How to Read with Other People

6.4 / Free Speech in the Art World

How to Read with Other People

By Orit Gat May 27, 2015

Cover to cover

Magazines aren’t necessarily meant to be read in their entirety. They are designed to make that a possibility: to assume that a reader would be interested in anything a certain magazine publishes, as long as the writing is good. But publications are commissioned, edited, and printed with the knowledge that most readers pick and choose.

A year and a half ago, my friend Clara and I emailed most people we knew in New York to see who may be interested in joining us in reading art magazines cover to cover. We called it the “Contemporary Art Magazines Critical Reading Group” (in hindsight, we should have named it something shorter, or at least have a better acronym than CAMCRG) and organized it via the Public School New York. The idea was to focus on a different art magazine at every session, and talk about the overall composition of any given issue, as well as specific articles, and the larger contribution a magazine makes or could make. We started with Artforum. It seemed like it would fit this methodology perfectly, since we all came to reading it cover to cover (for the first time, because really, who does that?) with a particular knowledge or opinion of the magazine, its history, its current status, and its style, and we all had certain expectations from it.

“Any surprises?” was the first thing we discussed in that initial meeting. I remember presuming that Artforum would be much more unequal and—sorry—boring than it was. The conversation very quickly veered from the lovely discovery that reading cover-to-cover is much more engaging than selective reading, to discussing the tone of writing in Artforum, the feeling that the magazine emphasizes a style and language that generates a sense of authority. Which brought about a discussion of how Artforum is actively writing the history of contemporary art—or at least, believes that’s what it does. That’s why the magazine opens with the obituaries, we laughed.

Screenshot from Facebook promoting the Contemporary Art Magazines Critical Reading Group meeting. Courtesy of the Author.

What can be learned from a single magazine at a time? The reason Artforum was such a good introduction to the idea of this reading group is that it has defined a very particular role for itself, which is consistently sustained and reasserted in every issue. Looking at such roles means looking at the contribution that magazines make. A specific article or a review could garner attention and generate conversation, especially online. But Clara and I had a sense that to commit to magazines as a whole, as institutions, means to think about them structurally and discuss their successes, failures, and possibilities on a regular basis. 

Similar questions

Some members of the group talk in accepted publishing terms like “front of the book,” for the first few pages, often previews or short essays; “feature well,” where the longer essays and interviews appear; and “back of the book” (usually reviews). Others have little experience in publishing, but we all—artists, curators, writers, administrators—have much experience with text. In a growingly theoretical art scene, it seems like everyone is interested in discussing how language is constructed.

We could have organized just an Artforum reading group. Or one dedicated to Frieze. Or a group that meets to read and discuss the cultural section of the New York Times. But the goal in starting this group was to discuss the art scene at large and the practice of publishing and writing about art. Which meant that our concern was to ask similar questions across the board of art publishing rather than talk only about the role each publication plays. What are the responsibilities of a magazine like Frieze, and how do they differ from those of a smaller, more local magazine like Art Monthly? Reading in context also means thinking through these differing situations. 

We had so much to learn by thinking and reading about a different location, which was almost surprising considering how globalized the art world seems...

About a year after the New York class was started, a London group joined us. They meet at Open School East and read the same magazine we do. For the first joint session we all read Artforum as an introduction of the group’s methodology for the Londoners. For the second, however, we chose to discuss what location means for publishing, and so we read the Brooklyn Rail and Art Monthly. The Londoners said the Rail represented many of their outsider dreams of New York; I received an email about their session, talking about the Rail and “all its myths and mystique. Very enjoyable, but not sure how much it is relevant (and perhaps relevance isn’t all its cracked up to be, maybe it’s nice to maintain the myths).” The New York group was fascinated by Art Monthly’s commitment to the UK scene—covering exhibitions all over the British Isles, refusing the primacy of London, which is the one place we all knew a lot about, but also a feature on the state of the Arts Council England and its future, and how it will impact art production in the United Kingdom. We had so much to learn by thinking and reading about a different location, which was almost surprising considering how globalized the art world seems when talking about the biennial and art-fair circuit. 

The stakes for a magazine as established as Frieze or Artforum are unlike those of magazines more closely linked to certain artistic, intellectual, or local scenes. The sense of authority that Artforum commands may result in a lack of experimentation (very obvious, for example, in that magazine’s online presence, dedicated to a social diary and positive reviews). That’s one facet of responsibility, the other being the positive, continuous questioning of, reacting to, and rethinking through the art market, as a result of these magazines’ for-profit, advertising-dependent status. One of the things we do as a group is carefully look at the advertisements in the magazines we read, and through them, map both the scene these magazines are responsible to and talk about the function and success of the separation between publishing (ad sales) and editorial content. No magazine is outside the art market, even if it’s a scrappy not-for-profit that features no ads. The cultural capital that a long bibliography renders an artist often translates to capital. A magazine like Frieze or Artforum has the capacity to acknowledge that system and complicate it. That’s something we’ve discussed a lot in our group.

Contemporary Art Magazines Critical Reading Group meeting, April 27, 2015. Courtesy of Triangle, New York. Photo: Elena Levi.

When we read E-Flux Journal, we talked about the relationship between a magazine and an institution, and how cultural capital relates to actual capital. Discussing Mousse a few months after reading Afterall generated a great conversation about the different modes of curatorial writing. ArtNEWS seemed burdened by its own history and brought about a good discussion about relevance: How does a magazine cater to an audience that isn’t necessarily plugged in to the fashionable aforementioned global circuit? (When the entire editorial staff of ArtNEWS changed, we took note that we should reread it in light of the change of masthead. It’ll be the focus of our June meeting.) 

Not all members of the group are interested in talking in terms like “back of the book,” and indeed, the conversation oftentimes veers to consider a magazine as a whole or to discuss specific articles, differing writing styles, the state of criticism (it’s always instructive to count how many of the reviews in a given magazine are positive, how many negative, and also how few focus on a single female artist’s show), and the particular scene each magazine covers. That said, reading print magazines did push us all to consider what has become an accepted form: the editor’s letter, followed by a front-of-the-book section, feature well, reviews. One time we discussed the New Yorker as the role model for this structure (and wondered whether or not it is worrisome that we take our examples from the world of journalism rather than criticism). We then wondered how that structure gets broken and reassessed in publications like Frieze (whose front of the book is dedicated to freeform essays on the state of art and cultural criticism beyond contemporary art—books, music, film) and Mousse (which basically plunges directly into features). I spend a lot of time thinking about the possibilities of the editor’s letter (in those magazines that still have it) since it is a prime opportunity to highlight a magazine’s position at large, but also the interests that lead a certain issue. To go back to the question that was brought up around the Brooklyn Rail: Does relevance matter? If it does, that claim should be made in the editor’s letter.

How to read with other people

Sometimes I wonder if bookstores can feel that the magazine reading group is happening. When all copies of Mousse disappear from the PS1 store and McNally Jackson at the same time (I presume the weekend before our monthly meeting on the last Monday of the month), how could a store’s magazine buyer not notice a spike in interest? The magazine staffers, too, are curious. At times they ask for feedback. I recently had an interview for an editorial job at an art magazine. The editors asked me about the reading group: What did I learn from talking so regularly about publishing? What did I learn from the session we did on that particular publication? There’s a certain unease to the feeling that we are a magazine’s perfect readers. But the criticality of the group also brought questions about magazines’ alliances and role in the art industry and how we relate to them, which can go almost unnoticed when reading alone on the couch.

In a recent session, someone complained that a certain magazine makes him feel too comfortable. What happens when a magazine reasserts what you already know, your part in a certain fraction of the art world, your socio-economic status? Thinking structurally about magazines means discussing these positions, so derived from any magazine’s—nonprofit or not—relation to the art market. It also exposes the interesting push–pull between the sense of their timeliness and their actual shelf life. Topicality oftentimes implies a relation to the art market: a response to what is on view, a consideration of why it’s on offer. I believe one of the roles of art criticism is to keep the market in check, as much as that is possible. Thus it’s decisive that Jerry Saltz coined the term “zombie formalism” to describe the trendy process-oriented abstraction so successful in New York at the moment, even though his argument, which focused on sameness rather than financial role, was weak. From other people’s responses at the reading group, I learned just how tangible that responsibility is. But I also learned that art magazines play a role in the way we all assess our place and opinions in regard to the art world.

Contemporary Art Magazines Critical Reading Group meeting, April 27, 2015. Courtesy of Triangle, New York. Photo: Elena Levi.

That abovementioned sense of responsibility is twofold when reading in a group. If magazines are a resource, then we should expect certain things from them, and we should read them and discuss them and—at the risk of sounding sentimental—care about them. I use the word “commitment” a lot, because as a critic I have a stake in the state, status, and future of publishing. I write a lot about the shift from print to digital publishing, and the focus of the reading group on print magazines (though we have considered reading a web magazine and will probably do so in the future) allows us to spend time on traditional structures (see “front of the book”) and assess their significance. This seems extra crucial as online publishing seems to have promoted a very particular, bloggy voice as a hallmark of digital publishing, and while we are defining what writing online can be, looking at established forms could provide a model for new ways of writing online. 

Just reading magazines cover-to-cover is a changing factor. Subthemes are—intentionally or accidentally—strewn through every issue. It could be geopolitics or the future of plastics. (OK, it’s never the future of plastics, but at times things don’t seem like they’ll reappear time and again and yet they do. Like a real interest registered across a number of articles in representation of female artists in exhibitions or the influence of a certain school of thought.) And reading across the board—and repeating certain magazines—allows the careful reader to assess these positions and commitments. I was once told that books should be read with the same patience with which they are written. I think similarly about magazines—they should be read with the same rigor in which they are produced.

Addendum, a kind of thank-you

I would never have started this group without Clara Halpern, who left it to take on a curatorial role at the Power Plant in Toronto. I hope she starts a Toronto group soon. Oliver Basciano, who runs the London group at Open School East, always replenishes me with fresh, new, critical, original ideas about publishing in general and magazines in particular. Triangle Residency has been an amazing, welcoming home to this group for many months (and has a great bar next door, also a big plus following two hours of critical conversation). And, of course, all the people who come to the group, who spend weekends and subway rides reading magazines and jotting down ideas. Thanks.

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