Criticism in the Instagram Age

Are Many Thumbs the New Talking Heads?

“Criticism is dead!” has been the rallying cry for the past decade as newspapers and journalists alike have been coming to terms with the seismic changes in the publishing world, while the Internet has flowered and bloomed.

Robert Storr, a respected curator and former dean of the Yale School of Art, echoed these sentiments in an interview for Yale Radio a few years ago, declaring journalism to be “the lowest it has ever been,” denouncing the admired critics Roberta Smith and her husband Jerry Saltz as egotists and clowns, respectively. “Frankly, none of these people are interesting enough to really merit being a presence overall,” he concluded.

A debatable claim, but he was right to note that the landscape of criticism, particularly that of arts criticism, is rapidly shifting, thanks in part to the Internet and the advent of social media. It’s allowed for a democratization, a dethroning of the elite that reigned supreme among art critics, whose years of formal education and a cultivation of refined taste has been swiftly replaced by a generation of Youtubers and Twitter users, who have thoughtfully — and thoughtlessly — added their opinions to the now over-saturated web of critique.

In the timeline of arts criticism, we might put the starting date at 1550, when Giorgio Vasari published his seminal Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, from Cimabue to Our Times. While the work is referenced as biography, it serves as a sort of “soft criticism” but from a biased viewer. As its title suggests, Vasari was flowery and fond in his writings of these artists, something today’s critics would urge caution about. Jumping 400 years to the 1960s and 70s, a large portion of art writing (and art criticism) was done by artists themselves, perhaps the only people at the time who could truly understand and engage with the artists they spoke so eloquently about.

Today, most critics are far removed from the world of creating art, and prefer their more passive contributions to the art world. Those who hold the formal title of “critic” will tell you that they welcome this new herd of voices, but are also skeptical that the bar has been lowered too much, that opinion is now taken as fact.

But there’s something that these new critics (a title contested by Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight) offer that historically, critics and artists alike could not: a lack of prejudice. Without these formalized educations and years of being told what is “good” and “bad” art, these newcomers can react in a more authentic and visceral way, taking works of art at face value. Perhaps these outsiders offer the vision that the art world so desperately needs.

Thus, in this new world where anyone can tweet out their opinions, the question is raised as to what now defines a critic. Alex Greenberger, managing editor of Artnews, says it’s become difficult to quantify. “It’s easier to start with what doesn’t define a critic anymore,” says Greenberger. “It used to be you had to study art history, at least get an undergraduate degree, maybe a masters too. It really required a denser knowledge of art than people need today.”

While some, like Storr, decry the “dumbing down” of journalism as the Internet allows for an unfiltered access to opinion, Greenberger is more positive. “It’s allowed people who might have perspectives that might normally be shut out by the art world which tends to be high minded and pretentious and obsessed with theory — it allows them to have a platform,” he says. But, he concedes, “it sometimes brings the standard too low.”

His sentiments are mirrored by Jennifer Liese, author of a recent anthology of artist writing entitled A Social Medium: Artists Writing, 2000–2015. “My leanings are very democratic, and I am an advocate for supporting and amplifying multiple voices and providing space for them to be heard even if the craft isn’t thoroughly developed,” she says. “The way our education system, economic system, and identity system are run in this country shuts a lot of people out, including artists as an underrepresented voice. And I’m all for quality, I’m all for craft, I’m all for honed and trained and expert voices. But my personal work is about providing space for varieties of voices to be heard.”

There’s also a question of whether there’s a distinction between journalist and critic. Knight himself claims he’s a journalist first, a critic second. Eric Banks, a former senior editor at Artforum calls the relationship between the two “slippery”. “Artforum is one of the rare print journals that are critical journals and are not journalism, but are really orchids of criticism that have such an outsized relationship to the particular discipline that it’s almost difficult to compare across different genres,” he says.

Noting that its impact has severely lessened, Banks describes the implication of getting a cover feature on Artforum some 30 or 40 years ago. “It used to be such an impossible-to-overstate level of importance when you got an Artforum cover. It was a little bit like getting a MoMA retrospective. You’d become a made man,” he says. “That was one of the markers of becoming an artist in the 60s. The closest that you would get to it would be the relationship between Vogue and fashion, or Rolling Stone and music, in a certain period of time. And even that’s not true because those are super commercial and giant world industries.”

Whether the term should be journalist or critic, many agree that the point of access to criticism should not be dependent on a degree. “I don’t think one needs to be a professional to understand art, one doesn’t have to be a professional art engager in order to write criticism, I don’t think you need an art history degree,” says Knight. “But I would take issue with the claim that what people put on social media is criticism. The rendering of opinion is not the rendering of criticism; criticism is disciplined, and opinion mongering is not. Thumbs up, thumbs down, anybody can do that. It’s pretty simple. But criticism is about writing, and social media does not allow writing.”

“That’s the central issue of criticism today — you can’t really talk about it, you can’t really articulate it, you can’t really think about it,” adds Banks. “It’s not about not liking or disliking or unliking. It’s more that liking has become the only social action that has value, and it’s done in this weird technologized prosthetic existence for a virtual community.”

And virtual communities give rise to virtual identities, in which online capital is defined as likes and follows, aesthetics over discourse. Some of the most successful recent museum exhibitions have been deliberately set up to be Instagram and selfie friendly. Perhaps Storr’s sentiments are misdirected — the so-called dumbing down may be in the art itself, not in the subsequent criticism of it.

Social media has had an enormous effect on art criticism, but it also has impacted the formation of art itself as artists seek to create work that is either shocking enough to go viral (like at this year’s Whitney Biennial, where artist Jordan Wolfson presented a virtual reality simulation of a man being violently beaten) or is aesthetically pleasing enough to be Instagrammable (like last year’s wildly successful Pipilotti Rist retrospective at the New Museum). “The Yayoi Kusama mirrored room exhibition [at the Broad Museum in Los Angeles] — that is a museum generated exhibition that I believe is exclusively geared towards creating popular buzz through Instagram and selfies and all that stuff, and that’s really stupid. It’s boring!” says Knight. “It’s really a dumb idea.”

Though, he allows, there is a smart way to go about it. He describes a new body of work by conceptual artist Cindy Sherman in which recreations of her infamous portraits are blown up to a billboard size, to match the size of her growing reputation. “I think they’re specifically made so that ‘fans’ of her work can have their pictures taken in front of them, selfies taken,” he says. “That to me is a really interesting use of current technology and social media, because she’s doing it in a critical kind of way. It engages her work in a manner that the work is already about.”

Orit Gat, a transatlantic writer who balances her time between London and New York, has a contrasting perspective on museums creating buzzworthy shows. As users are cultivating online identities by association with art (whether taking photos of the art, or taking selfies with the art), museums have taken note and are adjusting appropriately. “It comes with a certain lifestyle presented, the mannequin personality presented. You eat avocado toast and you take a photograph in the New Museum, and you seem like you’re living this certain Time Out lifestyle in New York City. You go to the recommended shows and restaurants and are living it up,” she says. “So it’s a form of engagement, and museums are interested in all audience engagement — and thus, you can’t really shut down that kind of engagement.” As the old adage goes: if you can’t beat them, join them.

Plus, adds Banks, contemporary art is now made with an intent of consumption, so it’s only appropriate that works and exhibitions become more photogenic; “Art is going to be consumed some way or another, mainly by circulating digital images of the art, not from anybody going to see the painting,” he says.

But will these circulating images replace the written word? For the past decade, critics, historians, and writers of all stripes alike have nervously been wondering if criticism is dying; if writing is dying. One wonders if these Instagram shots are predictive of a future in which the art audience ceases to engage with written critical discourse in favor of Instagram snaps to decide whether it’s worth making the trek out to the Brooklyn Museum to see whatever new show is available.

Both Greenberger and Knight are surprisingly optimistic about the future of writing. “I don’t think that this visual stuff is ever going to completely supplant the written word,” says Greenberger. “It’s just going to be reconfigured in new ways we haven’t imagined yet.”

Adds Knight: “The written word will always have a place. There’s great pressure in the newspaper business now to include video with almost every story that’s written, and certainly most every major review will have a video component, but I don’t think it’s going to replace it, and partially that’s because one of the things that newspapers have to sell is writing. There are very few places that one can turn these days to find writing, good, serious, smart writing about art, and so if you have that to offer, there’ll be a market for it that’s not being served elsewhere.”

Other ways in which the Internet’s effect seeps into writing is perhaps less overt. There’s a theme of hyperbole woven through many critical pieces, in which writers — whether through their own volition, or through pressure from editors — are becoming more extremist in their language, turning criticism into something more entertaining, to push more copy, to go viral, and be shared more online. And certainly, the meaner the sentiment, the more entertaining and more likely to be shared a piece of criticism is.

“It’s a shifting nature of financial support for the publication,” says Gat. “Artforum doesn’t publish negative reviews. They just don’t. They consider it not worth their real estate. But the reason they’re not publishing negative reviews is that they don’t want to upset their advertisers. Going viral is a financial incentive, and thus, yes, you’ll see more of the Artnet clickbait-y stuff. But part of the problem is that to use hyperbolic language, you actually have to be quite good to be effective, and people are so tempted to overproduce online.”

Also, it’s just a sign of lazy journalism. “It’s much easier to be mean than to really support why you like something,” continues Gat. “If you take away the ‘it’s pretty’ then how do you explain why you like something? How do you explain that feeling? How do you explain that something is constructive, or transformative? But you can easily explain ‘this looks terrible’.”

Knight describes his role at the Los Angeles Times as existing to help sell newspapers and to generate traffic to the website. Because his newspaper doesn’t have much in the way of art advertising, he’s granted more freedom to be honest about his opinion than critics may find at the New York Times. “The idea of creating conflict is in some respects intrinsic to the medium, because of pop culture — the entertainment end of pop culture is always driven by conflict and conflict resolution,” says Knight. “It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about Shakespeare or a review of Jeff Koons. Conflict and its resolution is integral to the entertainment value of pop culture. Clickbait is mostly enticing clicks with the promise of conflict, and it feels dirty. It feels like you’re being used and exploited and taken advantage of, and I’m not interested in that. But if there is conflict, it’s a mistake to shy away from that.”

Part of Storr’s complaint — particularly in regards to Roberta Smith and Jerry Saltz — is the notion of egotism present in criticism, which goes hand in hand with the elitism that runs through the business. And perhaps this is why younger critics are seen as refreshing; their lack of pretense typically comes with a lack of ego, or even an “I” statement in their discourse.

But ego can be a positive in writing. “As long as egotism doesn’t interfere with the thoughtfulness of [the criticism], it’s ok,” says Greenberger. “It’s good to know you’re reading a personal; you want to know that something’s branded. The goal for a good critic is to brand your writing, to have someone — before they even see that byline — say, ‘Oh, I know who this is by.’”

And, adds Liese, bringing subjective experience into writing can make a piece of criticism feel much stronger and much more convincing. “I feel like there’s a distinction between ego and self, or ego and subjectivity, or personal response,” says Liese. “I’ve thought of it as acknowledging the subjective experience, the personal experience, the one to one experience that we have with art in writing as a bridge between your own experience and that of others, rather than suppressing that part in favor of seeming objective. I don’t think that including the subjective response forecloses on being able to also have a critical distance.”

Barring the Internet’s affect, perhaps the biggest thing that could alter the form of criticism is the threat of defunding of the NEA. If art becomes more difficult to access, then what is the point of critiquing an exhibit if no one can see it? Will critics become our next educators? Banks says no.

“The contemporary art world has become much more consumable. The idea of critic as explainer, which has had a real currency for the last fifty years both in the visual arts and in publishing, I don’t think that kind of figure exists anymore,” he says. “There’s been an anti-intellectual streak in the world. With contemporary art, it’s very much about politics and representation, and pop culture codes. There’s some high culture stuff too, but it’s just designed to be accessible. It’s designed to speak to a much broader audience than it ever did.”

Alternatively, critics may be the last line of defense to make the case for the importance of the arts. “I wonder if criticism will be to make art seem worthwhile and invaluable after the NEA is defunded, because it’s pushed away from [intelligent] discourse,” muses Gat. “Criticism is less educating because it’s shoving down people’s throats, like [art] is somehow worthwhile. It’s really hard to make a case for at a time when healthcare is being defunded as well.”

Sadly, says Knight, we don’t live in a country that truly values and recognizes the importance of the arts. “If we really believed in American society that art is important, it would be a requirement in the public school system, and it isn’t,” he says. “So we don’t really believe that. We don’t really believe that art has value. We like to give it lip service, that art is significant, but we don’t put our public funding money where our mouths are. We don’t do that.”

Knight remains undaunted in the face of criticism’s potential extinction. “Criticism has always been a special interest form to begin with, and that’s one of its strengths,” he says, noting that it shouldn’t try to bend and conform to new technologies or new audiences. “It doesn’t have to appeal to a huge audience. It can appeal to a much more particularized audience and that’s a virtue. Most Americans don’t like art, so I don’t worry about them. That’s their problem!”

Journalist and young art historian based in NYC

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store