Widespread euphoria in the arts has prevailed in the last decade over the new possibilities offered by digital media. Writers no longer need be confined by the space limitations of, or access to, print media. The abundance of thoughts and images now available online exponentially expands the audience for art.
The digital realm is now what one observer has called “one big garden party” and the primary platform for publishing. The new ranks of untold commentators has hastened the demise of critical gatekeepers to guide the cultural conversation. Both Chicago dailies, along with many other papers nationwide, have sacked their art critics in recent years.
The 21st century has seen the construction of new museum buildings and arts facilities across America. Museums have embraced digital media as powerful fundraising and marketing tools to promote exhibitions, build membership, offer digital tours of the collection and reach a global audience.
What do these new trends signify as to how we think about and experience art? How do we measure the expanded boundaries of arts journalism? And does formal art criticism have a future or has it been permanently eclipsed?
The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, known for its strong commitment to evolving modes of artistic production, convened a two-day conference in late May titled “SuperScript: Arts Journalism and Criticism in the Digital Age”. The organizers did an outstanding job of assembling a top-notch cast of writers, critics and publishers in digital media to examine essential themes surrounding the topic.
When I entered the Walker’s auditorium on the first morning, I found a wall-to-wall gathering of close to 300 attendees that I later determined were divided among digital journalists and bloggers (roughly half the audience), university art students and staff from schools and arts venues such as the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and Chicago’s Renaissance Society.
As the first day progressed, I grew to feel increasingly like a stranger in a strange land, not just a “legacy journalist” from the print realm but an older writer in a sea of men and women in their 20 to 40 prime.
I brought a different, older perspective than most other attendees, whose knowledge, attitudes and working practices were shaped by the internet over the past 15 years at most.
I came to Minneapolis to focus on a theme of keen interest to the New Art Examiner, the Midwest’s most successful art publication between 1973 and 2002, and which I was now helping revive for a new era: the fate of art criticism and if serious exploration of art issues was possible online.
Several provocative addresses and panel discussions gave me hope.
I discovered fine digital art publications (Rhizome, Triple Canopy and Momus) that I hadn’t been aware of which are plowing the same rich soil we intend to cultivate. Momus’ editorial motto is “A Return to Art Criticism”.
The conference was less than a half-hour old when Orit Gat, a writer for Rhizome and many other art publications, defined the role of art criticism as keeping a check on the art market.
Auction houses and dealers are in the ascendant right now and viewed as our new cultural tastemakers (A disturbing new trend has major dealers curating museum shows). Gat said they are redefining and reducing cultural capital to purely monetary capital. Christie’s reportedly spent $50 million building an e-commerce business online.
Real art criticism provides original content and a counter narrative to monetized culture. Gat spoke against service and crowd-source criticism. Service-oriented criticism simply offers recommendations while crowd-source criticism aggregates “Likes” on sites such as Yelp and Facebook.
She asked the audience “Has the web affected or changed art criticism”? Her answer: “Not yet but it definitely will”. One such change is that ArtForum.com won’t publish negative reviews.
Christopher Knight, art critic for the Los Angeles Times and the only panelist at the conference from “legacy media”, made a comparative analogy between a ship and the dock. “The dock in this instance is print, old media, dead trees…the boat, of course, is digital, the internet and its proliferating social media formats.”
“I write art criticism for one primary reason: I write in order to find out what it is I think and my job…is to find ways to bring the reader into that process.” Knight noted that, if he knew what he thought before he sat down to write, “I would just be typing.”
He characterized social media as “home to society’s raging id and readers, as well as editors, are its restraining superego.”
Many references were made throughout the two days of talks to “metrics”, “traffic”, “clicks” and “eyeballs”, strategies that have hijacked more serious fare and drive a lot of what purports to be “journalism”.
“Listicles”, like “The 10 Greatest 20th Century Paintings”, are the cheap cat video-equivalent of many art postings. They cater to readers’ short attention spans, the desire for smart cocktail chatter and, importantly, boost viewer numbers on a site, leading to higher ad-revenue.
While one conference cannot tackle every topic, as an arts journalist who investigated of art world ethics and museum trustee malfeasance, I found it discouraging that the panel on “Credibility, Criticism and Collusion” failed to address “Collusion”, clearly a threat in today’s super-heated art market
Similarly, the panel on “Sustainability, Growth and Ethics” avoided the issue of ethics entirely. I suspect most young arts journalists prefer penning short, clickable posts or blogs besides being not well-versed in the ethical issues involved with art dealers and museums. Not the kind of news that drives traffic in the digital era.
Even more experienced writers tend to steer clear of addressing institutional power. A critic at the conference actually told me if would be professional suicide to expose questionable behavior for fear of retribution and denial of future cooperation.
Cultural critic Ayesha Siddiqi, editor of the online magazine, the New Inquiry, gave a provocative address on an important topic: DIY culture no longer being indie. She noted the recent internet moment began optimistically that encouraged millions to share their thoughts and start “Do It Yourself” projects, such as blogs or zines, on the web’s infinite platform.
Yet, by using an app or service provider, she claimed, writers, the actual “content creators”, surrender ultimate control to their host platforms. They essentially work for free and help build value for powerful site owners like Twitter, Facebook and Tumbler.
The issue that got the audience very involved concerned properly compensating the content writers provide. Many audience members acknowledged that the free model dominates digital art sites. Payments, when made, fall in the $50 and $75 range.
“We (Writers) are increasingly mistaking visibility for power,” Siddiyi asserted. Vekan Gueyikian, owner of Hyperallergic, the web’s most successful arts publication, admitted paying $50 for short posts and only an average of $100 for longer articles.
Sky Goodden, editor of Momus, a fairly new online magazine, expressed shock at such paltry pay. She pays contributors $200 for articles and plans to soon increase writer fees to $300. I’ll bet she offers the highest rates online.
When the conference ended, confusion still reigned. Attendees and contributors to the Walker’s conference website expressed continued ambivalence on what their role or editorial stance should be.
The question of whether arts journalism online was radically different from legacy journalism remained unanswered. A vital question: is “critical authority” possible in the digital cacophony of untold voices or is authority an outmoded concept?
Definitive answers on the role and responsibility of online arts journalism proved hard to come by. Yet, the gathering had been valuable simply by bringing a digital tribe together to hash out important issues and give voice to often unarticulated thoughts.
My hope is that arts journalism doesn’t ditch investigative reporting, clearly a missing commodity online, as a relic of old media. Arts journalists must remain “cultural first responders” who critique institutional power and expose misdeeds. There remain issues and abuses in the arts about which voices need to be raised and not overlooked due to fear of retribution. That would put true journalism into arts journalism.
Digital arts journalism is a young experiment that is still writing its own rulebook while creating new forms of storytelling and visual presentation. A future Superscript is needed at which these vital issues are aired, debated and held to account. Editor Ret
Tom Mullaney (US Editor Retr’d)
Volume 30 number 1 August / September 2015 pp 6-8