On average, we probably encounter magazines more frequently than art. To equate them, though, isn’t common practice. Is a New Yorker cartoon just a quirky little illustration, or is it a defining style of both humor and drawing that has become iconic not just of the weekly, but of the history of cartooning? Is a fashion spread in Harper’s Bazaar just luscious eye candy coxing consumers to buy clothes, or is it the collaborative result of aesthetic visionaries in the demanding creative fields of photography, creative direction and fashion? Are magazines glossy periodicals filled with ads, or are they works of art with revolutionary potential?
This is a topic that I began to explore last June, and plan to continue to explore in the future. I started in an essay that was published on the online journal Gaga Stigmata, a space where scholars theorize about the pop star Lady Gaga and her impact on contemporary culture. At the risk of self-plagiarizing, below is a quote from my article introducing the relationship between the magazine and the museum:
… [I]t is important to point out that magazines … are often criticized as arms of consumer capitalism that blatantly exploit and manipulate the public while offering no “artistic sustenance.” However, magazines were originally conceived as, and in most ways continue to function as, storehouses of art and culture. In the English language, the word “magazine” stems from the Arabic مخزن (makhazin), translated as “storehouse,” in many ways drawing correlations to the museum, another type of cultural storehouse. In fact, it was common practice for early magazine titles to include the word “museum,” such as Louisa May Alcott’s late nineteenth-century publication Merry’s Museum … The comparison of the magazine to the museum imbues it with more legitimacy than it is usually afforded. For all the negativity magazines are criticized for (and usually guilty of) — promoting negative body issues, uncannily photoshopped Frankensteinian models, glossy advertisements that make us spend money we do not have — they still exist as a receptacle for cultural ideas, opinions and images that later serve as historical record for the time in which we live.
When considering an issue of a particular magazine as a storehouse of the culture of a particular society, group or movement, then in turn it would be a viable conclusion that what is contained within their pages can potentially be treated the same as the contents of a gallery or museum.
Take for example the recent cover of Newsweek featuring the new Duchess of Cambridge Kate Middleton and her deceased mother-in-law, Princess Diana of Wales. Though sensationalist in nature, the cover explores a variety of ideas ranging from the authenticity of images to the death of a cultural icon. I would not be surprised, if Tina Brown hadn’t beaten them to the punch, to find a similar Photoshopped image hanging in a gallery in the wakes of the most recent royal wedding. It’s a completely valid question to consider what Diana would be like today and what her relationship to her new daughter-in-law would be like. It’s a cover that sparks debate, prompts intrigue and raises an eyebrow as successfully as any work of art. Within this context, however, it marks one of the main differences between the art of a gallery and the art of a magazine: while the fine arts’ role in society is at times dubious, magazines actively work in constructing knowledge and establishing the reality of our culture.
Think of another recent Newsweek cover of Michele Bachmann with a crazed look in her eyes featuring the moniker “The Queen of Rage.” Visually and textually the cover immediately creates an image, and a judgment, of the presidential candidate, painting our reactions and opinions to her in a single glance. Art is extremely powerful, but I think we’d be hard-pressed to find a single artwork that is as immediately and deceptively powerful as this cover. This issue of Newsweek doesn’t require more than a second or two of study to understand the message it’s conveying, and for many it probably painted the only picture they needed to know where Bachmann stands in our collective consciousness.
These images, though originally propagated as print, have been enveloped by digital media (just look at where you’re reading this). Many images, articles and covers of magazines are viewable to the masses only in the digital realm, an environment that strips them of their original context, which potentially dilutes their power. The materiality of the magazine retains the character, mood and time in which they were created; every page and where it is situated in relation to the sum impacts the reading. It may be trite to call them time capsules, but magazines encapsulate very specific periods in times for very specific subcultures, surviving as aesthetic artifacts that represent culture. A Marxist reading of a painting, drawing or sculpture suggests that it can never be removed from the circumstances in which it is created, no matter if it was meant to transcend them; magazines, instead, deliberately reflect their settings and revel in the dissemination and subsequent preservation of reporting news. Even though the aim of a magazine is not to transcend, they maintain an aura based upon their individual aesthetic and epistemological functions.
One of the most salient constraints hampering us from viewing magazines as works of art is the question of “the aura” typically appointed to singular works of art. This question, naturally, originates from the Theodor Adorno/Walter Benjamin debate, two cultural theorists from the Frankfurt School, and its subsequent incarnations in the Western art historical narrative.
The invocation of Benjamin’s materialist aesthetics, the proposition that there is revolutionary potential in modern reproduction practices, serves to suggest that the magazine’s choice of subjects and methods of production create works of art that impact the delicate infrastructures of society. While Adorno would purport that art must remain separate from reality and, in fact, negate reality in order to uphold its sanctity and avoid debasement, Benjamin saw potential in new modes of production and reproduction that could potentially play a role in altering society.
Magazines, generally, never speak to any particular kind of autonomy; with a core editorial and production team, regular contributors, photographers, advertisers and many other producers, no single issue of a publication reflects the work of a single person. Even Anna Wintour, for as visible an editrix as she is, cannot take full ownership of any issue of Vogue. And the fact that magazines are widely disseminated to the masses aids in the equitable distribution of knowledge that can potentially cause society to change. In most cases, magazines appear to be fulfilling a Benjaminian materialist aesthetic in their work. Proponents of Adorno, and opposers of considering magazines as art, may use this observation to negate any artistic power publications may wield. However, approaching this from the alternative side, some semblance of the “aura” is still intact with magazines; all publications have their own style, their own content, their own individual cults that preserve their originality. Even as a result of myriad creative forces, a magazine retains its individual feel after decades of use.
In fact, authorial intent, I propose, must be all but struck from this equation. Ever since French literary theorist Roland Barthes declared the death of the author, many critics began viewing works of art outside of the normative context of analyzing what precisely an artist meant to convey with his/her work, but the desire still lingers. Any review of any contemporary exhibition will contain at least one quote from the artist, and his/her name is eternally bonded to what is on display. Magazines are different. Naturally the masthead and bylines add ownership, but as a conglomerate whole, the act of analysis rests much more within the context of media and society at large than a single author.
A good example of this I feel is the back page of Ms. Magazine. At the end of each issue in a section entitled “No Comment,” the editors select a series of advertisements that either exploit women or perpetuate gender stereotypes. The makers of said advertisements — creative directors, graphic designers, market researchers, etc. — probably had every intent of pushing the buttons of consumers, but after going through so many hands its possible that the meaning was lost to its creators and thus new meaning must be found by the viewers. I believe the same is essentially true for reading all magazines. They are created to represent the general attitudes of our culture and subcultures, but it’s up to us as readers to ultimately decode and interpret the meaning behind every part of a magazine. This doesn’t just mean actively trying to understand an Op-Ed piece in The Nation, but also trying to understand an image of new skin care products and what it actually means to our society.
And, of course, no exploration of magazines as art objects would be complete without turning our attention to the relationship artists have had with the industry. Salvador Dali illustrated covers of Vogue, the Dadaists produced publications to complement their movement and even more recently artists have lent their creative visions to magazines. Notably, Barbara Kruger designed the cover of W’s November 2010 “Art Issue.” Bearing a naked Kim Kardashian with her body censored by three of Kruger’s iconic text reading, “It’s all about me. I mean you. I mean me.” Is it parody? Sure. But the thought and the craft put into it are as serious as any of her other works. “I thought it was a funny comment on the need to show and tell constantly,” Kruger says of her piece in the issue. “Diaries used to have locks on them. That’s over.”
The blurred boundaries between high art and low art as displayed in the cases of Dali and Kruger propel the magazine into Pop territory, specifically commenting on the mass production. Is the cover of W or Vogue, created by a fine artist, part of the oeuvre? More specifically, would these covers be equated to “The Persistence of Memory” (1931) or “You are Not Yourself” (1984), even though they do not share the same uniqueness? The argument that reproductions of paintings do not rival the originals cannot be invoked here, because the covers are not reproductions; they are all originals. Just as Andy Warhol mass-produced many of his paintings, these covers were created under the pretense of mass production. As that was always part of their inception, they are liberated from the question of authenticity and exist, individually and collectively, as pieces created by artists.
The pinnacle of the intersection of media and art is, naturally, Interview magazine, started by the Pope of Pop himself: Andy Warhol. For me, Andy Warhol’s art was never simply his silk screens of Campbell’s Soup cans or his sculptures of Brillo boxes. It was his entire performance of fame and the artist — standing outside of Truman Capote’s apartment hoping to meet him, hanging out at Studio 54, guest starring on the romantic comedy TV series The Love Boat. All the performative actions Warhol incorporated into his life stand as an extended work of art. So it should make no difference to consider Interview above all other publications worthy of being called an art object.
Originally it began as a quarter-fold paper containing stills from motion pictures, which opens a plethora of readings and interpretations in and of itself, ranging from zine culture to comparisons to Cindy Sherman’s work and all the critical trappings that accompany it. As it evolved into one of the bibles of culture and fashion it is today, Warhol remained an active participant in its publication until he died in 1987. It always remained the work of several people, but in this case to attach Warhol’s signature on the magazine in many ways represents the catalyst of viewing magazines as artwork. An advertisement for a fashion label in one of its pages, while initially operating under different circumstances, is fundamentally hard to differentiate from the appropriated subject matter of his paintings. Likewise, its hard to discount its place in his oeuvre, especially considering its inclusion in several of his retrospectives, among them most recently the Brooklyn Museum’s Andy Warhol: The Last Decade.
Whether within a gallery or a spread in a magazine, creative endeavors all exist within the superstructure of the cultural industry, where everything can eventually be boiled down to the unalterable position of a commodity. Debates will continue to rage, but in a world grappling with postmodernism, it might behoove us to view magazines, and every form of visual communication, with the same reverence and importance as fine art.