A Rebuke to the Perceived “Crisis in Criticism”: Social Media and the Liberated Reader

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In 2012, Frieze surveyed art critics writing for newspapers, magazines, and online publications, asking how they conceived of their connection with the public. None reported a direct relationship with readers, whether through letters-to-the-editor, social media, or the online comments section. Considering the technology and shifting online readership trends, it‘s remarkable this disconnect persists. It was, afterall, nearly fifty years ago that Barthes’s postmodern touchstone Death of the Author – a text with which many critics have first-hand familiarity – argued, “A text consists of multiple writings … but there is one place where this multiplicity is collected, united, and this place is not the author, as we have hitherto said it was, but the reader.” The comment section and sharing options of social networking clearly offer the potential to realize Barthes’s integrated writer-reader relationship and in so doing, provide a much-needed wider audience for art criticism.

Two intrinsic features of the social network(s) are crucial for involving readers. Online comments facilitate interaction with the writer, and sharing options permit readers to circulate this discussion organically, allowing it to grow on their collective terms. Both form what Deleuze and Guattari would deem rhizomic networks: networks reaching out in variant, organic directions. That said, such structures greatly risk traveling through the restrictive corporate territories comprising most social-networking sites. However, if both critics and readers are mindful of the context in which they are posting, social networking has, of course, a tremendous potential to liberate its parties.

According to Orit Gat, a critic specializing in contemporary art’s relationship to the internet, comments “promote a writing that relies on a shared-versus-contingent experience: the critic is no longer an expert coming in to contextualize, but rather, a member of the institution’s presumed audience.” An exception among critics who readily incorporate comments into his practice is a prominent one: Jerry Saltz. He boasts that “over a quarter-million words had been generated” on New York Magazine’s Vulture website in online comments below his episode recaps of the canceled reality-show art contest, Work of Art: The Next Great Artist, which he once judged. His 5,000 Facebook “friends” (the Facebook limit) regularly comment on his posts, and share them. Saltz’s recent commentary on the lurid cover of a vintage pulp novel, Art School, for instance, was shared 347 times. He’s onto something.

However, as Gat caveats, the online reader-writer collaboration can show “a sloppy, irresponsible style and lack of editorial oversight.” Critics including the New Criterion’s James Panero argue that social networking enfeebles art criticism’s professionalism because “with its language of ‘Likes’ and ‘Fans’, everyone is also a critic. Therein lies the particular crisis for critics in print.” Yet this perceived crisis may just be an admisiion of reality: many individuals other than critics are well-schooled enough in art theory and practice that they can equally contribute to critical debate. This false heirarchy is why media theorist Geert Lovink contends that we need to stop polarizing populism and elitism, claiming that what “we need to overcome is the high-low distinction.” He reminds us that “Walter Benjamin emphasized the role of commentary in the making of classical texts. Today, online comments are an integral part of the network effect, and to ignore or dismiss this element is to understand only half the story.”

Yes, comments are now largely improvised and unrevised, but with time, commentators may opt for a slower, more erudite stream. After all, as Lovink reiterates, “Up to the time of Hegel, commenting on classic texts belonged to the philosophical repertoire.” Writers and readers on social networks should likewise counter Certainly, the potential exists. (Most comments on Saltz’s page, for instance, are made by professional artists, and occasionally critics, too.)

The greatest budding threat to free commentary and sharing is context; indeed, the corporate-designed structure that hosts the most popular social networking sites interferes with reader-writer interactivity. Users’ profiles on Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks undoubtedly facilitate the projection of individual identities rather than promoting communitarianism. These sites have what Lovink aptly terms “a collective obsession” with “identity management.” Despite the community-building Saltz claims to be involved in (he compares his Facebook page to the Cedar Tavern), he positions himself at the “community’s” forefront with his Facebook profile, as the cult leader who collects words, “likes,” and shares from his followers. Still, he did not build this cult, at least not in whole. These networks reflect the individualistic narcissism of twenty-first-century global corporatism.

Another problem with the corporate dominance of social networks is their control over both the author’s and reader’s freedom for the sake of maintaining brand identity and preventing legal controversy. Social networks – Facebook included – have banned nudity; Instagram went so far as to ban a breastfeeding selfie. If users fail to conform to the standards of a site, they are removed from it. Facebook, perhaps ironically, sanctioned Salman Rushdie for a networking faux-pas: using his better-known middle name, Salman, rather than his first, Ahmed. He was booted from the site. Further ensuring accordance to corporate software architecture is the Facebook rule that users cannot add script or code to the site. Without being able to build on or determine the frame in which they work, critics present their writing in an environment that discourages open debate.

The art critic Brian Droitcour, who has attracted attention for writing art criticism in the corporate framework of Yelp, stated in a recent Momus interview that his reviewing “expands beyond […] the number of stars – the tools of data management – into a narration of a contingent, unique experience.” I disagree. The requisite star-rating of exhibitions and readers ranking the review itself as “useful,” “funny,” or “cool,” blocks expansion. Besides, Droitcour has bought into the use of unpaid labor that buoys Yelp, Amazon, and many other sites’ profitability.

It’s paramount that art critics on popular social media and networking sites either address the specter of corporatization or avoid such platforms. Otherwise, they risk complicity. Art writer Sarah Tuck wisely cautions against “Fetishizing new technology in cyber-libertarian discourse, that assumes these new technologies are value-free or historically novel.” She qualifies that “It is against this background of a fetishized populism, assaults, and disinvestment in public services, and a precarious labor-market that artists work and in which an online arts journal publishes.” The prevailing neo-liberal ideology of social-networking sites is why Lovink stresses that users “need to defend […] the very principle of decentralized, distributed networks. This principle is under attack by corporations such as Google and Facebook, as well as by national authorities who feel a need to control our communication and data infrastructure at large.”

To see how “decentralized and distributed” networks can work, it’s worth looking retrospectively to the idealism of the early internet before 1992, the year the US Congress passed the Scientific and Advanced-Technology Act, one with global ramifications allowing commercial organizations to connect to computer networks. Prior to the internet’s commercialization, largely text-based electronic bulletin-board systems (BBSs) served as prescient discussion forums. Users dialed-in so that they could access a chosen BBS, meaning these systems were, in fact, a decentralized means of networking. And, as the most popular form of networking until the early nineties, they were also well distributed. Discussion forums did replace BBSs, but these forums’ awkward stacked-message chains and hard-to-navigate menus would give way to the expedited communication channels of popular social networks. What’s ideally needed, now, are contemporized social-networking sites whose architecture, like BBS, does not encourage narcissistic hierarchy and practice censorship; whose labor practices are not Dickensian; and whose content serves intellectual, academic, and educational rather than commercial purposes.

Ultimately, such sites need to be developed based on models that lie outside the populist realms of social media and networking. Another framework for liberating readers of art criticism is one I proposed myself at The Curatorial Lab: Curating in the Electronic Community, a panel discussion I organized in 1994 at Toronto’s new-media art center, InterAccess. Intrigued by the experimental possibilities for “electronic” art criticism, I proposed an interactive online exhibition catalogue to replace the print catalogue. An unconventional option then, this catalogue was to be a fluid, interactive publication allowing the author to revise his or her essay online. The text would include a comment section where readers and exhibiting artists could respond to the article. The author could reply to the commentators; a dialogue could ensue. I even suggested the writer include some sections that readers – primarily an art audience, I anticipated – could edit and amend. (Some of these ideas were reiterated in an online catalogue that I wrote, titled “Model for Critical Collaboration,” published for a 1995 new-media exhibition titled The Disembodied Mind, which was also held at InterAccess.)

In addition, consider a current initiative, Commentpress, a plug-in for fixed documents and online publications that the Institute for the Future of the Book developed. Commentpress allows readers to comment in the margins of the text rather than below the article. This annotation results, as Commentpress’s promotional text explains, in “turning a document into a conversation” and into “collaborative thinking and writing.”

Both my proposed catalogue model and this available plug-in could lead to a creative partnership between reader and writer that lies beyond corporate-designed structures. They illustrate how art critics can democratize their relationship with their audiences by a similar interaction through social networking. Increased collaboration with readers on a truly egalitarian level could not only increase audience reach, but also contribute to the many initiatives in art writing occurring in art criticism in this burgeoning post-crisis .

The most significant of these initiatives, the one that stands out amongst neo-Marxism, neo-populism, object-oriented ontology, et al, has to be the recent return to evaluation that has appeared globally in art publications, including this one. Such reviewing is a welcome break from caution, a critic’s joyride. Still, evaluative criticism risks leaving an aura of faux authority around the critic. In other words, even though hundreds of thousands of graduate students possess the required theory to judge contemporary art, only a select few art writers have been able to do so online or in print. Knowledge of contemporary art has grown dramatically, this century, and its resource pool should enter the critical debate. Barthes’s call for reader’s agency provides a timely solution.

This is a revised version of a paper that the author presented at AICA-Korea’s 2014 AICA International Congress in Seoul, South Korea. AICA is a French acronym for the International Association of Art Critics.

2 Comments

  • Greg Davies says:

    Some truly interesting reflection upon the barriers presented by corporate social networks to the reader-writer dialogue. The proposed catalogue model, combined with the Commentpress plug-in, suggests a viable alternative to the monetized corporate platform. Yet I’m curious as to what the financial model might be for such a decentralized network? If collaborative authorship is to flourish within a democratized platform, how does one address the combined issues of funding and ownership when the dialogue is not only equitable but sustained indefinitely? Even in academic settings, the platforms for dialogue between students and instructors are now increasingly falling into the hands of private interests such as Pearson and Desire2Learn. This is happening, in part, because of the complexity and cost of mass data management which our universities and colleges are simply not equipped to address. While it is tempting to think of community dialogues within e-learning environments as democratized, in most, if not all instances, they are not. Corporate providers sustain the required platforms because they profit from those dialogues and even the ownership of intellectual property may be called into question. When a dialogue unfolds on a privately-owned platform to whom do those ideas belong? To build a truly equitable, decentralized network it seems that another model is in order, not only beyond popular social networks but also beyond faux-democratic e-learning platforms.

  • Earl Miller says:

    The corporatization of learning is certainly a problem that could interfere with the potential democracy of criticism.

    I’m not one to comment on potential financial sources (asking someone who chose art criticism as a career is not always the best option for retaining financial advice), but I think a couple of good places to start are publishing interactive electronic exhibition catalogues such as the one I proposed in tandem with a less-commercial site such as Ello (Ello did source private investors who I gather are seeking an ROI). I think also operating on commercial sites with a critical reflexivity is a good start too. I think art writers working on projects with like-minded programmers is a possibility for longer term change. I am not a techie, so it would be interesting to hear comments from people with programming skills on this topic.

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