THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
Screenshot of Hyperallergic logo from their website.
Cover of Artforum, April 2017
Screenshot detail of Even's home page
Screenshot of page from 4Columns website
By Kate Hadley Toftness
The College Art Association’s annual conference, the largest international gathering of visual arts professionals, was held in New York this past February. Where better, I figured, to take the pulse of art criticism? The overflowing agenda of professorial opinion featured a noontime forum, “Key Conversation: Art Criticism,” with four editors who traded viewpoints about the future of their practice.
The best editor is the one who can get you money for what you’re doing.
Such was the proverb shared by David Velasco, an editor for Artforum International Magazine, who reminded the audience that some people try to do this for a living. Offering some hope, he suggested, “If there’s a future of art criticism that’s probably what it is: you have to find a way to pay writers.”
In a sea of academics sorting themselves into phyla of intensely specific conference sessions, those inclined toward art writing for a general audience seemed ready to embrace this pragmatic diagnosis. The four panelists included founding editors of the up-and-coming magazine, Even, and the website 4Columns, as well as online editors from industry giants, Hyperallergic and Artforum International Magazine. Observing these professionals perched at the front of the ballroom as specimens of an endangered species, the audience settled in to absorb their defenses and deconstruction of art criticism.
The ambitions of the hour launched quickly. Questions of craft, the ethics of funding publishing platforms, and the formation of intentional communities of writers and readers were set forth as primary topics. But, in fact, the arc of the conversation was compact and useful. I would summarize it as: How to Do It, How to Pay for It, How to Do It – Part II, and finally, Why Do It?
How To Do It
“Get a rough draft out, no matter how painful it is—and it’s often painful—leave it for a day, and then come back to it and make it comprehensible to other people.”
The editors began with some basic advice. Speaking to the day’s context, Jason Farago addressed critics who come from an art history background and their lack of understanding editorial mediums. Farago’s own magazine, Even, assigns 5,000 word essays, but when he writes art reviews for The New York Times, it’s 800 words, and at The New Yorker a mere 100.
Is word count all that defines a medium? No. Farago hinted at an equation that takes into account audience, intentions of the publication, and potentially the cost of space on a page, whether that page is virtual or “rather handsome paper,” as Even boasts of its printed stock. Which leaves one to wonder: where does craft end and product begin?
Seph Rodney of Hyperallergic (quoted above) called his process of writing a “habit,” but that seems too self-focused for his repeated emphasis on reception by “other people.” Rodney elaborated on this trade-off, “All these faculties that I suspect I have, but that I’m not always sure I have, come into play in that moment of thinking, ‘oh, I have to make sense of that,’ for someone else.” The answer to the how of writing is here synonymous with trusting one’s ability to clarify something for your reader. It is a service model.
How to Pay for It
In his appraisal of art criticism’s value, Rodney ascribes to the diagnosis of 20th-century sociologist, Zygmunt Bauman:
The critic has been rendered obsolete by the marketplace.
That’s the concern. When I searched artforum.com for an “about” page that might outline their mission, the closest thing I found was a paragraph posted for potential advertisers: “the site has become an essential resource for a growing art-world audience that is sophisticated, engaged, and poised to spend.” The page then lists a dozen data points on the gender, household income, and education level of their site visitors as well as the percentage of those visitors who consider the site to be “essential” and “smart.”
Artforum is no longer required to validate its identity to its readers, only its stockholders. Though it was noted that advertising often plays an important role in an arts publication’s overall budget, it was not made clear during the panel if there is a direct connection between advertising and the compensation of writers.
Panelist Margaret Sundell previously led the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program, and the other editors praised her for the importance of this crucial support to writers. In September 2016, Sundell started her own venture, 4Columns, as a non-profit literary website. It was structured and brought into existence for the purpose of appropriately compensating writers, specifically critics (Note the simple tagline of 4Columns: Art Criticism Weekly). As of now, there are no advertisements on the site.
In contrast to 4Columns’ non-profit model, Hyperallergic and Artforum have ads and other sources of revenue (such as events)—“we aren’t struggling,” said Rodney of Hyperallergic. Despite its youth, Even magazine already showcases a bevy of luxury brands and high-end art galleries. Farago says bigger clients are the ones that remain reliably disinterested in the tenor of their content. His publisher reports that smaller galleries tend to want reviews in return for ads. That’s a deal-breaker.
But what, in the end, is being bought and sold? The marketplace, a panoply of things designed to attract and distract attention, now dominates culture. In this milieu, art criticism is a lens, perhaps a prosthetic, for narrowing vision. “To be able to say this is worth looking at and this thing is not, I think is ultimately helpful to you,” said Rodney, “At least I hope it is.” But lest we think that is all there is—shortcuts to preferred forms of consumption—Rodney shared a simultaneous goal of illumination: “There’s an object, and through that object you can see an entire universe that you were not able to see before, and I just want to be able to point out some of the things in that universe that are available by paying attention to this object, this experience.” The ability to bear such insights with authority is part of the debate. Where does this authority come from?
How to Do It—Part II
Go forth and figure it out.
Rodney shared that his editor-in-chief empowers him to trust his accumulated knowledge to make sense of things for readers. Indeed, opinions are required. (Hyperallergic’s tagline: Contemporary Art and Its Discontents). Once the need for meaningful judgments was established, Farago interrogated this to suggest that deeper, maybe secretly-held values, might be unearthed.
On the subject of universal truths, Farago admitted, “Of course I am there to make pronouncements with the force of truth behind them, otherwise why would you pick up the paper?” (Tagline for Even: Global Perspective on Contemporary Art.)
Farago framed two lineages of art criticism. The first is the “Enlightenment-inspired” model of formal principles as descended from Diderot through Clement Greenberg. The other is an open-ended, possibly literary tradition out of 19th-century Germany often called art writing. Farago seemed to fall closer to the Enlightenment tradition.
At least, he kept prodding his fellow panelists to expound on making authoritative judgments. And yet Even waxes at lengths that would be difficult to categorize as anything but literary. The magazine’s online description paints a romantic picture of repairing the “misunderstood gap between culture and the world.”
If it seemed that authoritative judgments are incompatible with post-Greenbergian art criticism, Sundell provided a more neutral route to reconciling criticism with tolerance: “Just simply choosing to cover something or not covering it is a judgment.”
So Why Do It
“At what point do you ignore and at what point do you tackle something that you don’t like? At what point is it productive for you?”
Velasco addressed reluctance to take on critiques of works that fall short. While the editors remained wary of negative reviews that could disproportionately impact an emerging artist’s career, they were prepared to take up the mantle of defrauding “bad art.” Rodney feels compelled to dislodge any work that approaches a state “draconian in its intention to get you to think a particular thing,” Farago is inclined to write more skeptical reviews when “principles that seem congruent with a failed aesthetic practice are ones that I can’t support.”
Sundell invoked the stakes of history: “The future of criticism is very interested in this political moment, and in this historical moment, and the role that the critic has as someone who operates with a foot in the present … in the trenches … [who is] also in relationship to the stakes of history.” The stakes of history, she said, stand for the stakes of truth. Taking the political imperative as a hinge for reframing authoritative judgments as staked claims rather than universal truths marked a path forward.
While an audience of self-selected scholars might not be the right focus group for an unbiased look at the state of art criticism, I exited pleased at the resolutely sincere perspectives offered by the editors and how their decisions relate to the larger field. Their common consensus was that art criticism proceeds. And some corners proceed in largely ethical and literary ways.
As an editor, Velasco leans on a network of trust. “I don’t know where the future of art criticism is, I don’t know where the present of art criticism is, but I know who I trust in the world and I think that building those communities of writers and people, artists, who we trust is probably the most important thing to me about this field we’re in right now.”
A recording of this February 16, 2017 conversation is publicly available on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9rPpzagcPU0.
Kate Hadley Toftness is a Chicago-based writer and organizer of things and culture. She is currently leading a project to connect community archives and artists across the city towards a more dynamic and inclusive experience of art history. chicagoarchivesandartists.org
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