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Octoberfest | The Nation

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Octoberfest

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Yet history, like God, never stays on one side for long. As ambitious young artists take pleasure in hijacking the future toward unpredicted destinations, it becomes difficult to disentangle the truly new from simple "market trends." The tragedy of the honest art critic is that sooner or later the only role left may be that of the curmudgeon. Yet the two-fisted historian/critics of the '60s found another way--to wait for the artists they championed as critics to become historical figures and for their own youthful writing to become part of the historical record, which they could then use as part of the material for a more scholarly account.

About the Author

Barry Schwabsky
Barry Schwabsky is the art critic of The Nation. Schwabsky has been writing about art for the magazine since 2005, and...

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But they still had to go through their curmudgeon phase. For some of these writers, it started as early as 1974. In November of that year, Artforum carried an article by Robert Pincus-Witten on the work of artist Lynda Benglis. A photograph Benglis had originally hoped would be used to illustrate the piece had been refused, so she paid to have it published as a full-page color ad in the same issue: a self-portrait, nude and brandishing a huge dildo. Most of the magazine's contributing editors signed an open letter of protest at the appearance in its pages of what they termed "an object of extreme vulgarity"; as Krauss later put it, "publishing that ad was tantamount to saying that we were all hookers together, the writers, as well as the artists. That we were all for sale." Soon afterward, Krauss and Annette Michelson resigned from Artforum to establish a new magazine, October--a magazine of contemporary art that would be closer in spirit to an academic journal, purer, more exclusive and more insulated from the market. Moreover, it was to be a prime conduit for the fresh new ways of thinking and writing that were entering American culture under the rubric of "French theory." As the more analytic criticism of Artforum had been established in opposition to the belletristic criticism of Artnews, this new organ was created in opposition to Artforum and its perceived fall into the abyss of the spectacle.

All three magazines are still with us. Artnews is no longer home to criticism by poets like Frank O'Hara and artists like Elaine de Kooning but is more like what its name always promised, a magazine of news, of journalism. Criticism remains the concern of Artforum. And October is the established, now rather stodgy academic journal with a critical position on the contemporary scene, though seemingly from a greater and greater distance with every passing year; its pages, however, continue to attract ambitious young scholars who yearn to become part of the establishment. Now, as if to cement its power, four of the journal's editors--Hal Foster and Benjamin Buchloh, along with Bois and their senior partner, Krauss--have produced a monumental history of twentieth-century art.

Monuments, though, are iffy things. Krauss once found, in her famous essay "Sculpture in the Expanded Field," that "the logic of the monument" was no longer operative under the conditions of Modernism--that a Modernist sculpture could no longer function as a "commemorative representation" in relation to a particular place but could only embody a "loss of site, producing the monument as abstraction, the monument as pure marker or base, functionally placeless and largely self-referential." It turns out monumental histories have similar problems; Krauss and her collaborators understand this and have done their best to face them. In the first instance, they've done this by the mere fact of being collaborators. A generation or two ago, it was credible for figures like Ernst Gombrich or Horst Jansen to single-handedly cover the entire history of art from the caves to abstraction, but now even the art of a single century hardly seems something an individual can master. Yet the joint authorship of Art Since 1900 takes a peculiar form--as if the four contributors could not decide whether they should speak collectively or individually, in unison or in counterpoint. This becomes apparent right from the start, with the four introductions that open the main body of the book. Each lays out a distinct methodological formula--psychoanalysis, social history, formalism/structuralism and poststructuralism/deconstruction--yet they offer little hint of how these might be synthesized; even concrete judgments on particular artists or movements are quite distinct, at times even contradictory.

So each of the four authors, it is clear, will have the freedom to work according to his or her own chosen procedures and to express an individual viewpoint; and yet the four introductions are not individually signed, so any reader unfamiliar with the authors' previously published writings--the average student, for instance--can have no idea who is actually staking out these divergent viewpoints. It's as if they wanted to retain the authority of the collective voice while still being unwilling to subsume their idiosyncratic differences within it. Likewise, readers in the know will readily identify the authors of most of the chapters that follow (a chronological pageant of significant works and events from 1900 through 2003); they will be aware, for instance, that the pages on Matisse could only have been written by Bois, although these too lack individual signatures. But how, then, does Buchloh's bald assertion that the human figure was "expunged from most modernist art for the first two decades of the century" square with the focus on Picasso and Matisse in Krauss's and Bois's entries for those decades? Only in a pair of roundtable discussions--the first appearing midbook, between the chapters on the years 1944 and 1945, the second following the last chapter, which chronicles the 2003 Venice Biennale--do the four voices emerge as those of distinct individuals in contention.

Sometimes the effect of these tacit disagreements can be rather funny. Anyone who knows the story of Lynda Benglis's ad and its catalyzing role in the foundation of October will be amused to encounter it again as one of the very first works reproduced in the textbook produced by four of the editors of that magazine, and with a caption offering a very different and much more positive sense of its meaning: Far from being the vulgar, antifeminist paean to art as prostitution, as Krauss viewed it thirty years ago, the ad is here praised as an important work in which Benglis "mocked the macho posturing of some Minimalist and Postminimalist artists, as well as the increased marketing of contemporary art; at the same time, she 'seized the phallus' in a way that both literalized its association with plenitude and power and parodied it." That clued-in reader will also realize that this section of the book is by Hal Foster, who is too young to have been involved in that bygone controversy, and that the presence here of Benglis's work must be a subtle in-group dig aimed at demonstrating his autonomy within the little family of October. A student reading Art Since 1900 as a textbook, or an ordinary art lover looking to it for some clues about how to understand the things that turn up in the contemporary wing of the local museum, however, would pass this by without the slightest hint of the tacit discord--and that's a shame, for the difference of opinion says a lot about how art world attitudes have changed in three decades, which is certainly part of the history such a book should be conveying. And then, too, an awareness of the dispute might encourage readers to be a bit more skeptical of the sometimes very partial and even rather moralistic judgments that are propounded with such an air of authority at times in this book, particularly as its chronological timeline draws nearer to the present.

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