juli carson

Artforum-ism, or the Mythical Andy Warhol *

"Interdisciplinarity," that line of inquiry involving two or more academic, scientific, or artistic disciplines, has recently come to be confused with what we call "cultural studies." The conflation of the two has produced a problematic notion of interdisciplinarity: that which lacks, of all things, a discipline. While the conservative right1 seeks to impose a mandate in academia against any critical cultural analysis (represented by the projects of Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, or Theodor Adorno, and more recently by the projects of Slavov Zizek and Judith Butler), there are those scholars and advocates who pendulously swing towards the opposite mandate which seeks to collapse all disciplines into the spendthrift pastiche known as "popular" and/or "cultural studies." Indeed, the investigation of popular culture within "high" art has had a rich history in post-war American culture, most notably in the work initiated by Andy Warhol. However, those advocates of a generalized cultural theory fail to continue this investigation; rather, like the American university of late, they merely capitalize on it. I will argue in this paper that Artforum, the leading American magazine on contemporary art, is indicative of this trend. My critique of this magazine is intended to illuminate how particular themes, artists, and critical practices are promoted or elided in contemporary discourse based upon fluctuating editorial policies which are chiasmatically related to the promotion or elision of contemporary discourse within the academic realm.

Mickey Mouse, Andy Warhol, and Artforum

The art critic Barbara Rose made an extraordinary comment about Artforum's editorial policy in 1984 that perfectly sets the stage for a discussion of the magazine's current dilemma:

At Artforum in the sixties and seventies...[w]e felt that we had to make a distinction between Mickey Mouse and Henry James. There's a generation now that feels you don't have to make that distinction. Mickey Mouse, Henry James, Marcel Duchamp, Talking Heads, Mozart, "Amadeus" - it's all going on at the same time....For that, you have Andy Warhol to thank.2

It is true. It could be said that Artforum, as that Warholian subject, "never falls apart" because it "does not fall together." Certainly, there are many connections to be made between the leading artist of Pop and today's Artforum: the magazine's recent preference for the interview format; the over-valuation of-- if not total obsession with-- fashion; the apparent disregard for disciplinary boundaries, not to mention the naughty flaunting of the "low" within "high" culture. While the Artforum of the eighties wrote on the notion of fashion, it now blithely embraces the supermodel. And if these connections were to be dismissed as too general, one need only look to Jeffery Slonim's column in the December 1994 issue of Artforum, nearly a decade after Rose made her accusations in the pages of New Yorker magazine. Flipping through the issue, one is confronted with a two page photo-spread of over one hundred Mickey Mouse dolls of varying shapes and sizes all placed on a shelf, smiling and staring out at the reader in a menacing fashion. And the topic? "Consummate Consumption," a column featuring short statements by contemporary artists who compulsively collect material from popular culture in the manner of Andy Warhol. Hence, apropos of Rose's statement, Mickey Mouse and Andy Warhol are indeed to be found together in the pages of Artforum , only a few articles away from an interview by John Rajchman on the architect Rem Koolhaus.

However, what is most striking about Rose's commentary is not that it tarnishes the integrity of Artforum's editorial policy. More important, it hypostatizes a particular interpretation of Warhol. That is to say, Rose's statement significantly locates what I will call the "myth" of Warhol as that ideological nodal point around which Artforum's conception of interdisciplinarity coalesces. In the "myth" of Warhol, present today in magazines like Artforum, the artist stands as a unitary figure that mirrors the presumed progeny of his legacy: the field of cultural studies where too often the disciplines of photography, film, painting, sculpture, design, fashion, and literature are emptied of their historical currency, thrown onto an allegorical pile, and made into pure linguistic form. They are, as Roland Barthes says, "...however different at the start...reduced to a pure signifying function as soon as they are caught by myth. Myth sees in them only the same raw material; their unity is that they all come down to the status of a mere language."3 This mythological language asserts that the signifiers of Mickey Mouse, Duchamp, Henry James, and the American supermodel can be lumped together in the name of "Warhol," for it is a system that privileges the final term of the semiological chain which retroactively re-defines the first term. Such a leveling gesture transforms meaning into form and we are left with myth - the function of which is to tenaciously hold firm against the sliding of the signifying chain. For if the signifier were allowed to slide, the myth would expose itself: Warhol would be left behind and Artforum's "belle du jour" would be left standing alone, incongruently, next to Rem Koolhaus.

So let us look closer at this "first term," as it is precisely what Artforum does not look at in their use of Warhol as an imaginary cultural icon,4 and it is here that they are led astray. What Rose, as well as Artforum, can't see amidst the blinding glare of Pop art's camp is that Warhol was deeply interested in what Barthes called "that old thing called art"5 though it ("high" art) was not always as interested in him. Hence the "who" (Warhol) that was interested in art takes precedence over the "what" (Warhol's art) that was produced, and that becomes the meaning of the work. Consequently, a silkscreen of Marilyn Monroe, is just that: a picture of a movie star. Warhol eventually became metonymically connected to the star icon outside of any disciplinary concerns. Subsequently, the question for Rose and other conservatives became: "What does that have to do with 'high' art?" The Artforum of the nineties, colluding with the same myth of Warhol, answers: "Nothing, that's the point!" What Rose, as that fetishist of "high" art, and Artforum , as that fetishist of "low" culture, therefore have in common is their insistence on maintaining the positions of high/low under the banner of an artist who problematized their very economy in the market place. Hence, we get the contrast between Rose who offers statements like:

[Artforum] in the sixties had a coherence, which the culture had at that point, too. There was then such a thing as a core curriculum, there was such a thing as liberal arts, humanistic education, there was such a thing as a thorough art-history eduction....We were literary people - academic literary people. We didn't watch television... And we didn't like junk. There wasn't this horrible leveling, where everything is as important as everything else. There was a sense of the hierarchy of values.6

and Rhonda Lieberman, the fashion columnist for Artforum, who facetiously explains her core curriculum in 1994:

Some of my students were puzzled why we were taking this field trip to [the talk show] Jenny Jones. One had the cheek to inquire of me, the authority figure, "What does this have to do with art? "Cultural context, honey," I patiently responded, "It's about how people represent themselves," making a mental note to flunk her. Any student who made an intervention on camera, on the other hand, was guaranteed extra credit.7

It was across these polar economies that Warhol's art waged it's intervention (as did the Artforum of earlier decades), staging the quintessential paradox of modern art in the fifties and early sixties: that the American avant-garde was created and sustained vis-a-vis its popularization within mass culture, the latter of which would subsequently lead to the demise of the avant-garde's very premises. It was in this crux of modernism, between the department store and the art museum, that the everyday camp icons of Pop should be placed.8 While Warhol's art had an expository relation towards the sexual and cultural economies of modernism, Artforum's position towards the same today is based upon myth. I am speaking here of that mythological interpretation of Warhol's legacy which legitimates itself through the myth of postmodern pastiche, the "anything goes" approach to visual culture.

Artforum's Myth: A Brief Genealogy

The myth of postmodern pastiche, often invoked in the name of Warhol, had its roots in the American art market of the eighties. It was in 1980 that Artforum, under the direction of Ingrid Sischy, changed its editorial policy, rejecting (amidst severe budgetary concerns) the focus that the magazine had previously given to postminimalism and conceptualism during the seventies. Instead Sischy made the deliberate decision to embrace the European neoexpressionist painting of such artists as Anselm Kiefer, Francesco Clemente, and Julian Schnabel.9 Yet at the same moment as this editorial decision, Richard Serra was engaged in his Tilted Arc controversy, Hans Haacke was mounting his retrospective exhibition Business As Usual , and the New Museum's Difference: On Representation and Sexuality and Damaged Goods exhibitions were furthering conceptualist and postminimalist concerns into the domain of the "other" postmodernism: that of institutional critique and deconstructionist reevaluations of the subject. While the poet Rene Ricard was lyrically promoting expressionist paintings at Artforum, Andrea Fraser was performing her docent tours of museum collections, augmenting the seventies institutional critique to incorporate psychoanalytical concerns developed by recent feminist theory. None of these artists, however, were included in Sischy's project. Critical debate in Artforum was limited primarily to the likes of Thomas McEvilley, best known for his critique of William Rubin's and Kirk Varnedoe's primitivism show at the Museum of Modern Art, published in November, 1984. The overall editorial attitude of the magazine was to temper its critique of the lucrative gallery system, such that even the contentious McEvilley would be tamed into complacent collusion with a New York art market whose "junk bond" approach to reactionary expressionist painting would result in the great art crash at the decade's closure. McEvilley recalls his conversion towards Sischy's way of thought:

[Sischy] has gone far beyond what I see as the naive hostility of the old regime to the art market - a hostility that I myself used to share, I should add...Ingrid has pointed out to me very intelligently that in the past fifteen years, as the major New York museums have withdrawn from what is happening in art, serious dealers have become terribly important. They are the people who nurture contemporary art and bring it to us.10

In contrast to the magazine's prior editorial policy of aggressively criticizing the gallery system (under John Coplan's leadership in the seventies), the Artforum of the eighties sought the dealer's approval as patron saint. And these patrons had no problem with the "commercialization" of painting, pop, or anything else. Commercialization was, in fact, the point.

In retrospect we can see that the seeds for today's Artforum, which coalesce around a commercialized myth of an anti-intellectual pop art, were planted under Sischy's editorship. Her showcasing of "outsider" writings by the marginal ex-Warhol undergrounder Rene Ricard was such a paradigmatic intervention that the critic Carter Ratcliff would later reflect on Sischy's encouragement to be "more direct and more responsible" to what he felt about a given subject and "less responsible to some standard of rationality." Ratcliff's more thoroughly researched essays on Frank Stella, for example, were published in Art in America, while his essay on Warhol, in which he "felt freer to simply make assertions, or argue from an attitude...as opposed to substantiating everything in a responsible manner," was published in Artforum.11 This brings us to 1997 and the magazine we have on our hands today. There is, however, a significant change. Next to the new fashion, design, rock, film and cyberspace columns, all of which are presented in an easily digestible format for the theory-intolerant, are articles by those "neo avant-gardist" editors and critics of the seventies absent under Sischy's reign, most notably Rosalind Krauss herself who had claimed in 1986 that the magazine was completely unreadable.12 And with Krauss others return, whose writings we have come to know from Krauss' own journal October, the very publication that she had left her post at Artforum to found in the mid seventies. Far from being merely corrective of the exclusions made under Sischy, there is something troublesome about this development. While these new articles don't suffer the malnutrition that Ratcliff had alluded to earlier, they nevertheless take on a simulacral affect in the pages of a magazine which brackets them between even more chatty interviews on Warhol's body of work (emphasis here on body ) and the intolerably superficial meandering of columnists such as Leiberman whose main topics are supermodels and talk show hosts. On a flattened playing field, whereupon the manufacturing of culture is left egregiously uninvestigated, the articles of Krauss et. al. involuntarily play "high" to Leiberman's "low." Artforum blithely has something for everybody, it seems to announce, and if we were worried in the eighties about the commodification of theory, it tells us to worry no more. It's over and done with. We've survived the crash and we're in business again.

The Hipness of Theory

In the nineties, then, the "hipster" art critic enters the scene, contrasting dramatically with the critical discourse of the sixties and seventies (and with what Sischy overlooked in the eighties, for that matter). Rosalind Krauss's "Sense and Sensibility: Reflections on Post '60s Sculpture," published by Artforum in 1973, exemplified a mode of interdisciplinarity missing from the brand of cultural studies that the magazine showcases today. Krauss in her own words was "attempting to show how a problem that has a long history within philosophic argument begins to intersect with a certain kind of esthetic thought."13 Krauss was referring to phenomenology's relation to minimalism in a challenge to the historical models of authorship which had dominated art making and intellectual discourse since the New York School's inception. Twenty years later (February 1994) Artforum publishes an article by Glenn O'Brien on the American artist collaborative Art Club 2000, whose work at the time primarily consisted of the group posing together in mock Gap advertisements. Interdisciplinarity here served to combine various elements from popular culture, (popular music, television, fashion, and advertising) without any intersection between, as Krauss put it, esthetic and philosophic arguments. And if the work of Hans Haacke, along with other conceptualists of the seventies such as Dan Grahm, had extended the project of minimalism towards an analysis of a given institutional framework, Art Club 2000 sought to continue the critique waged by Hans Haacke et. al. with a "hipper" edge. O'Brien put it this way:

Art Club 2000's freewheeling corporate investigation combines the elegant muckraking of Hans Haacke with a groovy Pop art sensibility. It makes fun. And if artists aren't going to make fun of artily positioned institutions, who's going to do it?14

As to their lack of any theoretical rigor or political commentary, O'Brien concludes that such ambiguity towards institutions is indeed their strongest point:

Perhaps the most successful aspect of their Gap investigation was their rigorous exploitation of ambiguity. It would have been easy for the group to fall into the gap of faux-Marxist pouting often practiced by Comme des Garcons-wearing semioticians. Instead they presented the problem of the Gap with an honest ambivalence that would well serve anyone involved in creative criticism.15 [my emphasis]

Art Club 2000, whose brief fifteen minutes of fame has since faded,16 was perfectly suited for the pages of a nineties Artforum which views interdisciplinarity as the mere erasure of boundaries between distinct fields of intellectual discourse rather than the investigation of their intersection through a given concept or history. Hence, Artforum as well as Art Club 2000, lives by the tautology of fashion as art as fashion. The magazine not only writes on fashion. The artist to be in fashion thus makes work on fashion. And seeing as this is the fashion, fashion itself becomes the mixed metaphor for the work's referent: Art Club 2000, colliding with the fashion institution they "deconstruct," wears Gap clothing with a sly, "progressive," wink. Faux-Marxists, on the other hand, wear Comme des Garcon with a passé pout. Consequently, the paradigm is created for a "what's in and what's out" of fashion intellectually. In Artforum speak, Silvia Kolbowski is "out," while Matthew Barney is "in."

With the recent return of Krauss and the other "neo avant-gardists" to the magazine, there is indeed a continuity of authorship between the Artforum of the sixties and the nineties, though there is neither a continuation nor a re-thinking of Krauss's notion of interdisciplinarity. Today, rather than return to this project in order to address that which remains unquestioned, it is the fashion to drop such investigations altogether in favor of further positing a given subject's coherence (the deconstruction of which was initiated by the avant-garde) in an endless litany of popular contexts. Hence we get Rhonda Leiberman posing on the fashion runway, Art Group 2000 posing at the Gap, or Matthew Barney posing as a satyr in the back seat of a limo. And while Artforum concerns itself with such posing, important work is being done elsewhere that radically questions the very terms of the "pose," be it within popular culture or within sexual, racial, or ethnic definitions of community. The latter project enriches its discipline, be it art or literature, with such critical investigations; Artforum merely capitalizes on interdisciplinarity as fashion.

Articles such as O'Brien's beg the question of the importance of Artforum's editorial policy and whether the magazine merits such attention given its content. I would argue that we must consider Artforum's editorial policy, particularly the manner in which it interacts with what has come to be known in American intellectual discourse as "cultural studies." While contemporary art production, and the critical "new art history" that accompanies it, can not be thought of outside the development of cultural studies, there nevertheless have been important critiques of this new "discipline's" institutionalization within academia. One need not advocate the purification of disciplines in order to warn against the possible leveling affect of cultural studies whereby disciplines are emptied of their currency and investigated as equally exchangeable signifiers. With such an approach, any number of artifacts (e.g., a film, a painting, a video screen, or a building) are lumped together under the term "culture" without investigating their specific, though overlapping, genealogies. That is to say, their specific economic histories, theoretical and aesthetic constructions, and formal strategies - the intersection of which is, ironically, the interest of interdisciplinary studies - are overlooked. Furthermore, such an approach to the artifact not only facilitates the down-scaling of academic departments within the American university but also contributes to the de-skilling of its scholars.17 Between the pendulous swing away from the "core curriculum" of Rose and towards what Rajchman has criticized as "the lightness of theory,"18 the real baby of cultural studies is dropped. With such a drop, the disciplinary rigor of such gay interventionist projects as Vito Russo's The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies subsequently go unnoticed.19 Russo knew that there were archives in which thousands of reels of film sat on shelves awaiting the scholar's attention such that his work would not only have a lateral currency within cultural discourse, but it would also wage a genealogical and deconstructive critique of the medium of film itself. There was, in other words, both a move between sites of culture and a linguistic move within the given discipline of study. For cultural studies to have any critical agency, both these moves are necessary. Two moves, however, take more time and money than one.

In many ways Artforum's editorial policy can be seen as mirroring the myopic position American universities threaten to take regarding cultural theory. One might even argue that there is a chiasmatic relation between Artforum and the academy, as its editorial approach is both a symptom of recent failures within cultural studies and an active agent of its continued failure. This brings us back to Warhol who, if nothing else, understood the chiasmatic relationship between mass and "high" culture. Regardless of how many times Warhol's face or name is appropriated in its pages, however, Artforum doesn't continue his investigation of culture. The continuation of Warhol's project, as distinct from the commodification of its terms, would have to take into account the medium in which commodification itself takes place. Which is to say, any continuation of Warhol's project would have to address the market value of cultural theory within the given economy that it is being sold. For Artforum, this directs us to the magazine itself with its physical and discursive layout.

Like many other contemporary magazines such as Mondo 2000 and Wired, Artforum mimics the hyper-text format of the internet whereby one clicks various icons,"surfing" the net, until they find what they want to read or see. The Artforum of the nineties seems to desire the interactiveness of the net, the "reader friendliness" of its approach, and most importantly its vast appeal to the widest most diverse audience. However, there is something flawed here. Unlike the net, there is no "scroll" command, no possibility of infinite regress on a given subject, no depth, no ostensible behind. Rather there is only the high-gloss sheen of the page upon which cultural icons exchange parting glances prior to their consumption. As in the American university, the move favored by Artforum is exclusively a lateral one between disciplines as opposed to a temporal move within them. We could argue that this unitary site parallels Marx's space of transitory commodification. In doing so, we realize that any notion of an interventionist cultural studies, therefore, has to take into account the site of its own commodification. It must cut across the axis that this solitary "between space" denies. Today, this denial can be located not only in the halls of the American university, but in the very pages of cultural theory's own darling, Artforum. Should Artforum take a more critical look at the project of its own imaginary mentor, Andy Warhol, this denial would be harder to sustain.


to the editor