Elizabeth Schambelan on Criticism

THE WORD MAGAZINE initially meant something divided into many compartments. Artforum doesn’t have a house style. We publish everything from experimental literature to footnoted scholarly articles, from riffs on pop culture to high theory. We don’t champion one particular school of art or aesthetic or approach to artmaking. This refusal to settle in any one place is an expression of editorial sensibilities. But it also facilitates resistance to rigidity, conformity, reification, and the kind of cathexis to the status quo that can lead to reactionary politics. It’s basically a commitment to the cultural tradition that Artforum and contemporary art more broadly are part of—the avant-garde, for lack of a term that doesn’t feel a bit grandiose in its evocation of a bygone era when épater la bourgeoisie was actually possible. You could also call it the modernist tradition, if you believe that reports of modernism’s death were greatly exaggerated and that its sequels have been as much a continuation as a series of ruptures. Whatever name you give it, and without denying the extent to which its most consistently professed values (egalitarianism, anti-capitalism, etc.) have been honored in the breach, this globe-spanning transnational tradition is interwoven with the politics of the left, and so is Artforum’s project, past and present. Critique is important in this cultural-political genealogy, and it’s important to us.

Criticism in the broadest sense is a key tactic for maintaining a nonrigid, noncomplacent orientation toward the world. You’re always stepping back and looking at everything afresh, never taking anything for granted, never turning a blind eye to your own complicities and flaws—ideally, anyway. We are committed to criticism not as a way of formulating value judgments but as a literary-artistic-intellectual practice that has a relationship to irony as defined by Friedrich Schlegel: “clear consciousness of an eternal agility.” It’s also related to Adorno’s comment that “it is part of morality not to be at home in one’s home.” The common denominator that links irony with Adorno’s remark is this: Never get too comfortable, never be quite congruent with yourself, and never assume anything else is entirely congruent with itself.

In some way or other, good criticism, maybe all good art, should instruct you in not being at home in your own home. An ethos of critique in this sense aligns with Artforum’s participation in urgent larger efforts to expand art history and remedy its vast erasures; to confront how racial capitalism and heteropatriarchy shaped and continue to shape art and culture; to address inequities of representation; and to give platforms to abolitionist voices and art and writing that envision new possible futures.

In charting what is relevant at a given moment, bringing new art and cultural developments to our readers’ attention, we aren’t just embracing topicality for topicality’s sake; we’re trying to stay unsettled. But there’s nothing wrong with topicality. Topicality is interesting and often it’s fun. What is the point of culture if it’s just a contest in which whoever is remembered the longest wins? Art is worth making and essays or fiction are worth writing even if they might not outlive their moment. They participate in a conversation that is happening in their moment. Some art will be remembered for a long time; some won’t. Same with the articles we publish. We reject the value system that automatically privileges the durable over the ephemeral and the weighty over the light. But we also know that you can’t have an intelligent conversation with the present unless it is informed by knowledge of the past, so we reject ahistoricism too.

Harold Mendez, At night we walk in circles, 2017, cotton, graphite, spray enamel, watercolor, toner, and litho crayon on ball grained aluminum lithographic plate mounted on Dibond, 84 × 60".

HELEN MOLESWORTH’S DEFINITION of criticism is useful to me. In an October panel on the subject from the turn of the millennium, she said criticism

situates the art object, and articulates how it functions, within a larger discursive field of texts, objects, and institutions. . . . In some ways I see my ideal form of criticism as potentially very intimate, with the caveat being that the function of criticism is to render the intimate public. For me it is precisely criticism’s publicness that transforms what could potentially be a conversation between persons into a dialogue between texts and objects.

The object of criticism can be highbrow or lowbrow, serious or ostensibly frivolous; the work of situating can be playful, funny, light. There’s no one way to write about art and culture, no one way to go about situating the object in its discursive field.

That same October panel gave “belletrism” a relentless drubbing, so it’s interesting to bring Molesworth’s comments into a relationship with the passage that, in all of art history, perhaps best epitomizes belletristic art criticism, Walter Pater’s 1873 meditation on the Mona Lisa, which also happens to be one of my all-time favorite paragraphs:

The presence that thus rose so strangely beside the waters, is expressive of what in the ways of a thousand years men had come to desire. . . . She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her; and trafficked for strange webs. . . .

Strange webs chimes, to me somewhat eerily, with Clifford Geertz’s well-known quote: “Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretative one in search of meaning.”

In some way or other, good criticism, maybe all good art, should instruct you in not being at home in your own home.

Pater said beauty is impossible without some element of strangeness; the potential for beauty was built into his own “strange webs” of significance, spun in such writerly fashion around the object with which he was in dialogue. Criticism is one way to be the spider, paying out silk, both navigating and creating the web as one goes. What defines intimate publicness more than a spider’s web—this intricate construct made of the creature’s own body, there for all to see, although more visible in certain lights than others? A magazine of art and culture should always be spinning strange webs, searching for ways, as Molesworth says, to make intimate conversations (with objects, with culture, with the present) public.

Our core values point toward a metavalue of being circumspect about the very concept of core values. Instead of being stable truths, our values might be expressed as oppositions that exist in an equipoise that must be constantly renegotiated. We want a discerning eclecticism: to be serious and funny, topical and enduringly relevant, to take risks and exercise judgment. We’re not looking for the point of stasis at the fulcrum of these tensions. We’re trying to put weight in different places, now here, now there, to keep things in motion. I suppose risk is another metavalue. There’s an inherent risk in the whole endeavor. If everything comes into serene balance, then you’re running a boring magazine.

Elizabeth Schambelan is an executive editor of Artforum.

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