What can an art magazine do?

Since this issue is my last as editor of C, it seems natural to ask what exactly I have been doing these past four-and-a-half years. Having been the editor of two art publications (C Magazine [(2004-2008)] and the now obscure MIX Magazine [(2001-2002)] what do I now believe an art magazine can do?

Because contemporary art as a discipline promulgates a specialized kind of language, perhaps a better way to phrase this question is: what does language do for art? Anyone familiar with art history knows that this question is seminal. In a number of significant ways art is its language. Many notable artists have dedicated their work to making this idea explicit: from Marcel Duchamp to Joseph Kosuth to Lawrence Weiner to Art & Language. And for all significant instances of contemporary art, to practice art is to make a proposition about art, with language as its vehicle.

I want to look at this condition from a publication-specific angle. The question ‘What can an art magazine do for art?’ breaks down into two parts: one focusing on the type of language customarily used by writers about art; and the other, on the claims made for art–in general, and for specific artworks–that writers writing about art tend to make.

In terms of the type of language art criticism uses, I confess to being a skeptic. Of necessity, art criticism borrows from a number of academic disciplines–especially philosophy–because the most effective artworks have deep philosophical implications; but, like any specialized language meant to bestow authority on its user, theoretical language often indulges in obfuscation for its own sake.

In the previous issue of C, Earl Miller ruminated on this subject (“The State of Art Criticism and Critical Theory,” C100, Winter 2008). As a working art critic, Miller is well-placed to assess and clearly articulate the shortcomings of his chosen profession. The only thing I would add is that my own antipathy to ‘artspeak,’ to theoretical writing, stems from the occupational hazard of having to edit it; more often than not, the application of theory to the consideration of artworks makes for bad writing.

However, a topic for which I do have an affinity is the claims of significance that art writing can make for art. Along with bad writing, prescriptions for ‘art’ are something I’ve indulged in my career, such as it is, as an art critic. Without the opportunity to affirm faith in the idea that art exists somehow as a living entity, and is therefore animated by a purpose, art magazines would be left with merely descriptive art reviews, and these are only of ephemeral, journalistic interest at best.

For examples of what I am talking about, this issue of C provides a convenient-to-hand case study. For instance, I like Ralph Wander‘s interview with the French art duo known as ‘Claire Fontaine’ for its extravagant sense of the possible. In the interview, the artists evince an acute awareness of the constructed nature of any art initiative; this includes the name of the artist, which in their case is borrowed from a French brand of stationery. The artists make their view clear: art is a construct that is potentially liberating. Hence the claim that their project “works on the transformation of subjectivity by pushing the boundaries of authorship and collectivity”–a statement that was itself collectively authored by interviewer and interviewee.

Another example of art’s propositional muscle is found in Johan Lundh’s text, “The Art of Disappearing,” which distills an interview he conducted with the Dutch curator Krist Gruijthuijsen. The two men spoke about Gruijthuijsen’s ongoing project to create an archive of artists who leave the art world, the American Lee Lozano’s ‘defection’ being perhaps the most well-known instance of this. Discussing art’s ability to reclaim such refusals as art Lundh notes, “[e]ven a rejection of the art world is ultimately a confirmation of its power;” this is to advance the idea that the art world is like some highfalutin Hotel California: you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave! However odd this proposition may seem to outsiders, those of us on the ‘inside’ know it to be all too accurate.

Vancouver artist Eli Bornowsky makes another “claim” for art. In his letter to the editor printed in this issue, he continues a dialogue he has been carrying on in these pages with Toronto painter Sholem Krishtalka. The spark for this conversation was Krishtalka’s less-than-enthusiastic review of a Brice Marden show he saw in Berlin. Krishtalka’s dismissal of Marden’s brand of abstraction prompted Bornowsky to lay out a program for criticism, one which begins with looking at the work itself. While this may seem like an already self-evident component of the art critic’s job, in Bornowsky’s view, the inability of certain critics to do so is symptomatic of a wider malaise. It is a “contemporary negligence,” that can provide a program for art–one for which the artist and the art writer have complementary roles. If, to borrow Bornowsky’s words, paintings (and, by extension, all artworks) can be said to have their own “mysterious coordinates,” this might explain why the work of finding out what they are, and trying to articulate this identity, is a perpetual task–one for which an art magazine is uniquely suited.