I’ve been asked to comment on art magazines but my mind keeps wandering toward other things : like magazines in general, and how the commentary that fills them feeds both cultures and subcultures, how they jump – start ideas, how they drench us in taste, how they work an angle, how temporal they are, how soon their current divinities become yesterday’s papers. But I also start thinking about commentary in general, including this comment which you are now reading, or the other comments filling this magazine, or the commentary implicit or explicit in the art and ideas being commented on, and how all this becomes collected visual and textual discourse that names and defines our cultures and can, in turn, become history. But commentary can also be structural or musical. It can be representational or abstract . It can both gloss and analyse, love and hate, mention and omit.
And it tells not only of its object but of its subject. It speaks of itself. ‘This is exemplary’, it intones , ‘ This is what I adore’, it infers. But this, this is pathetic, a desperate failure, and a minor one at that’, it declares. Commentary should remind us that how we speak of our passions and disgust is an indicator of who and where we are in the world. It speaks of being ‘in’ or ‘out ‘, ‘ high’ or ‘low’. It can insinuate its privilege or compulsively confess to its stunningly clever self-revulsion. It can be theory hungry or afraid of ideas or both. It can collapse complex thoughts, objects and events into dumb but catchy buzzwords or reductivist indictments. It can wax florid or be lean and dry. It can operate as a run-of-the-mill opinion machine or dress down in the sedate but live costuming of ‘ objective ‘ journalism. Whichever , commentary is an ongoing constancy of thoughts rendered, actions accomplished, sounds articulated and structures comprehended .
Of course , TV and computers have upped the ante, creating continuous and simultaneous comments without closure. But magazines are something else. In spite of being tied to the supposed archaisms of print technology, they remain resolutely pervasive; kind of like little soldiers in the armies of commentary that construct and comprise cultural life. They can tell us what’s hot and what’s not, and who’s doing who. They can open and close minds, kill time, sell both schlock and sublimity, dictate taste, create consensus, use and abuse power and change words.
Barbara Kruger , ‘ Word Up ! ‘ , Artforum, vol. 32, no. 1 ( New York, September 1993) 183 – 4
and then I altered it
I readily enough committed myself, mentally, to participating when the Call for Work for an exhibition of altered books, committed myself to it before I realised how uneasy I feel about the idea of altering books. Of course, I noted the caution in the Call for Work against the perils of altering a library book, and it is easy enough to extend the warning to include books that belong to other people in general, and always asking a grown-up first. But a book is a book, right? Finding someone’s marginal notes in books upsets me, and pages folded down at the corner, and doodles, and moustaches drawn on to photographs. And hand-done underlinings and paragraphs picked out with highlighter pen, and private detectives in the movies tearing the page out of the telephone directory in the public phone kiosk, just for one lousy number. If it’s wrong, then it’s wrong… Operator? Operator?
When did all this start? 1968, I think, maybe. I have a Rupert Bear Annual from that year in which the name plate at the front has been left blank: this book belongs to… no one; name withheld; no ownership claimed. The ones from 1966 and 1967 are very clear that ‘This Book Belongs To: John R Gillett’ in big, toddlery, black felt-tip, ‘Age 6’ and ‘Age 7’ respectively. It tears me up that I did such a rubbishy, scribbly job of putting my name in these beautifully illustrated books. The books chronicle the adventures of a bear wearing clothes and ingesting hallucinogens; the bear sees stars and floats away to be met by geishas on distant shores, then explores clefts in smooth rocks. And between such episodes, the Magic Painting pages… These are pages of colouring-book style drawings printed in dark brown. You were supposed to brush over them with clean water to activate the unseen colours with which the pages were somehow impregnated. You were supposed to, except that clearly you weren’t. You were meant to leave the book in the pristine condition in which Santa Claus left it, taking care not to crack the spine, and turning each page by gently gripping one of the outer corners, rather than teasing your finger under the spine-end and flipping it, a method guaranteed to leave a crescent-shaped kink in the paper.
In those early books of mine, the Magic Painting has all been done, filled in. The crisp drawings as they were remain tantalisingly visible beneath the blurry, imprecise smudges of colour: an exact and perfect artefact, violated by a nursery experiment, violated by the bear on the beach.
Magic Painting is confusing. Is this my handiwork? Am I the author of these smudges? I applied the water; the brushstrokes are mine. Yet the overall composition, the choice and distribution of the colour that once lurked unseen within the chemistry of the printed page is the work of another. The painting ruins the printed drawing; and the drawing denies the painting any authenticity. Leave the Magic Painting unpainted, and its destiny is unfulfilled, its purpose redundant; yet to paint it is to alter it, is to ruin it.
It is the same for the sketchbook, of course: blank, empty, pristine, unspoilt, but useless and – worse – inhibiting, if not used. Take up your pencil and your courage; step out on the newly fallen snow; plunge into the mist; and alter it; alter it.
For this is always how we make art: by altering something. And perhaps this is always why we make it: in the hope of undoing the damage we have done before; making amends; repairing; making good. Or perhaps in the hope of fixing some damage that has long ago been done to us.