The Neverending Burden of a Massive Archive
When you’re a magazine that reaches Artreview’s age (seventy-four – it’s not ashamed of that), you find yourself sitting on quite a sizeable archive. Old magazines, old ideas and old ways of seeing and writing about seeing art. You stu them into a cupboard and stick a label on the door that reads ‘Research Room’. Yes, when you’re pretending to deal with contemporary art and its unending and agonising march towards something we call ‘new’, sitting on an archive is a little uncomfortable (some of those 1950s pages can give you nasty papercuts). But such is the often nonsensical and inconsistent development of contemporary art that, even if you’re surrounded by the yellowing fragments of your past (Artreview’s past is a room full of old magazines), wallowing in the latest bangers by Henri Matisse or Henry Moore, and with not an in sight, you can still be pretty much on-trend when it comes to the latest curatorial fetishes, where archivism in fact rules.
It’s obvious why, of course – when the present is so completely out of control, people will want to fiddle with or rearrange the past. It’s safer that way. You get a sense of agency. Which is generally something that you’re never going to find in art. Even if you’re spending all your time lecturing people about social injustice, political oppression and economic hardship. Someone still gets kicked, someone else will starve. Ever since the eighteenth century and Immanuel Kant we’ve known that the whole point of art is that it has no point. It’s like a holiday from
real life. That’s why it’s mainly rich people who run the artworld. Because they can aord to be on holiday all the time. But that’s not to say that having an archive is like being on holiday! Far from it. Artreview would like to see you try to drag the legacy of John Berger around everywhere while realising that somehow you’re never quite matching up to it. Back in the 2010s, as a sort of pep talk, Artreview likes to think, Berger told it that while he had changed over the years since the Second World War, what he called the ‘disastrous relationship between art and property’ hadn’t during that time, and so all his writing about it (the ‘artworld’ in today’s parlance) from the 1950s was still totally valid, worthy of reprinting without any updates or revisions. Maybe it could go on holiday while Berger’s bits went back into print, Artreview told itself. That way it would, at last, be a proper and dignified ruler of the artworld!
And more importantly, everyone else, receiving the holiday snaps on one of Artreview’s many incredibly popular social-media channels, would know it. But then it realised that perhaps what Berger was saying was that everything Artreview had done since the early 1950s was totally redundant and it could have stopped then. That it wasn’t a pep talk, but a wake-up-and-smell-the-roses moment. Then again, if you go through any art-related archive, it’s often hard to work out what anyone is really talking about. That’s why people come back to archives like moths to a flame. Some of them – operating both within broad cultural and visual archives, and the related territory of received wisdom – you’re going to encounter in the pages to come. You might think Artreview only did this to make it feel better about sitting like the dragon Smaug on its own hoard; but Artreview couldn’t possibly comment. Oh, and could you shut the door? Artreview is trying to read… Artreview