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MAGAZINE RACK
by Grant Mandarino
 
This summer marks the end of an era. After an impressive seven-year run, Tim Griffin is stepping down as editor-in-chief of Artforum, crème de la crème of contemporary art magazines. With his departure the art world loses a steady hand that has, for better or worse, guided readers through the ever-proliferating gobbledygook that has come to define 21st-century art criticism. In honor of the occasion, this month’s "Mag Rack" column takes stock of the twists and turns that Artforum took during what I’m calling, for lack of anything cleverer, "the Griffin Years."

Griffin inherited Artforum from Jack Bankowsky (currently editor-at-large of the magazine) in the thick of post-9/11 malaise, dark days of military escalation and rabid patriotism. During his eleven years at the helm (the longest editorial reign in the history of the magazine), Bankowsky had beefed up the contributors’ list with scholarly types in contradistinction to the more belletristic writers and gossiply tone of the 1980s (showcased in a two-issue special the spring before Griffin took over). Under Bankowsky, Artforum gained a reputation for harboring the inscrutable -- yet remained the publication of choice for those in the know.

The overall tone of the magazine has altered but little since then, though Griffin has promoted an increased engagement with current events over the years, an outgrowth of a claim he made in his inaugural editor’s letter that "[a]rtistic discourse, as an interrogatory realm for emotions and ideas, provides the perfect analytical lens through which to consider developments in contemporary culture; and, in turn, looking back through culture compellingly illuminates a question long important to artists, art historians, and critics."

This bi-directional perspective best characterizes "the Griffin Years" and it has taken two main forms. One is the prominence of sponsored "responses" to dramatic socio-political events. In the lead-up to the election of 2004 the magazine commissioned works by several artists for a portfolio of agitprop (although, unsurprisingly, the artists either refused to call their pieces "political" or "artwork"). Similarly the March 2006 issue featured a series of urban renewal projects from leading architectural firms in response to the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina and the Bush administration’s criminal negligence of New Orleans. Forums of academics, practicing artists and museum curators/gallery owners invited to chew over big issues represent the other form this editorial perspective took.

Many of these roundtable discussion focused on particular movements -- "Pop Art" (October 2004), "Land Art" (Summer 2005) -- but the most notable took up questions of greater immediate import, such as the effects of "globalism" (November 2003) or the market (November 2008). (The current issue of Artforum features a roundtable on museums that I’ll take up in next month’s column.)

While these discussions could often be more confusing than illuminating, they nevertheless inevitably offered up a rare glimpse into shadowy mechanics that make the art world turn. Take, for instance, Jeffrey Deitch’s comment during an October 2007 roundtable that the kind of financing that was being shelled out by people like himself before the crash for big production projects like Jeff KoonsCelebration works of the late ‘90s or Olafur Eliasson’s 2003 Weather Project was clearly unsustainable and possibly self-defeating: "I’ve had the experience of looking at a body of work that I helped finance and feeling that I gave the artist too much money. The work would have been better if the artist had had to stretch the use of inexpensive materials and had edited out the directions that were not worth pursuing." Hell, I think that every time I look at Koons work.

Beneath Griffin’s dialogic conception of art and society lurks a nagging suspicion that the true relationship between the two may be anything but a neutral dialectic of equals. The mercenary designs of "mass commerce" haunt his editor’s letters like a specter. This is particularly so after the booming market of the mid-noughties started to dip in 2008. While the majority of contemporary artists seem to have either embraced the crass commercialism of postmodern art or shrugged off hope for some alternative, Griffin’s persistent squeamishness over the collusion of market forces and changing fads provided at least a smidgen of reflection. Griffin has played his role well: He’s the Jiminy Cricket of the artworld.

This kind of hyper-self-conscious stance, however, resulted in a rather contradictory editorial policy. On the one hand Griffin stressed Artforum’s commitment to high-brow critique, giving big name intellectuals plenty of space to hate on the redesign of MoMA in 2005 and praise the feats of old-school heroes like William Rubin (who died in 2006). On the other hand, the frenzy for "top ten lists" and rankings (also a Bankowsky introduction) was given free reign. To give him credit, Griffin is wholly aware of this contradiction. He remarks in a November 2007 letter that "[i]n representing any artwork at all, the magazine makes it digestible; and once a critical position is articulated here, another niche market is potentially created." Nothing demonstrates this point better than the magazine’s earnest attempts to introduce readers to a spate of contemporary philosophers like Slavoj Zizek, Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou, Toni Negri and Jacques Ranciere (who had almost an entire issue dedicated to him in 2007). With their theoretical views forced into manageable thought-morsels, the complex ideas of these thinkers are significantly reduced. Their names circulate wider and wider, but with less and less an understanding of what they argue, besides a generalized, fashionable "radicality."  

What was Griffin to do? The fact that he could never quite see his way out of this contradictory position is too bad, but not quite the end of the world. In fact, Artforum’s consistent inability to break out of its own shoe-gazing, crypto-academic analysis during "the Griffin years" was what made the magazine such an educational read. The struggle to steer clear of the black hole of commercialism is in many ways the story of post-WWII art, and while Griffin never wagered an answer as to how this struggle might be resolved, at least he acknowledged its existence in a way another publication like, say, ARTnews, is unlikely ever to do. Reading Artforum may be infuriating from time to time -- I’ve harped on this before, and you’ll hear plenty of wisecracks about it if you ask, well, anyone in the gallery world -- but could be all the more important because of this: It’s the best indicator we have of how fucked up the contemporary art world is.

So now what? Well, Griffin moves up to the editor-at-large position (no one really quite understands the nature of his departure) and, as he said in his resignation press release, will be focusing on symposium and book projects for Artforum. We know from experience that editors-in-large step in to oversee a "special issue" once and a while, so we have that to look forward to. As for Michelle Kuo, who takes over Griffin’s post in September, I think we can expect much of the same. After all, Kuo comes from the same academic milieu as Griffin (albeit Harvard instead of Columbia), and has been around the magazine’s editorial nucleus since 2007. Certain emphases may change, coverage may expand (China perhaps? Notably under-reported during Griffin’s tenure, as he himself has admitted. . .), but the problems Griffin struggled to navigate continue to batter the publication, and there are storms on the horizons.

That’s all for this month. Next time: summer issues.


GRANT MANDARINO is an art writer based in Ann Arbor, Mich.