The delivery system for radical theory from the French and Italian left has certainly been transformed in recent years, and with the growing market for English translations of so-called post-’68 theory, numerous political theorists emerging from the student movements of 1968 have found themselves travelling the global circuit of art fairs, biennales, and art magazines. We have seen Jacques Rancière speaking about art and politics at the Frieze Art Fair, Bifo surfing the global biennale circuit from Kiev to Kassel to Montréal, Semiotext(e) appearing as an artist at the 2014 Whitney Biennial, and Artforum dedicating entire issues to the legacy of ’68. In this essay, I want to untangle one knot in this art–theory love affair. Focusing on the proliferation of the Semiotext(e) brand of radical theory in Artforum in the past decade, I explore why a magazine best known for its girth and glossy ads for blue-chip commercial galleries and high-fashion labels may have been bitten by the Semiotext(e) bug, and what this coupling may tell us about the present conditions under which theorists must work.
This much we know: in the past decade, the art world has seen a surge of interest in the anti-capitalist protest culture of the 1960s and 1970s and in the European political theorists influential to that generation; Artforum — along with magazines like Texte zur Kunst and, more recently, May Revue — has done much to educate its readers about this intellectual fashion. But when did this begin? As British artist Merlin Carpenter tells it, it all started in 2003, when Tim Griffin, an emerging art critic with a background in comparative literature, was handed the job of editor-in-chief of Artforum, a magazine that was then moving in the direction of “lite theory.”2 2 - Merlin Carpenter, “The Tail that Wagged the Dog,” in Canvases and Careers Today: Criticism and its Markets,ed. Daniel Birnbaum and Isabelle Graw (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2008), 79 – 80. Under Griffin’s watch, Artforum was transformed into a platform in which new works by radical thinkers from the French and Italian left could be discussed and debated both on their own terms and in relation to contemporary art discourse. Between 2006 and 2009, Artforum dedicated feature sections to the work of Guy Debord, Jacques Rancière, Paolo Virno, and Antonio Negri, most often by pairing articles by artists and critics about these theorists’ continued relevance with excerpts from their major or recent books. By publishing in quick succession a string of thematic issues on revolution, protest, and the commons, the magazine staged a dialogue between contemporary art and radical politics at a time when speculation in the art market appeared nearly inseparable from the risk-taking promoted in the increasingly volatile financial market. But why did Artforum’s writers and editors begin to imagine the radical subversion of the ruling order at this particular historical juncture? Might the promotion of Tim Griffin to the position of editor-in-chief and the subsequent popularization of post-’68 theory in Artforum have signified an urgent need for art world insiders to realign their political agendas after a decade of global expansion and intense economic growth? Or were the writings of Debord, Negri, Rancière, and Virno simply used to package and market the latest art trends?
One could argue that the theorists promoted by Artforum during Griffin’s editorial tenure shared a common project — or at least an intellectual affinity — in their diagnosis of the limitations of critique under conditions of post-industrial capitalism. But it is perhaps more striking that, with the exception of Rancière, they also shared an editor. In fact, the theorists taking centre stage in Artforum were precisely the ones first introduced to America two decades earlier by Sylvère Lotringer, who, as founding editor of Semiotext(e), worked with a close-knit network of artists, filmmakers, club owners, and punks to peddle new translations from the French and Italian left to their peers in the SoHo art scene. In fact, even the numerous writers and translators from Semiotext(e)’s extended family — including John Kelsey, Chris Kraus, Liz Kotz, Eileen Myles, Gerald Raunig, Mark von Schlegell, Jason E. Smith, and Lynne Tillman, not to mention Lotringer himself — began writing features, book reviews, art reviews, and Top 10 lists in Artforum during Griffin’s editorial tenure. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to call this a kind of coup d’état at Artforum by Semiotext(e). It is perhaps unsurprising to discover that Griffin studied under Lotringer at Columbia in the late 1980s and worked as a Semiotext(e) intern into the early 1990s.
This was not the first time that Artforum had fallen for Semiotext(e). Two decades earlier, during a not dissimilar period of extreme economic growth, Semiotext(e) caught the eye of the New York art world with one of the first books in its Foreign Agents series: Jean Baudrillard’s Simulations, published in 1983. The timing could not have been better. By the turn of the 1980s, artists, critics, curators, and dealers had discovered that French poststructuralist theory, with all its linguistic opacity, could be twisted into an effective marketing tool for contemporary art. In an art world that was, as Lotringer remembers, “always on the lookout for ideas,” Baudrillard’s Simulations became a must-read because it gave “an aura of theory to what was, for the most part, a shrewd move by art in the direction of the media and advertising industry.”3 3 - Sylvère Lotringer, “Better Than Life,” Artforum (April 2003): 252. This “shrewd move” went by the name of appropriation art, and its basic premise — that an artist could critique commercial advertising and mass culture by simulating aesthetic strategies developed in the commercial realm — took Simulations at face value. Distorted references to Simulations appeared almost immediately in art reviews, exhibition press releases, and catalogue texts; it was as if the nameBaudrillard was enough to secure contemporary relevance for a work of art. By the fall of 1984, Baudrillard was listed as a contributing editor at Artforum, and he held this position until 1986. The only trouble was that the theorist had never even heard of Artforum.4 4 - Ibid.
The Baudrillard affair was like a bad case of teenage lust — one-directional and evidently unsustainable. In 1987, when Baudrillard was invited to give a lecture to a sold-out crowd at the Whitney Museum of American Art, he was forced to face his disciples in person. When asked what he thought about the artists and critics whose work he inspired, he replied, “There can’t be any Simulationist school . . . because the simulacrum cannot be represented. This is a complete misunderstanding of what I wrote.”5 5 - Ibid., 253. Jean Baudrillard quoted. Scheduled to coincide with the theorist’s trip to New York, Group Material — a New York-based art collective known for staging politically charged group shows — opened an exhibition titled Anti-Baudrillard (Resistance) at White Columns, an alternative space in the West Village. Less irritated by Baudrillard’s writing than by the ways that it was put to use in the art world, Group Material confronted the art world’s dominant interpretation of Simulations, which seemed intent on “disarming the idea of culture as a site of contestation/resistance.”6 6 - Group Material, “Resistance (Anti-Baudrillard)” Artists’ Statement, February 6 – 28, 1987, in White Columns Digital Archive, www.whitecolumns.org/archive/index.php/Detail/Object/Show/object_id/93. In a pamphlet accompanying the show, the group elaborated, “A theoretical jungle surrounds us. Overgrown from inactivity, this jungle harbours real dangers — the dissolution of history, the disfiguration of any alternative actuality, and the attempt to disown practice. Activism is perceived as illusory in an illusory culture. In this self-imposed confinement art becomes comfortable, criticality becomes style, politics becomes idealism, and ultimately information becomes an impossibility.”7 7 - Ibid.
Group Material provoked its audience with images of racism, war, genocide, and organized political protest, restaging in the art world a debate that had long been at play in activist circles over the possibilities for direct political resistance in the context of post-industrial capitalism. The organized left in the United States was notoriously suspicious of the forms of indirect resistance promoted by Semiotext(e), those crafty interventionist practices offered up by the Autonomist Marxists or the Situationist International, which insisted that contestation could be established only within and against existing conditions of domination. Resonating with this broader struggle over the merits of direct action, Anti-Baudrillard sketched out a fraught territory upon which definitions of politics and resistance were being worked and reworked and, in the process, exposed two gulfs separating intellectual, art, and activist circles in New York: the first dividing the organized left from the intellectual milieu represented by Semiotext(e), and the second dividing Semiotext(e) from the increasingly market-savvy New York art world.
Group Material’s Anti-Baudrillard show provoked a well-timed debate about the New York art world’s blind infatuation with French theory, asking what Baudrillard’s Simulations might have had to do with a perceived withdrawal from organized politics at a peak moment in the AIDS epidemic. Two decades later, Tim Griffin shuttled the basic structure of this debate from the outer edges of the New York art world to its symbolic centre by featuring confrontations among artists, theorists, and critics over the role of contemporary art in the project of social emancipation in the city’s highest-profile art magazine. When, in November 2009, Griffin used his editorial to foreground cultural geographer David Harvey’s frustration with Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s appeal to abstract concepts over concrete material observations — “Enough of relationalities and immaterialities! How about concrete proposals, actual political organization, and real actions?”88 8 - David Harvey, quoted in Tim Griffin, “Action and Abstraction,” Artforum (November 2009): 47.— he staged an ideological conflict not unlike Anti-Baudrillard, only updated for the art world’s “Year of Negri.” Yet if we recognize a trace of Group Material’s 1987 call to action in Harvey’s 2009 quip, we can also sense a contextual mutation; the minor conflict staged between Harvey and Negri is set against a glossy backdrop of commerce and high fashion — a backdrop that was repeatedly cast into relief during Griffin’s eight years as editor-in-chief of Artforum.
In his “Editor’s Letter,” Griffin frequently engaged radical theory as it appeared in the magazine. “Where else might a reader find, say, Jacques Rancière alongside an advertisement for Yves Saint Laurent?” he wondered in March 2008, making public what one disgruntled complainant called Artforum’s “strangely schizophrenic capitalist Marxism.”9 9 - Tim Griffin, “Social Realities,”
Artforum (March 2008), 73. Griffin consistently identified, but never resolved, the conflicts that might arise when leftist discourse was published in a forum ostensibly financed, as artist Andrea Fraser reminds us, by the same club of multi-millionaires who most strongly lobby against the redistribution of wealth in the United States.10 10 - Andrea Fraser, “L’1 % C’est Moi,” Texte zur Kunst 83 (September 2011): 122. In the pages of Griffin’s Artforum, theory was made equivalent to art, fashion, and commerce; it appeared not as prophecy, but as yet another sullied document of the strange world we live in.
If, during its first encounter with the French and Italian left, the New York art world latched onto theoretical buzzwords to sell its wares, during its second encounter twenty years later, key terms were clearly not enough. It was as if the art world had learned from the botched Baudrillard affair and discovered that it would need not only the theorist’s words but also his compliant body; thinkers such as Bifo, Negri, and Rancière are routinely launched into foreign contexts surrounded by art, fashion, and celebrity, where they are asked to speak on behalf of art and artists. The interesting thing is that rarely — or so it seems — does a theorist today spectacularly forsake his followers as Baudrillard did at the Whitney Museum in 1987. But what might this mean? On a pragmatic level, we have to accept that biennales, art fairs, and art magazines open theory up to new worlds, new audiences who use or misuse it in all sorts of ways, and that this can be good, even helpful, in building a broad public discourse on contemporary capitalism — especially when faced with the irreversible metamorphosis of our universities into factories of knowledge. But on another level, if we view the collision of radical theory and contemporary art as a symptom of our social reality, it may reveal a broader crisis that affects the world of theory as it does the world of art: the encroachment of the market on all aspects of our lives and work. Capitalism’s colonization of everyday life was predicted by many of the thinkers translated by Semiotext(e) in its earliest years. But what was seen as so much science fiction upon its first release — as Lotringer reminds us at every turn — has turned out to be very real indeed, and the call to write within and against now applies to the theorists and their interlocutors in our own conditions of dependency. Faced with the changing shape of our knowledge economy, perhaps we need to think about radical theory not only on its own terms but also in view of the insatiable demand for novelty and repackaged thought that has led to the current juncture.