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The State of the (Visual) Art

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Editor’s Note: This is a  part of a package of stories about the state of criticism. See the links at the end for the related stories.

By Jason Foumberg

Last year, the popular art podcast Bad at Sports shut off the comments section to its weekly website component. Responders got out of hand with insults, and it seemed the negativity far outweighed useful commentary. In those four years of unmoderated feedback, some discussions ran on for more than 200 comments, which in the realm of Web 2.0 equals a successful dialogue. And isn’t the art world always begging for more “dialogue”?

Withstanding the attacks of a belligerent audience is just one challenge of living on the web. The other challenge is content, or how to craft responsible, poetic and meaningful criticism when there’s no overhead, little foresight and no time. Worrying about editorial is “like organizing the kitchen cupboards while some dude bleeds to death in the living room,” writes Kathryn Born, publisher of a new art criticism website, Chicago Art Magazine. “We publish two unedited articles each day. It would be nice to have someone look them over, but we just don’t have the money.”

It may not matter whether or not art criticism is vetted, edited and consciously published. Published criticism means exposure, and exposure means free publicity, or just another line on the resume, as several artists confessed to me.

“Public acknowledgment is primary, critical assessment is valued to a much lesser degree,” says critic and artist Michelle Grabner. She continues, “The fact that recognition takes the form of criticism doesn’t matter to artists. Poetic reflection or a mention in the society pages is just as touted by artists and their dealers.” Is this true? Gallery owner, and former art blogger, Scott Speh tells me that he’s disallowed several local critics—both web and print-based—from interviewing the artists he represents at Western Exhibitions, and if they review a show, he won’t list it on their resumes. Reviews do pad an artist’s resume, but a strong resume leads to more opportunities to make more and better art. Granting institutions, residencies, curators and dealers often consult resumes. It’s an attempt at professionalism in a highly unregulated art world.

Whether ignored or acknowledged, clipped for PR or thoughtfully considered, reviews help spin the art world on an axis of its own making. Anyway, making money from an art career shouldn’t be so stigmatized. It feeds the monster. It perpetuates the machine.

But sometimes the machine is a website called The Instant Art Critique Phrase Generator, which randomly pieces jargon into strings of art speak. This website reveals how easy it is to praise mediocrity. It could pass for published art reviews.

Artist and critic Elijah Burgher draws out an interesting conflict. As an educator, he believes that “knowledge is common property,” to which we all contribute. He co-published a short-lived art journal called Blunt Art Text, in print and digitally, and believes that “criticism makes for healthy discourse, which makes for better art.” However, he says, “If I want to know something, I’m not going to read Jerry Saltz’s Facebook posts. I’m going to hit the library.”

We meet in public, shake hands in public, exhibit art there, publish reviews there. With Web 2.0, the public field has been torn open, perhaps inelegantly. But that’s how revolutions go. As things settle, taste levels thin out or flatten. “Group thinking tends to create the average,” says Elijah.

With the entire public sitting online, we need something to occupy our time, and there is enough content on the Internet to fill it. Pile on the monthly art magazines and there’s almost too much to digest. But there are tools to better organize all this information, new and old (as old print becomes archived online). “There is a reason for newspapers to exist, but magazines and newspapers have to adapt to digital audiences,” says Alicia Eler, who worked for Chicago Now, the Chicago Tribune’s new blogging enterprise, and is now a freelance social media consultant and art critic. Digital audiences like to be able to search information easily, talk to themselves, and be heard.

There aren’t more artists in the world since the dawn of the Internet; it just seems that way because they all have personal websites. As a tool for artists, Web 2.0 is hugely successful. “The art community is more active on Facebook than Twitter,” says Alicia. It’s a good place to organize, build fan bases and post new art for instant response.

Positively, online social media increases the size of one’s network, which increases the possibilities for collaboration and the exchanging of ideas. Negatively, information tailored to a digital audience promotes emotionally reactive and flippant responses, and somehow seems unserious. This is not, traditionally, how critics like to proceed.

As the Internet is all about audience, and its influence expands, the voice of the critic fades. For some types of art, like community-based or social practices, this is ideal. For others, it’s an unwelcome flood of amateurs, hobbyists and Sunday critics. Today, anyone who posts anything on the web is heard and receives attention. But the need for expertise, and good writing, will resurface. The public should demand it.

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18 Responses to “The State of the (Visual) Art”

  1. kathrynborn Says:

    My opnions is that there are two issues not addressed that I feel contribute to the issue of non-interest in reviews:

    1. the review form – the literary piece known as the art review – has lost its way.
    2. Our relationship with experts/authority is in crisis or in flux.

    So point 1 – the review, as we know ’em and write ’em, has become so nebulous, that’s is only one step above the worst art writing form ever – the artist statement. What’s an artist statement supposed to be about? I’ve never read a good one, and most are fairly assinine. It’s filler, it has no point. It’s the writing equivalent of people standing around and looking confused.

    With a review, anything goes. You can be poetic, historical, opinionated, snarky, speak in metaphorical terms, talk about other stuff. Anything goes. Maybe you’ll get some actual information, maybe you won’t. No wonder no one reads them, it’s a crapshoot.

    Point 2, the idea of the critic – the person who wrote the passages in point 1 – was suppposed to be an expert we trusted. Greenberg was a dude who could say “this green line on a white canvas is good, but that blue line on a white canvas is bad” – and he tended to be right. And he did it at a time when no one knew what the hell to make of abstract art. But what was clear is that the market and history agreed with him. So he was like a bookie who could pick the winning racehorses. But then the art changed and he couldn’t pick the winners anymore. And his opinion suddenly meant nothing.

    But now when you’ve got an SAIC student giving something the thumbs down, why should that matter? Why should that have any weight?

    The other problem with the master critic, as Brian talks about in his piece, is that there were grandmasters of taste — and they ran the joint. There is only one problem with that – what if you don’t agree? I mean, back in Siskel and Ebert’s day.. I was a young angry feminist filmmakers, and I tell ya, what a couple white men had to say about movies meant nothing to me. Nothing. I studied film and disagreed with 99% of their choices.

    My belief is that we need critical archtypes. You take a quiz/survey of what you like, then it matchs you up with an expert who has basically the same taste, but knows more about what’s out there than you. So 50 different flavors of art or movie critics and you listen to the one that can take your cultural awareness to the next level.

    But the idea that an absolute authority is going to say yea or nay.. I believe that’s gone for good.

    Now every critic is going to have to show their credentials at the door, and prove to the audience that there’s reason to trust their opinion – before they even embark on a 350 word opinion about an artwork.

  2. hereisafantasy Says:

    I think that Kathryn’s right that the 350 word format has become so monotonous and irrelevant that it sometimes appears equivalent to a press release. Regardless of length or format, I think that the written word breathes to life and makes concrete the opinions and issues important to art of a specific moment. There are other reasons for the continued importance of art criticism and reviews in contemporary art practice, but I believe that critics shouldn’t shy away from talking about what’s important and what’s relevant (albeit in a shorter, more incisive format since this is after all, “web 2.0” as Jason reminds us). You don’t need to talk about every single artist or every single work in an exhibition, just use your eyes and look at a lot of art and other cultural images, and then make a point.

    Fewer words, more looking – I think this keeps in mind Jean Cocteau’s seductive little dictum: “A little too much, for me that’s enough.”

  3. Jason Foumberg Says:

    The audience for reviews is pretty small, usually consisting of the artist being reviewed, and the writer. But it’s an attempt at engagement. For an artist exhibiting in public, it is disappointing to receive no critical feedback. (The worst review is no review).

    Kathryn, the analogy of reviews to artist statements is interesting but I think a better comparison is to the studio visit or the art school critique. It’s a formalized exchange of ideas and information.

    If the 350-word format is inconsequential and too wordy, as Corinna suggests, then I’d like to see more poetic, experimental, weird and unique writing pass as reviews.

  4. brianhey Says:

    The premise that no one reads reviews is false, based on traffic to this site, which is largely review-based. In fact, I just took a cursory look at our Google Analytics for the last 30 days, and it’s not unusual for reviews published a year, two years ago, to still get read more than a hundred times a month. Reviews function in a multitude of ways, one of the strongest of which, I believe, is to foster dialogue between two people who’ve seen a show; that is, the critic and the audience member. Consumer reports are fine, but I think a higher understanding is reached, regardless of your opinion of the critic, when you engage in the work and then read. And I have no problem with hearing the insights of a young SAIC grad if they are, well, insightful.
    Brian Hieggelke

  5. Abraham Ritchie Says:

    But what about the state of (visual)art (criticism?) in Chicago? Can we expect that as part of the upcoming “package”?

  6. Interview for “The State of the (Visual) Art” in Newcity Newspaper | Alicia Eler Says:

    […] the pleasure of discussing these questions with Newcity Art Editor Jason Foumberg for his article, The State of the (Visual) Art, which is part of this week’s cover story, Everyone’s a Critic: Yelp, Twitter and the […]

  7. Jason Foumberg Says:

    It’s been well covered previously here and elsewhere. How do you think it’s faring?

  8. kathrynborn Says:

    The problem is that we don’t know why people are reading review. I get a good long tail on reviews, but I always suspect it’s because people are googling the artist and they want to see pictures.

    The trick is to see in Google Analytics what the keywords are, is it “Steve Jones” or “Review of Steven Jones exhibit at Bob Gallery”.

    Also, I look at time on page. If the average is 2 min, then probably not, as that’s the average. That’s the person who left the window open for an hour by accident averaged out with the person who clicked, and then clicked away.

    I just don’t kwow. Nobody probably knows. But I’m a believer that there’s no going back to the good old days. The world moves forward, and we move onto the next thing.

    We leave things behind for a reason.

    That’s always my take – but I’ve also been told that I’m the most unsemtimental person they’ve ever met.


  9. Hot (okay maybe only lukewarm at the moment) Topic Alert: the Crisis in Art Criticism : Bad at Sports Says:

    […] criticism amidst the rise of blogging, online websites, and other forms of interactive media titled The State of the (Visual) Art. I didn’t read this as a piece on the status of art criticism in Chicago per se, as I think […]

  10. Daisyrose Says:

    As Chicago currently does not have a strong representation in print right now or a nationally recognized critical body. Do you feel like the bloggers are shouldering an additional editorial responsibility to print worthwhile criticism? And that those who make venues to post unedited content then really do take on the role of editor and become responsible for that content placed in the blogosphere?? I guess what I am getting at is the question of is just posting content enough? Or is it possible that larger critiscim projects should be saceld back so etidors can be added to the fold and can help quality control that content. Instead of posting almost 60 reviews and critical articles a month, cut that in half so they can be vetted for higher critical standards. I did write for a publication out of LA for about a year and I found my editors feedback really helpful on the articles that got printed.

  11. Jason Foumberg Says:

    Daisyrose, I agree that quality is better than quantity. With blogs, there’s a tendency to pump out information (or “content”) to keep readers engaged and coming back. This perhaps mirrors the daily newspaper format, but often lacks editorial oversight. I tend not to agree with Kathryn’s quote about the guy bleeding int he living room. That’s not my editorial philosophy, but it is something I see across the spectrum of blogs. On Bad at Sports, Claudine has done a nice job of clarifying the need for editors (comment #9, above). Reading uneditied content is not fun. ‘Selection’ is essential to a meaningful magazine issue, art collection, stable of artists, etc.

  12. kathrynborn Says:

    Eh, I think it’s all about goals. If the goal is a focus on the review form, then yes, go over that copy with a fine tooth comb. For me, ( what’s most important is that we have a big group that has a good pulse on the art scene – almost everyone in the Friday Night Army has an advanced degree from the SAIC. And we have a rule – no panning of shows, and I’m even starting to put my foot down about pot shots that occur within perfectly pleasant reviews.

    So the effect is that we’re picking the 30 best shows out of the 300 venues in Chicago. We make a comprehensive map, which was badly needed (I don’t see anyone bitching about the map/calendar), and thus they pick, they take pictures and they are asked to pass on weak shows. So we are culling.

    More bizarre, the reviews aren’t really edited, but there is photo editorial. More important than fixing the copy right now, is fixing the photos. Goddamn it, if a white wall is looking yellow – that’s got to go. That’s an insult to the artist, and so is the misspelling of their name.

    There is a reality that there are more good shows that anyone with a job can do see, so we make an attempt to show the work fully through photos (we’re setting up galleries so we can show 20 images), provide some information (at the writer’s discretion), and the reader can decide if they want to explore further.


    But in terms of ideology, everyone acts like if we just edit, clean up the copy, everything will be fine. Well, the day we do put reviews through editorial, (FWIW, only reviews don’t go through editorial, features go through a person who was a Managing Editor at Pioneer Press for 20 years), which is coming — it’s going to still anger everyone, because the goal then will be to create highly readable content that a non-art person can understand. It will be an entirely different type of review style. As a writer by trade, I think much of the art writing is fairly despicable, it’s a joke, no one’s going to slog through that. Artforum has some sentences – I don’t care what anyone says – but not only is it club language and elite art speak, but from a strictly grammatical analysis, it doesn’t hold water. There are just bad paragraphs, bad transitions, unsupported arguments. There are articles in Artforum in which the emperor is truly wearing no clothes, and again, I say that as a double English major with two books under contract. I’m not an art historian, but I am, however, a wordsmith.

    So word crimes in art comes in lots of shapes and colors, and once we clean things up and make it inclusive and non-elite, everyone is really going to hit the ceiling. Because for a lot of people, art language is a means and a way to keep art elite, a way to keep the general public out.

  13. Steve Ruiz Says:

    I think the art review is a great format for online criticism.

    Given that a copy provided by the artist and gallery is almost always insufficient for satisfying curiosity or describing the artist’s intentions, I usually go to the critical cloud for more on the art that interests me enough to want to know about it. Most of that cloud however is made up of art reviews written by unfunded writers, which makes a lot of sense since art reviews provide non-economic incentive to the writer.

    What you’re essentially doing with a review is using a first-person critical element to justify the outsourced and unpaid labor of writing auxiliary content for a gallery and artist. Unless you’re getting some money out of the deal, being able to impose judgment is the only thing separating the writing of a review from a favor. This fact is very evident in the blogosphere, where people are more than willing to write for free as long as they’re also allowed to point their thumbs or their fins and declare.

    That said, I don’t imagine many people read reviews because they’re interested in validating their own judgments on whether a show was successful or not, and even less to see what some individual writer feels about a given show. I’m guessing that most read reviews for the same reason I do – to learn more about a given work or show or artist. I don’t mind reading an opinionated article provided it has the content to back it up, and sometimes its nice to see a source willing to make a tough call.

    I’m glad that people are writing about art, and I’m glad that they’ve found a way to justify the labor in the absence of monetary incentive. The output of art writing will go up, most of the volunteer writing will be in review format, and the quality of it all will obviously follow a curve. If the new buzz of pointless, content free, abusive, shitty and unedited reviews are a bother, I dunno, make a youtube about it or do it better.

  14. Forrest Says:

    1. Michelle nailed a widely misunderstood aspect of this whole conversation. What weight criticism does still hold is in acknowledgment, in the doling out of attention. It doesn’t really matter what the review says, but the fact that one exhibition is covered as opposed to another one signifies visibility and influence. But because other things, like the society pages, can serve to signal visibility for an artist without the other implications of a review (judgment, interpretation, etc.), criticism becomes less necessary. Before, critics were a key source of conferred legitimacy. Now that legitimacy comes from the reputation of exhibition venues and from prices. If a critical apparatus is going to matter, it has to find a way to compete in conferring legitimacy.

    2. Small thing, but I would avoid this “Web 2.0” business. That refers mostly to technical changes in how the internet works, ie. web-based applications replacing page-based websites.

    3. Chicago has a much higher energy-for-art-criticism to quality-or-even-relevant-art-on-display ratio than basically anywhere else I know about. There aren’t 30 shows a month that matter within the broader art world, there likely aren’t 3 some months. This is a totally separate problem from the broader issues with art criticism. Most reviews in Chicago don’t matter because they aren’t reviewing work that has a life outside it’s own immediate social system.

    4. Authority doesn’t come from credentials anymore. No one has any idea whether top artists, curators, critics, dealers etc. have a particular degree. Everything is based on association: a museum exhibits artists who work with dealers who work with other artists who show at bigger museums. Critics can’t become “associated” with certain museums or artists or dealers per se, so they have to find some other means of achieving credibility. As Kathryn notes, Greenberg mattered because he had a coherent framework for making value-judgments about art, and a lot of people ended up agreeing with him. This model is still viable, but would most likely only happen without any judgements other than the conferring of credibility, the act of selection. If a critic were to always pick the right shows, to consistently sort out the good from the bad, before art world consensus congeals (and prices go up), that would provide real value. Maybe that’s a useful way to think about all this: where do/can critics add value?

  15. Jason Foumberg Says:

    Forrest, web 2.0 also refers to user-generated content.

    The more I think about Michelle’s quote, that selection and/or recognition in the society pages equals good enough ‘criticism’ for an artist or dealer, makes my stomach turn. I think an artist will be glad to see their name in print, but also an artist wants people to understand and connect with their work. That’s where reasoned or expert criticism comes in. Right now I’m reading a great book by Noel Carroll called “On Criticism” that lays out an argument about this. He says that evaluation must be part of a critic’s discourse, otherwise the writing is as good (or bad) as a press release, and not therefore “criticism.”

    Regarding your third point, do you think there is too much criticism in Chicago, and elsewhere? I often hear people say there’s not enough criticism! so I’m intrigued to hear the opposite.

  16. Forrest Says:

    Artists may be gratified or something by reviews they agree with, but it doesn’t help them any more than being photographed at a party. Both are comparable indicators of visibility, which is a metric of success. Touting by dealers (moreso than artists) is about justifying an artist’s prices: “look, such-and-such is at a party with Hans Ulrich Obrist. Clearly things are going well for him.” It’s not a good or bad phenomenon, it’s an economic one. I, like many people, wish there was a situation where an abundance of insightful, decisive writing about the work I care about. But until critics wield some power again, there won’t be a situation like that.

    And, for Chicago, there’s not even much to wield power over. The relevant work is so few and far between that an arbiter isn’t even necessary. Just go to the 10 or so venues that show interesting work, or even the 4 or 5 that people outside the city pay attention to. Very manageable, fits into anyone’s schedule. The problem is that critics can’t afford to only pay attention to 10 venues, and so they wind up reviewing a lot of work that people don’t want to read about, and there’s no way to filter any of it. So, speaking for myself, I don’t read much Chicago criticism because 90% of the exhibitions covered aren’t very interesting, and who wants to read someone interpreting work you don’t care about.

    Regarding “web 2.0”, it’s too fine a distinction for me to keep going and it doesn’t even matter obviously. And be careful with getting info from Google Analytics. 200 pageviews for an article in a month is very, very different than 200 people actually consuming that article.

  17. Jason Foumberg Says:

    “I, like many people, wish there was a situation where an abundance of insightful, decisive writing about the work I care about. But until critics wield some power again, there won’t be a situation like that.”

    So, in other words, you need critics to justify why you like the art that you like.

    And if we only covered the art that you like (the 10 venues you mention), then we would be writing for an audience of 1. But this is a newspaper with citywide circulation, so we cover art in Chicago. You are free to pick which articles you read, and you don’t have to read them all, but you could always read something new to find out about something new.

  18. Forrest Says:

    Didn’t mean it as a criticism of you, rather as a lament of a general situation. I don’t really think you should be doing anything way different. But let’s be clear, I’m not saying that the problem is there are ten shows that appeal to me, I’m saying there are maybe ten shows with any life outside the city whatsoever. It’s not about preference at all, it’s about regionalism. I think we need more shows that matter, not a news company that covers different shows.

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