structure was circular. Maybe he was right, for perhaps our modernist institutions cannot survive the conflicts inherent in our culture.

In my time doing criticism has become an economically problematic activity. Two generations ago it was possible for an art writer to live as an independent scholar, as least if she or he had a rent controlled apartment. But now thanks to gentrification, that has changed. I can write as a hobby, for I was a tenured academic. But I admit, the marginal status of this writing raises real questions about its importance. Perhaps, then, these pressures will destroy the independent voice of Artforum. And maybe then the art world can function without independent critics. Or, this also is possible, doing art criticism may become an academic activity. But here I am very conscious of the dangers in premature generalization. Maybe in a year everything that I am now writing will prove to be false. (Schwabsky suggested that to me two years ago about what I was saying then, and he was right!) And I am also aware of the dangers of making generalizations about artists and collectors, for they are varied social groups. Still, allowing for these risks, is it not important to try to understand the immediate present? Kant thought that Enlightenment was certainly possible. I hope that he was right, for right now we live in interesting times.

David Carrier is a philosopher who writes art criticism. His Aesthetic Theory, Abstract Art and Lawrence Carroll (Bloomsbury) and with Joachim Pissarro, Aesthetics of the Margins/ The Margins of Aesthetics: Wild Art Explained (Penn State University Press) were published in 2018. He is writing a book about the historic center of Naples, and with Pissarro he conducted a sequence of interviews with museum directors for Brooklyn Rail. He is a regular contributor to Hyperallergic.