Potentially Yours

Sarah Hromack, in a typically thoughtful (no rush-to-the-press) reflection on the continuing value and influence of those “seminal” Artforum issues published forty years ago, asks, “Is it crazy to suggest…that blogs and the community of people who maintain them, have potential similar to that of the earliest Artforum contributers?” Potential indeed. But how to actualize that potential, in what form, in response to what aspects of the current scene, etc. is not so easily determined.

There’s a suggestive remark in Challenging Art made by Nancy Holt as she looks back on that period.

I read Artforum and I certainly was around a lot of those discussions [about minimal and conceptual art, earthworks, formalism, art and politics, etc.] Some of it related to me. The Greenbergian battle was interesting, but I didn’t feel directly connected to it. I could see that the Greenbergian kind of thinking was too restrictive and we had to break it down. We had to open up the art world to other kinds of thinking and other influences from outside. The art world was very limited in scope and it was very entrenched. It had to be taken on aggressively. I don’t know how it ever got so entrenched. I wasn’t around when it was entrenching itself. But by the time I arrived on the scene it was constricting anyone who wanted to do something different.

I find it fascinating that the situation she describes is precisely the opposite of the one we’re in today. The artists and critics — Holt, Serra, Bochner, Judd, Smithson, Krauss, Fried, Kozloff, Rose, Baldessari, etc. — were coming out of a period dominated by Abstract Expressionism. In the ’50s, all new work was measured against it. The critical paradigms were either Greenberg’s formalism or Rosenberg’s existentialism. Then in the early ’60s Pop Art emerged as, among other things, a rejection of the purity and angst of Ab Ex and its defenders. This opened things up considerably with minimalism, conceptual art, and earthworks contributing to the options for young artists and grist for the critics.

It’s hard to imagine how small and constricted the art scene was in the ’60s. Even with the proliferation of new practices and assumptions among intelligent and aggressive artists and critics, they still felt the weight of formalism and the long arm of Greenberg extending his reach through Michael Fried, Hilton Kramer, and Thomas Hess. The Artforum crowd was still looking for ways to open things up to other influences.

Today, after a generation and a half of pluralism, driven by increasingly diversifying market forces, it’s difficult to even generalize in a convincing way about the works we see, let alone formulate assumptions that justify one’s critical judgments. The problem now, it seems to me, is not breaking out, but breaking in new critical tools, forms of creative expression, ways of writing, and concepts to help us both see what’s at stake in the current state of affairs and respond to it. The virtue of the web and, by extension, the art blog, is that here, if you’re fortunate enough to have the time, resources, and imagination, you can experiment without answering directly to economic and social pressures or conforming to conventional ways of thinking. The opportunity may not last for long.

The Artforum That Was

Thanks to Sara Hromack over at Forward Retreat for coaxing out of Dan and others a list of recent posts on the function of blogs. Her concerns about taking full advantage of the non-commercial critical space opened up by blogs raise important issues. The most intriguing, it seems to me, is the possibility of using our position of “relative autonomy” to reinvigorate a critical practice which is increasingly overwhelmed by market demands. I stress the relative aspect of autonomy because the foothold one gains from an independent, unaffiliated (what in other contexts one might call “volunteer”, or “amateur”) practice of writing about the arts is both unstable and uncertain. The fact that one has no institutional support or funding is not, in itself, a virtue. Nor does it guarantee a “pure” and uncompromised perspective, let alone thoughtful and provocative remarks worth reading. To make a contribution one needs an ongoing interaction with other creative, intelligent, clever, and well-informed artists and writers who care deeply about what they’re doing.

I’ve been reading Amy Newman’s book, Challenging Art, in preparation for a course I’m teaching this spring called The End of Art: Postwar Culture and Criticism in the U.S. Her book is a history of Artforum from 1962 to 1974 structured as a chronicle built out of interviews with people such as Philip Leider, John Coplans, Michael Fried, Rosalind Krauss, Barbara Rose, and others responsible for its profound influence during that period. There were a lot of factors contributing to Artforum’s success during those years — some serendipitous, some reprehensible. But I was struck by something that, on reflection, is probably not all that surprising for someone who’s been involved with art publications and institutions for a number of years.

In the first year or two of its existence, no one was paid for the articles published in Artforum. No one. Apparently Phil Leider, the editor, kept meticulous accounts with the intention of paying everyone as soon as the magazine was on its feet. But that simply never happened. Many people were willing to contribute just to see their names in print for the first time with the hope that it would lead to something more substantial. Others were willing to forego payment to help get an exciting new publication on its feet.

What strikes me as relevant and suggestive about the development of the magazine is the way that an informal network of writers, artists, and art historians was brought together through a common desire to refashion the critical practice of the ’60s away from both the moribund “belle lettristic” style associated with French criticism on the one hand and the existentialist ruminations of Harold Rosenberg and his minions on the other, toward a more empirical emphasis on actual works of art and their place in the history of art. Although his activity as a writer was already in decline, the model for critical practice during this period was Clement Greenberg.

It’s hard to imagine the way a small, alternative rag of a publication coming out of the West Coast in the early ’60s was able to exert such a profound influence on the art discourse. Times change, as we all know. Gains made in one period are easily squandered in another. And critical tools productive at one moment may or may not be appropriate 40 years later. But for those of us concerned about the “actual function” and value of art blogs, there’s an important lesson to be learned from Amy Newman’s analysis and the experience of those critics in the ’60s.