Interviews

Mira Schor and Susan Bee Discuss the Many Meanings of Art Writing

With Martha Wilson acting as a moderator, Schor and Bee discuss how and why in the 1980s they developed M/E/A/N/I/N/G magazine as a forum for and by artists.

A vintage issue of M/E/A/N/I/N/G on display at the Pratt Institute Libraries (all images courtesy the artists)

This dialogue with Mira Schor and Susan Bee, the co-editors of M/E/A/N/I/N/G, was moderated by Martha Wilson, and took place on March 6, 2018, at the Pratt Institute Library in Brooklyn. The Pratt Library’s exhibition of M/E/A/N/I/N/G (1986–2016) included all the original issues along with photos, artwork, books, and ephemera from the 30-year run of the magazine.  M/E/A/N/I/N/G has been a collaboration between Susan Bee and Mira Schor, both painters with interests in writing and politics, and a community of over 200 artists, art critics, historians, theorists, and poets. M/E/A/N/I/N/G gave a voice to otherwise unrepresented perspectives on art making and aesthetics, motherhood and art, racism, feminism, resistance, collaboration, privacy, trauma, and artists-as-activists.

The exhibition was commissioned by Franklin Furnace Archive, Inc. and The Pratt Institute Libraries as part of the annual exhibition and events series. The exhibition closes April 6.

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A signed copy of M/E/A/N/I/N/G

Martha Wilson: Mira Schor and Susan Bee are visual artists who are also philosophically-concerned (as we all are about our purpose on the planet) about the practice of art, about feminist theory and theory in general, the political environment in which we live, the fact that we are women, and some of us have children. I believe artists are not given credit by the wider world for being well-developed and well-rounded thinkers. So I’m going to prove that artists are well-rounded thinkers by talking to them. The way I want to do this is to start by asking some questions that will get them excited and maybe a little bit angry. And then they’ll start arguing and talking, and then after a while, you’re going to want to ask questions and I’m going to see people, moving their asses in the seats, and then I will ask if you have questions too.

I founded Franklin Furnace because I saw that the uptown institutions were not paying attention to the downtown arts community. I saw a vacuum that needed to be filled. And Mira wrote an essay about David Salle, that basically showed the emperor has no clothes. And none of the art magazines would publish it. I’m just wondering if it made you mad, and so you decided to go off on this crazy venture which turned out to be M/E/A/N/I/N/G magazine.

Mira Schor Susan Bee Feb 6 2018 Pratt Opening (photo courtesy the artists)

Mira Schor: That was the spark. I had spent about two years writing this essay, “Appropriated Sexuality.” A number of people in the art world had read it, including you. And I had submitted it to Art in America, to October, and to the New Art Examiner and it was rejected everywhere. We were trying to think of what to do and Charles Bernstein first suggested a tried and true, time-honored tradition of self-publishing pamphlets — and I had this vision of myself, standing at the corner of Canal Street and West Broadway going, “David Salle!” So I thought, that’s not going to work. Susan and I had lunch at Magoo’s. Her studio was downtown on Canal Street near mine. We thought, let’s put on a magazine. So that’s what we did.

Susan Bee: From 1980, I had been in an art critics’ group of young artists and critics that initially met at A.I.R Gallery. My first panel appearance in 1982 as part of that group was at A.I.R. Mira joined the group in 1982. So we were involved with this group, but meanwhile friends of ours were dying. The first person who we knew that died of AIDS (in 1985), was Rene Santos, who was a wonderful, gay, Latino artist in our discussion group. We didn’t realize it was the beginning of a huge amount of people dying. In our first issue, we have excerpts from his diary. He was in his 20s when he died. So that was one of the events that was inspiring us. And also we just thought: we’ll try this; we’ll send out a flyer, and see if we get any subscriptions. People subscribed. It was very shocking.

MS: Much to my amazement. It was $8 to subscribe to two issues.

SB: We thought nobody will ever pay that money. Then the checks started coming in. And then we felt we had to do issue two.

MS: I never had been involved with any kind of publication, which Susan had, and she had experience with small magazines. Then that summer we decided we’ll do a second issue, and from then on, we were very regular. It came out twice a year for ten years.

MW: Now is it true that you knew each other as nine-year-olds?

MS: We met as kids. Our parents knew each other. They were friends and artists. And they were neighbors too. So at one point, when we were in our 20s, Susan’s parents said, “Well, Susan’s coming to Provincetown. You might want to come over!” It’s one of those moments where you see somebody; you kind of look at them, “Oh, now we’re friends.”

SB: Yes, we discovered that we had many things in common.

One of the display cases at the small Pratt Institute exhibition

MS: To speak to what Martha brought up, why you started Franklin Furnace, all the circumstances that we’ve talked about were true. I’m not sure I would have thought about starting an art magazine if I hadn’t written something that couldn’t get published that I felt should be. But I think we also were looking at a closed system where we didn’t feel our voices were being heard. It was a moment where painting and more traditional art forms were very much out of the picture from the dominant, critical voices. So once we had the idea, then there was definitely a context where we placed ourselves.

The first issue — which still remains one of my favorite objects in the world — is the silver one. I also have a copy of the flyer that we sent out that got us the $8 checks. Here’s what we said:

M/E/A/N/I/N/G is a new biannual publication,” (so I guess we thought we would be biannual, we had no clue what we really would be)

committed to reorienting the critical discussion of contemporary visual art. Our focus is on art and writing about art that labors to deepen the visual articulation of meaning, how works of art re-substantiate rather than evacuate. In this way, we aim to extend the investigation of alternatives to predetermined styles of representation and configuration.

MW: You wanted to reorient the critical discussion. It’s ambitious. And, you did it. That’s what’s so great about this magazine in toto: artists were speaking for themselves. That is not what Artforum is doing, that’s not what Art in America is doing, or ARTnews, although, occasionally artists write for the magazines. This was a forum for the voice of the artist.

SB: We had a lot of artists and poets who wanted to write. We had art critics who couldn’t get published. We knew people who wanted to write away from the theory that was being written at that time, and also wanted to write about painting. They wanted to write about feminism. We wanted to be a feminist publication that also had men in it; so that was a radical move at the time. We were very interested in Heresies [Collective], which was a group of women that published a feminist magazine.

MW: You were both participants in some of the issues.

SB: It was a collective of women publishing a magazine, but they were 20 women, and they had to agree. For us, just two people had to agree. So it was a little bit less daunting. Plus, we wanted to open it up to have different voices, so we felt that men, male feminists, could join us.

MW: Lawrence Weiner is a male feminist?

SB: They didn’t all have to be male feminists.

MS: We didn’t have a litmus test for feminists. Though we kind of did, … but still.

MW: How did you come up with the themes?

MS: We didn’t have themes for the issues. That’s the interesting thing. But we did have forums. The forums usually came out of what we were thinking of, what we thought was the most important. It emerged from our own lives, so the “Motherhood” forum [#12, Nov. 1992] was around the time that Susan was pregnant with Felix, who is now an art critic and artist in his own right. I feel like it was always very natural. But what was interesting was that the essays we would get, whether it was a forum issue or not — because they weren’t in every issue — those were much more disparate, like so-and-so wanted to do something, or had an essay, or I had an essay, but they were not coordinated. And then when they’d come in, there was some sort of underlying theme here, not so rigorous that you would think, “Oh, that …”

SB: There was always a zeitgeist that we didn’t necessarily see until we started to put the issue together. So we would hold certain things when we thought [they] worked better. The forums were an innovative space — now a lot of magazines seem to be doing it, but I’d worked on Charles Bernstein’s and Bruce Andrews’s L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, and they had forums where they’d ask a question or have a theme and then have different people write in, mostly poets. For our publication, we would send a question out, pre-computer and e-mail. That’s important to remember: We would literally send a question in the mail. And then I would go to the mailbox hoping to get a response. It was really, like, are these people going to respond? It was hard.

MS: Also returning the edited copies to people and all that was done by hand. Because our studios were close-by, we’d meet at the corner of Canal and West Broadway and exchange envelopes, manila envelopes, like we were spies. “Here’s the document.” And we started in 1986 and ended in ’96; I didn’t even get a computer with internet capability until ‘99.

SB: The whole thing was pasted by hand. Some of the paste-up boards are downstairs. It was really labor intensive. Plus, we schlepped all the magazines to the post office ourselves. We had no interns. We had no employees. We had no money.

MS: When we had this idea — okay, we’re going to do a magazine — we each put in $500 and that’s what we financed it with, so that’s how it got started. Our budget never was high. Although, for the very last issue, we had some nice funding from, alas, the NEA [National Endowment for the Arts], back in the day.

MW: And NYSCA [the New York State Council on the Arts].

MS: That was our mainstay. But we didn’t get a NYSCA grant until the fifth issue. So the first ones were really funded ourselves. They had a small run.

A general view of the Pratt Institute exhibition

MW: I’m going to start and look around and see if people have any questions that they would like to ask.

Amy Ballmer: My question to you is: Martha, you brought up all the issues about politics and the world, and the importance of feminism and feminist theory, and voices being heard, and Mira you started this publication because you had an article that you couldn’t get published, and you wanted a multitude of voices to be heard, you wanted artists to be heard. Do you think that’s happening now?

SB: From 1986 to 1996, we did the publication as a hard copy. And then we did the book, which came out from Duke, which was basically a collection of what was published previously. Then we went online, because we actually stopped printing the issues. So I feel when it went online that we reached a different audience than the people who would go into a bookstore and buy an issue. Then we scanned all the previous issues and put them up as PDFs. I’ve been very concerned about reaching other audiences. That was one of the reasons we did the forums — on racism, on motherhood, on older artists working, on younger artists, and then we also had panels. We had a lot of events. We didn’t just sit and hope that our magazine would come out, that somebody would pay attention to it. We were out in the street trying to hawk this magazine.

If you want to get noticed, you have to work at it. And I think as artists, you’re already aware of that problem: you have to get your work out; you have to get your work shown; you have to get your work talked about. This was a forum for us to include a lot of people. We published a lot of people we’d never met. They’d just send us something and it’d seem really interesting, and we’d read it, and we’d publish it. So I felt like we expanded as much as we could. Our last issue had 80 people in it. It became a broader project. As to how to reach the masses, I don’t know.

MS: Are people doing it now? There are a lot of smaller things happening. There are two issues of concern from my point of view, one of which is how functional is an online presence, ultimately, and also do you stick with it? The most amazing thing is that we stayed with this project a long time — 30 years. Plus, we were artists as well. Because I wrote that opened a certain kind of visibility over time.

First, it’s who’s Mira Schor? She’s written this essay. But then ten or fifteen years later …  maybe I’ll want to read what is in here. From my point of view — even though I love things being online, including our presence that Susan was talking about, that we have the back issues on Jacket 2, that we have our two recent online issues — but there’s something about this [holds up magazine]. And that, I think, is harder to come by. The idea that we actually went to a printer, and chose cover colors and all that actual, tangible stuff. It represents an investment of money as well as time, which I’m not so sure I’m seeing [online].

One more concern — I teach a thesis class for fine arts MFAs — is that I’m not so sure how much people are reading. They don’t read the art magazines anymore. To us, Artforum or October mattered. They don’t read that stuff. It’s not relevant to them. They don’t know who the critics are, I don’t think. They might read some of the blogs, Hyperallergic, Jerry Saltz. They don’t read the NY Times. And they don’t write because [tap tap tap] they’re texting each other. They don’t talk, because they’re texting each other. I’m wildly generalizing, but there are some concerns of what made it possible for me to write, for other people to be interested, to participate, to want to write.

SB: And also it was slower because in the pre-digital age, where I had to wait for the letter to come, you had to wait for the phone call. Maybe they would call you back. It seemed like everything was slower. It wasn’t the horse and buggy era, but sometimes I feel like I’m coming from a different space, even our sense of a community, because we started as a group that met. And I still am part of A.I.R. and we do have meetings every month. There’s a different sense of community when you actually meet with people and you have to talk to them, and you have to come to some agreement. That was part of what we were after.

When someone wrote for the forums, like when they wrote for the Motherhood forum, we changed their work to make it right, but we didn’t actually change their opinions. And so that was very important that people could really say what they wanted to say, even if we didn’t like it. And sometimes, we did not like it.

MS: We just corrected their grammar. But there’s also this issue of scholarly versus not scholarly writing. What people really liked about M/E/A/N/I/N/G was that the texts were quite intellectual, they were based in literature and art history, but there was a range of styles of writing. We didn’t have a house style. We didn’t overedit people. The writings were scholarly, but not in a way that was oppressive. It was accessible to a wider audience. People liked M/E/A/N/I/N/G. They loved the colors. So they’d wait to get these objects in the mail. It was fun.

SB: Also, we had no photos or pictures, so you either read it or you didn’t. But you didn’t get much out of it except the color of the cover if you didn’t open it.

MS: This meant that people had to describe artwork. So they really had to base their views on descriptions if necessary. That’s the other issue about mainstream art magazines, like Artforum: people just want to run through to see the ads.

SB: And we had no ads. We had no advertisers actually.

MW: But let’s go back to your question again for a second. Didn’t you ask where is it that I can read artists’ writing today?

AB: My concern is with the idea that an artist’s voice, an artist writing, isn’t as important. I’m going to say important because I think that’s what they’re saying when they’re saying scholarly. They’re saying valid, authoritative, important. And that it’s just been decided by the way the system the academic research is built around …

SB: I disagree with you, actually. I think you’re wrong, because, for instance, last night I saw Carolee Schneemann talking about her work at MoMA, and people are definitely paying attention to what she says, what she writes, and she’s one of the people we published. We published interviews with her and writing by her. And believe me, people do pay attention. What the artist has to say — which is what we were very interested in publishing — people are paying attention to, and that’s why artist interviews are very popular. A lot of artists write, as we know. A lot of poets write. And people are interested in what poets have to say about artists, and what artists have to say about poets. There’s a lot of attention right now also in artists’ books, to what the artist is doing. Why are we having an artist talk? Because artists can apparently can talk!

I teach artists’ writing, so this is a topic that interests me quite a bit. You go back over a hundred years or more of artists’ writings, and people do cite artists’ writings. Scholars often cite artists’ writing, what artists have to say. It’s much more interwoven than the way you’re premising your remarks.

MS: Once I was underway, in terms of writing as well as doing my painting, I became more aware of all the artist writers of the past. What was particularly interesting to me was the Abstract Expressionist period, which was one of the sources of the idea of artists being kind of cavemen, who did their work without any intellectualizing. Well lo and behold, they were all writing all the time, publishing small magazines that were beautiful and fascinating. It was a complete myth. Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt were quoted all the time. If the artists can get their language together, they can really help structure how they enter into a larger history.

I do a graph for my students and say, “Look, start out with the press release.” Press releases are most often written by the artist. If they have any control, their words enter into it. The first reviews are always based on the press release because people are lazy. And that review ends up in the more serious essay about the person. So you can really push those words further and further.

Ann Messner: You can use the example of sculptors and painters who do their work, and then they also write. It’s a separate practice, but increasingly you cannot separate text from the actual work … the work is text based. Since the early 1990s, the function of text and theory from the words of the artist have just really become predominant to that type of practice — referred to as social practice, or discursive practice, or an extension of conceptual practice.

SB: That was a lot of what we published. We published Lawrence Weiner and Richard Tuttle; we published a lot of artists statements, even by Carolee Schneemann, that were almost poetic, but also part of their work in some sense. I wouldn’t say that those statements were not part of their work. I felt like the artist statements that we published were often very important to understanding the artist’s work, and also for them to understand their own work. Having a dialogue or having a forum — like the way we had the Motherhood forum — was at the time quite extraordinary because people didn’t want to talk about artists as parents. That brought together a lot of different people from different backgrounds, who may not actually be in dialogue with each other. We wanted to set-up a dialogue between them.

MS: I think that Ann is talking about text-based art rather than the idea of Tuttle writing a statement.

Audience: Because there seems to be these days less tolerance of opposing viewpoints, and because you had said that you actually published viewpoints that you disagreed with, I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how you decided to handle that? And was it unusual for the time?

SB: Well, we did reject things, so I can’t say that we always published things that we disagreed with. But in terms of the forum, when somebody would state what they thought, I sometimes didn’t agree with what they had to say, but I would publish it anyway. It wasn’t like I’d say, “Oh, this person should be quieter. We’ll tear that up.” We did reject a lot of essays, and people never forgave us.

MS: As we had been publishing for a number of years, people would send anything because they were so anxious to get published. But I think what you’re saying is interesting. There is a greater problem, first of all, with what you can say. But we rarely pitted people against each other, because in the forums, everyone received an invitation. We’d send a hundred, thinking we’d get about fifty or thirty or twenty. Those people were not talking to each other. They were simply responding to the question. There were some contentious pieces, but it wasn’t really a site for that kind of disagreement.

SB: Unlike the internet, we didn’t have a comment section. In a way, you didn’t get to comment. We just published the magazine and then it happened into the world.

MS: We did publish a few letters. For instance, there was a letter from Yve Alain Bois — who was the only person connected with October who gave us the time of day — because I had written a book review of his Painting as Model. He sent us an essay-length letter, which at least took us seriously as existing, so that was good. We didn’t get contentious letters saying, “You’re idiots.” It’s true, the stuff that’s available to people online to say was not part of the way people thought or did things then.

Angeli Sion: Thanks for sharing this history. I have two historic yet maybe related questions. First, could you talk about a failure that was generative for M/E/A/N/I/N/G, something that failed that you felt was generative? And then the second question is: what do you think the role of art writing [is] now, given our current president?

SB: We published a number of articles on failure. It was something that interested us as failures ourselves. We felt we could really comment on that. Joel Fisher wrote about how he failed as an artist. It was very interesting because it was also about his failure aesthetically, physically, how his artwork had failed. That was the kind of essay that didn’t get published in Art in America. They were always upbeat. Everything is going really well. And this artist is doing really well. A lot of our artists weren’t doing well. They would write about not doing so well. I felt like that was something we could publish as an artist-run publication. We were more sympathetic. We could identify with the idea of failure. My first writing for issue #1: “Running on Empty” was all verbatim negative and critical comments I got in my studio visits.

MS: I also wrote a piece called “On Failure and Anonymity” in Heresies 25.

SB: We got interesting responses to some of our questions. The racism forum [#7, May 1990] was the one we got the least amount of responses to. We sent a hundred and fifty letters and we got fifteen responses. So it’s notable that in the 1990s people didn’t want to talk about that issue. I found that there were certain things that we would bring up that people did not really want to address. We would notice it because of the amount of response we’d get. It’s like taking a poll. If you get only fifteen reponses, it seemed like “Oh my god, we really don’t even have an issue here.” But we had certain people who also wrote for us regularly: Nick Piombino, Charles Bernstein, Daryl Chin, Emma Amos, Johanna Drucker. Also Amelia Jones, who wrote about on postfeminism and on feminism. When they had an idea, we would usually say go ahead and send it to us. We also had articles on performance art. We were trying to cover a lot.

Angeli Sion: What is the role of art writing now, given our current president? I often think the role of the artist is more important than ever, because the artist is given a space in society to say certain truths that may not be heard otherwise. I’m thinking of how there is space of critical art writing as protest, or ways in which art writing can make space for otherness not being written at the moment.

MS: For our 30th anniversary and final issue, which is online, we came up with doing that a week after the election. We got some very, very interesting responses, Martha’s included. That’s where again the online versus the book issue comes in. There’s all this wonderful material that’s there, plus with color pictures and very varied in how people approach the moment from being very specific about some sort of political concern to not being that specific. It’s there, but it’s not there. In terms of other writing, I think it’s permeating everything. Most of art writing is in some way affected. It’s generating the age-old criticisms of the art market, probably being sifted through or strained through a different overall political approach.

SB: In that last final issue, we did bring up Trump. We did point to the inauguration. It was interesting because it was around the time of the first Women’s March. We felt from what we got in during that period that this was going to be happening, because there was so much anger among the people who answered our questions. There was a lot of anger. I think that anger is very generative to art writing and art making. Through the time that we did M/E/A/N/I/N/G, there were the Bush wars, the Iraqi wars, there was a constant stream of issues that artists were very upset about and would write about. That permeated the entire project. We were political. Even though I never wanted to have politics without aesthetics, but we always brought those together, if we could.

MS: We didn’t want to the mark the journal as this or that. There was an openness that also emerged from our connection to the poetry world, while having certain standards. But even that idea had a political underpinning.

MW: I just want to add that we all live in a political environment all the time. That’s what we do. More questions? More comments?

Audience: Is there a possibility of another last, final edition?

MS: It was very satisfying to be able to put an ending to it. Perhaps at a later date someone might edit our online issues into a book.

Audience: Did M/E/A/N/I/N/G face much criticism when it first came out?

MS: No, I don’t think so. It was really fun, actually. It was a community. We were based in a community of friends but also location.

SB: Well, we know that David didn’t like the David Salle piece.

MS: There was criticism of that but I was blissfully unaware of it, luckily. Even when my most recent book came out in 2009, I ran into Irving Sandler who said, “Who are you attacking now?” I thought, “Oh, is that what you think?” That was interesting. Then I realized that had been going on underneath the surface. But it’s good.

SB: And also, I think we were defending painting during a time when painting was not particularly popular — especially done by women — because it was the period when it was really good to be, and cool to be, a photo-based woman artist. The men were allowed to be emotional and the women were supposed to be cool. We felt that we were taking a different stance, whether anybody paid enough attention to criticize it. Sometimes they did.

MS: People were aware of what we were doing after we published two or three issues. And because of my essay, which was controversial. We might not have been aware of what they thought about it, but it influenced the atmosphere we moved in. The other thing that was interesting is: here we created this little magazine, coming out of nowhere. We were in the art world. We did know important people, but we were just young artists in our early 30s when we started. We were not represented by galleries. We started this project. Gradually, once we created a little bit of cultural real estate for ourselves in this, other people, other artists, saw us as having some power. Which we didn’t feel we had. But people would be upset if we …

SB: They’re still upset. If we didn’t publish something. I didn’t realize it was going to have long-term implications when you reject somebody’s piece.

MS: And they never forget!

SB: And they never forget. If they’re still alive.

MS: Yes, that’s the other sad thing. In terms of our print issues, looking through the names, it just struck me how many people have died since we started. People like Leon Golub. The older artists, and some younger artists. People we really admired. Nancy Spero.

SB: We published over a hundred and fifty or two hundred artists.

MS: Artist writers, art historians, poets — so that’s a lot of people we had something to do with, many of whom we didn’t meet until after we published them. Just to go back to the whole notion of how text goes out into the world. Now, it’s just there. If you Google it, you can tap into it. But at the time we did this, we were told that for every issue we sold or had a subscriber, you could count four other people who would see it, or see some text in it. And there were texts people started to use in teaching, so it would be xeroxed so it had that life. That was fascinating to me because I didn’t have that background in publishing. I found it really interesting to think about this thing that goes out there. You don’t see it once it’s out there. Just like you don’t see that online presence. It’s so vaporous.

SB: Amelia Jones’s article on postfeminism was picked up by many different anthologies, and then it was translated into different languages. It really had an afterlife that we didn’t suspect it was going to have. It seemed like a very important article at the time, stating something that people were really interested in. That had a life of its own that went beyond the magazine.

MS: And Faith Wilding’s “Monstrous Domesticity” was another piece. It’s in our anthology. Students will talk to me about it, not even really putting two and two together that I had anything to do with publishing it. But they’d heard about Faith, and they might have been assigned it in college. So that’s very satisfying to know that that’s out there. And that leads me back to feminism. I was in the feminist art program at CalArts for a year, and Susan was part of feminist collectives of various kinds. One of the things that I certainly was taught, even though I didn’t think at that time that I would ever write, but it was really drilled into us at the feminist program at CalArts that it’s so easy for women to slip out of history. And we were the generation trying to find them and put them back into history. It was so important to have text associated with yourself. If you could create text, if you could create your own narrative, also as a living artist who created your own narrative or exhibition space, or critical basis, you had to do that, because what you were doing would not necessarily be understood by the mainstream. That was very much part of my consciousness. That you take the critical discourse. You take the power of the critical discourse.

That I think is still true to some extent. To go back to the first question, what I do see younger artists doing is putting on shows together, finding transient spaces, pop-ups, for which then maybe they create a website, or they might have a little zine. I wouldn’t say the critical language is necessarily as developed in some cases. But that is the community activism that’s taking place. And again, now what happens to that? Because it’s unusual to keep up with something over a long period of time. But it’s a start.

MW: Mira and Susan have carved out intellectual real estate of great significance and value. I think we’re nearing the end of this discussion.

[Editor’s note: the above transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.]

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