The Critics Atwitter

John Haber
in New York City

Twitter, Facebook, and Art Critics

On April 1, 2009, the Guardian announced that it will circulate entirely through Twitter. From now on, one can look forward to articles like "OMG Hitler invades Poland, allies declare war see for more" and "JFK assassin8d @ Dallas, def. heard second gunshot from grassy knoll WTF?"

Can art criticism be far behind? The Web is not the only dynamic changing talk about art. In turn, talk about art on the Web could learn something from the old days of fancy words, spelled out in full.

Consider just what is changing. Three years before, a survey of print critics already asked who matters and why. Consider, too, when a critic gets carried away by Facebook. An extended postscript on Jerry Saltz, added a year later, pursues just that point. Related articles lay out further my own goals of giving contemporary art historical context and critical context as well, as well of three shows of art after social media. William Powhida's Relational Wall (detail) (Schroeder Romero, 2009)


The Chicago Sun-Times has filed for bankruptcy, while The Detroit Free Press and The Detroit News have reduced home delivery to three days a week. And I read about them all in The New York Times, for free online—and not an April Fools joke. But it is never easy writing for print. I should know. I earned exactly $200 from it in 2008 and again in 2009. Meanwhile this Web site, now fifteen years old, indexes over a thousand artists and millions of words for free.

Art criticism has been changing, and criticism of art criticism has not caught on. A noted survey of art since 1980 calls the rise of theory, rightly, a key trend. For critics of art on the right, critical theory still rules, and it has brought down art. At least one has blamed October for a supposed belief that "anything goes." Jed Perl makes much the same point, in defense of the Old Masters versus the latest thing. I hear the same thing all the time from a dealer I know, for whom what counts as art is a matter of life and death.

They need to check their text messages, like the artists in "Surround Audience" at the New Museum and "Perpetual Revolution" at the International Center of Photography. Discourse about art is indeed polarized between scholarship and journalism's daily feed. The first questions the nature of art and who it serves. And the other does have to make snap judgments, the kind that make or break careers. Think of them as Perl without the filter of art history. Only guess which side many artists are choosing?

From Alberti in the Renaissance through Clement Greenberg, theorists have claimed the right to define art. Sometimes they even succeeded—or, as with Arthur C. Danto, they showed why one cannot. When I was in college, students in visual arts caught on to structuralism and its aftermath before the English department. They lapped up long articles in Artforum, which people then called the "house organ" for Minimalism. A classmate claimed to have snagged the first copy of October magazine off its press run. Another, Hal Foster, went on to become one of its editors.

Now both Danto and Jerry Saltz, the critic for New York magazine, have Facebook profiles. In late May 2009, Saltz used his to ask why MoMA displays so few women artist. In late March of that year, he used it to slam a panel presentation by Foster as boring. He got instant support, too, from artists and readers fed up with philosophy. They may even have a point: few act as if art still required a solution—or even a problem.

A few days later, Saltz asked "friends" for their favorite critic. He graciously excluded from consideration himself and his wife, Roberta Smith of The New York Times. The flood of responses ran to such breezy and popular critics as Peter Schjeldahl, David Hickey, and the blogs. Karl Marx and Jean Baudrillard, eat your heart out.

Top honors

Who then counts as a critic, and who can talk like a critic? You might be surprised. In December 2006, Time Out New York rated critics of everything from film to food. If that sounds like a rather narrow range, do not blame the limits entirely on the alphabet.

Once, if asked to name the most influential art critic, one might have looked anywhere but to the newspapers. One would surely have cited Tom Hess at Art in America, not to mention Greenberg in Partisan Review, The Nation, and beyond. Gossip even attributes Elaine de Kooning's affair with Hess to maneuvers on behalf of her husband. I like to think that artists have more than careerism in mind when it comes to extramarital behavior, such as who will play them in the biopic. Still, de Kooning had brains and sex appeal to spare, and she must have demanded both in her lovers as well.

The Time Out survey excludes all those publications, both the intellectual kind and art magazines. That writes off at least one candidate for greatest living critic and philosopher of art, Danto himself. It also excludes Artforum and October, and it refuses to compensate by looking to start-ups, the underground press, or the Internet either. As a side benefit, it also omits the rearguard actions of Perl and Robert Hughes. The survey happens to exclude me as well, but that goes without saying. I try not to take myself too seriously anyway, even if this site creates an art world all to itself.

Instead, Time Out leans to competition with aims like its own—in particular, The New York Times, The Village Voice, and New York magazine. Influence now means who gets to tell New Yorkers what to do this weekend. Surely not coincidentally, it ranks critics by accessibility, taste, and style, but not depth or insight. If that rules out criticism with greater ambition, it should not sound altogether crass. For one thing, it attests to the conundrum of art in an increasingly commercial scene. No movement, with a theoretical champion, claims to be changing much of anything.

In turn, The Times has come a long way since Hilton Kramer spent years there trying to fend off American art since 1940. Interviewed in Art and Auction, Smith says that she aims to get people "out of the house." At least that conveys passion, and it does not come at the expense of her many intriguing thoughts along the way. Meanwhile, Art in America looks like an extension of its advertising and reads like a card catalog. Ironically, the magazine holds periodic debates on whether criticism can do better than description without discretion.

I like the survey, too, because within its limits I agree with it. It gives top honors to Saltz, then at The Voice, and to Smith, whom it praises for not giving up after Michael Kimmelman, as Times head critic, could well have marginalized her. Both Saltz and Smith write knowledgeably and well, both seek out more than safe galleries, and both try to explain why you and I should, too. Smith loses a few votes for often ending "on the other hand," but that means she is thinking. If it took notice of me, Time Out would surely downgrade me for the same tic, in spades. It might also not care for a lingering conservatism in my admiration for painting alongside the new media I love, abstraction alongside political art, and dead white males alongside feminism.


The Web does change things. I like to think that I offer premeditated, theoretically informed reviews—and sometimes even readable ones. At least one blogger, Catherine Spaeth, does. Still, blogs thrive on short posts, celebrity sightings, personal reports from openings, and lots of images. Galleries love to hate James Kalm's video diary, but he gets them publicity. A more literate voice, Tyler Green, nonetheless shares with political bloggers the form of commentary on the mainstream media. Perhaps the most interesting art blog, from Ed Winkleman, exploits the potential for open threads and back-and-forth comments.

However, mostly the blogs comment rather than report or interpret, and mostly they comment on each other. The medium encourages two paragraphs a day of potshots. Saltz has put himself in the picture more as well, starting with his overnight stay at the Guggenheim, as part of its display of Carsten Höller and "relational esthetics." He hardly noted his own privileged position, among the hotel bed's few guests. A blogger's self-obsession also dogs Hickey's populism, which holds up consumer culture as a model for art. When Hickey complains about the levels of press passes at art fairs, he attests to his own insider status.

He also helps reinforce the idea of art as a private club, with higher and higher admission fees. And in fact, just as with art and newspapers, the Web is only a small part of the problem. Criticism has changed not because theory or technology says so, but because art and its public have changed, and they have changed because of money. Boom or bust, art has a wider audience, more invested, and more overlap with mass culture. With its trashy installations, Postmodernism is in effect Modernism with a short attention span—very much like a blog. The practice of art gets the criticism it deserves.

It certainly gets the arts magazines it deserves. Advertising long ago buried the text in the best-known monthlies, to the point that one reads them for the ads—like a glossy, if not exactly impartial gallery guide. Advertising also blends into the photography accompanying the articles. Not surprisingly, the latter are wildly favorable. Capsule reviews in Art in American may have more leeway for dissent, but with space constraints that make those in the Times look like doctoral theses. Meanwhile Artforum and gossipy reflect the tension between its place in this crowd and its roots in cultural criticism.

There are a lot of smart artists out there, and they still read smart books. Many of them would know, say, that Baudrillard's "hyperreal" has much in common with the Web. Press releases still quote or misquote theory, too, if only as sheer validation—not "artspeak" but "martspeak." Conversely, daily and weekly art criticism is more informed and less anti-intellectual than ever before, even apart from cyberspace. My classmates back then could count on Hilton Kramer in the Times to dismiss art since World War II. Now writers like Saltz and Smith weigh emerging artists, while Brooklyn artists comment on them.

Arts writing and its influence on art keep changing. At one time, critics relied on Marxism and other intellectual currents—not all on the left—while also finding the critique productive of new art. Conservatives might then have preferred a simple notion of quality, but that made them insiders, too. More recently, conservatives have co-opted the critique of the art world, only in order to identify the private club with academia. In this way, their dislike of contemporary art can pass for populism. Someone should tell them that academia may yet be losing out to the market after all, and art may not be the winner.

Postscript: velvet ropes and Facebook friends

What if a star refused to hide behind the velvet ropes or duck into his limousine? What if he stepped into the crowd, welcomed all comers, and partied till dawn? As things got wild, he might feel the temptation to sort true fans from crazies. If emotions flared as the night wore on, anything might happen.

Jerry Saltz obviously does not have a limousine. He has even spilled a bit about his history, from driving a truck to juggling teaching jobs while writing about art, and he has sat quietly in the audience of a critics panel at Winkleman gallery, as if he still had a lot to learn. If anyone counts as a star, though, he does. The New York magazine critic needed help to start his Facebook page not so very long ago, perhaps hardly meaning to pursue it, but it says much about his generous and open nature that it sucked him in. He quickly started using his posts to pose questions and to welcome discussion. He wades into the mountains of comments and joins in, where most bloggers settle for ringing up the total hits.

It was bound to suck others in as well. What artist could resist the dream of a top critic's attention? What reader could resist the provocation and the energy? Certainly not bloggers like Tyler Green, who was already scrutinizing the art scene's sympathies and connections as if for evidence of Obama's foreign citizenship. Not the legions of friends, who quickly numbered in the thousands while growing at once more flattering and contentious. It was a tribute to Saltz and to the power of a new medium, but also an explosion waiting to happen.

As everyone who at all cares knows by now, the explosion came in early 2010, thanks to John Yau in The Brooklyn Rail. In "The Difference Between Jerry Saltz's America and Mine," he accused Saltz of "shilling for Jeff Koons." Saltz had called Koons "emblematic of America," and he meant it as a compliment. Puppy in Rockefeller Center last year was "big, bright, shiny, crowd pleasing, heat-seeking, impeccably produced, polished, popular, expensive, and extroverted." Yau quoted his own 1993 critique of Koons, but he did more than differ on the man-child's meaning and value. His title already echoes John Edwards on two Americas, one of them aligned with corporate interests, and "shilling" evokes a widespread frustration at the role of money and celebrity in the revolving door of galleries and museums.

Minor sparks preceded the explosion. Saltz had already defriended Green, who has continued the food fight anyway on his own turf. Saltz has had to prune inactive friends regardless, thanks to Facebook's limits, which only heightens suspicions that he is herding fans. And this time he fired right back, calling Yau a "dick" and accusing him of criticizing art he had not seen. And then came his defense, several times over. If he had sold out, why did he earn so little? He posted long Facebook notes, insisting that he welcomes criticism and that others have grown way too cynical—again, about art they refuse to see.

Now, 1993 is a long time ago in Web terms, but has anyone not seen Puppy? And people have sold out for less, going back to the eponymous Judas, although I do not believe Saltz has. Even the statement of what a critic earns marks him as an insider. I get barely a tenth the rates he cites for the occasional magazine review, and I would at least consider trading an exhausting day job for part-time teaching. It hardly helps to start by calling someone a dick, especially in an article dismissing Yau as a poor, rambling writer. Besides, if you have to explain how well you take criticism, it is a safe bet that you do not, at least this once.

Criticism as social networking

However, I am not interested in choosing sides. The Brooklyn Rail makes a real contribution, with sharp coverage of big institutions, plus less-heralded reviews of artists far and wide. Saltz himself says that cover art by William Powhida changed his mind about the New Museum. But there should be no question of Saltz's warmth and sincerity, quite apart from his later pan of "Skin Fruit" and what it says about the New Museum. Hey, Edwards proved flawed and impulsive, too, but not, I am convinced, hypocritical in his politics. I am also not interested in Koons this once, although I consider him less an expression of adult male vulnerability than even Yau thinks—more the confidence of an overgrown child.

Rather, I want to ask what the explosion says about the mix of art and social networking, a problem that came yet again late in March 2010 with scathing (and not at all fair) criticism of Saltz by Richard Flood. Has the Internet, as Edward Winkleman asks in his blog, changed the rules once and for all? Has Saltz's Facebook page opened the art world once and for all, or has it changed his opinions for the worse? Are the velvet ropes gone forever, or has stardom only grown worse thanks to online exposure? I asked who counts as a critic just a year ago, and I still wonder. An online community got me writing, I started this site in 1994, and I made the home page a blog in 2002, but I am still for all intents and purposes a mere bystander.

Saltz's very notoriety says something about the nasty mix waiting to explode. While other critics and curators have Facebook pages, none thus far post all that much. The divide between him and his Facebook friends remains despite his best efforts. Their comments, after all, vent their sense of exclusion. And many of the same artists look for validation to recent articles by Saltz's wife, Roberta Smith of The Times, who in fact has a very different critical agenda. The very week he posted a link to her work and wrote that he agreed with every word, he lavished praise on Tino Sehgal—yet another of the museum performances she called into question.

Perhaps all this means nothing more than an individual with outsize enthusiasms. Where Smith saw "a visual austerity and coolness of temperature," Sehgal brought Saltz to tears. Individuals aside, however, things are changing. Digital artists have long claimed that their science and art change everything. They do not not offer a new master narrative, but the video camera and the Web have expanded actors and audiences, like the printing press before them, with consequences no one can know. And one consequence might be too many fans and too much applause.

New media like Facebook can even erect more velvet ropes. Opening the collected reviews in Saltz's Seeing Out Loud brings a shock. There he was, the critic who once worried about Chelsea's "battle for Babylon." There he was, calling for Thomas Krens to resign from the Guggenheim. I felt the same way, which is why I began to cite him alongside more scholarly criticism of art institutions. These days, it often seems, he cannot find a museum installation that does not bring him to tears.

Saltz uses criticism to share his enthusiasms, and that is what makes him worthwhile. At The Village Voice, he drew attention by applauding John Currin—but for all that, he reads very differently today. Saltz and you can happily differ on Koons (or any number of others), but I have to wonder: has the constant adulation online softened his outlook on the present? Facebook is now an institution, too. It could also make good critics better—if they draw the right lessons.

BACK to John's arts home page

The Time Out New York rankings, "Critiquing the Critics," appeared in the issue of December 7–13, 2006.


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