Sarah Thornton on Artforum: Brady Bunch or Manson family?* (2008)

sarah thornton seven days in the art world

* On page 161 in The Magazine chapter of Sarah Thornton’s Seven Days in the Art World, Bookforum editor Eric Banks is quoted as saying the following about the psychological dynamics of Artforum, “The family structure is beneficial and not so… Some days it feels like the Brady Bunch, other times it’s more like the Manson family. I love the Mansons. They’ve always been my favorite killers.”

R.J. Preece— When you are perceived to be #1, yes I imagine at times the knives are definitely out. Such may be the case for Artforum, that Bible to some in the art world. I myself have occasionally opened its pages and I admit, I once inquired about contributing reviews. However, I was informed by email that while they’d take a look, I should note the following: if one writes reviews for Artforum, then one can’t write reviews elsewhere.

Uh, excuse me? This was my chance to step onto the ethical podium and reject the possible opportunity for total establishment branding. Now who am I kidding? If I wrote for them, I’d probably love them and adopt the role of Bobby, the little brother in the Brady Bunch; but instead I opt to occupy the skeptical digital space and scrutinize their media surface at every possible opportunity.

In this regard, I relish in Sarah Thornton’s chapter The Magazine in Seven Days in the Art World, and the new, revealed layers of the workings of Artforum high up in their 1920s Beaux-Arts tower in New York City. In fact, I aim to closely examine every sentence using my adapted framework referring to Norman Fairclough’s Media Discourse.

In an exciting new line-up, Artforum is placed into the media/communications role, the magazine becomes the artwork, and the editors and writers become the artists under scrutiny...

Below are some excerpts that reveal some of the layers underneath the old testament, Artforum, presented in my copy of the new one, Seven Days in the Art World… with highlights.


Sarah Thornton—

[...] Between the magazine and the website, Artforum hosts a wide range of voices. Contributors don’t necessarily like each other’s style; some are divas who resist being edited. “I have relationships with a lot of writers,” says Guarino wearily. “At a certain point, one suffers that beleaguered feeling of agents dealing with stars.”

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Artforum has an editorial department of sixteen people, most of whom graduated from Ivy League universities or their British equivalents. “We are blessed to work with staff that can’t be bossed,” explains Guarino. “It’s like trying to shepherd a pack of wolves.” Most studied English literature or creative writing rather than art history. “We are also blessed with being a destination,’ he adds. “They arrive and we try to corral them.” [...]


Whereas Griffin has edited “feature packages” on European cultural theorists and has no fear of jargon, Schjeldahl [chief art critic for The New Yorker] is a populist who complains about professional intellectuals who “think they are scientists and aspire to some kind of objective knowledge.” He takes solace in the fact that “bad writing is a self-punishing offense. It doesn’t get read, except by people who have to read it.” Nonetheless, he’s willing to be amused by jargon’s function as shoptalk. “You hear two auto mechanics and you have no idea what they are talking about,” he explained. “There is a kind of poetry in their impenetrable phrases. Why shouldn’t art criticism have that?”

Schjeldahl often feels like he has “seen it before,” so he looks at contemporary art for pleasure less than he used to. “Art is generational, and Artforum is a magazine that identifies with youth,” he explains. “It’s the art magazine, whose role is to hold up a two-way mirror to the rising generation, so they can see themselves and we can see them from the other side.” Many Artforum writers are either young people or academics trying to earn a reputation rather than a living. “Those who write for the little they are paid by Artforum are writing for glory,” said Schjeldahl. “But there is a point when your glory meter smiles and you notice that you are starving to death.” [...]

The power of Artforum as a promotional vehicle is not something with which all its contributors are 100 percent comfortable. A few months ago I met the well-known freelancer Rhonda Lieberman, who has been writing for the magazine since 1989 and on the masthead as a contributing editor since 2003. Given the heavily hämisch quality of her written voice, Lieberman was unexpectedly slim and stylish in person. “In the art world, a critic is an exalted salesperson,” she told me. “When you are writing a feature, no matter what you write, you are contributing to a super-glossy brochure, and when you whip up a review, you’re little more than a glorified press agent. If I were into that, why in the world wouldn’t I be a dealer?” Lieberman contended that honest criticism must contextualize. “I can’t not notice the market. A lot of artists notice it and play with it. Writers shouldn’t bury their heads in the sand,” she said, wagging her finger. “Within Artforum’s sleek upmarket exterior is this endless blowing of windbags who lift and separate art from the marketplace through a strategic use of theory.” Lieberman suggested that the loftier the writing is, the more effectively it legitimates. “We are supposed to commune with their self-contained emporium of fine ideas,” she concluded. “And transcend the fact that certain things are supervaluable to shopping fetishists. It’s repression by omission, and it’s mind-boggling!”

Artforum is often under attack from a number of sectors. As Guarino explains, “People feel ambivalent about the magazine. We’re resented by the artists who never got what they deserved, the dealers who owe us too much money, and the critics who were never asked to write for the magazine. And while a lot of collectors subscribe, many complain that they just can’t read it.” Korner regrets that the editor in chief is always under intense scrutiny. “Artforum is establishment in a funny sense,” he said. “And therefore people want to pull it down. They’re always trying to catch us out.” When I asked him which segment of the art world was most vociferous, he responded, “Academics, without a doubt.”

Sarah Thornton at artdesigncafe