How Things Should Be: A Letter from the Editor
Essay / January 20223
How Things Should Be: A Letter from the Editor
By Jacob Barnes
As I prepare for Curatorial Affairs’ first full year of issues, I’ve had to ask myself a few questions. Principally, I’ve had to ask “why?”: why start a new art publication, why subject myself to ever more deadlines, why be involved in publishing at all? Like most intensely difficult endeavors, publishing comes with its own kind of headrush, a gush of excitement when one finally gets to hold the fruits of their labor, but thrill-seeking in the magazine world is a very dry (and very expensive) means of painting the town red.
When answering that question, I’ve found solace in the firm conviction that I and those in my community have something to say. Not only that, but what we have to say is sometimes interesting and worth reading. While I am slow to count myself as part of this contingent, I feel certain that many of those I call colleagues, collaborators, and friends have exciting and original ideas about art and the world that it both exists in and engenders. Most upsettingly, I find that far too often, these voices are ignored within the ever-shrinking landscape of art(s) publishing, and when they are not, often subservient to programmatic views of how art is, and how it should be written about. So why? As the saying goes, if you want a job done right, do it yourself.
But in turn, this logic opens up a whole separate series of questions about how an art publication should be. This, it turns out, is much more difficult to answer. As we all have come to learn, it is much easier to find problems than it is to find suitable solutions. But after reflection, there are three core values that I think an art publication must have: it must be sincere, it must be gracious, and it must be irreverent.
In some respects, even reading it back now, it feels like some kind of romantic (or maudlin) Weird Science-esque combination; as if I were choosing qualities for a friend or partner. But I also think that it hits on some of the primary issues that I’ve observed within the arts publishing community, and perhaps applies a new tack to them, providing industrial problems with ideological answers. That is to say, I don’t think that art publications have faltered because they produce knowingly sub-standard work. Instead, I think that many publications have lost their way in understanding the kind of work they should be producing.
Writing that a publication should be “sincere” is a little amorphous. I flip-flopped with my word choice between this and “thoughtful,” and found “sincere” to be a better fit: some art writing should be fervent and off the cuff, composed in a spasm of reaction and published when hot with the fire of excitement (or disgust). That, surely, is not thoughtful writing, but it is sincere, and it does contribute in valuable ways to discourse. It is saying (boldly) what the writer thinks, unapologetically, providing a foundation for others to react. Not all writing should be so quickly-formulated, but it highlights a key facet of what I think art publications should be doing: publishing work that says what it means and means what it says. If a publication is unwilling to do this, then they shouldn’t be publishing at all.
Secondly, a publication should be gracious. This is also a little amorphous, although I mean this in slightly more exact terms. I feel strongly that art publications serve a crucial role in the art economy – they help those who are interested know where to direct their attention, and in real terms, their money. As such, there will always be devoted practitioners who are not immediately recognized by art collectors for their efforts, and I believe it is the obligation of arts publications to bring these practitioners to light, and not simply to shower ever-more praise on the already anointed. Art publications have become far too lazy, eager to publish predictable or ill-conceived pieces that tell us what we’ve already come to know or expect. More importantly, they’ve lost sight of the truth that all capital flows begin with small trickles, each making their way into larger rivers over time, with uncountable twists and turns. In other words, a gallery’s path to sustainability is composed of hundreds of little steps, and it is the art publication’s responsibility to help provide those steps when they have been deserved, connecting an audience to good work.
Thirdly, an art publication should be irreverent. My thoughts here are very simple: it’s only art. The hushed tones of reverence that we often use around art try to hide the fact that it’s all just grown-up arts and crafts; most work, put honestly, isn’t far off a few pom-poms and pipe cleaners from being a third grader’s end of year project. That’s not to say that — as I’ve mentioned earlier — one shouldn’t be respectful and give things thought, but instead that straying from orthodoxy isn’t a question of life or death, it’s a question of maybe a few people getting mad at you. And even then, they’re not that mad (because, again, it’s only art).
If this issue gets close to some of these ideals, I’ll be proud. Each takes refinement and failure; I will not be able to achieve all immediately, in one issue nonetheless. But hopefully it gives you a sense of what we’re aiming at; where we’re going. If you want to come along for the ride, everyone is welcome.