Saturday, August 14, 2010

Is social networking killing off art criticism?

A few days ago, the Australian writer and broadcaster Marcus Westbury blogged a piece about art criticism following the Australia Council’s annual arts marketing summit in Brisbane, which posed the question: 'Whose the critic now?' (Now Everyone's A Critic, Who's A Critic Now?)

The unanimous conclusion the panel reached was: "We all are." The era of social networking, of the free and instantaneous digitized flow of opinions and shared experiences across geographical and other boundaries has done for the art critic.

That's it. RIP. Here's Marcus Westbury describing how the murder was committed:

"The internet has created a plethora of blogs, email lists, social networking, and marketing strategies that are cheap, easy to access, and bypass the traditional critic entirely. Word of mouth — long the holy grail of marketing people everywhere — has become massively amplified by Twitter, Facebook, and other social media. We’re all critics the moment we see a show, read a book, watch a film and share our reactions to it. Many of us are creating our own criticism, commentary and feedback without thinking about it."

So, perhaps it's not a murder after all, but a redundancy notice: "Sorry, Smithers, we're going to have to let you go. Here's your P45."

A more disturbing development, however is the conscious decision by younger artists to avoid the attention of professional critics. Westbury claims to know "many" artists who prefer not to be publicized in that way:

"Their assumption, rightly or wrongly, is that they have much better conduits for establishing a reputation or building an audience and they don’t need the 'authoritative' attention of someone who isn’t their audience and may not understand their work."

Or are they, perhaps, fearful of proper, searching criticism and the rigorous testing of their work against a range of exacting aesthetic criteria?

The discourse of social media is predominantly frivolous, mutually congratulatory, obsessed with the fleeting nature of social life, fixated on the ephemeral, surface qualities of fashion, travel, music, and indeed art. It's the economy of the degraded attention span.

Then up popped Christopher Knight of the Los Angeles Times, who posted an item on a similar topic (Did Bravo TV's 'Work of Art: The Next Great Artist' really redefine art criticism?) about the eponymous TV game show (by all accounts not unlike the BBC's 'School of Saatchi' programme that aired in the UK a few months ago.)

Knight was responding to an item posted a few days before on New York magazine's Vulture blog which suggested that 'Work of Art: The Next Great Artist' had created a new way to practice art criticism. "In online forums and the comment sections of blogs and across Facebook pages, 'people who would otherwise have no access to art-world opinion, criticism or power were given voice.'"

Knight took issue with this, countering that most of these Facebooked and Twittered 'criticisms' were penned without their writers ever having seen the works in any form other than mediated through a TV set. More importantly, he concludes, "To confuse social networking, which can be fun (and certainly useful), with art criticism is quite a blunder. It's probably to be expected, however; Bravo's savvy integration of cable television reality-contests with the Internet hasn't happened before for art, artists and art enthusiasts. The new often disorients."

The Australian panellists, meanwhile, didn't seem remotely disorientated, but they may not have looked critically enough at the topic they came together to discuss.

According to Marcus Westbury, the Australian panel comprised writers, critics, broadcasters and arts marketing people. But where were the artists?

I had an idea that my many professional artist friends might look differently on this topic compared with broadcasters and marketing people, so I polled them. The question I put to them was this:

If you had a say in it, would you prefer your exhibitions to be viewed and written about by well-informed, experienced, professional art critics (whether or not their conclusions were positive or constructively negative), or would it be enough that friends and other 'lay' visitors might mention your work in some way via Facebook, Twitter, etc., which may reach a different, but potentially much broader audience?

I too found a consensus, but not the same one as Marcus Westbury's panel outcome. Here's a small, but representative sample of the responses I received:

"I have been fortunate enough to receive a huge amount of press coverage in the world media and I strongly believe the art critic's opinion is the only one of relevance. Comments on Twitter & Facebook tend to have no weight behind them; on the other hand the art critic helps to contextualise the artist's practice within the broader debates of contemporary art but also, and perhaps even more importantly, from an historical perspective. The absence of the informed opinions of the art critic would create a huge void in the art world.

The art critic is crucial and the more critical the better. Social networking sites will rarely offer the high level of criticality which is essential for an artist to constantly push their practice forwards...constantly challenging preconceived notions and moving forwards with as open a mind as possible. Long live the art critic!" 

"To quote Malcolm Muggeridge talking about television in 1959 I think social networking sites are 'a social menace of the first order' and don't in any way deliver an alternative to an informed debate about art or any other subject for that matter. That notwithstanding, it is inevitable that the vast free availability of the written word has hugely cheapened it and will continue to erode the livelihood of writers in the same way as it does that of photographers and musicians."

"I am more on the side of the 'professional art critics'. As an artist I may enjoy Twitter comments etc. — comments off the hat even — can be pithy and fresh — even fun — open forum for everyone; anything goes. The broader audience could have its value, but it does not kill true art criticism.

On the other hand, the professional art critic carries with him/her: knowledge, scholarship, a trained mind and eye, true service to the art community worldwide.  Imagine a person who jumps up onto the concert hall stage, sits down in front of a Steinway grand and plays chopsticks. Then think of the 'players' who have 'paid their dues', who have studied for years — developing enduring excellence. Art critics' opinions are still relevant, and 'how.' Preserve them."

"The problem should not be pitched in terms of serious art criticism versus casual mention on social networking sites, but should rather focus on the impact of market forces on the quality and content of writing about the arts. To put it bluntly, art critics of whatever calibre seem only to be interested in, or else are encouraged by their editors only to take an interest in, the major, money-making shows.

In the 1980s and 1990s, when I was able to attract 'serious' art criticism for my shows, this swing towards "blockbuster criticism" was not as yet apparent. Nowadays, as most PR agencies engaged in the art world will tell you, it is extremely difficult (almost impossible) for smaller organizations or galleries to attract anything in the way of lengthier pieces containing detailed analysis. In view of these circumstances it is no wonder that most artists would be (sadly) only too grateful if their friends and supporters would spread the word about their work via social networking sites.

Another related observation: an art critic friend of mine, taking the very brave step of openly criticizing her own profession, once remarked on the at times very apparent pressure placed on critics by those organizing exhibitions to follow a prescribed script provided in the form of a Press Release. Demands on the critic's time mean that much of these texts will be transcribed verbatim instead of being viewed and assessed critically.

Art criticism is not in decline because of social networking sites but rather because of its loss of independence from the market and the money imperative. Critics write to sell newspapers, art or tickets to exhibitions. Most artists would love to have their work viewed and written about by well-informed, experienced, professional art critics (whether or not their conclusions were positive or constructively negative), but the reality is that most will not unless or until they join forces with a powerful enough institution."

"In terms of critics – their comments are highly influential and for my forthcoming show I proactively sought out a critic, who I knew had some knowledge of my work and commissioned him to write a text for my catalogue.  This I consider to be money very well spent as critical text can introduce art audiences (of varying knowledge) to new ways of viewing work(s) or raise issues about, and associated with, the artist/their research/their painting methodology and so forth.  His critical text also benefited me directly providing a fresh perspective…quite valuable when most of one’s life is spent in isolation in the studio!

Over recent years, I find that articles on painting in some media are fairly lacklustre and unsubstantial – could it be that we are losing a generation of critics who understand how paintings are conceived and developed, the materials and techniques used and references to art historical contexts?  Some articles seem to skim the surface referring to the work in the context of an overall ‘image’ or the concept alone or, even, the celebrity of the artist(!)...perhaps this is part and parcel of the dumbing down of painting in favour of conceptual art over the years…who knows?

A good article/essay/book is worth its weight in gold and our shelves are heavy with the weight of these which are part of our lives both within our practice/research and also teaching."

"If you rave and praise, even to an obvious and ridiculous degree people would believe you, if you venture to say anything less you get the thumbs down. I feel that good art criticsm is especially important now that the goal posts are staked on Everest and beyond. We live in times where only the superlative counts - maybe good art criticism can help people understand what is going on."

"I would prefer my exhibitions to be viewed by all and written about by well-informed, experienced, professional art critics. (If I could choose one it would be Clement Greenberg but unfortunately he is no longer with us.) Positive or negative criticism is a good thing providing it is understandable and makes sense. This is what you should expect from a professional art critic. The professional art critic's opinion in my view is still relevant and valued enough to be preserved.

On the other hand a broader audience like the man in the street or on social network sites are also important because one never knows what can be gained by those thoughts, good or bad. Like Robert Rauschenberg once said, “Anything you do will be an abuse of somebody else’s aesthetics."

I am sure that every artist would appreciate the comments of a knowledgeable art critic. Comments on Facebook and Twitter are unlikely to replace a thoughtful essay.

Thinking about write ups of exhibitions I made the observation that newspapers in the UK are less interested in reporting about venues which are not at the top end of the market. When I have a show in Germany local and regional newspapers write regularly about my work on show. Showing in the UK for the last 15 years  I got once a proper article in our local newspaper. Galleries in London are employing public relation agencies to receive the attention of the press. Newspapers in both countries seem to have a different approach to report about the visual arts.

With the decline of the newspapers their influence will vanish and the internet will provide even more fractured and .incomplete information. Artists and galleries being able to master the technicalities of the internet will be the winners in the future."

"At my stage of career the idea of having an art critic write and talk about my work whether positive or negative still seems like bit of a holy grail. It would be amazing to have a 'well informed' person analyse it, and I'm sure would be a learning experience.

Last summer when I organised a joint show with a group of other early stage artists, we tried a few avenues to get someone to write about it (inviting a writer from the writers guild, contacting a curatorial assistant with an art history background we knew...) but none of or efforts came to fruition. We might have tried a bit harder and it was just one of a number of activities, but we didn't really know how to go about it. So in the end our efforts did revolve a lot more around marketing. We did have a press release that we sent to a number of newspaper and art organisations, but no one picked it up. The only success we got was with a few listings websites where we were included in 'things to do'. Great, but not really critical assessment of the show or work. If we had managed to get an art critic to write about our show, we would probably then have used our network of online methods to publicise that further.

I do think the art critic's opinion is still important, and adds (at least the perception of) an unbiased underwriting of the quality/importance of an artist's work. However, I do have to admit that I don't actually read enough of the art press, and couldn't say that I really know much about who the current art critics are or their particular points of view. (I know more about past art critics!) I seem to know more about who the big collectors are, as they seem to be more prominent in popular press as well as the specialist art market press."


Pip said...

Excellent article - very timely. Great insight for artists, critics and the general public/art collectors. Will certainly recommend this to other artists and also lecturers - esp. useful for group crits

Tom Flynn said...

Thanks very much, Pip. Much appreciated. I sense this one will run and run.

Linda Schroeder said...

Art may have its holy grail, but art, itself, is not holy. Some art inspires joy and we don't know why, like Christo's ephemeral installations. Some of it inspires awe, as in "Why the hell would anybody pay 12 million dollars for a decomposing shark in a tank of highly suspect liquid?" The astute review by an art critic is as much about marketing and branding as it is about teaching us how to appreciate what we see in a work of art. It shores up the investor's portfolio as well as training us to be critical viewers. Two sides of a shiny coin.
Linda Schroeder or

Lara Evans said...

This is a great post, great question, and great research. I, uh, shared a link to it with my friends on Facebook, two-thirds of whom are in the art world in some fashion. After getting frustrated by publisher limitations of 500 words for writing about art, I took off and started a blog of art criticism. So, yeah, I don't get paid, but the artists I write about get something in-depth, informed, and longer than 500 words...from an art critic. Hopefully I can work in a link to this article in my blog over the next couple days. Thanks for posting this!
-Lara Evans, Not Artomatic

Tom Flynn said...

Thanks, Lara,
I'll check out your Not Artomatic blog. Your note about the 500-word limitation is a pertinent one. That's the other subtext to the decline in art criticism - that art publications aren't what they used to be, most of them increasingly thrall to their advertisers as readers go to the net and traditional revenues decline accordingly.
And thanks for posting to Facebook ;-)