Free Speech in the Art World

6.4 / Free Speech in the Art World

Free Speech in the Art World

By Dushko Petrovich May 27, 2015

The Constitution protects our right to free speech, but its exercise is another matter entirely. In every direction, we are surrounded by varieties of speech that are decidedly unfree: advertising, self-censorship, pandering, cliché, euphemism, forced confessions, and on and on. Indeed, studying the sundry genres of unfree speech would be one way to approach the topic—to delineate, by process of elimination, a zone where speech was actually free.

The art world purports to be such a zone. One possible definition of art would be expression that attains a condition of freedom. The fact that the art world promises—however disingenuously—to be a space that preserves and elevates such expression makes it a space worthy of both vigilant protection and thoroughgoing investigation.

Normally, this process occurs through the production of artworks themselves, but it is occasionally useful to step back and look at the discussion as such. This publication offers one such occasion. With essays and interviews exploring the full spectrum of speech acts—from talking to publishing, both online and offline—that occur around art works, this issue of Art Practical takes up the question of free speech in the art world from a variety of historical, philosophical, and personal vantage points.

Going back a century, Lori Cole reminds us of the role government can play in limiting speech by recounting the story of the Masses, an illustrated socialist monthly that was shut down for pacifist content by the Espionage Act in 1917. Established as a counterpoint to art and publications that were too “economically determined,” the cooperatively owned Masses considered itself a “free magazine” and was devoted to progressive causes like racial equality, women’s suffrage, and workers’ rights. Publishing drawings from Stuart Davis and Ashcan School artists such as John Sloan and George Bellows, the magazine was also an important site for artistic innovation and debate—even captions themselves were called into question as artists fought for freedom of expression within the publication. Eventually one of four hundred periodicals deemed “unmailable” under federal law, the Masses quickly reformed after the war as the Liberator, and then again in 1926 as the New Masses, which published until 1948. Now largely forgotten, the Masses serves as a useful reminder of the U.S. history of state censorship.

Telling a more recent and more local history, Gwen Allen recounts Artforum’s beginnings as a San Francisco counterpoint to establishment magazines such as Art in America and Art News. Avoiding New York reviews for its first three years, the magazine set out to provide coverage for exhibitions on the West Coast. Wanting to also provide a venue for “a lot of divergent and contradictory opinion,” the magazine printed a central “forum” section on brightly colored construction paper. Paradoxically, it was the magazine’s geographic and commercial marginality that made it an attractive venue for New York–based critics including Barbara Rose, Lucy Lippard, Michael Fried, Robert Pincus-Witten, and Rosalind Krauss. Moving first to Los Angeles in 1965 and then to New York in 1967, Artforum was already seen to be losing its way by 1969, when Donald Judd could despair that it “seemed like Art News in the 1950s.” Besides inaugurating the longstanding tradition of complaining about Artforum’s decline, Judd’s comment underlines the important dynamic of renewal at the heart of art publishing, which perennially thrives on a mix of DIY gumption and an invigorating dissatisfaction with existing venues.

Continuing the history from there, in what she refers to as “the era of activist journals,” Martha Rosler describes the shift to theory journals that occurred as many activists moved into academia in the 1970s. In an impromptu Facebook interview, Rosler remembers how “SOCIALIST REVOLUTION became SOCIALIST REVIEW, RADICAL AMERICA began to die, RADICAL SOCIOLOGIST (i think that it was its name) became CRITICAL SOCIOLOGY.” Joined on her FB wall by several friends—including Jeff Weinstein, who was a longtime columnist, editor, and shop steward at the Village Voice—Rosler describes what now seems like a relative paradise of publishing and activism: “See, if we actually let the following generations understand how much we (worldwide) changed the world, they would look at us cross-eyed and say, ‘SO, what the fuck happened then?’ One word helps: backlash. Another: neoliberalism.” Asked which era followed the era of theory journals, Rosler gives another helpful word: marketization.

Picking up in a similarly personal way where Rosler leaves off, Dan Fox and Aruna D’Souza describe their experiences from inside that era of marketization. Fox, who is now co-editor of Frieze, contrasts people’s received ideas about art magazines with a reality he has lived since 1999, when he started as a £50-a-week intern sleeping on a friend’s kitchen floor. Having pictured “a clean, white space, furnished with tasteful Scandinavian-designed furniture,” Fox instead entered “a dingy, low-ceiling room full of desks covered in coffee mugs and reams of proofs.” But he goes on to make a case for just such clutter-strewn offices, which are tasked with the tricky work of providing reliable coverage for readers and reliable income for writers at a time when both are in such short supply, and the writers are often the last people to get the scraps of art-world marketization.

Aruna D’Souza comes at this same question from the position of a writer who has left academia and is negotiating, both literally and figuratively, the relationship between money and expression. Having exchanged the stabile remuneration of university life for increased creative freedom, she also abandons the economic model where art-world publishing is subsidized by professors’ salaries. Refusing to be compensated in pure “exposure,” D’Souza simultaneously acknowledges that her regular posting on Facebook represents another instance of “free” speech, albeit one that often leads to paid gigs (and interesting conversations).

In a related effort to “shift the current conversation from free culture to fair culture,” Astra Taylor looks at the emergence of the digital realm through the lens of sustainability. In an excerpt from her recent book, The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age, Taylor questions the idea that the internet is a “utopia of openness” that grants both producers and consumers equal access to culture online. Instead, Taylor looks at the structures that underlie “projects that are timeless rather than timely” and advocates collective political action that would transform the internet into a venue that values transparency, accountability, and equality above the secrecy, inequality, and intolerance that currently rule online culture.

As the digital era has blurred the lines between speech and writing, Christopher Howard’s In Terms Of… blog takes up the interesting task of publishing “criticism of live speaking engagements in the visual arts.” Reporting on panels, artist’s talks, interviews, and readings, Howard and his co-bloggers provide a textual record of what is otherwise fleeting speech. As galleries and institutions focus increasingly on staging these kinds of events, one important future of art publishing would seem to involve covering those events critically. (Here, Howard turns those reflections on his own project in another typical format of our era: the email interview.)

Going along the same lines but in exactly the opposite direction, Orit Gat’s project, the Contemporary Art Magazines Critical Reading Group, seeks to digest the printed word in organized group conversation. Reading one magazine per month, cover to cover, the group discusses a wide variety of publications with a depth of attention they rarely receive. With groups now starting in London and Los Angeles, the practice is a useful way to both extend the textual discourse and to meet up IRL to talk about art. In this issue, Gat details the benefits that regular, shared periodical reading can have on a text-devoted group of artists, curators, and writers.

Sandra Skurvida dissects the various international mediations and national censorship involved in the contemporary Iranian situation. Exploring the personal and social dimensions of cyber-speech in an art world with very few fixed nodes of communication and support, Skurvida takes up the case of Sohrab Kashani’s project SuperSohrab both as it was reported in the Guardian and also as that report was received and discussed on Facebook.

Colleen Asper’s essay usefully contrasts the neoliberal “freedom” of “maintaining one’s position within a system of structural oppression” with the actual freedom of equality. Inspecting the symbolic pencil that was invoked after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, Asper pointedly wonders, “Why, in the absence of censorship, do we use our ‘freedoms’ largely to reproduce existing structures of oppression?” Calling upon fellow artists to “not only censor all our impulses to align with what the existing structures of oppression produce,” Asper furthermore asks them “to give form to exceptions to this structure and thus aid in its destruction.”

While it is impossible to take up every aspect of free speech in the art world, these texts—in both form and content—address some of the basic questions that surround this question today. Having established and mostly maintained the right to free speech, we still have to work constantly toward its achievement, and I hope this publication helps pull in that direction.

As an artist, writer, editor, and publisher, I am always looking to better understand the various dynamics that limit, or liberate, our means of expression. Having worked and plotted with all of this issue’s contributors on various projects before—ranging from book and magazine publications, to academic panels, to late-night Facebook chats—I am delighted and grateful to have assembled their views on this important subject. And I would like to end by emphasizing that gratitude, because I know that these contributions were often made after normal working hours and simply for the benefit of the reading, writing, and art-making community. In my experience, that speech is some of the freest. I hope that it is in some way practical for you.

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