Complicit and Culpable? A conversation about Artforum
In 2014 we received the e-flux announcement for Issue 54 of Cabinet magazine, themed ‘The Accident’. Of the 21 contributors to the magazine, only two were women, one of whom was working in collaboration with two men. Under 11% of the contributors to that issue were women. Similarly shocked, we started collecting the contents pages to the magazine, from its inception to that moment, and looking up how the authors referred to their gender to see whether this was a one off ‘accident’ or a more ingrained trend in the magazine. Unfortunately, it was the latter.
Our project with Cabinet started a series of investigations into the structure of the artistic canon, under the name Contributors Inc., mostly focusing on magazines. A worry for us was casting our minds back to the way we were taught art, how we would read the opinions of the writers and editors of the magazines, feeling required to cite them for essays, absorbing their reflection of the world we were in training for. The canon was made in the pages of these magazines. It was constructed from many intersecting friendship groups, publishing cliques, editorial decisions, writers’ thoughts, communities of artists, gallerists, and critics. Thinking about what this looks like, and how we might use design strategies to represent it, to make the invisible structures of the canon more present, we turned our attention to the most canonical art magazine: Artforum. We have now collected the contents lists and studied 537 issues, between 1962 and 2016. And while still enmeshed in our research into the publication, a huge sexual harassment case at the heart of the magazine has come to light. On 24th October 2017 Artforum released a statement announcing the suit against one of its publishers of 35 years, Knight Landesman, alleging sexual abuse and harassment of 15 individuals. Since the announcements, many more people have come forward.
Our desire was to immediately respond to this news, with anger, with shock, with acknowledgment of the pervasiveness of sexual harassment in the world of art, knowing these feelings coexist awkwardly. The trouble, as Artforum’s publishers discovered, is to respond hastily, without conversation or consultation. Their initial statement on 24 October 2017, as reported by ArtNEWS, was swiftly followed by the announcement of their Editor-in-Chief Michelle Kuo’s resignation, then a statement from their staff, then an open letter from those more broadly affected by abuse of power in the art world, signed by thousands of people. We were interested to let our reactions play out, in the form of a conversation.
Contributor 1: Because of these multiple official statements I realize I no longer know how to talk about ‘Artforum’ the entity. The multiple responses have split Artforum into separate elements—publishers, staff, Editor-in-Chief. I think the public letter ‘Not Surprised’ likely contains many of its writers.
Contributor 2: The intended effect of the publishers’ statement appears to be to cast doubt on the intentions of the complainant in the eyes of the audience it is addressing. Who is this audience?! It seems the Artforum staff weren’t consulted about this public announcement. They responded with more distancing: “We… condemn the way the allegations against Knight Landesman have been handled by our publishers and repudiate the statements that have been issued to represent us so far.” In response, Artforum’s publishers have announced that they are assembling a ‘special task force of women’ to help it transform its work environment. But there is a broader point they are failing to address: What about the environment in the art world such abuses of power help to foster? ‘Not Surprised’ handles this well.
Contributor 1: I am skeptical of the tendency to create a task force, committee, working group, advisory board, or any other bureaucratic, public facing body tasked with fixing a problem. With their all-female task force are Artforum subscribing to the idea of temporary segregation? The idea that a group of women will be more freely able to identify and discuss what they find, and more effectively come up with solutions? Why does it fall to women to make this better? And on top of this, Michelle Kuo, Artforum’s Editor-in-Chief of the last seven years, resigned.
Contributor 2: I think I had come to see her as the feminist task force who took on the challenge of Artforum.
Contributor 1: I question what it means as a magazine to hold ‘feminist values’ but have a publishing history that still privileges the work of men over women, and not by a small degree. Does Artforum, while saying it is not culpable and complicit in specific misconduct, also get to swerve structural power dynamics in the art world?
Contributor 2: Isn’t it structural power dynamics that allow misconduct of a specific man to go unchallenged for so long?
Contributor 1: Ezra Klein asked what it means that American Political journalism has been ‘profoundly shaped by men like Leon Wieseltier and Mark Halperin?’ So we should extend this question to Artforum: what does it mean that the magazine, over 35 years, has been profoundly shaped by Knight Landesman? Would Artforum have featured and celebrated the work of more female artists were they more respected by the publisher? Different women? Would the field of art be different?
Contributor 2: Maybe the first task of the special task force of women is to rewrite the publishers’ statement. How might we make a statement that acknowledges the logical fallacy of setting up this voice of the company that can distance itself from its human constituents, and one that accepts the broader implications of the dynamics of power in its industry and admits accountability? Maybe they should have written this:
It came to our attention that Knight Landesman was engaged in inappropriate behaviour with a former employee. She brought a complaint to our notice and we acted immediately to address it. It also came to our attention that Artforum magazine has a history of publishing more writing by men than any other gender. It could not fail to come to our attention that Artforum magazine has reported on and given space to more artwork and creative endeavors by men than any other gender, and continues to do so. We are using this current forced moment of reflection on workplace transgressions to examine the linked nature of workplace abuses of power resulting in sexual misconduct and Artforum’s role in the perpetuation of structural power dynamics that places white men above all other people.
Artforum is engaged in reporting on art currently exhibited or discussed, and this allows blame for structural inequality to be shifted to broader art world monetary and power dynamics. By acknowledging this, Artforum can take companywide steps to address structural inequality. The first step is admitting that in terms of perpetuating the power dynamics of the artworld, Artforum is complicit and culpable.
Furthermore, we want to acknowledge that Artforum the entity cannot be divisible from Artforum as a team of workers in the publishing industry. We are our publishing history, our employees, our track record, as well as any public statements we may issue. We consult our employees before making public statements. We take complaints very seriously and use them as an opportunity to strengthen our policies within the workplace, respecting the opinions of all. This is an important step in addressing structures of power, starting within the company.
We acknowledge the similarities between silencing and distancing as tactics taken by companies in sexual misconduct cases. Such tactics maintain structural inequalities while disavowing specific incidences of sexual misconduct and abuses of power, sidestepping culpability and real opportunities for reflection. We use this moment to stand on our publishing record and say without hesitation that we are complicit and culpable.
Contributor 1: The ‘Not Surprised’ letter reminds us of the pervasiveness of the problem. I am interested in the construction and maintenance of that pervasiveness though. Power in this world was constructed via money, intellectual domination, sex, desire, fear. And women have gained power despite it, and sometimes through it. We were all taught that this is the way the world works. Art tells us this. Look at all the totemic art in the world, the naked women, the giant, uncompromising art that can only be afforded by the very financially powerful who buy it for influence and financial gain, or the work only for those ‘educated’ to read it. Formalism made Artforum’s reputation in the late 60s. The magazine is funded by ads for the most expensive and powerful galleries in the world.
Contributor 2: I have this specific memory that serves as this difficult image of the ground we stand on in art and criticism (sometimes it’s an image that helps you see the terrain, sometimes a lawsuit): A bookshelf at the Tate, some display of a series of books about artists designed as introductions to art. All were monographs of men with illustrations of their faces on the covers: Monet, Malevich, Dali, Pollock, etc. I think I sent it to you. It reminds me of that talk Jill Soloway does, making all the men imagine God, Jesus, the Presidents as female, telling them that these female figures of power are ‘not you.’ With a longstanding magazine like Artforum, that history is harder to put your finger on, power is more diffuse. That’s one of the drives to work on Contributors Inc—just to get to look at it. I am currently reading Chris Kraus’ book After Kathy Acker and enjoying its handling of female desire, both sexual and intellectual intertwined, and Acker’s particular rise to selfhood involving both at once. It made me wonder what the Tate bookshelves would look like if those books were about Georgia O’Keeffe, Alma Thomas, Yoko Ono, Diane Arbus, Lorraine O’Grady, Eva Hesse, Frida Kahlo, Yayoi Kusama…. ?
Contributor 1: And what that would mean art would look like. What critical writing would sound like.
Contributor 2: I need to ask this question and don’t want to: Have only certain women been ‘allowed to succeed’ by those in power in these institutions or who buy their work? (or who date them?) How does critical success get created given that we can acknowledge that it is done in and through the power structures as we know them? How is it generated in and by magazines like Artforum? I mean, the discourse around someone like Georgia O’Keeffe was for so long defined by Alfred Stieglitz. She fled to avoid it, then was still defined by a sexual narrative she didn’t want. Did Kathy Acker see and use this system?
Contributor 1: How can we, at the same time as rightly and properly condemning sexual assault and unwanted violence, create a space for female individuality, resilience, that is unafraid of power, that knows how to use it without inciting abuse in response? There seems this really difficult line here somewhere in the definition of agency, and where it comes from, and how you acquire it, then how you use it.
Contributor 2: And maintain it. Kraus, via Acker, beautifully handles the complexity of female competition and identity in a masculinized world, how Acker from her early schooling sees other ‘accomplished’ girls as competition, and how she forms attachments to older men, to intellectuals, and lies to maintain a constructed self-image that she works to become. I can’t help thinking that these systems that we live in create a few ‘winners’ but also abusive situations for women isolated from support structures. I feel like it’s impossible to talk about that though, because the slightest hint of saying this feels like victim blaming, and that is not what I am saying. I am trying to say that the game in the art world is rigged such that women so often have to play this way.
Contributor 1: My guess is that it is no different in any other corporate culture. I feel that the presence of HR or departments meant to handle abuse just means that people are smarter about how they enact power. Corporate culture is all about money and power, and I can’t think that there is not a significant amount of exploitation that goes on there. “Act like a man” kind of stuff, you know? I do wonder about markets that don’t traffic so directly in aesthetics though, and what that looks like. Appearance is everything in the art world. I used to put so much pressure on myself to not only show art, but also be art, or something. I was very conscious that in order to sell the art you have to look as good as the art. Maybe I got that from subtle and not so subtle cues when I worked at a gallery in NYC. Women wore dresses and heels, or nice pants and feminine blouses. Stylish, and feminine was the dress code. And that was part of the job, you had to look good.
Contributor 2: I guess Marina Abramovic’s piece is still true – Art must be beautiful, Artist must be beautiful. (We can add ‘women must be beautiful.’ But, for whom?)
Contributor 1: It is those galleries that pay for Artforum. The early full page ads in the magazine cost over $80,000 a year.
Contributor 2: In terms of pervasiveness, it is interesting to question the slippery slope nature of sexual harassment. What was acceptable—no, accepted as inevitable—in the late 70s is rightly outlawed today, but people are still in workplaces and their attitudes are still ingrained. Behaviours have modified, not changed. I think of Carey Young’s work around what she calls ‘legal fictions’. Like Declared Void, we are in this space drawn in language—in this case let’s call it law and etiquette. It moves over time and people don’t always move with it. And then they’re outside it and can be pointed at. This relies on the line having moved, so some commentators get to be congratulatory—’progress!’ But the line is just a construct and we are all standing inside it getting more subtly groped.
Contributor 1: Anna Chave’s well known essay “Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power” makes a stunning point (p. 271): “In art historical parlance, however, it has long been common approbatory language, even the highest level of praise, to describe works of art in terms of the exercise of power: As strong, forceful, authoritative, compelling, challenging or demanding; and the masculinist note becomes even more explicit with the use of terms like masterful, heroic, penetrating, and rigorous. That what is rigorous is strong and valued while what is soft or flexible is comic or pathetic emerges again and again in the minimalist discourse, as it does in the everyday language of scholars.” Anna Chave’s idea that minimalism is a rhetoric of power, and that it comes from language, is helpful in rethinking what we want from critical writing and the institutions that generate it. We are trained to want to be validated by the power structure that also holds power over us.
Contributor 2: But how might we respond to the patriarchy not in the language of power? Do you forgo textual language, strip down to a Gucci thong and stand in the gallery in a work called ‘Official Welcome’ as Andrea Fraser did? Is that the logical conclusion to resistance to this power as a female body? To use bodies and the power of sex? Do you strap on a phallus and make yourself an image inside Artforum’s advertising space, as Lynda Benglis did? They both play with the complicity of the system, the institution, the entity. But it plays them too. I also think of Adrian Piper’s responses to Artforum in the June 2017 issue, called ‘As a matter of fact,’ at the very pedantic level of the mechanisms of publishing. She prods Artforum the entity over her right to her history. It is interesting to me that her intervention forces Artforum the entity to respond, and maybe that is important to note.
Contributor 1: Art writing is a rhetoric of power, and this language creates value. Publishing is one of its mechanisms. That is the business of Artforum, regardless of its stated feminist aims or mission statements. Kuo, like Adrian Piper or Carey Young, was taking the route of challenging something from within it. Like Piper’s and Young’s insistence on using language to highlight institutional power as a tactic, Kuo was working within the confines of publishing mechanisms to create space for change. Hers was an impossible task. And yet it is the one asked of every woman in work life all the time.
Contributor 2: These revelations of sexual abuse always make me think of the moment when all aspiring intellectual film world men must face the reality that Woody Allen is fucking his adopted daughter.
Contributor 1: And then the reality of being afraid to say that, for fear of sounding too angry. Maybe the question to ask is actually of men who do these things. What were you thinking? could be a place to start. Does asking for explanations deny the reality that men are socialized to behave that way? We already know the answers: They learn it from culture; they learn it from their parents; they learn it from movies; they learn it from the appreciation of women who learn to appreciate being abused by the system that treats that abuse as appreciation.
Anna Chave goes on to write: “The language used to esteem a work of art has come to coincide with the language used to describe a human figure of authority, in other words, whether or not the speaker holds that figure in esteem… We are preoccupied not only with physical strength and military strength, but with fiscal, cultural, emotional, and intellectual strength, as if actual force were the best index or barometer of success in any of those spheres.” I used to read Artforum reviews and feel so frustrated by the formulas of style. Then as a test we put many of them through language analysis tools like those used on our social media data and learned that a computer algorithm considers these texts ‘male,’ even when written by women. While equally revealing of the problems of these algorithms, it gave us pause.
Contributor 2: One of the most interesting sections of After Kathy Acker to me is Kraus’s retelling of a yearbook post to a fellow student: “No sentimentality here either,… God knows how many fights, dirty or clean, spoken or unspoken, minor or major, we’ve had — but without you, I would have gone to sleep …. I’m sure that I’ll meet no one with as much drive and personal power and magnetism as you have. I can’t say that it has been a pleasure to know you, for our relationship has not been in that realm, it has been a challenge . . . I think that if we had met in different circumstances, mutual respect would’ve overcome out causing-animosities. . . no need for best wishes, your own personality is too magnetic . . . —you must succeed, Kathy.” Maybe Kathy Acker understood very early on that she was required to play the linked power game of intellect and sex, and saw competition as its mode and language its vehicle.
Contributor 1: Or maybe she was taught it at an all girl’s prestigious prep school and spent the rest of her life trying to own it. Maybe it was taught to her by women who had similarly learned the tactics of competition to protect themselves in the patriarchy. Maybe this is a ‘privilege’ and inequality we don’t talk about enough, how women in different social and cultural groups are taught to protect themselves from the patriarchy, and that a certain kind of one-up-manship is part of an intellectual toolkit that is socially aspired to, that encourages a certain voice, that may even downplay the sexual harassment happening to it. Is this also a language of criticism?
Contributor 2: What’s the antidote? Collectives? Empathy? Collaboration? For me there was something a bit terrifying about the competitive nature of education, of its systems of critique. It felt like sink or swim. I relished the productiveness and comfort of our collaborations. Maybe that’s what creating Artforum felt like in 1962, making something to highlight an art world outside of New York, before it became powerful.
Contributor 1: Artforum also shows us that writing and words can seize and hold the space over time. Language can determine future language. It takes effort to alter discourse. Several commentators pointed out the difficulty of the directional nature of language with a hashtag like #metoo after the Harvey Weinstein allegations poured in. The language around it suggests that sexual misconduct is something done to a person not by a person. The agency is taken away, it’s muted. This feels similar to the legal statement of Artforum’s publishers, where Artforum gets to be an entity incapable of culpability or complicity, because only humans can own those, not power structures. And make no mistake, Artforum is now a power structure.
Contributor 2: Kathy Acker wrote in her text ‘Postmodernism’: “When I use words, any words, I am always taking part in the constructing of the political, economic, and moral community in which my discourse is taking place. All aspects of language–denotation, sound, style, syntax, grammar, etc-are politically, economically, and morally coded…. The only possible chance for change, for mobility, for political, economic, and moral flow lies in the tactics of guerilla warfare, in the use of fiction, of language.”
Contributor 1: I once asked Roberta Smith if, in her role as a critic, she considered herself an educator. Her response: ‘I am an educator of taste.’ Maybe the first question to ask ourselves is: What narratives are we using to survive and how do they serve us?
Contributor 2: It will be interesting to see how Artforum deals with this crisis, how it frames the narrative for itself. So far the distancing has been marked, but with Kuo leaving one senses an immense shake up that won’t settle as neatly as they’d hope.
Contributor 1: There’s still serious inequality in the numbers of women in the top ranks of the art world, despite outnumbering men by a long way in enrollment in arts courses and in the lower ranks of the industry. Can we now accept that another reason for this is that the ones who make it up there have to put up with so much crap that many don’t bother, or like Kuo, find it untenable to sit by while their superiors make derisory remarks of a woman who decided to face up to power and speak about silenced abuse? Are these their choices?
Contributor 2: Shock is a word I have seen used in relation to recent events, but are we truly shocked? It is tiring to read after every tragedy about shock and dismay, followed by immediate calls for change, letters we must sign. Would it be ok instead to speak of fatigue? Fear? Uncertainty? Discomfort? Not knowing what to do? I guess this wouldn’t grab as many headlines, wouldn’t read as much like taking a stance, and it is important to take a stance.
Contributor 1: At a conference recently I took a small pleasure in hearing a man say during the question and answer period after his talk that he was tired of seeing young female academics being taken advantage of, and having their careers stunted by older, and more established men. A part of me that I didn’t realize was tense relaxed a bit and I thought, Oh, I am visible here. And I can be glad about this but also feel that this is pathetic. That the notion that I am merely seen feels so monumental, such an accomplishment. Like the time a man complimented me on my hair as though I had done something extraordinary. Maybe it was just a compliment. Did I say I am tired?
Contributor 2: It was in this mode that Xandra Ibarra made her work Training for Exhaustion – on her website she writes that the work “considers fatigue, as opposed to refusal and/or liberation, as a primary mode of being in our current moment.” The work engages with the stress and fatigue associated with the pressure to be a “model minority,” and the hypervigilance required to navigate this world of hostility and microaggressions.
Contributor 1: A nascent question that cannot be left unsaid: Why do artists and writers desire so much the approval of this one magazine? What does it mean to be acknowledged, celebrated by this publication? And what does it mean to be acknowledged by this magazine in light of these revelations?
Contributor 2: I think of Adrian Piper’s piece in Artforum this past summer, ‘Just who the hell do you think you are,’ which contains the words: “If you think you are the sum total of your success, you’re dreaming.” It reminds me that we’re all more and less than we tell ourselves. Everyone was helped to power, and there’s a lot unseen and unsaid.
Contributor 1: This startling fact that came to light as we were tallying the contents of Artforum and shocked us both: in 537 issues of the magazine published between 1962 and 2016, Donald Kuspit wrote 635 times. Our project, Contributors Inc., deals with the weight of the voices in the publication, how authority is granted to some over others. Through the project I feel like we are starting to deal with questions like who made Artforum, and in turn who and what makes the power structure that supports it. But it has meant dwelling uncomfortably inside it, facing the problems of making art in the shadow of the canon, and admitting that our education makes us complicit and culpable as well, unless we deal with its bias.
Contributor 2: How do we face this thing and its power? What else is lurking in the barrel of this canon?