Judging from the memes he makes, Brad Troemel doesn’t think much of critics. In one post, a wire-haired woman, rendered in a loose digital sketch and labeled “Art History PhD Formalist Critic,” wonders if there might be an opening for a curator at the Wing, a posh feminist co-working space. In another, a robotic arm is shown copy-and-pasting a press release into a word doc labeled “critical review.” And yet Troemel is a critic—a thorough and acerbic analyst of art’s present circumstances. He self-published a collection of essays about art and social media on Lulu, a print-on-demand site, back in 2011. Troemel started posting on Instagram around 2016, satirizing dirtbag liberals and trust-fund artists through meme formats popularized on 4chan and Reddit, like Peter Parker’s Glasses and Virgin vs. Chad. In the last year, his critique has matured into a sophisticated theory of art’s social impact by satirizing its trends, institutions, platforms, motivations, and, especially, its hypocrisies and pretensions. In posts and recent public appearances, the artist wears Joker makeup as if to identify himself as a symptom of the system’s sickness, manifested for all the art world to see.
Troemel’s muscular, madcap delivery of hard truth has garnered a modest cult following. His position has often been outré, at the edges of major galleries and glossy monthlies. He first gained notoriety as a founder of the Jogging, a legendary Tumblr, and later shifted his very online output to platforms like Etsy and Squarespace, using their e-commerce interfaces to sell kits for on-demand artworks (things like tacos fastened shut with padlocks and a projection of the words “Good Person”). Troemel’s turn in the white cube peaked in the middle of the last decade. His current focus on the square JPEG picks up on what the artist advocated in earlier essays, such as 2013’s “Athletic Aesthetics”—a fevered pace of online activity that obviates the need for physical works. In this vision, the tortured painter in his garret is replaced by the ranting memelord in his ergonomic chair. The sardonic phrase “athletic aesthetics” is a fair summary of Troemel’s puckish attitude toward the art market and the value of the object. Yet his shitposting is also part of a sincere attempt to forge a new sort of relationship to art and its infrastructure, beyond a stratifying gallery system, that makes a direct connection to an audience on social media.
In a typically confessional post, Troemel admits that he used to want his work to be sold at high prices to members of a tiny, affluent club. But now, he’s committed to making art that his public can afford. Free from the pressures of chasing blue-chip success, the artist does what he enjoys—and so can you. Another post offers a cautionary tale. Standing in front of several “references” tangled in a Photoshop doodle, a well-meaning viewer asks the artist, scowling under his beret: “So you spent half a year working on a show for no one in particular?” Troemel’s oblique advice: don’t let the answer be yes.
Why make art? Why make objects? How is art valued, who values it, and why? Troemel’s memes continually ask such broad, John Berger–style questions. And, like Berger (among others), his rawest criticisms are reserved for the economics of art. His posts skewer the people and institutions who pretend that artist, critic, and curator are somehow viable upwardly mobile professions. (As he rightly observes, you can’t pay rent with “exposure.”) Troemel is honest about where his revenue comes from: Patreon, a crowdfunding platform for creatives to receive small monthly donations from individual “patrons,” often in return for exclusive content. Troemel has embraced a system of compensation and feedback to match his digitally mass-distributed forms of art. In exchange for a few dollars a month, he offers short video lectures (industry “reports”), artist multiples, and half-hour studio visits via Skype. If this strategy has reduced Troemel, like so many others, to begging for money online, it has also effectively narrowed the gap between the artist and his public.
Troemel is not above the same fits of mansplaining that befall many who don the critic’s mantle. He sometimes addresses his audience as naive art-adjacent strivers who require his help to see through the charlatans who run MFA programs and blue-chip galleries. An MFA graduate himself, Troemel attacks the system with the zeal of a convert. He insists that art doesn’t “do” politics: A character in one meme accuses, “You just think art ISN’T politics xD”; the artist’s Joker avatar, green-haired and black-eyed, responds: “Yes.” His critique of arguments against “bad” money in art is particularly cold, as in a depiction of recent protests against toxic philanthropists like the Sacklers and Warren Kanders as a virtuous game of Whac-A-Mole. Troemel takes the view that you can’t get rid of all the “bad” billionaires. You can’t change the system—but you can forsake it, problematic patrons and all, if you’re backed by a small personal army of subscribers.
Yet from the most cynical shit blooms a vacuum-packed rose. Instead of shoehorning art into other disciplines, from marketing to activism, Troemel repeatedly argues for a discourse around what art and artists can do. And, unlike many critics of art’s sociopolitical problems, Troemel has a positive proposal. Forget aspirational wealth and power; the only admirable metric of art’s success, to paraphrase a post from September, is influence. Under portraits of Greta Thunberg, Tekashi69, and other role models, Troemel tells his followers to express their thoughts so that others can use them. In hopes of a virtuous cycle, he urges his audience to think of their audience.
The idea of generosity—as in legibility, clarity, approachability, and aesthetic appeal—is key to Troemel’s theory of art. This is how influence, in his terms, allows artists to communicate across space and time. Generosity is how art goes viral. Today, memes accelerate the cycle. “Originals” are hollowed out to become formats that beget versions and versions of versions. In the meme, Troemel has found a vehicle uniquely suited to his critique: a nimble, accessible, even populist way to transmit ideas. If art isn’t politics, what it offers is no less important: a chance for “people to newly interpret their lives.” From Troemel’s deconstructive comedy comes a pragmatic economic schema—and, in turn, one man’s plan for art’s emancipation.