Between technology’s continuous advance and a (hopefully) narrowing global digital divide, the future of online cultural publishing–arts journalism, criticism, artistic presentation, and even experience–is hazier than ever. How will we be reading and writing about art in 10 years’ time, if we are at all? And how will changes in technology shift the work of critics, curators, arts reporters, and artists?
In part two of our series on the future of this field, we posed these questions to array of commentators, cultural producers, and journalists–from critic Brian Droitcour to podcast producer Tyler Green, museum technologist Koven Smith to Kickstarter curator Willa Köerner. (Read part one.)
Ingrid Chu and Chantal Wong
As more and more e-noise infiltrates the Internet, the value given to professionalism–and, by extension, the quality of art writing–will become increasingly important. There will be an even greater need for critics and trusted voices to help differentiate what is deemed credible in determining the value of otherwise neutral information.
Coming from an art archive in Asia, we believe in giving access to materials arising from multiple sources–from art writings and journalism to photographs and ephemera–that have lain dormant, await translation, or sit decaying in studios, but bearing opinions that, once activated, have the potential to transform art history. What is perhaps most exciting to us at AAA is the opportunity to shift our present and future through new understandings of the past through the Internet.
Ideas, voices, and conversations that were once distant will increasingly feel relevant, entangled, and urgent. Cyberspace is a network for texts and ideas to circulate; it has the capacity to intervene and prompt us to question the status quo. As such, subjectivities will shift as we continue to reference ourselves and each another, past materials and texts will be extensively translated, and put into conversation with established writings and experiences. We will understand that just as pervasive theory circulates today as universal and cross-culturally applicable, parallel ideas and their expressions through art writing can also resonate with us all. Therefore, it is in dealing with our past that we are reshaping our future.
Growing up, I wanted to be Lois Lane, this snap-crackling newspaper reporter whose best stories landed above the fold on papers sold in newsstands around New York, if not the world. For most of my 20-year career, I have written for newspapers, and I do still get a thrill when something I report wins a front-page spot in the Wall Street Journal, where I cover the art market. But we all know how archaic and fuddy-duddy I sound even now, and we all know the way people access their news is changing rapidly. In Brooklyn, I was the only one in my towering building to subscribe to a paper–and I was always happy-sad when someone stole it. A convert, I’d hoped. Not likely. But the thing is, I’m not upset that readers want to read their news on cell phones now because–guess what?–so do I!
These days, I’ve adopted an “evolve or die” mantra. I joined Twitter and started sending out live-tweets during marquee auctions; I joined Instagram and started posting images of art I encounter on the job. In doing so, I stumbled into a fascinating generation of art lovers who don’t subscribe to newspapers but are every bit as voracious consumers of art news as any I’ve encountered. I want them to know the Journal is into art and plans to cover it as well as our competitors and with all the fastidiousness and accuracy that made our older-model print edition such a keeper. The formats and mediums are changing, but I have to believe people still want a scoop, they still crave smart analysis. Why is an artist’s career taking off? Why is this museum we love financially floundering? Who would pay nearly $180 million for a Picasso? Valid questions–and ones I hope to have answered and more in a decade’s time. (Of course by then a $180 million painting may be pocket change, God help us all.)
Kelly Crow has covered the art market for the Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade. Before that, she wrote for the New York Times and graduated from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. She is from Edmond, Okla., and lives outside Washington, DC.
The minute-by-minute online publishing cycle hasn’t been great for real news, and it’s terrible for art. I don’t think it’s possible to produce insightful criticism on a daily basis. I haven’t seen it happen, and I’m not even sure anyone is trying. The reaction speed demanded by publishing’s pace has critics posting reactions to exhibitions while the press-review coffee is still warm, or making judgments based on a list of artists and offering that as a “review” before a show even opens.
The art world doesn’t have a lot of news stories. The handful of sites that publish art news daily–the born-digital publications, whose publishing models are different from mainstream-media outlets and the art magazines that run websites to supplement their monthlies–recycle the same stories, block-quoting the same sources (sometimes tacking on internal links to past stories on their own site). In a better world, the glut of art blogging would mean more coverage for little-known artists. But it’s far more common for sites to capitalize on anger about the under-representation of women or artists of color than it is for them to produce critical writing on those artists’ work, because call-out posts can get as many hits as art-fair roundups or half-baked opinions on Jeff Koons and Marina Abramović.
I’m more interested in institutional art publishing, like Creative Time Reports or SFMOMA’s Open Space, where the funding models for supporting writing don’t rely so heavily on counting page views. But for me the most exciting recent development in online art criticism was Alt Crit, a Tumblr collectively edited by a group of artists, writers, and critics. It aggregated Facebook comments, tweets, Tumblr posts, and other forms of social media commentary. I especially liked the way it reflected the overlap in literary and visual art communities online. But it stopped getting updated last fall, after a series of intense posts about rape scandals involving young writers.
I’ve written about social media as a space for the production of both art and criticism, and a response I often get is that users don’t own what they put on social media, that activity there is labor for a big corporation. That’s certainly a valid point. But when a corporation is maintaining the publishing infrastructure, it means that conversations and affinity groups can take shape when the need is felt. I’m encouraged by initiatives like Rhizome’s development of Colloq, a tool for archiving Facebook discussions and other social media activity, and the research on social tagging and commenting coming out of the Dallas Museum of Art’s Museum Technology Laboratory. These seem to resonate with applications like Storify that organize social content into narratives. I hope that these initiatives, more than the models of HuffPo and Buzzfeed that have been embraced by the digital art press, will shape the way we’re reading about art online ten years from now.
Brian Droitcour is a critic and associate editor at Art in America. He edited The Animated Reader, a poetry collection published as a companion to the New Museum’s 2015 Triennial, and Klaus eBooks, a series of digital artists’ books published by Klaus von Nichtssagend Gallery. He has reviewed about a hundred galleries and museums on Yelp, where his account was designated as Elite in 2013 and 2014.
Human beings are hungry to connect with one another and culture is one of the very best and most meaningful ways to do that. So I’m sure we’ll be reading and writing about the arts in ten years just as vibrantly as we are now. Over the past few years I’ve worked closely with museums and had countless discussions about both their emerging role as publishers and about the challenges and opportunities technology presents as a result. In the last decade we’ve seen book publishers stumble by failing to pivot toward a greater connection and service to their communities, so it’s critical that museums learn from that and get this right. As the technology landscape shifts, here are three broad ideas I think museums in particular will want consider:
• Data science. Object metadata is highly individualized on a museum-to-museum basis, which creates both unnecessary redundancies in data structure and low mobility for sharing aspects of data that are of common interest to multiple parties, both institutional and individual. What’s more, software in this field is outdated and often highly proprietary. Museums may have much to gain from the commercial sector not just in terms of financial partnership but in real-world expertise. In the coming years, new tools will emerge to better structure this data, and museums should absolutely welcome this–not just from an operational or administrative standpoint, but from a publishing and curatorial one. Not only will these new tools simplify common issues across museums and let them focus on what makes their own collections unique, but in networking this data it will allow important donors and lenders to museums to better understand how objects (not to mention their digital images) have been displayed, dispersed, and recontextualized. We have already seen fascinating research on networked data from both musical and literary sources, along with the creation of projects that would have been impossible to conceive before. The skill of interpreting and enlivening the stories told by this new data will fall to historians, critics, and curators–and their roles will only be more important as a result.
• Value of experience. Digital tools and social media tend to have a constant, unceasing pace. But visiting a museum is a deeper, more meditative, more tangible, and less frequent experience. Museums should keep this in mind as they structure their publishing efforts and build new platforms. Social media may have a role in cultivating audiences and sharing news, but video and immersive mobile applications may do more to reinforce what’s special about visiting a museum. Also, museums catalyze not just objects but creative, curious people; simply convening those people, offline or on, creates experiences of lasting value and helps to build communities.
• Personalization. As audiences become more engaged with institutions, they want to develop more personal relationships with thought leaders at museums. While institutional channels are important for broad-based messaging, individuals at museums are just as important for cultivating deeper, more meaningful interactions along the way. Beyond voices coming from inside museums themselves, museums should aim to point out and cultivate external voices of all kinds as experts, advocates, and even provocateurs. These external voices might help engaged audiences find new occasions for thinking about art and incorporating it into their lives. They may also help to segment audiences into smaller groups where more specialized interests and discussions can naturally emerge.
Rob Giampietro is a designer and writer. From 2010 to 2015 he was principal at Project Projects, New York. He was also the 2014–2015 Katherine Edwards Gordon Rome Prize Fellow in Design at the American Academy in Rome. His essay “School Days” was published in the Walker Art Center’s Graphic Design: Now in Production catalogue in 2011.
How will we be reading and writing on the arts in 10 years? Technology will have a lot to say about that, and I’m not a futurist. However, it’s fairly obvious that professional journalism about art is nearly dead and, short of engagement from the philanthropic community, there’s no reason to expect it to come back.
That’s not to say that media about art is dead. One reason I do the Modern Art Notes Podcast now and not Modern Art Notes is that an audio interview program is much less expensive to produce than journalism and criticism. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s recent series on contemporary artists is excellent media. Neither it nor the MAN Podcast is journalism or journalistic criticism.
Meanwhile, today’s big art media companies–such as Artnet, Artinfo, and Artnews–are more interested in clickbait-driven art-celebrity tidbits and in business information than in journalism about actual art. The media that might be expected to have an interest in the art of the present and near-present–the New York Review of Books, National Public Radio, or the new The Intercept–aren’t.
The present environment will have to change, and a lot, for in-depth, informed journalism about art to return. (The best hope for the near-term future is probably Hyperallergic, which runs more excellent original content on and related to art than anyone else in art media–but too often it leans on Huffington Post–style aggregation, one of the practices that accelerated the decline of professional arts journalism in the first place.)
None of this is to say people won’t keep writing about art. They will. Given the rise of “contemporary art history” degree programs, we’ll see more academic writing on art aimed at a narrower and narrower audience. Because publishing is free, we’ll see more hobbyist writing. The ghettoization of art will intensify. But unless something dramatic happens, art journalism aimed at the 99% in the middle, work that builds on the lessons in art and that tells the stories of artists, writing that is important because ideas expressed visually are as important and as interesting as ideas expressed in other ways, isn’t coming back.
Tyler Green is the host and producer of the Modern Art Notes Podcast. His forthcoming book on Carleton Watkins and his role in the rise of the American West will be published by University of California Press.
Imagine a time when our ability to share our ideas and perspectives in experiential ways will be unprecedented, and where the public’s hunger for deep, mind-challenging experiences will be greater than ever before. How good would this be for the arts, and for arts writers in particular? I believe this time is coming, and that we ought to begin preparing.
Technology is changing our relationship not only with culture, but with ourselves. In the future, IRL and digital experiences will be seamlessly integrated–essentially, the line between offline and online will melt away, leaving only one expanded and interconnected reality. While the smartphones of today are clumsy and distracting, the devices of the future will be invisible and unnoticeable, acting as embedded, connected extensions of the human body and mind. Machines and algorithms are already disrupting the way we work, and as finely tuned smart systems backed by bigger and bigger data find more ways to assist us with our routines, their persistent guidance will begin to automate us in ways we’d be smart to anticipate, and in many cases, resist. Information already flows through our fingertips with every tap tap tap, and in ten years or sooner, our daily lives will be completely saturated with tools that will allow us to live, love, and die in the most productive way possible. Feeling freaked? Buckle up and head to the museum.
As budding technologies become more sophisticated and harder to escape, I see the arts as a way to cling to our humanness. The non-systematized flow of ideas and discourse prompted by odd, beautiful, purposeful artworks may save us from becoming human operating systems. And, as for arts writing, I believe that in a virtually hive-minded, highly automated society, individual voices speaking clearly and thoughtfully about human truths will resonate quite well. In order for this to happen, however, we need to equip our fleet with the right tools to make sure our voices are heard, and understood. In ten years, the #artselfie will be the art historical nail clipping of our time, a symbol of growth that we must jettison with haste. It’s time for the un-selfie, where we see more deeply, think harder, and expand ourselves with intention–then we share what we’ve learned with those who are curious.
In ten years, I expect to see a media landscape awash with immersive experiences. Art critics, journalists, and arts-interested people alike will be able to share insights with co-experiencers (the new readers?) in highly engaging ways that could be quite transformative, but only if these new reality-altering technologies are understood, and used in the most engaging and thoughtful ways possible. May we all go forth into this brave new world without fear, with open minds and especially with the energy to proclaim, we are humans, and this is our art.
Willa Köerner is an ex-museum worker, serial art world lurker, and curator at Kickstarter. She writes about digital culture, sometimes makes art, and thinks about the future a lot. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
In the early 2000s, the blogger took back opinion from the critic. Today official opinion for my generation is generated on Instagram, Twitter, and Tumblr. Criticism lives in 140 characters, filters, and emojis and has become more diverse and as a result democratic. There is this tension still because some people place a premium on print, but I think digital has led to increased visibility and has allowed more people to see art. Social allow the work to speak to the viewer more directly because the curatorial and artistic thinking lives mostly visually. There is no wall text, and the user has to decide whether they like the work for themselves at an emotional level–the experience of double tapping, reblogging, retweeting, or sharing activates the critic in them. I think that’s wonderful. There are artists who are also exploring interesting concepts like the Instagram art shows that we’ve seen increasingly. These shows are exciting because they abandon this notion that platforms, like Instagram should only play a role in the digital second life of artworks by making the Internet the first point of contact. This toying around by what some people call jpeg artists opens up the possibility of better future platforms, in the coming decade that will hopefully empower us all to better experience art. I think at a basic level that’s what both the critic and general public have always wanted.
Koven J. Smith
How is material culture fundamentally transformed by its translation into the digital domain? When thinking about the effect of media and technology on culture, there might be no more important question than this. Museums present online collections, online publications, and online exhibitions as if these things are somehow special, but at the end of the day, aren’t they just more web pages? What makes a digitized artwork more important than the next blog post, listicle, or Wikipedia article, now that you’re no longer standing in front of it? Does any of the value that that physical thing has accrued while hanging on your gallery walls make it into the digital world?
It’s possible that the answer to that last question is “no,” and we may just have to accept that. But it is equally possible that we in museums simply haven’t yet tried hard enough to figure out what makes material culture “special” in the digital domain. But part of the reason museums haven’t been pressed to do this is because there hasn’t yet been enough critique of museums’ digital efforts.
The media must hold museums’ digital feet to the fire and really question and critique the digital moves that museums make. Current criticism of museums’ digital efforts tends towards either “gee whiz” excitement or reactionary conservatism. It is no longer enough to think it’s wonderful that museums are digitizing their artworks/have created mobile apps/have flashy websites, nor is it helpful to dismiss any of these things as the end of civilization as we know it. Journalists must now critique these efforts with the same rigor and thoughtfulness that they would a traditional museum exhibition. This more meaningful dialogue will help us all collectively figure out what a digital version of material culture can and should look like.
Koven J. Smith is the director of Digital Adaptation at the Blanton Museum of Art, the founder of Drinking About Museums, and a veteran of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Denver Art Museum, and the Indianapolis Museum of Art. He tweets frequently at @5easypieces.