I finished Artforum by César Aira (b. 1949) today and I am giving it five stars. I also want to let the reader know that my rating is merely for form’s sake. (There’s a bit of wordplay here, if you read Artforum.) In other words, this is not a novel qua novel and it is not the sort of thing that one really ought to rate by “stars.” I enjoyed reading this; it was good and good for me. It might even be good for you to read, but it is not good for everyone. The general reader might not care for whatever this is. The most significant thing that I can tell you about this work is that I really cannot tell you what it is.
There are difficulties in writing a review about this book. Professional reviews from the journals/magazines feel like they are “writing around it.” That is to say, their reviews feel to me like they are writing from a distance and using a lot of vocabulary to seem like they are saying something about something. This is not a criticism from me – I totally understand why this sort of vague-speak happens. I already said that I cannot really tell you what this book is – and neither can the professional reviewers. There is nothing mysterious or esoteric about this. This is a spare 80 or so pages that may contain a memoir or a novel or a meditation. Probably all three. However, if either myself or the professionals start to tell readers what this book is, the book is then ruined for readers.
Artforum, if you are not aware, is an actual magazine founded in the 1960s and currently (as recently as December 2022) owned by the Penske Media Corporation (yes, Penske family of automobile racing and logistics groups). In the most loose sense I say that Artforum is an art magazine. That is not untrue – but I feel it says nothing. Anytime one brings up “Art” there seems to be an immediate definitional and categorical warzone that opens up and swallows unsuspecting innocents. One could call it a fine art, design art, culture-focused, trade magazine, if one likes. I have no desire to attempt to describe, prescribe, proscribe, or any other scribe how to refer to this magazine and its decades of publishing. The individual in the book by Aira, however, collects the magazine whenever/however he can. Most of Aira’s book is at least peripherally about this process. Hey, but listen, the process is not entirely external.
Aira’s book opens with a very relatable anecdote that is vibrant and real and the scene is immersive. A copy of Artforum has soaked up rain – the one with the Robert Mangold art on the cover. I have seen Mangold’s work a couple of times – his artwork was often displayed at several of the local museums and galleries where I lived because he was born there. I suspect there is some significance between Aira’s thoughts and Mangold’s work – I can at least point to the sort of gentle Dadaist and minimalist experimentalism that I feel resonating in Aira’s work. All that means is that I tend to believe that even those who work on the fringe and frontier of the boundaries of art are still standing on the shoulders and ideas of those before them, those around them, and those they never knew. The segment in Artforum (book) titled Conjectures more or less hints at a similar thought from Aira:
There are no restrictions, there are no forbidden subjects, the entire universe in its innumerable manifestations is at our disposal. – pg. 59
I am sure at this point readers of this review are likely utterly perplexed and have decided that I have read some esoteric artsy-fartsy book that is incomprehensible to normal people and that it has loosened some dam of pontificating babble from my disturbed mind. Rest assured, readers, I am not unaware of your complaints.
Artforum is several snapshots of writing in which the narrator shares some of his introspection while he uses a somewhat unreliable, but attempting to be truthful, eye toward his own actions (including the collecting of Artforum magazine). However, if you think that is what this book is about, and you read about peso-value, bread, and clothespins, you will think I am loony. Be that as it may, the book works best as you, the other reader, come up with the answer to what this book is about.
And when it rained, it became the present: everything was tied together in a great web of interconnectedness. – pg. 15
If I had to put my finger on some central topic or theme for this book, I guess “interconnectedness” is as good as any. Aira may even be asking “what is the form of interconnectedness?” and is it from within or from without? Gee whiz, doesn’t that sound all abstruse! Well, and maybe that is why Aira approaches his meditations in little vignettes and anecdotes as opposed to asking uncomfortable sounding inquiries? I still think this is what he is thinking about – I submit the segment on his feelings toward the Postal Service as evidence.
So, then there is a bit about idea and formulation. This is very self-referential of Aira – because it is almost as if the thing has come full circle to the actual question involving how are these little writings about an individual thinking about Artforum (magazine) part of the writer’s art? Oh, that sounds convoluted. Let me try again: the narrator wonders about the gap between his ideas and the formulation of his idea in the real, instantiated by his writings. The narrator could create his own art-forum through the act of writing. Writing became a vicarious artwork – a way of marking time. I think that Aira has done a number of interviews and the interviewers often ask Aira to comment on his writing “style.” I feel like he should always be using the word: vicarious when he responds.
Like I said, it is not an easy thing to say what this book is about and further, if someone attempts to explain it – it harms the experience and encounter of the reader. It, in a sense, modifies that vicarious undercurrent. Now, to talk about a different matter: what is it that made me enjoy this experience so much that I gave the book five ersatz stars? I felt happy reading it because I enjoyed the lack of violence in these vicarious meditations. I enjoyed the way Aira is able to discuss these matters without using a cudgel. I liked the way I could sometimes empathize with the narrator. It does not put any regrets on display; it feels more hopeful. More and more I am liking Aira’s concept of a writer/writing. I like how he explores it and how he demonstrates it. Its nice to find things one likes.