Orit Gat is a New York–based writer who looks at contemporary art, publishing, the Internet, and all the links between these subjects. Her writing is published regularly on Rhizome, where she is a contributing editor, and has appeared in Frieze, ArtReview, the White Review, Art Agenda, the Brooklyn Rail, Spike Art Quarterly, Review 31, LEAP, and Modern Painters, where she was a senior editor. She is currently the managing editor of WdW Review and online art editor of BOMB.
From May 28–30, 2015, the Walker Art Center hosted Superscript: Arts Journalism and Criticism in a Digital Age, an international conference on cultural publishing’s current challenges and its possible futures. Prior to joining the conference’s panel discussion on Credibility, Criticism, and Collusion, she shared these words. To view the entire panel discussion playlist, click here.
I’ve been making the same joke for the past like few weeks, I think: I’m so happy to be here, because this conference is exactly everything I’m interested in, and if they didn’t invite me, I would have had to pay to come here. That said, I’m going to use this time to actually ask if the Internet has affected or changed art criticism at all. I figured I’ll use this time to work through ideas with all of you. And yeah, I’m gonna ask “has” and now “how.” I think what’s really interesting about this particular panel is that we have people from different industries, and I’m using the word industry really carefully, but not so much, because I’m going to talk about advertising and money and financial structures, so industry seems kind of fitting and see what will happen to art criticism.
So, I’m going to talk about the structures of the Internet and how they changed music and literature, because those are the two other disciplines that we have here. And in case you’re really nodding off here, I’m going to tell you that my answer to “Has the Internet changed art criticism?” is “Not yet, but it definitely will.” So, when I’m asking about the Internet effect there’s two facets to it. The first is in publishing and circulation, the second is the way it shapes and affects the discipline and the discourse around it.
Music and literature experience a digital shift in a much more extreme way than contemporary art has thus far. As far as I see it, they experienced this digital shift and it began with circulation, the adjustment from an object, as in a CD to vinyl to MP3, and from the independent bookstore or even the mega chain bookstore, because now we have to start caring about Barnes and Noble, too, to Amazon.
But then it continued with an altered discourse that poses really valid questions about the function of criticism. I’m going to call this “service criticism.” In a nutshell, what I define as service criticism is criticism that’s discovery oriented—criticism that assumes the reader is looking for recommendations, for a way of making sense of it all. Take Pitchfork, for example, I remember the first time I heard about Pitchfork. I was a teenager in Paris and I had a friend who would read every review on Pitchfork and then he would download, and I’m going to say this even though I guess this is not a panel about law and copyrights, he would download everything he read about to see what he’s going to be actually interested in. That’s a really amazing way of discovering things, and it’s also a way of contrasting the sense of overproduction that the Internet seems to do.
So, just to clarify this, the use of a word like “service” does not indicate a value judgment at all. I’m not making that. I’m not making it, because I don’t write in an industry that could produce a service criticism. Yet. When I write about an exhibition, I often write for print publications, so it means that the exhibition closed months ago. I’m always writing in the past tense, and I also know that whoever my audience is, and I know it’s small, almost none of them are art collectors that are reading the reviews as a way of assessing the artist’s worth. It’s kind of similar to the way I read food reviews.
I don’t go to fancy restaurants, but I always make the joke that I really love living in New York, in a city where reviews like this makes sense: “Once in a while, this restaurant still gets a case of the ‘blahs.’ The dressing on the wax bean salad, allegedly a tahini-soy vinaigrette, made no impression, and curls of raw hamachi with diced apples didn’t rise above routine.” This is from the New York Times review of a restaurant called Montmarte, or some French restaurant in Chelsea. Just saying curls of raw hamachi is ‘routine’ to some people amazing to me. I’m never going to go to this place, just the chicken costs $26, and this is the kind of research I do when I write. So why do I care about it? Because I think food criticism talks about a culture that I’m interested in and I think that focus on ephemeral in experience is actually really similar to you do when you write about art exhibits exhibitions.
And, of course, the discovery oriented, or “service review” do the same thing, but we really can’t ignore the fact that in the popular imagination, they have a much more specific role. They act as a vehicle for recognition, as recommendations. Should I see Mad Max? Let me see what the paper said about this. Have you seen that review of 10:04? I really want to read it. And this is like the main point that I’m going to make here, is that search habits have only enhanced this sentiment. I’m going to go back to my example of Ben Lerner’s 10:04. I Googled it yesterday. The first response on Google is Amazon, buy the book, the next nine are all reviews. It’s the New York Times, it’s the Guardian, everything, the New Republic, Bookforum, etc. The next page on Google is the Wikipedia site. And you know that 99% of Google searchers don’t actually go to the second page of Google.
So, this explains my claim that digital circulation has changed the discourse. And I’m going to go back for a second to my “not a judgment” sentiment. I think the service review comes with an immense sense of responsibility to analyze the market, to give context to what is popular beyond just bestseller lists, even though I totally acknowledge and recognize the Internet’s feelings about lists, and we all love them. I also think that a sense of responsibility is what leads this discourse around positive and negative criticism. I’m sure we’ll get back to this later. When a publication decides to focus on positive reviews, in order not to “waste paper,” a line on negative reviews, a huge part of the reason for that is the presumption that people look to reviews as recommendations. My only problem with that is that it really neglects what I consider a really important role of criticism, which is to keep the market in check.
I’m going to talk about Jerry Saltz here, which I’ve never done as an art critic. But this is why the “zombie formalism” thing is so important. He coined the term that actually discusses what the market is doing right now, focusing on a certain generation of New York painters who do abstract process work. I think his argument was really weak, because he talks about sameness and not about financial structures, but I think it’s really decisive that he did that, because he recognizes that criticism generates cultural capital, which in turns generates capital, so actually keeping that market in check is really important. And the fact that it will be the same in every kind of publication. Like if you publish negative reviews on a book review site, there will be a much lower click rate through to Amazon. And if you publish negative reviews on a music site, less people will stream it. So I wonder, though, if this instinct to only publish positive reviews actually goes against the nature of the Internet. Mainly because I think negative reviews travel infinitely better. Have you ever seen a positive review that went viral? No.
But I did bring my favorite negative review that went viral for you guys. It is also from the New York Times. It is also Pete Wells, because he is the star of viral content. So, this is a review of Guy Fierri’s restaurant in Times Square, which is written as a—I love that you’re laughing—it’s written as a list of questions, and it starts with, “Guy Fierri, have you ever eaten at your new restaurant in Times Square? Have you pulled up one of the five hundred seat at Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar and ordered a meal? Did you eat the food? Did it live up to your expectations? And why did the toasted marshmallows taste like fish?” It ends with “Thanks,” by the way.
One of the most amazing things about this review, apart from the fact that it made everyone talk about criticism for a while, is that it sparked a conversation about the nature of negative reviews. The New York Times’ opinionated blog ran bunch of op-eds about the state of negative criticism. The public editor blog brought in the cultural editor to discuss negative criticism. I think this is all really, really valuable, but I’m not gonna be naive. I also know that sharing means participating in the economy of scale that is the Internet. Funny enough, even though the Internet should have been something for small scale operations, because you could all do that, this myth that audiences will self-organize online really doesn’t exist. There’s no “If you publish it, they will come.” What actually happens is that most of your audience congregates around like 10 websites, and they’re all underwritten by enormous corporations. The result is that we see a similar kind of mingling together in the culture sphere, too.
I’ve been really interested in this literary site called LitHub recently. I’m gonna read you their About page: “Literary Hub is an organizing principle in the service of literary culture, a single, trusted, daily source for all the news, ideas and richness of contemporary literary life. There is more great literary content online than ever before, but it is scattered, easily lost. With the help of its partners—publishers big and small, journals, bookstores and non-profits—Literary Hub will be a place where readers can return each day for smart, engaged, and entertaining writing about all things books.” I guess the assumption is that all these magazines and publications are stronger together, but it just seems to me, you can imagine more generalized, more popular, more eyeballs. That’s why aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes become so influential—they centralize the discourse.
So, what does more eyeballs actually do? It means more sharing, but is sharing actual participation, and what does it mean to go viral? I’m just going to remind you about the terms of engagement before we talk about sharing and participation. Every tweet, reblog and like means another moment when the cash register makes that beautiful little bell sound for a number of companies, too, the social media platform, the publisher, the advertising agency, the actual retailer that is selling you something. When the way we interact online is already so fraught in monetary terms, for something to just go viral means to activate the system time and again. But all in all, much of what we do online is to participate and it’s parceled into two, that personal feedback, so the fav, the like, whatever, and the quote-unquote useful feedback. I think it’s really telling that on Yelp when you create a review, it asks you was this review “cool,” “useful,” or “funny”? There’s nothing ever negative in that.
But I’m really interested in the use value of crowdsourced criticism, because it’s one of the very few new forms that developed online, except for blogging basically. So, while crowdsourced interaction is really easily monetizable, unremunerated labor, it also messes with predetermined economic structures, especially in the art context—in the art context that’s specifically scarcity. I think when you publish criticism in general, the actual strongest claim you make be it negative positive or whatever, is what you wrote about. That’s it. After that, all you can do is a shopping list of what’s in the exhibition, because you wrote about this, and that’s what matters.
For every exhibition I write about, I neglect, what, the other 600 galleries in New York? So it becomes this place where the subject is the real criticism. I think this is a really valid conversation to have right now, because the New York Times, this week, announced that they’re not going to review every film that opens in New York. Which is going to make the film criticism scene very different, but I know nothing about this. So not having a space to cover everything is definitely one of the virtues of magazines, it’s selective. Whereas Yelp could include every storefront in New York City. How do the economics of criticism change when something that’s traditionally scarce becomes so abundant? It means that reviews turn symbolic capital, which is attention, into monetary capital.
That’s where the brilliance of Amazon’s introduction of user-generated reviews is that the company can monetize something that it doesn’t need to take any responsibility for. While the integrity of many of the reviews, maybe even most of them, can be questioned, the effect of having original or semi-original content on the site means that it sells more. It’s kind of amazing, crowdsourced criticism enhances and plays on both monetary systems that are predominant in the digital economy—scale and participation. So is this where art criticism is going?
I started this talk talking about circulation and how the digital culture has modified circulation of music, literature, film. The main reason contemporary art has not been as impacted by the digital turn, is that the art object is not—sometimes, but not always—infinitely reproducible as a digital film like an .mp3, .mov, or .epub. Except for those artists who play with that. To me that’s one of the most interesting things that artists can do right now. And I follow people who do that and find it really fascinating, but that’s not what you see in most galleries in Chelsea. What you see in most galleries in Chelsea is zombie formalism. It’s this one object. So the way to deal with this one object, I think, is also to put it online. The result of that, though, is that I feel like the Internet promotes this behind kind of service-oriented criticism. So even though we’re talking about stuff that’s online, what you see online is only that. So look at artform.com, for example, while Artforum publishes a great review section, many of my friends write for it, online all they publish is positive reviews. It’s only meant to basically give you an analysis of what’s up and send you there.
I don’t know how that’s going to change when we start viewing more and more art online. So like right now we’re seeing this amazing proliferation of organizations, both for profit and not for profit, that are really grappling with the presentation of work online on different levels of complexity, especially moving-image work. London Gallery, Carroll/Fletcher initiated Carroll/ Fletcher Onscreen, which displays different video works for two weeks at a time. The same system fuels Vdrome, which is organized by Mousse Magazine. They also commissioned a new essay on each video they show on the site. Another London-based organization called Opening Times – Digital Art Commissions supports new work online, so they commission your work, they give you all the support in the world, it’s kind of amazing.
And a number of museums, like the museum in Tate Modern, have begun experimenting with the presentation the work on their websites beyond just the collection tour. And on top of that, there are all these sites that are trying to sell you art online. I spend so much time grappling with what the financial model is for Artsy or Paddle8 or anything like that but there’s the sense that there’s money online, and the first company to monetize the online art marketplace will win it. Christie’s invested $50 million in building a custom built e-commerce business. Sotheby’s has partnered with Ebay to make “premium art and collectibles accessible to buyers everywhere.” This is from the press release.
There’s this basic assumption that there’s a market for this and that market is only going to grow. I saw in the New York Times article about the Christie’s online initiative. Josh Auerbach, who is the manager of it, and by the way came from Gilt Groupe, the luxury sale’s company, said that their research shows that about 53% of those who registered to bid online are under the age of 45. As for the most popular categories of the online auctions, get this, post-war and contemporary art, fashion, followed by wine and cheese. I think it’s really telling. I think it’s really telling, also, that a major art fair didn’t step into this. Just think about Art Basel online sales, if there was a lot of money to be made there, Art Basel would have made it already. That said, I probably don’t know anything about money, because if I did, I wouldn’t have been an art critic.
I can’t tell you if they’ll succeed, but I can tell you that there’s this huge leap that needs to be made for art sales online to become the kind of game changer that Amazon was. Because you’re dealing with a singular or almost singular object. Artsy and Art Space seem to think that the solution is producing editorial content. This editorial ambition reminds me of the early days of Amazon in the 90s when the company, before reintroduced user reviews, actually hired maybe 30 editors and they would publish reviews, previews, interviews, forthcoming books. A lot of the language around companies like Artsy or Paddle8 and Art Store revolves around discovery, again, so what we’re seeing is these service reviews being pushed to that kind of editorial content. But to be honest, if discovery is the way artsy imagines it, like the art genome project that maps similar works, as in “People who bought this, also bought this” but it’s based on school and subject and methodology. In that world, I kind of prefer the service criticism. But really, if we’re talking in terms of the discovery of new art, how come we don’t have a Pitchfork for contemporary art? I’d really much prefer that to Artsy.
So as presentation of art online changes in a way that I find really curatorially fascinating, and that will be a huge promoter of digitally engaged work, we’re going to have to develop these new ways, or at least new outlets, to analyze it. I for example have a lot of hope for the mailing list as of a forum that we haven’t exhausted at all. Even though e-flux might have a little bit. I think it’s a really promising model, mainly because it’s a way of surpassing the digital advertising revenue as we know it, by which I mean selling your data bundled to a bunch of websites. But yeah, I’m looking for these new models.
Most of these structures that I discussed today relate to an ad revenue based Internet. I really hope things will change. I think there is no bigger disappointment on the Internet than free culture. If the user won’t pay, the advertiser will, the result of this is a digital economy where websites that are all aggregating and packaging the same material are hoping to attract as many eyeballs as possible and with the eyeballs come advertising revenue. It’s kind of weird that in my attempt to close on an optimistic note I’m basically telling you you’re all going to have to pull out your credit card or Paypal account or Google Wallet or whatever digital wallet we’re going to use. But I think that this will lead us to the kind of criticism that we deserve. The more the Internet veers toward paid models, the better off we’ll be, I don’t know if art criticism will catch up with this before or after. I think you can imagine what I’m crossing my fingers for. Thank you.