The much-loathed profession of art criticism is facing an odd future online: the myth of the click web has turned out to be apocryphal, and according to recent research conducted by and written about by Chartbeat, we're heading towards the era of the "attention web." But traffic-seeking clickbait has not been completely disbanded. We know that last year one of the most searched for words on our site was "dildo." How does this data-crunching on how readers navigate, and on what they enjoy on our site affect how we write and what we publish?
These kinds of new and readily available statistics puts writers in a tricky position. There aren’t many people who buy art, and there are equally few who read about it, yet the number of critics is on the rise. How are evolving digital publishing platforms—which allow for more voices and approaches than ever before—shaping the way we write about art? How do they change the role of art critics? Do they have an impact on the way we all view art?
Image: Creative Commons via Flickr user Curly
One example of how online publishing platforms influence the way art criticism is written is discussed in BOMB Magazine Editor Orit Gat’s article published on the web platform Rhizome. In Art Criticism in the Age of Yelp, Gat explains how both Amazon and Yelp engage with community and redefine the term "review," using a style whose aim is to be "helpful"—something that is chiefly lacking in the criteria of many art critics as demonstrated, Gat points out, by a questionnaire run by Frieze magazine, (asking critics "Who do you write for?").
Acknowledging a new audience for art criticism should have a positive impact on writers. Thanks to the web, readers are now directly engaged—they comment on and share articles, etc. On the one hand, this makes the critical dialogue about art more dynamic. However, the openness and anonymity of the web means that art writers have to be more communicative—and, dare I say it—entertaining. From its alignment with literature, art history, and philosophy, with its traditionally obfuscating jargon and affectations, art criticism is transitioning to something far more fluid and accessible. Instead of having a conversation with itself, it now involves other people, and those people might not want to be stuffed with strings of four-syllable words and terminology. Rather than providing a fully formed and static idea, art criticism online can be the start of a discussion. Criticism today is much more accessible to anyone, anywhere, and it cross-pollinates into many other areas of culture and news.
It's not only the language and format of criticism that's changing. Its length has also been challenged lately: those 15-second attention spans have led to 140 character exhibition reviews on Twitter, critic podcasts, and digital media platform DIS magazine’s photo essays and #artselfie, which provide an ambiguous critique of contemporary visual culture. These abbreviated and even visual forms of criticism reimagine what criticism can be in the context of the internet. They're not necessarily reductive because they're short. They can provoke just as much thought, in a more concise way, an attempt bridging the gap between experience art and communicating about it. They are not Groys' "textual bikinis." They're trippy, more like 3D glasses.
Raoul Hausmann, The Art Critic, Courtesy Tate
The printed page can be limiting: writing for print is a solitary task, and the page—ink fixed on paper—has a sense of completeness and finality. But ideas are not fixed—in the same way that artworks, and our reception of them, are in flux and change over time and context. Emerging platforms for art criticism can be more representative of this fluid state of experiencing and evaluating art, playing with delivery and dissemination—and they’re able to be more responsive than print. My colleague Andrew Berardini writes for both print and online publications and champions this aspect of online criticism: “Web publications can have such an immediate reflection and effect on current events that if I have an idea that I want to have that speed, then I'll put it online.”
Art criticism, thanks to the net, has a much larger reach now. In a recent talk hosted by artnet at VOLTA NY, “Is Everyone A Critic?! Art Criticism in the Digital Age," critic Blake Gopnik commented that we’re seeing more art criticism now “than we’ve seen in a million years.” He adds that he firmly believes it “can be attractive to most readers.” According to Gopnik and his colleague Christian Viveros-Fauné, the root principles of any writing, value and relevance, apply now more than ever. Gopnik and Viveros-Fauné's own answer to this is a video series, Strictly Critical, where their three-minute video reviews can get up to 16,000 views.
But there is a flipside to this gaining popularity: art criticism is a niche activity and it is protected ferociously by an army of niche people. There’s still a stigma attached to art critics who go online—not only from galleries and members of the printed press, but from colleagues in the profession. On top of the snubs, online writers also get a bum deal in terms of pay. In an email, Berardini, who last year authored a brilliant and poetic account of the struggles of making it as a writer, made a pertinent point, suggesting a need for “enforcing community standards for fair payment. There are too many writing sweatshops running these days across all disciplines… it's high time writers across media began to publicly organize, pushing for transparency of budgets/payments, and publicly boycotting exploitative publications.” The big leaguers, clearly, are still copping out of paying arts writers any where near sufficiently for their work. And at the same time, there's a dearth of financial support from advertisers. ArtSlant, for example, is a private company, but we effectively run as a non-profit, putting all of our profits directly back into the company.
Our current editorial staff were all born in the 80s, and online platforms gave us some of our first assignments. While the blogosphere has opened up more opportunities for young critics, allowing them to develop their own style, it has created a ruthlessly competitive atmosphere. Because of the aforementioned pay deficits, there's a risk of the profession reverting to its elite-only past. And then, as James Pantero points out bitterly in his "My Jerry Saltz Problem" article, there's the conundrum facing contemporary critic: social media whoring.
Print writers who want a readership must devote time to rebroadcasting their content. I will regurgitate the article you are now reading through every electronic conveyance at my disposal. I will email it out to a personal list, tweet it, link to it on Facebook, post it to a blog, Xerox and mail it to a couple of digitally challenged relatives. If I am lucky, I may even discuss it by radio or podcast. I would even fax it, if anyone still used a telefacsimile machine, and happily send it around by pneumatic tube. Comments welcome!
Jerry Saltz, via WikiCommons
Saltz has even taken criticism to a place that no one would ever have dreamed it could go: reality TV. Bravo's Work of Art: The Next Great Artist might have been slammed by the art world, but it proves the extent to which art criticism is being popularized. With regards to speaking about culture to the masses, DIS Magazine Editor Lauren Boyle told the New York Times:
Alber Elbaz once said: ‘Where uptown and downtown meet, but not in Midtown. We hate Midtown.’ I think that statement says a lot about fashion, and we pretty much feel the opposite. Midtown isn’t high or low, it’s medium. For us that’s where the fertile, untrodden ground is. Mass-market department stores are not where the trends go to die, it’s where they culminate.
The same could be applied to art criticism. It’s moving towards the middle ground, and its language, style, and packaging are adapting as a result. That’s not to say that the ideas are any greater, or any less—but it is consciously broadening its audience.
Art writing then and now: (above) Clement Greenberg, (below) a screenshot from BlouinArtInfo
One of art criticism's main goals is, surely, to engage with real life—to encourage people to go and experience art for themselves while providing a context for a more profound engagement with it. To elicit ideas and to ask questions. In the past, art criticism was confined to a single format (the printed page) and has been dominated by the written long form essay. The internet has given art criticism new platforms for talking about and critiquing art. Even the lowly listicle can be an expression of wonderment at something the writer finds valuable enough to share, something that can provoke people to go out and look at art or to consider it in new ways. They're not the whole conversation but they can be just as valuable a part of it. Art criticism today is less conservative, more democratic, its contributor and reader demographics are more mixed and it provides progressive cultural ideas, which makes it more attractive than ever. The digital age needs digital critics.
—Char Jansen, ArtSlant Editor
(Image at the top: Mr Art Critic Poster)