Fit for Print

6.4 / Free Speech in the Art World

Fit for Print

By Dan Fox May 26, 2015

I loved magazines: their feel and scent, their full-bleed color photos

In 1994, I was eighteen and thinking about going to art school. One of my high-school art teachers, who couldn’t have been more than a few years out of college herself, suggested I track down a copy of Frieze before applying to study. I lived in the countryside, and art magazines weren’t easy to come by; my mum found a copy in a museum bookstore in Oxford, the nearest city. Frieze was just three years old at that point. It was staple-bound, with a matte-finish cover, and had recently gone full-color. The first issue I owned was Andy Warhol–themed, and I swiftly devoured the entire thing. Didn’t necessarily understand all of it; the language was unfamiliar, and it was hard to say what all the images “meant” to me. But I enjoyed it in just the same way I poured over British style magazines, such as the Face and i-D, the music weeklies Melody Maker and NME, and underground zines from the U.S. that a friend in San Francisco would occasionally send me through the mail.

I loved magazines: their feel and scent, their full-bleed color photos and ultra-modern typefaces that could absorb me for hours. I enjoyed staring at their spines on my bedroom bookshelf or sticking torn-out pages in my sketchbook. They were a profoundly seductive influence on my own creativity and interest in the arts at large. The opaque meaning of their images suggested codes I needed to learn and that a more interesting life could be had elsewhere in the world.

Frieze possessed for me the same subcultural cachet as any of the other publications I was reading then. It carried articles about art-house cinema, music, and design, a cross-section that made complete sense to me. At that age I had vague designs of becoming an artist, but Frieze held no professional significance, only creative inspiration. It was just one point along the same spectrum of information about culture as BBC radio or cheap pop-music newspapers.

Frieze 166 (October 2014) 

I continued to read Frieze at art school. My art-history tutor, the singular and much-missed critic Stuart Morgan, championed it, and we all respected anything Stuart praised. Major international magazines such as Artforum and Flash Art appeared on my radar. I dutifully made my way through the locally oriented British magazines Art Monthly, Modern Painters, and Untitled. The faculty library carried journals such as October, Screen, and Third Text, and back issues of defunct but once-important magazines including Artscribe and Studio International. Copies of the more antiquarian Apollo and the Burlington Magazine gathered dust on the higher library shelves. I read them all. I preferred some to others—my enjoyment subject to research needs, moods, and hangovers—but I was too green to perceive much professional difference between them beyond taste and style.

In 1999, I finished art school and moved to London, planning to become an artist. I couldn’t afford to do an MA and needed a steady income. London then had a healthy culture of print periodicals; the confusions and contusions the internet would bring to publishing and niche magazines were still a couple of years off. I figured a job at an art magazine would provide a small wage, give me some insight into the art world, and leave me with the space to continue making art. Frieze was offering an internship: 50 quid a week plus lunch and a Tube pass. It wasn’t much, but as I was sleeping on a friend’s kitchen floor, it was enough. I got the position and in March started answering the phones, making the tea, sorting the mail, and bailing out the storage basement when it flooded.

The gap between my perception of the publication and its backstage reality swiftly collapsed.

At the time, the Frieze office was on the top floor of a run-down building full of music publishers and guitar shops on the edge of London’s Soho. The gap between my perception of the publication and its backstage reality swiftly collapsed. I had built a mental picture of the company’s office based on how the magazine looked and felt. I pictured it as a clean white space, furnished with tasteful Scandinavian-designed furniture. I imagined the names on the masthead to be well-dressed polymaths, inclined toward seriousness. What I discovered was a dingy, low-ceilinged room full of desks covered in coffee mugs and reams of proofs. There were towering piles of books and CDs and boxes filled with back issues or new copies fresh from the printers. A heavy mailbag spilled over with press releases and private view cards. Folders and packages full of 35mm slides, 4-by-5 transparencies, and photographic prints were spread everywhere. The handful of staff seemed friendly and funny. They were mostly artists and writers, including the company accountant. They were into music and literature, played in bands and, like me, felt that reading the Face or watching TV comedy was as important to one’s cultural literacy as mainlining art magazines. Our editor, James Roberts—a long-haired, chain-smoking fan of 1970s progressive rock and British folk music, and an exceptionally perceptive art critic—would arrive at the office in the late afternoon and work through the night, leaving just a few hours before the rest of us arrived the following day. Some days he would spend at home, and when we asked where he was, he would tell us he was reading F. Scott Fitzgerald. The world of the art media suddenly appeared complex and nuanced. I immediately felt at home.

It was at this point I understood how easy it is to think about magazines in the abstract or rely on shorthand descriptions such as “glossy,” “slick,” or “high production”—words often lazily used to connote something nebulously exclusive and commercial. It became clear just how often the audiences for a magazine imagine these publications to be the product of a monolithic set of cultural forces instead of the work of individuals.

The founders of the magazine—Tom Gidley, Amanda Sharp, and Matthew Slotover—were of the same generation as many of the artists who rose to prominence in 1990s Britain, and Frieze was often the first publication to cover a number of them. This was partly an accident of being in a particular place at a particular moment and making a smart decision to chronicle that history. It established Frieze as a magazine of record for that generation, forging new editorial and design ideas around what an art magazine could be. I learned that not everyone I met within the art world shared my enthusiasm for Frieze. Some perceived this choice as an ideological position, in conflict with those alienated from what the mainstream British media had crudely whipped up into the Young British Artist phenomenon. I recall one curator hissing at me in the early 2000s, “I loathe Frieze magazine. It’s all just articles about Tracey Emin and Vivienne Westwood.” Another disgruntled artist complained angrily to me about the writing he was “forced to read” in Frieze, as if it were a propaganda machine run by art-world secret police and he had no other choice of reading matter. In 2009, Nick Cohen, a columnist for the Observer, a major British Sunday newspaper, even called me “conformist and intolerant of dissent” for having argued in Frieze that mainstream media coverage of Tate Britain’s Altermodern exhibition was reactionary and xenophobic.1

Frieze 125 (September 2009) 

It was clear that some people preferred their art magazines to look like “Plumber’s Weekly: printed in black-and-white, with parsimonious little images, so as to ring-fence critical rigor—perhaps because they believed full-color print corrupted radical thought. Others bristled at the idea that Frieze might run articles about subjects other than visual art, as if artists, critics, and curators were indifferent to anything outside their specialist field. (This was despite the fact that established art magazines such as Artforum and Studio International from the 1970s carried articles on cinema, literature, and music.) But Frieze attracted readers and contributors from beyond the borders of art criticism, including music writers, film and literary critics, and commentators from social-science backgrounds enthusiastic to see their writing in new contexts.

In my teens and early 20s, I made the mistake of believing that everyone loved magazines in the same ways as I did. The lesson I had to learn was that magazines—especially niche publications covering topics such as art—can never be all things to all people. If you want to publish a range of voices, then you’re going to get a range of compliments and complaints. Art magazines tend to serve both industry insiders and readers with a general interest, two audiences whose needs and expectations don’t always comfortably overlap. The more established the magazine, the more people expect a reading experience tailor-made to their particular tastes and geographical locations. This is one reason why bitching about art magazines is a favorite sport in the art world. Magazines are either insufficiently critical or they’re too negative. They’ve got too much theory or not enough. For some, the proximity of advertising to criticism makes them uncomfortable; for others, the ads make for fun and informative browsing. Why is her work in this magazine? Why not mine? Too many American artists! Not enough American artists! Why should I care about reviews from obscure London galleries I’ve never heard of? Why should I care about reviews of major museums that I can read about everywhere else?

Everyone loves a young magazine.

The more established a magazine becomes, the more comfortably people form a dogmatic opinion about what it represents. Everyone loves a young magazine. New titles suggest there might be fresh ways of doing things; they hold the promise that the scrappy underdog will fight for truth and integrity by reviewing your gallery’s shows and featuring your friend’s work. But novelty soon wears off, giving way to familiarity and predictable assumptions about ideological forces conspiring to act in bad faith. It becomes easy to forget that magazines are made by people with particular interests, expertise, talents, flaws, and lives outside the art world; people who are tired and overworked; people who are sometimes happy, sometimes miserable; young, and old; confident and shy.

Magazines, unlike books, are rarely read cover-to-cover by anyone other than their editors or most ardent fans. They are consumed bit-by-bit, over the course of months, maybe years. Often those who like to form opinions about the state of criticism base their views on the few articles they do read and take those to be representative of the whole, overlooking diversity of writing styles, or representation of geography, gender, and race in a publication’s pages. Positions are formed about a magazine’s relationship to commerce based on its weight or thickness. The bigger the art magazine, the more it tends to fuse into an abstract symbol of other things in the art world: the market, academia, or professionalization. In the case of Frieze, the magazine nowadays has siblings in the form of three art fairs in London and New York. The art fair and publishing branches of Frieze are run as separate businesses, although a few readers hold strong opinions about what, in their eyes, the relationship represents.

Sixteen years after I walked into the magazine’s London offices, I am now based in New York, one of three co-editors, along with Jennifer Higgie in London and Jörg Heiser in Berlin. The magazine is now twenty-four years old, and we also produce a stand-alone bilingual German/English magazine, Frieze D/E, and an annual publication linked to the Frieze Masters fair in London. I have the privilege of being able to see how the magazine I work on—the original, international edition—has evolved. There are the micro-changes that only magazine geeks would notice, such as more explanatory subheadings for articles that don’t assume a reader is already familiar with the subject, or a few lines on the cover to tell the reader what’s in a given issue. (For at least the first decade Frieze was in print, the cover featured only an image and the magazine’s logo. It looked great but could come across as subtly standoffish.)

Frieze 170 (April 2015) 

These aspects change incrementally; an editorial team might get too attached to established ways in which certain things are done, or it might take a while to realize that a bright new editorial idea or design element isn’t quite working for readers. Some alterations might be bigger: a broader range of geographical voices represented, say, or a concerted effort to redress a gender imbalance in the artists we cover. Other transformations are seismic: social media, live talks, and video have become part and parcel of what constitutes a magazine alongside printed pages. (We now make eight short videos throughout the year, and in 2014 produced our first thirty-minute documentary film.)

When I look back over issues I have worked on, I can see how my personal interests have changed over the years—the artists I still maintain an interest in, and the ones whose work held my attention only briefly, if enjoyably. I cringe at certain pieces I wrote years ago, and still feel proud of others. More importantly, I can see how the art world has grown around me too. Those advertising pages that people love to moan about become geologic strata, telling the story of the artists that made it, the artists who are still going, and those who were once hyped to the heavens only to drop off the face of the earth.

Despite the lip service often paid to lofty ideals around maintaining “the discourse” and “criticality,” the reality of the forces shaping art magazines is complicated. Artists and galleries are for the most part highly supportive of the magazine. However there are those that treat reviews as promotional vehicles, fast to lobby editors for coverage but slow to acknowledge the work that a writer and their editor might have put into producing an engaged, nuanced, imaginative, and supportive piece of criticism about an artist. They might say they believe in the rough-and-tumble of independent critical writing, but then have conniptions if we dare to write anything negative about their artists or shows. An institution or artist might refuse to provide us with images of their work, somehow mistaking a genuine interest in what they do and a desire to support their activities for a form of hegemonic oppression. (You might think I’m kidding, but believe me, it’s happened.)

With the rise of curating as a respectable and powerful administrative cultural profession, paired with dwindling outlets for paid criticism since the early 2000s, many critics who could previously rely on teaching and a few freelance writing jobs for a living have moved into making exhibitions. For magazines, this trend has produced writers who are reluctant to publish strong opinions and who feel more comfortable with equivocation in their writing. After all, in an age of precarious creative labor, why jeopardize a future curatorial relationship with an artist, institution, or gallery with a negative piece of writing?

Frieze 147 (May 2012)

It’s also led to changes in the kind of criticism that ends up in magazines. There are more contributors who bring an institutional style of writing to their criticism. At its best, this can be serious and scholarly; at its worst, it gets stuck in an awkward zone of grammatical horror somewhere between the language of museum-wall signage and curatorial-studies seminar rooms. Conversely, writers have reacted against this institutional voice over the past decade, and at Frieze we see more writers who embrace literary, experimental, or personal approaches. I try to help a writer say what they want to say as clearly as possible but preserve their choice of writing style. The reasons critics choose a particular voice for their writing can be complex and manifold, and it’s not always the place of an editor to tell them what accent to speak in. Some magazine editors do not edit anything they publish. Others edit texts to within an inch of their lives in order to preserve a house style. I aim to be an ideal reader.

As the nature of many artist and curating practices have evolved, the spaces in which those practices are written about have had to face new challenges. In a print magazine, there is limited physical space on a page. You can do a lot in, say, 800 words, especially if the work under discussion is relatively self-contained as an image or object. But 800 words is barely enough to scratch the surface when trying to grapple with an artist’s research and backstory-heavy show. Similarly, a huge biennial that evolves over the course of a few months can only be grasped in fragments by critics. People have lives to lead, day jobs, families to feed, and can’t realistically spend sixteen weeks in a wet Belgian town following some curator’s idea of durational exhibition making. The point is, certain forms of writing don’t always suit certain forms of art making, and today we have vastly expanded forms of both.

Online advertising is not a significant generator of revenue in any field of publishing.

Of course, magazines now have ample space to publish articles of any length online: articles by a range of different voices, pieces that can be updated on the fly, and criticism that can be augmented using video and social-media feeds. But the truth is that many magazines support themselves primarily through print advertising on top of newsstand sales and subscriptions. Online advertising is not a significant generator of revenue in any field of publishing. Art magazines can count themselves lucky that the art world loves printed matter and will support print publications; despite the economics, there are probably more art magazines being published today than ever before. This means much criticism is still produced with print-era constraints. Currently, it is hard for many magazines to stop making physical publications. If we did, it’s unlikely the revenue generated from online advertising alone would be able to pay editors and writers to produce them.

And this is a major point. The art world’s quaint advertising habits may indirectly dictate that magazines continue to produce physical print, but these habits also help maintain the existence of criticism. Editors and writers will never get rich, and will always be overworked, but they do need to get paid. I, for one, do not want an art world in which the only people who can afford to produce criticism are those with independent financial means, happy to write for free, or fobbed off with a minor artist’s edition as thanks. (I’d be one of the first to have to give up writing if that’s the way art publishing went.)

Frieze 127 (December 2009) 

I want to read criticism by writers from diverse social backgrounds, and big magazines can afford to pay fees that go some way toward helping maintain that diversity. Big art magazines can ideally afford to bring in a wide range of writers from geographically diverse parts of the world, and can provide the staff to support that writing from both an editorial and design perspective­. We can pull together teams of editors whose collective knowledge and contacts can bring in a greater range of ideas and expertise than just a few. No magazine can realistically present a comprehensive picture of what goes on under the umbrella of contemporary art today—the landscape is too vast to cover—but it can provide an informed selection. (If you don’t like what one group of editors pick for their magazine, there are plenty of other options to choose from.) A big art magazine can afford to pay its interns, offer prizes to support new writing, and cover travel and expenses for writers to visit shows in far-flung parts of the world. (For the record, Frieze magazine runs a paid publishing apprenticeship every six months and has no volunteer staff.).

Magazines may not be perfect, but therein lies what’s also vital about them. They’re made by people like me, people who are not perfect either, but who were drawn into publishing and writing from a sense of idealism about how art and ideas get out into the world. Does that sound corny to you? Insufficiently cool and distanced? I couldn’t care less. Good magazines are made by editors and writers who believe what they do is a vocation. No matter how big these magazines get, they’re still made by people surrounded by mugs of coffee, piles of proofs, and not enough sleep. We’re not cool; we’re print nerds, grammar geeks, and typeface fans. We spend hours with working writers; many sets of eyes look over articles, all of them dedicated to making a piece of writing as good as it can be. That sort of attention, care, and dedication needs to be cherished. Because somewhere out there, in some boondocks town, are more 18-year-olds consuming magazines in forms I cannot even begin to fathom, just waiting for their turn.

Notes

  1. Nick Cohen, “Why the Tate’s posing curator is so passé,” the Guardian, February 28, 2009, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2009/mar/01/tate-britain-bourriaud-art-market. Letter to editor in response: http://www.theguardian.com/theobserver/2009/mar/08/17.

Comments ShowHide

Related Content