Magazine article Artforum International

Mad as Hell: Eric Banks on Lawrence Alloway's "Netword: The Art World Described as a System" (1972)

Magazine article Artforum International

Mad as Hell: Eric Banks on Lawrence Alloway's "Netword: The Art World Described as a System" (1972)

Article excerpt

IN SEPTEMBER 1972, in what would become a decennial ritual, Artforum published an issue marking a significant birthday for the magazine, in this case its tenth anniversary. The cover selected for the issue was a simple black-and-white photo taken in the Artforum office of a vacant desk. Behind the desk, a grid comprising ten years' worth of the magazine's covers hung on the wall. The desk, one surmises, belonged to founding editor Philip Leider, who had just stepped down. Whether intended or not, the empty desk signified that the editorial direction of Artforum, mapped out visually in the grid of covers, was now up for grabs. The issue featured articles by key members of the editorial board--Rosalind E. Krauss, Max Kozloff, Annette Michelson, Robert Pincus-Witten, and Lawrence Alloway--but as a group their collective contributions spoke less to a reflective stocktaking of the past ten years than to wildly diverging visions for the magazine's future. Fittingly, the article that most bluntly pressed the claim for a radical new Artforum agenda--Alloway's "Network: The Art World Described as a System"--came up first on the table of contents. Manet's sources were out, McLuhan was in.

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Alloway's position in "Network" wasn't new to the critic--he had first articulated the argument in the magazine Canadian Art in 1966--but in the Artforum piece he decisively shifted the frame of critical focus from an aesthetic, art-historical, or phenomenological experience to an unabashedly sociological one. In "Network," he described the nexus of overlapping institutions and actors--artists, of course, but also critics, curators, collectors, museum directors, and magazine editors--within an expanded milieu for the distribution and consumption of art and with a lexicon drily appropriated from a mishmash of systems theory and management studies. "What does the vague term art world cover?" Alloway asked. "It includes original works of art and reproductions; critical, historical, and informative writing; galleries, museums, and private collections. It is a sum of persons, objects, resources, messages, and ideas. It includes monuments and parties, esthetics and openings, Avalanche and Art in America." The story of art in the present was the story of communications and what Alloway called "a shifting multiple goal coalition." Anyone who has ever complained about the purported linguistic opacity of art criticism should sample the wonders of a pen dipped in Parsonian ink. Yet it was in systems theory that Alloway found his inspiration. What is the output of the art world viewed as a system?" he asked. "It is not art because that exists prior to distribution and without the technology of information"--to wit, hanging in a studio immediately after its creation. "The output is the distribution of art, both literally and in mediated form as text and reproduction," which is to say, as information.

Alloway's interests in "Network" were wide-ranging. He welcomed the radically nonhierarchical orientation of networks (thus demoting critics from their privileged position); he underscored the ever-increasing velocity of communications technologies and the growing mobility of the artwork and its conversion, through photography, into a form of information. But he also observed that formerly distinctive roles in the art world were already blurring. …

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