The publishers of the international monthly magazine and website Artforum have effectively destroyed its integrity. On 26 October 2023, they fired Artforum editor-in-chief David Velasco for publishing an open letter on the magazine’s website calling for a ceasefire and the immediate end to what signatories argued was the Israeli state’s genocide of Palestinians. Of course, the firing of an art magazine editor pales in comparison to the intensifying mass killing and forced displacement of civilians in Gaza that the letter was meant to address. But the de facto loss of Artforum as a sixty-year-old forum for serious critical writing on art and ideas still merits some comment. It reveals the means of repressing solidarity with Palestinian life and self-determination in the art world and beyond. It also reveals the cracks now spreading in the ideological wall circumscribing permissible discourse about the “Israel-Hamas conflict.”
It is no contradiction to express acute horror at Hamas’s killing and abduction of Israeli civilians on 7 October while also opposing Israel’s collective punishment of the 2.2 million Palestinian residents of the Gaza Strip. It is also no contradiction to make the case, as the letter did, that the “root cause of violence” lies in Israel’s “oppression and occupation,” while also refusing to exculpate any individual or group for the murder of innocents, whether by Hamas or by the Israeli state. This is the ethical position taken by organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, various Palestinian human rights groups, and a growing global movement of Jewish activists dedicated to Palestinian liberation from Israel’s apartheid system as a necessary condition for a peaceful political solution.
But Israel’s instantaneous, indiscriminate, and disproportionate military response has not only effaced thousands of Palestinian lives, displaced more than 1.5 million Palestinians from their homes with no promise of return, and abolished the housing, medical, and educational infrastructure needed for any kind of civil society in Gaza to exist. It has also eliminated the conditions necessary for mourning, political negotiation, and, one fears, for historical consciousness itself.
This was the atmosphere in which a measured open letter in an art magazine—one that carefully cited the United Nations Genocide Convention and the Israeli historian Raz Segal to justify using the word “genocide”—was met with such an extreme response. In the space of days, Artforum’s editor-in-chief was summoned to the publisher’s corporate headquarters, pressured to release an immediate statement apologizing for the letter, and then summarily dismissed when he refused. Ads were pulled by major galleries. And powerful collectors, dealers, and gallery owners launched a campaign to silence signatories of the open letter and pressure them to revoke their support (in some cases successfully). One should also note that several counter-letters emerged to condemn the initial letter. This broad campaign of repression led to the principled departure from the magazine of significant editorial staff and long-time writers, as well as calls from different quarters to boycott Artforum.
Founded in 1962, Artforum has for decades been as close to a “journal of record” as the contemporary art world has. It was unique for the balancing act it long performed between publishing rigorous art historical scholarship, providing up-to-the-minute analysis of contemporary art and culture, and maintaining a degree of analytic detachment from the art market that materially sustained it and to which it provided the (perhaps now obsolete) service of critical legitimization.
Discovering Artforum back issues in the university library stacks during my first year of undergraduate studies is probably why I became an art historian. And, like many people in my field of modern and contemporary art history, I’ve dutifully read it almost every month since then. In its heyday during the 1960s and 1970s, the intellectual heft of its writers shaped debates around the legacies of modernism and forged a new critical language to account for emergent movements like conceptualism and minimalism. It is difficult to generalize about the magazine’s politics or cultural stance in the ensuing decades. While retaining its prestige, in recent years Artforum no longer defined the critical parameters of “advanced art” as it once did. Instead, it sought to keep up with the breakneck pace and geographical dispersal of global contemporary art.
In late 2017, David Velasco became editor-in-chief of a magazine in crisis. He took the helm from editor Michelle Kuo after she resigned in protest of its publishers’ defense of one of their own members, Knight Landesman, following a series of sexual harassment allegations and a lawsuit. In his first issue as editor, Velasco published a letter drawing parallels between the ousted publisher and Donald Trump, excoriating “the drives of angry or sad or self-loathing men who are scarring and scarred by their…asthmatic masculinity,” and meditating on the “uses and limits of anger.” He wrote, “We will listen, and we will try, and when we mess up we’ll be in the mess together.”
Velasco has since presided over some of the magazine’s strongest issues in decades and has maintained Artforum’s commitment to establishing the historical coordinates for contemporary art which was one of its characteristic strengths. Recent issues have featured topics as varied as queer and trans museums, Iraqi art under occupation, art history after Black Studies, struggles in Polish art institutions under the Law and Justice party, and gender politics in Titian.
Artforum’s online publication of the Palestine solidarity letter last month was not wholly without precedent. Under Velasco’s editorship, the magazine’s website published in July 2019 an open letter by critics Hannah Black, Tobi Haslett, and Ciarán Finlayson under the title “The Tear Gas Biennial.” It called for a boycott of that year’s Whitney Biennial to demand the resignation of the vice-chair of the board at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Warren Kanders, who is also CEO of weapons manufacturer Safariland. In a call for global solidarity, the authors drew attention to Safariland’s provision of tear gas for use in suppressing civilian protest at the US-Mexico border, in Standing Rock, in Ferguson, and in Palestine, as well as the company’s production of body armor for both the New York Police Department and the Israeli Defense Forces. Making the case for a boycott of the Whitney, they echoed Fred Moten’s argument for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement: “the boycott can help to refresh (the idea of) the alternative…even in the midst of reaction’s constant intensification.”
This 2019 open letter was published prior to Penske Media Corporation acquiring Artforum in December 2022. Penske is also the owner of over twenty magazines including Art in America, ARTNews, Rolling Stone, Variety, and Women’s Wear Daily. The contradictions of Artforum were always clear, evident to editors back in the 1960s and 1970s: how to be half intellectual debate on radical art, politics, and ideas and half gallery ads. That contradiction between a free and critical culture and market dependency is navigated by all art institutions and practitioners under capitalism. Artforum, at its best, featured artists and writers who reflected openly on this tension.
The magazine’s founding compromise between editorial freedom and advertising now seems quaint. The firing of Velasco as Artforum’s editor-in-chief proves that being a subsidiary of the Penske Media Corporation precludes a free editorial policy and certainly precludes calling for an end to Israel’s genocide of the Palestinian people.
Though the pretext for Velasco’s firing is an alleged breach of “editorial policy,” the primary critique has been that the open letter did not explicitly name and condemn violence perpetrated by Hamas—though it did “reject violence against all civilians, regardless of their identity” and was updated on 23 October, evidently after internal criticism among signatories, to specifically express revulsion at Hamas’ “horrific massacres of 1,400 people in Israel.” But an open letter or petition does not have to be “balanced.” It is not a corporate public relations statement. It is not meant to please everyone on all sides. Its purpose is to put pressure where pressure can reasonably be put; so, it is partial by design.
At the time of the open letter’s publication in Artforum on 19 October, 3,785 Palestinians, including 1,524 children, had been killed; on that day, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told troops that they would soon see Gaza “from the inside.” The reality to which the letter sought to respond was the mass killing, wounding, and displacement in progress and the genocidal intent embodied in statements from Israeli leadership that civilians of the Gaza Strip were “responsible” for the 7 October attack and that no limit could be placed on the war against what they called “human animals,” “the new Nazis,” and “the children of darkness.”
The death toll in the Gaza Strip now stands at over 11,000 (though the Israeli attack on hospitals means the death toll has not been updated in days); indiscriminate Israeli bombing of schools, refugee camps, shelters, hospitals, mosques, churches, ambulances, and humanitarian corridors continues daily; a population of 2.2 million is deprived of clean drinking water, food, and medicine; and the remaining neonatal intensive care units are purposefully deprived of electricity with no plans to avert the certain deaths of infants—all with US and European support.
Yet we are being asked to pretend that a letter calling for this to end was a moral abomination.
Do those expressing outrage at the letter for insufficiently condemning Hamas think that its militants might read Artforum and be cowed by an art world petition? No serious person could believe this, of course. Conversely, the signatories of the letter know that most Western states, the United States foremost among them, make Israel’s ongoing war crimes materially possible and have stood in lockstep ideological and diplomatic support. They know that “institutional silence,” as the letter called it, about the brutal conditions facing Palestinians under occupation is de rigueur in North American and European academia, cultural organizations, government agencies, and media (to say nothing of the corporate and business worlds where political honesty is not a core value). They know that a wave of repression has faced those who break the “Palestine exception” to free speech, of which Velasco’s dismissal is itself evidence. So the letter’s “one sidedness” was tactical, a means to directly confront the horrors then escalating, in which the magazine and most of its signatories are complicit by default.
An open letter lamenting all violence everywhere would be anodyne and ineffectual. This is presumably what Penske would have preferred. What would a neutral and balanced letter acceptable to its owners look like? A model is found in a statement from Artforum’s publishers distancing themselves from the open letter: “We want to make clear that we unequivocally condemn the atrocities committed by Hamas on 7 October, and we are distraught at the immense destruction and suffering of the civilians in Gaza.” I agree that Hamas has committed atrocities, but who is the agent of the “immense destruction and suffering of the civilians in Gaza”? As usual, when it comes to the deaths of Palestinians, language shifts to the passive voice and culpability is grammatically effaced.
Another counter-letter has been signed by high-powered gallerists and dealers, along with artists like Marina Abramović, John Currin, and Richard Prince, and, most tellingly, Safariland CEO Warren Kanders himself. It has the dubious merit of spelling out exactly who the signatories believe to be the sole perpetrator of illegitimate violence and which lives they consider to be grievable. The letter calls for “empathy and unity for all of the innocent civilians—both Israeli and Palestinian—tragically affected by the heinous actions of Hamas,” pointedly excluding Palestinian victims of the Israeli government. It is worth noting that neither the publisher’s statement nor this counter-letter unequivocally calls for an end to the killing of all civilians (as the original Artforum letter did), let alone a ceasefire. We should also recognize how the implicit demand of many calls for “peace” from all sides is really a demand for Palestinians to silently accept not only the current military devastation of the Gaza Strip but the everyday structural violence perpetrated against them for generations.
The primary purpose of all the counter-letters, of the pressure campaign mounted by dealers and collectors to prevent artists from speaking out in solidarity with Palestinian civilians, and of Velasco’s firing itself is to police the borders of the sayable. The problem does not begin or end with Penske and Artforum, of course: the structural dependence of the art world on what David Joselit has aptly called “toxic philanthropy” compromises the independence of institutions, as well as individual artists and writers, to say nothing of the conception of art as a public good.
The capacity of corporate sponsors, private donors, boards of trustees, and controversy-averse state bureaucrats to set the limits of free expression in the art world writ large comes into sharp view in the case of Palestine, with explicit threats and reprisals as well as anticipatory institutional self-censorship: to name but a few examples from recent weeks, Martin Eisenberg, inheritor of the now-bankrupt Bed, Bath, and Beyond chain stores, demanded that artists whose work he collects remove their signatures from the Artforum letter; the Royal Ontario Museum attempted to censor the work of four Palestinian-American artists by removing the words “Palestine” and “exile” and cropping a painting depicting the corpse of a Palestinian person wearing a kuffiyya; a prominent Indigenous curator at the Art Gallery of Ontario suddenly left the museum under uncertain circumstances after a pro-Israel group complained to leadership about her social media posts criticizing Israel for “genocide and colonialism”; the Venice Biennale rejected the proposal of Palestine Museum US for its 2024 iteration (the collective exhibited at the event in 2022) while green-lighting Israel’s pavilion; and the Frick Pittsburgh postponed a planned exhibition of “10 Centuries of Islamic Art” because its executive director feared that it would be “insensitive” and “traumatic” (she has subsequently apologized). (The repression in German art institutions of artists and curators who speak out against Israel’s actions has been particularly fierce and has its own complex historical determinations, which are beyond the purview of this article.)
As the artist and writer Hannah Black told The Intercept, “Many of the dogmatic anti-Palestinians within the art world…are willing to destroy careers, destroy the value of artworks, to maintain their unofficial ban on free speech about Palestine.” And, with Artforum, they have destroyed a magazine with an important history, apparently without a second thought. And destroy it they have. Already numerous senior editors of the magazine have resigned in protest, and an "attestation for editorial independence" calling for a boycott of Artforum and all Penske publications has been circulating among artists and art writers (I have signed). Artforum, as property of Penske Media Corporation, will be likely to find someone to take over the magazine. It will be with the tacit understanding that they are never to pull a Velasco again by crossing the no-longer-invisible line in speaking out about certain “highly sensitive and complex geopolitical circumstances,” as the publishers put it in chastising the former editor. They will be running a magazine with no critical credibility.
Penske’s exclusive priority is the profitability of its subsidiaries, not the task of building and sustaining an independent forum for artists, writers, and cultural workers to freely debate the most urgent questions of aesthetics and politics. Those of us who share that latter goal must recognize that it is no longer possible in Artforum. We must ask whether we are still willing to entrust our conversations and our cultural productions to the likes of Jay Penske. If we are not, then we must build something better—perhaps something smaller and more modest than Artforum, further from power and immune to corporate profit margins, but where truth can at least be spoken.
Against the enforced conformity of speech about Palestine, in recent weeks, we have seen brave gestures of solidarity as part of the broader struggle against settler colonialism, like that of artists Nicholas Galanin and Merritt Johnson, who removed their work from an important exhibition of contemporary Indigenous art the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC in protest of US military funding for Israel. The evidence of the extraordinary protest movements across the world in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for freedom—many of the most effective of which have been led by Jewish organizations—is that the increasingly desperate attempts to repress speech about the genocide underway are no longer working. The repression is in fact a sign of weakness. This is a grim source of hope to which we must hold tight.