In an essay titled "Eclipse of the Sun,” which ran in the December issue of Artforum, writer and deputy editor Elizabeth Schambelan asks how we should or can write about Trumpist fascism. During the election, it seemed like Trump wasn't fascist yet. There was no explicit state-sponsored militarism, nothing like the dandified evil of Nazi jackboots. But as the Trump presidency wore on, Schambelan realized that fascism was, in fact, already here: it just didn't look like it had in the twentieth century. Instead of slick villains, we got a litany of banal ghouls. Senior advisor Steven Miller is, she writes, “a Crawler.” Steve Mnuchin and his wife Louise Linton are “space vampires.” Some, like the far-right Proud Boys, created by Vice co-founder Gavin McInnes, just worked as goblins part-time. “In the age of the gig economy, of course the Republican party’s paramilitary wing will be a motley assortment of freelancers—a word originally used to describe medieval mercenaries—and its spectacles will be only partly IRL and will be choreographed very differently from Leni Riefenstahl’s.”
With his flopping toddler’s belly and rotating googly eyes, Gritty, the Philadelphia Flyers mascot-turned-antifa-icon, is the opposite: the demented and literal good monster. Schambelan describes a meme of Gritty beating up alt-right symbol Pepe the Frog as “cathartic.” Created by Raymond Entertainment, whose founder David Raymond was the first full-time Phillies Phanatic mascot, Gritty was meant to reflect the goofy nihilism of hardcore Flyers fans, committed to their team despite a 43-year championship cup drought. But somehow (when he threatened to kill the Flyers’ intrastate rival? When he swung onto the ice like a wrecking ball to Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball?”) Gritty became “too weird to dismiss as a focus group misfire,” to quote writer Michael Baumman. Gritty also became unequivocally left, picked up by Twitter accounts like Fellow Worker Gritty. “Today Gritty is hungry for College Presidents,” read part of a recent tweet. “FEED ME YOUR UNION BUSTERS.” Artforum's December issue, or "The Year in Monsters," featured Gritty swinging, joyously, across an abyss.
Artforum's 2017 "Year in Review" cover also used a non-art image, featuring Charlie Riedel's photo of a home flooded by Hurricane Harvey near Freeport, Texas. But this year's cover was so fittingly absurd that, when Artforum's Twitter posted the cover image, many Twitter users wondered if it was a hoax. Writer Malcom Harris, author of the book Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials, photographed an IRL issue next to a bowl of clementines. "Can confirm the Gritty Artforum cover is real," he tweeted. "Imagine the Flyers front office standing around a copy like 'Well...Good?'" In a year of ridiculous images, what made Gritty so 2018? And what made Gritty so Artforum? For an inside scoop on these pressing and consuming questions, we spoke to Artforum editor-in-chief David Velasco about the cover, social media (his take: not for me, but good for others!), and being heavy-handed.
How do you feel about Gritty’s eyes?
That’s a very heavy question. The best description I’ve seen of Gritty is in Elizabeth Schambelan’s piece in the December issue, which is what the cover actually takes off from. She says that Gritty’s “lidless eyes held all the madness of accelerating entropy.” I don’t think I can possibly say it better than that. Is that a disappointing answer? For me to defer to the text?
I don’t think so? It feels very editorial.
Could you speak a bit about the cover design?
Do you mean the specific way that Gritty is swinging?
Yeah. Like… across a void.
Sure. The December issue is a “year in review” issue, and there are a lot of artists featured. To put a single artist on the cover is a challenge. In the past, we’ve often done mosaic covers that feature many artists, but I thought it would be good to go with a news image, or something that was not specifically a work by a single artist, even though Gritty is of course someone’s work. And we wanted to tie it into the issue. Elizabeth’s piece is, I think, unbelievable, and for her, Gritty becomes this mascot of the year. So it seemed like a fit for a "year in review" issue. I should also say that my boyfriend Sam was aggressively promoting a Gritty cover behind the scenes.
Traditionally, you have the Artforum logo on the left for news stand purposes. To put it on the right is always a motivated decision, either because of design or symbolic resonance. Here, we looked at it both on the left and the right and decided that it was nicer to have Gritty swinging towards the void but also towards Artforum. Having Gritty dangle from the Artforum logo seemed a little more heavy-handed. Maybe they’re both equally heavy-handed actually. The original picture is a Getty Images photo, which is actually Gritty swinging towards a spotlight against a black background. I tried to conceive of building the spotlight into the cover, but it didn’t look as good.
But also––we’re going into 2019! I hope that Gritty and all the things associated with Gritty win.
What are the things associated with Gritty? Could you speak about that in the context of Elizabeth Schambelan's article?
Elizabeth is the deputy editor here. She’s been with the magazine for almost fifteen years. She’s an incredible writer. And she took on this idea we had of “The Year in Monsters” and built it into this incredibly beautiful 7,000-word piece surveying the year and the rise of certain kinds of fascism. She's getting her head around recognizing what fascism might look like today and the ways in which it’s possible to see it and work against it in the media.
For her, Gritty becomes a strange representation of hope. She identifies Gritty as an anti-clown, the counterpoint to the evil crown that is Trump. In a year in which there’s been so much overwhelming horror, it was wonderful to have something to project our own radical fantasies onto.
In an interview on The Dig podcast, Andrea Long Chu and Marissa Brostoff talked about the alt-right’s nostalgia for postmodernism. During postmodernism, they argued, history had “ended,” but of course it also hadn’t: instead, it curdled below the surface or at the fringes in ways only conspirators could access. “In the nineties, we didn’t have enough history,” Andrea said. “And now it feels like we have too much history.” I’m bastardizing the quote, but it’s something like that.
One of Elizabeth’s lines was that her “hardware has melted this year.”
Do you have a favorite Gritty meme?
I think my favorite is the meme that we included in the issue, which reads, “Male intimacy and communication is a lethal weapon in the fight against patriarchy.” You know, I have a terrible admission, which is that I’m not as Gritty-obsessed as Elizabeth and some of our other writers are. So I haven’t scoured the internet looking for Gritty memes. I’ve only seen what’s come across my desk.
So you’ve mostly associated with Gritty in a professional capacity.
Yes. I’m an admirer; I only have professional affiliations with Gritty. But my heart is in my profession, so that isn’t to say that my heart is not with Gritty.
Is there a reason that you never went full fan-mode?
My relationship to social media has probably been at a distance for the past year or two. I’m just not in the swim of things as much. I get all my social media second hand, which is antithetical to the whole idea of social media maybe. Someone will see something on social media, and then they’ll tell me about it, but I’m not participating directly. So that’s probably the main reason I never became a Gritty fan, but I love that people love Gritty. It’s not so much that I wouldn’t be committed if I weren’t more first-person involved in social media, but because I’m not, I feel a bit of a distance.
Did you intentionally distance yourself from social media? Do you miss it?
I don’t miss it at all. I still have Instagram, and I still read Twitter feeds of friends when I’m feeling low at night and want to cheer myself up. But the remove from social media is intentional. I think it’s an amazing place for people who need to speak, and who are also earning their stripes in some way. It’s just not where I am right now. So it’s not as useful for my time. But for other people, it’s a great use of their time. So I’m happy for them to have that.
How have people been responding to the cover?
I’ve taken great pleasure in looking at Twitter on occasion and seeing the enthusiasm around the cover. A lot of people who maybe don’t pay attention to Artforum are picking it up because of the cover, which is exactly what I want. That’s so thrilling. A lot of people have also had no idea who Gritty is, especially art people who aren’t tuned into social media, and it’s been really exciting to see them figure out why Gritty is on the cover. I’m really happy with it. And from what I can tell, people seem to be happy with the cover also. I would have been okay with negative responses, though. I don’t need everyone to love everything we do.