There was some uneasy laughter in the auditorium when artnet News critic Ben Davis read aloud John Ruskin’s famous description of The Slave Ship (1840) by J.M.W. Turner. Davis gave the keynote address on the first day of Superscript (May 28-30), a conference at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and co-organized by MN Artists about how—or whether—arts journalism and criticism is changing in the digital age. Ruskin’s florid language and extended descriptions (“. . . the fire of the sunset falls along the trough of the sea, dyeing it with an awful but glorious light, the intense and lurid splendor which burns like gold and bathes like blood. . .”) sounded like a throwback, and that was the point. Davis argued that the proliferation of digital images is rendering such heroic and detailed feats of ekphrasis obsolete. Color reproductions in art magazines, once a rarity, are now supplemented by instantly accessible high-resolution details and video walkthroughs of exhibitions. The wide availability of these resources, Davis said, has prompted experimentation with new modes of “post-descriptive” criticism. Why tell when it’s never been easier to show?
The way we write, publish and distribute criticism may be changing dramatically, but it struck me while looking at an image of The Slave Ship, which Davis projected following his reading, that the basic motivations for discussing and arguing about art in public forums have remained relatively constant since Ruskin’s time. Turner’s painting, originally titled Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying-Typhon coming on, depicts the bodies of shackled enslaved people sinking beneath the sea. The work generated an exceptionally long, contentious and important paper trail when it went on view in New York and then Boston in the late-19th century. Turner’s difficult modern aesthetic became a flashpoint for debates about class, taste and elitism (Mark Twain had little patience for Ruskin’s grandiloquence). When it went on view at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, the work also helped reignite abolitionist passions and renewed calls for social justice in the Caribbean. Ruskin’s text was printed on cards for viewers to read while they studied Turner’s painting. What had been dismissed as a pretentious farce in New York became a protest picture in Boston. As historian Andrew Walker has argued, with the right rhetorical guidance, the lurid mixing of gold and blood could be seen as a moral indictment and a call for political action.
It’s not only images that are more abundant in today’s art world. There’s more of everything: more art, more museums, more galleries, more curators, more graduate programs, and more people equipped to produce and read criticism. There’s more writing about art and more venues for publishing. Representatives from at least 15 publications took the stage at Superscript, and everyone else in the audience seemed to have started a magazine or website.
I can’t even begin to tally how much art criticism I don’t have time to read each month. When you factor in the fashion, lifestyle and general-interest publications that routinely cover the visual arts, and take into account the volumes generated on social media, it would appear that we’re living through an art writing bonanza. So why was the tone of Superscript at times so bleak?
Many of the speakers on the first day described the grim economic reality familiar to professional writers in all fields: the decimation of publishing models based on lucrative print advertising revenue has yet to be replaced by anything comparably profitable on the Web. Speaking on a panel about “Sustainability, Growth and Ethics,” Eugenia Ball of Design Observer and Veken Gueyikian, publisher of Hyperallergic, gave an overview of their business models and the struggles to build viable online publications. Gueyikian spoke of painstakingly courting a sponsor base that could reasonably support a group of full-time employees, though he also noted with admirable candor that pay for freelancers remained quite modest—as it does at most publications, including Art in America.
So is art writing undervalued and overproduced? Is it time to get a real job? In one discussion of how she made it as a freelancer, Carolina Miranda, now of the Los Angeles Times, said that she would negotiate hard for higher fees, arguing to editors that “not every word is worth the same.” In that immediate context was that her copy would come in “clean” and ready for an easy edit and would therefore be worth more to an editor. But something larger could also be inferred. Some types of criticism are more valuable than others. Speaking on another panel, Christopher Knight, Miranda’s colleague at the Los Angeles Times, offered a tongue-in-cheek description of the purpose of his occupation when he said that his primary task as a critic is to sell newspapers. But what really sells newspapers? What does the public want and need to read?
Ryan Schreiber of Pitchfork, the popular music review website, noted that music writing in an era when albums are available at the click of a button has become less about advising readers on how to spend their money and more about “how to spend their time.” Similarly, Isaac Fitzgerald of BuzzFeed Books spoke of providing his massive readership with friendly recommendations, which has the important effect of promoting (and selling) quality books. There are numerous art-specific websites that cover the news, scandals, auction prices, job appointments, celebrity sightings and events. This kind of “service journalism,” as Orit Gat of Rhizome identified it, may satiate a certain kind of reader with time to kill, but I suspect that the cheery ambition to be useful is not what prompted most of the attendees to spend two days in an auditorium in Minneapolis.
Knight put his finger on it during a more serious point in his presentation:
“. . . engagement with power is a primary function of the power of journalism. And before I’m an art critic, I am a journalist. There are lots of different kinds of art criticism. But as a journalistic art critic, my aim is to enfold the power of art within the larger dynamic of power relationships in society.”
The Internet may have altered the economics of publishing, but this ambition for criticism has a lineage going back to Ruskin’s time, and further to 18th century Paris, where illicit writings examining the new public practice of viewing art in the salons circulated in cheap underground pamphlets.
The assumption behind this tradition of criticism is that artworks have relevance in public life and that visual art is uniquely suited for making sense of the world, or at least showing how it may never make sense. Most artists I know believe that their work can attain this public character, so it was nice to hear James Bridle speaking about his own project in these terms. I’m going to post-describe Bridle’s work here; suffice to say that it relates to network infrastructure and the social and economic forces at work behind global connectivity.
“The job of art for me,” Bridle said, “is to disrupt and complicate, renew and criticize these networks by representing and building upon them.” Bridle went further in this vein, suggesting that criticism has to match the ambition of the work being criticized.
“I don’t see how criticism can function without making the same level of demands and responding to the same challenges as art itself—in a form of solidarity, but also for its own survival.”
Criticism may be truly important when it can hold its own, when writers are able to argue forcefully with and against the complex implications of the work under discussion. Ekphrasis may be going the way of the floppy disk, but exegesis has always been where the real action is anyway.
I realize this all sounds fairly idealistic, though such a tone would be in keeping with elements of the conference, such as the title of the panel “Artists as Cultural First Responders.” The rousing moments when it appeared that artists could be tasked with emergency management and that critics could take on vested interests were, however, offset by a weird—and I would say mistaken—indulgence of powerlessness. Even Knight, in another wry moment, described criticism as the “appendix” of the art world; it could easily be removed without damaging the overall system.
In this vein another trope emerged: the critic as a nobly impoverished bohemian, laboring out of love. The truth is that being an art critic can be expensive. Artists may, in theory, retreat to a barn in the wilderness to make their work. But anyone interested in writing about contemporary art has to participate in a culture that is primarily urban and, like it or not, flourishing in increasingly unaffordable cities like New York and Los Angeles. All too often, this means that writing is a privilege for those who can afford to do it. It’s an exclusionary situation, one symptom of which is that most participants and attendees at this national conference on art writing were white.
I’m not disparaging the intentional pursuit of a life of the mind, a career path that has never promised material wealth; Fitzgerald, pre-BuzzFeed, spoke of living in San Francisco on $12,000 a year while running a literary website on little more than pure passion. It’s just that criticism could be stronger, more diverse and better equipped to take on “power” if accepting precarious economic conditions weren’t a requirement for entering the field.
The situation borders on untenable if we consider that many of the artworks that seem to attract and even demand critical writing are often also goods for sale to elite consumers. Critics of contemporary visual art have some difficult jiu-jitsu to master: examining the power relations in society on the one hand while effectively greasing the wheels of a market for luxury items on the other. Gat was one of the few speakers who noted this relationship and its complexities, pointing out that criticism “generates cultural capital which in turns generates capital,” even as so much art and art criticism is produced in explicit opposition to this process. Gat argued that incisive writing must provide a “check on the market,” but this is perhaps easier said than done. Even scathing negative reviews can be touted by galleries as evidence of an artist’s relevance. Nor is it easy to see how to escape the marketing of critical writing. Whether writers are getting low pay at a trade magazine or no pay at a non-profit, the output all looks the same in the promotional press binders displayed at every show—a context where long October essays can find common purpose with artist profiles in lifestyle magazines.
Some momentum is building for a shift in philanthropic funding priorities toward an acknowledgement that funding the arts is incomplete without also funding the discourse around it. The Andy Warhol Foundation has pioneered this approach and the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation is among the institutions that are starting to provide grants and fellowships specifically to foster art writing and publishing, thereby recognizing criticism as a public good despite the tenuous commercial viability of its most challenging forms.
If art criticism really is a public good in this way, then it becomes necessary to define what responsibility the critic has to his or her audience. So what constitutes a public?
In a 1972 Artforum essay, Lawrence Alloway described an accelerated art world intertwined with the mass media. “Art is a public system to which we, as spectators or consumers, have random access.” At the time Alloway was writing, it was already impossible for anyone to take in the entirety of the global art system—comprising magazines, galleries, museums. Today it’s a laudable goal to attain even a partial handle on any small niche. One of the most interesting panels was ostensibly about “Community and Connectivity,” though the speakers each described highly fragmented cultural landscapes. Claudia La Rocco, who has contributed to A.i.A., gave an eloquent talk about the Performance Club, a “book club for live art.” Members meet to discuss dance and performance art, and La Rocco publishes criticism—”weird little chunks of writing that most people will have zero interest in”—on the “P-Club” website. The project fostered a kind of anti-community, a provisional space where post-show critiques could be as insular or open as the shifting cast of attendees preferred. La Rocco ended her presentation with an account of struggling to justify the program’s public mission to one of its funders: how to explain that “an island of misfit toys” suits her more than “an island of inclusivity.”
Alexander Provan, with whom I work at Triple Canopy, distinguished the concept of community—with all of its positive, organic, even pastoral implications—from what he characterized as the less sentimental notion of a public. Citing the scholar Michael Warner, Provan described how publics are defined by “strangers who choose to join one another through discourse.” This discourse, in turn, is constituted by a shared body of texts: publications that are encountered, discussed and debated over time.
The common texts (or exhibitions, or artworks) that hold together a monolithic art world are not always very interesting. It was notable that in a two-day conference for professional art critics only a handful of specific artists were referenced, and all of them held a certain profile. A few speakers noted Richard Prince’s paintings of Instagram posts. I recall an anecdote about a gossipy spat involving Marina AbramoviÄ?. And Trevor Paglen came up a few times, mostly in reference to the photographs Creative Time Reports commissioned last year of office buildings housing the NSA and other agencies that conduct surveillance. These artists and their work provided some useful, if not always subtle, shorthand for big ideas: Internet art, surveillance, celebrity, the market. This kind of broad legibility may be necessary at a time when it’s impossible to attend even most of the exhibitions in a major city. How do we converse when we’re all accessing our own art worlds at random points and inhabiting our own islands of misfit toys?
Also speaking on the community and connectivity panel, Ayesha Siddiqi of The New Inquiry described the public discourse that exists on social media, noting the empowering effects of new technologies that people of color, women and members of the LGBTQ community have used to share stories and connect. But these opportunities are tempered by new vulnerabilities. “Visibility in a surveillance state is not power,” Siddiqi argued. Those who speak their minds on social media are not only exposed to the government or the corporations who own the networks, but also to the racism and misogyny that may be submerged in civil society but overt on the Internet.
Like many participants in the conference, Siddiqi took to Twitter after her presentation and made additional points relevant to the state of criticism. In particular, she called out the practice of “mistaking the unnamed social positions for neutral ones (white/male/etc.),” of making a singular and often privileged experience appear universal. This is a very “entry level” move, as she put it. There were immediate calls on Twitter and elsewhere for Siddiqi to offer solutions to the problems she diagnosed, as if many of the solutions weren’t painfully obvious and linked directly to previous discussions about economic imbalances in the art world. How should we account for the diverse experiences of the art world (really, art worlds)? How should we support the “counterpublics”—to use Warner’s term—that sustain critical discourses? Working to make criticism a viable and worthwhile pursuit for writers of all backgrounds would be a start.
Lack of diversity is often described as a part of a crisis of art criticism or a crisis in publishing. But I wonder if we should be asking if this is really a crisis for art. If the system is skewed in such a way that writers who are equipped to comment on diverse modes of cultural production have no investment in the visual arts and find the life of writing about it unsustainable, then the visual arts will no longer be a credible public forum for exchanging ideas. It will instead whither into an elite game, a subculture for elderly white people interested in private aesthetic experience and a narrow view of social prestige. In the long term, that hardly sounds like a sustainable business model for anyone.