To Make a Public: Artists’ Publications as Partisan Positions
By Sarrita Hunn and James McAnally
The history of art publications has always been a history of artists’ publications. No major movement of the modern era was unaccompanied by manifestos, notes, radical journals, ‘little’ magazines, or various other ephemera conceived and constructed by the artists actively involved. From the flood of self-published pamphlets at the early Salons, on to Dada, the Surrealists, Constructivists, Situationists, Bauhaus, Fluxus, Conceptual Art and beyond, these movements were initiated by artists, writers, and publishers in concentric circles, enmeshed within the emergent practices around them, each making decisions to document, advocate for, and historicize these experiments for present action and future reflection.
Artists’ publications are intimate appendages of the ideas of artists. The sporadic succession of artists’ publications over the past century-plus forms a script and postscript within itself, narrating the emergence and eruptions of art into its various worlds. Over time, a publication becomes a “hub for a series of ideas,”1 which “reproduce the collective dimension of a research group.”2 Each publication forms a call and response among overlapping voices around these serial ideas and ideologies as they are constantly being renegotiated, edited, reproduced. These publications are inseparable from their time, but beyond that, they represent a particular crystallization of the ideas being proposed in the moment. They are the primary site for the arguments over the objects, structures, and actions the artists’ ideas inhabit. In fact, one could claim that this is their dominant mode, their very reason for existing. As Gwen Allen states in her authoritative account of artists’ magazines, it was through these artist-initiated publications that “artistic ideas were not only recorded and exchanged, but germinated; here that avant-garde movements originated and gained momentum.”3
Artists’ publications, particularly from the 1960s to the present, expand on the idea of the publication as a site of exhibition, exchange, criticism, and subjective, self-historicizing commentary, with radical potential for flattened distribution, circulation of ideas, and insertion of isolated narratives into a broader cultural sphere. Though not always explicitly political in scope or content, alternative artists’ publications have often appeared along moments of rupture, in art and in broader society. Their form itself is an enunciation of underlying shifts in how artists interact with the world, and both the form and the ruptures have returned in force in our own moment. No one example fully embodies this tendency; rather, it is the proliferation of strategies aimed at destabilizing dominant discourses in the radicalized terrain they inhabited that does so.
One of the defining feature of artists’ magazines, particularly from the 1960’s to the mid-1970s, is that “artists began to write about the art world from within the movements, carving out a partisan position that circumvented the established critical apparatus, and it was hoped, would undermine the hegemony of the art world power structure.”4 The rise of artists’ publications in this period reached beyond the concerns of the art world, paralleling other cultural and political movements of the time, such as civil rights, feminism, anti-war activism, gay rights, environmentalism, and a host of other concerns. Publications, whether art-centric ones such as Art-Rite, Avalanche, Aspen, and, later, Heresies, Upfront, and The Fox, or those further afield like Whole Earth Catalog, The Black Panther, and The Communication Company (the publishing arm of the Diggers), were dispersed documents of their time, as well as forums in which these movements were co-produced and extended.
Speaking of Avalanche, founders Liza Bear and Willoughby Sharp reflected that the magazine “was beamed a short distance … irradiating the world that was coming into being. The ’60s had created this huge explosion in the culture, but by the end of the ’60s it had all imploded, politically, economically. The market collapsed. Suddenly people realized that the big revolutionary changes weren’t happening … [The art scene] was a microculture – Avalanche was one of the first and most fetching expressions of it.”5 Likewise, The Fox’s editorial call makes its terrain explicit: “If you are interested in trying to reclaim art as an instrument of social and cultural transformation, in exposing the domination of the culture/administrative apparatus as well as art which indolently reflects that apparatus, you are urged to participate in this journal. Its editorial thrust is ideological: it aims at a contribution to the wider movement of social criticism/transformation.”6
Whether in view of the self-published artists’ pamphlets circulated at the earliest Salons; Georges Bataille’s Surrealist journal Documents (considered a “war machine against received ideas”7); the Constructivists’ LEF journal (which set out to “re-examine the ideology and practices of so-called leftist art, and to abandon individualism to increase art’s value for developing communism”8); the Internationale Situationniste’s “attempt at an organization of professional revolutionaries in culture”9; Lucy Lippard (and Conceptual Art’s) formulation of artists’ books as “instruments for extension to a far broader public”10; the collective ‘working community’ of Heresies’ feminist publication on art and politics; or PAD/D’s newsletter-cum-journal Upfront’s attempt to create “an organized relationship between artists and society,” the impulse towards self-enunciation accompanied a radical vision of how artists’ cloistered work would penetrate a public sphere, engaging society with far-reaching influence.
As Sven Lutticken states, “small-circulation journals and reviews became crucial media for the twentieth-century avant-garde” that “saw its productions as counter-media that tried to create, or maintain, an oppositional public.” He goes on to say, “they were thus potentially addressed not to a limited group with some special interest (such as art) but to a much more diverse layer that wanted to develop a critical understanding of society.”11 In other words, these disparate publications attempted to create a sustained oppositional sphere, moving outward from the concrete contexts of radical art forms and into a broad-based public sphere. They imagined a potential public by embodying an actual public, however marginal in the moment.
However we read these moments of art history, with their irreconcilable content and conflicting ideas, we see within them an otherness and self-enunciation that we embrace, as the interrelated roles of artist, activist, and critic were conflated, not to mention those of archivist, historian, publisher and more.12 These formational research groups reach beyond editors and authors – at best, activating a public in the process of finding its collectivity.
Claiming a terrain within the context of artists’ publications makes explicit certain distinctions. Foremost, artists’ publications carry no aims toward objectivity or reportage, as trade publications covering the industry of art. Often, those publications become a way to enter circulation within the predetermined limits of the art world, a theoretical game bounded by professionalized rules of engagement and advancement.13 In contrast, we argue for an expansion of partisan publications: to propose, articulate, advance, and defend certain ideas about what art is or could be, or what the art world is and, we believe, should be – particularly when viewed in relation to the neoliberal sea we are swimming in. The goal here would not be to reproduce the reporting efforts of other platforms, but to be sites of autonomy, radically reimagining themselves in and through art. We are interested in what kinds of ideas, circulation, or sustenance can arise from a rupture in the art world, and what relationship this rupture has to our various futures. These publications, to use Siegfried Kracauer’s term, form “a group bearing an idea.”14 In this sense, we arise and potentially perish in relation to this idea – not as gatekeepers, but gatherers of a complex public with porous boundaries, ”fully encompassed by a specific concept that [is attempting to] come to life through them.”15
If publications made the modern public, then what are the media and methodologies making our present public?
Assuming artists and organizers working in relation to networks like Common Field are a distinct group in a similar way that we read the alternative space movement and others mentioned here, how is this public expanded and sustained?
What are the documents of our time and where are they published and reproduced?
How do we stake out our position through publication?
In advance of the Common Field Convening, we have been considering the idea of “criticality” in artist-centric practices. Here, we posit the irreplaceable positionality of partisanship as a concept central to the history (and present) of artist publications. In a sociological sense, criticality is a relational position to be examined alongside shifting networks and relationships rather than a separate sphere of activity aimed at objectivity. In other words, we collectively create the critical position of our field through argument, through convening, through publication(s), through criticism, as well as through the residue of what we remember, acknowledge, advocate for, or share in any sense. This is necessarily embedded within our networks, mediated within relationships – as partisan archivists.
There is no outside publication strategy or critical apparatus prepared to do this work and, importantly, there never really has been. It has always been “us” – the artists, organizers and writers working within particular moments – that have produced the primary sites of publication of artist-centric activities. We propose that we are again in one of these moments, (art) historically, in which these factors coalesce into something more than a periodization of style – a movement, perhaps. As artists/curators/critics we do not just document this work from the outside, but address it from within, expanding its borders. It is from this interior position that “ideas [are] not only recorded and exchanged, but germinated; here that movements originate and gain momentum.” Any concept of criticality, of publication, must be considered alongside the ideas it carries. In other words, artistic strategies and artists’ publications in the present are coterminous and must be read together.
This essay has been adopted from the Introduction of the forthcoming anthology To Make a Public: Temporary Art Review 2011-2016, edited by Sarrita Hunn and James McAnally and published by Institute for New Connotative Action Press.
Images by Steven Cottingham are excerpts from “The commune of one is the cult of the other” (2016).
- Peter Murray in Beatriz Colomina and Craig Buckley, Clip/Stamp/Fold: The Radical Architecture of Little Magazines (New York: Actar, 2011), 30. ↩
- Stefano Boeri in Colomina and Buckley, 49. ↩
- Gwen Allen, Artists’ Magazines: An Alternative Space for Art (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2011), 3. ↩
- Stephen Perkins, “Alternative Art Publishing: Artists’ Magazines (1960-1980),” Approaching the ’80s Zine Scene, http://www.zinebook.com/resource/perkins/perkins5.html. ↩
- Liza Bear and Willoughby Sharp, The Early History of Avalanche: 1968-1972, http://primaryinformation.org/files/earlyhistoryofavalanche.pdf. ↩
- Ian Burn, Sarah Charlesworth, Michael Corris, Joseph Kosuth, Andrew Menard, Mel Ramsden, and Preston Heller, The Fox no. 2 (1975). ↩
- Michel Leiris, “De Bataille l’impossible à l’impossible ‘Documents,’” Critique 195-196 (1963): 685. ↩
- Quoted on Monoskop and elsewhere, https://monoskop.org/LEF. ↩
- Guy Debord, “Theses on Cultural Revolution,” tran. John Shepley, Internationale Situationniste no. 1 (1958), http://www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/si/theses.html. ↩
- Lucy Lippard. “The Artist’s Book Goes Public,” Getting the Message? A Decade of Art for Social Change (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1984), 48. ↩
- Sven Lütticken, “Secrecy and Publicity: Reactivating the Avant-Garde,” New Left Review, Sept.-Oct. 2002, https://newleftreview.org/II/17/sven-lutticken-secrecy-and-publicity. ↩
- Gwen Allen’s authoritative account, Artists’ Magazines: An Alternative Space for Art, documents this impulse at least as far back as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Propylaen, one of the first artist periodicals whose intention was to provide “a meeting-ground for exchanges with our friends” (quoted in Allen, 3). ↩
- Surveying the landscape of publications, we wonder whether we have experienced a return to the moment when art magazines first emerged, as “they were sponsored by the art academies themselves, and were concerned with news, information, and promotion rather than critical commentary,” servicing an upper middle class (Allen 17). Rather than invoking ideals of autonomy, the models of many, if not most, art publications reproduce the conditions they critique, particularly in relation to the art world. ↩
- Siegfried Kracauer, The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays, trans. Thomas Y. Levin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), 144. ↩
- Ibid. The brackets indicate our edit from the full quote stating that the idea “will” come to life, to reinstate the future-oriented, speculative nature of the idea that is not yet present. ↩