Art Criticism in the Age of Yelp

(3)

Thomas Struth, Hermitage 3, St. Petersburg (2005).

I. Amazon 

Amazon used to have literary ambitions. In the late '90s, the company hired professional editors who commissioned and wrote thousands of reviews a week, as well as features, interviews, and previews of forthcoming books. Later on, when the retailer began to intersperse the paid reviews with user-generated content, it retained this vision, thinking of user reviews as submissions to a literary magazine that would give the site the aura of an independent bookshop, populated by an erudite staff and clientele. Rick Ayre, then Vice President and Executive Editor of Amazon, described the tone and use of the content on Amazon.com to the New York Times in 1999: "If you spend a lot of time on the site, I hope you get a sense of the quirky, independent, literate voice, and that behind it all you're interacting with people, and that it's people who care about these things, not people who are trying to sell you these things. My mantra has always been 'the perfect context for a purchase decision.'"1

Today, almost all content on Amazon is created by users. This may be the single greatest triumph of the customer-written product review over the work of professionals. In keeping with the small, independent bookstore feeling that the site tried to convey early on by providing shoppers with information about a book as well as the ability to buy it, the reviews evoke word of mouth recommendations offered by peers.

The amazing thing is that this system lasted even as the site grew from a relatively cohesive community to an online juggernaut. Amazon introduced the user-generated reviews when it was an experimental commercial entity. Its shoppers were a self-selecting group: people who, as the New York Times put it, were willing to be "so free and easy with their encrypted credit-card numbers" to be early adopters of online shopping. It wasn't that small of a group, really—by 1998, Amazon had more than six million customers—but it had a sense of community. The fact that user-generated reviews have stood the test of time through the incredible leap in our perception of the way we communicate, shop, and browse material on the internet is telling. Like Amazon itself, the user-generated reviews are no longer limited to the literary field. Amazon's founder Jeff Bezos started off selling books on the site because they are stable products—you know what you're getting and it's easy to compare to the exact same product somewhere else. This stability generated a sense of security in Amazon clients, allowing the product reviews to function as broadly applicable recommendations, not simply testimonies about unreplicable experiences. Now we frequently rely on user reviews to provide accounts of much less concrete things, on Amazon and off, from service at hotels to that new sandwich at the café down the street.

One of the lingering traces of Amazon's early ethos, its vision of a combined online bookstore and magazine, is the fact that these accounts are described as reviews (as opposed to a more quantitative-sounding term like "user feedback" or "ratings"). Now that Amazon has shed its literary ambitions, what style of writing does it promote? What type of criticism? Today, when so much of what we do online is read—and sometimes write—reviews, how does that alter our understanding of what criticism is?2

II. Yelp 

I recently reread Jennifer Allen's excellent short essay "Death Becomes Them" in frieze. Apart from the lovely insertion of a scene from Ratatouille where the food critic Anton Ego describes the work of criticism ("In many ways, the work of a critic is easy, we risk very little…but the bitter truth we must face is that in the grand scheme of things the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating itself"), Allen discusses the "macabre business of art criticism" and its untenable nature. In trying to justify the practice of contemporary art criticism—and the many discussions thereof—she turns to the community of critics, delineating the fact that discourse about art is now created simultaneously in exhibitions and their reviews by the same people: the curator who freelances writing criticism. The rise of this critic-curator sure does complicate the question of who is writing—and for whom.3 To begin to get to the bottom of this, frieze also ran a survey of art critics titled "Who do you write for" on its blog last year. The London magazine, which has played a central role in documenting and analyzing what has been widely discussed in the past ten years as post-critical criticism, or simply, a "death of criticism,"4 contacted twelve critics who write for different outlets, from blogs to newspapers and magazines, asking them about the public they have in mind when writing reviews. None of the respondents discussed any kind of direct relationship with readers, be it via letters to the editors, comments sections online, or social media. The assumption is that by existing, by being written and printed, a review is already valuable. There is no need to ask the readers if they found it "useful, funny, or cool" as Yelp does, or "helpful," as Amazon phrases it. The writers did discuss their sense of mission and responsibility, their idea of making a contribution to a field or creating documents that would become useful with time, and the way culture is generated by conversation.5

"For me, writing criticism is not about producing critical discourse. It's more about thinking through what is wrong with the art world as it is," explains writer Brian Droitcour, who is currently working through some of these problems by writing reviews on Yelp, the website that hosts user-generated reviews of storefront businesses. Unlike other sites that prominently feature reviews, Yelp does not sell objects or facilitate services—it simply organizes and facilitates the creation of user-generated content. For nearly two years, Droitcour has been writing reviews of art galleries and museums on Yelp. Not that this qualifier is necessary, but Droitcour has written for several art magazines, and in the past wrote reviews for Artforum.com, as well as articles for Rhizome. His embrace of Yelp started as a kind of joke: "I was talking to someone at an opening about the Ai Weiwei show at Mary Boone Gallery, and we were trying to figure out if it was still open. When I Googled it, one of the top results was a Yelp review and I was like, 'Oh my god, I really want to review galleries on Yelp.'" Part of the attraction was the ability to adopt a more direct style of critical writing. (Case in point: "There are dozens of places in Chelsea to see decent art in favorable installation conditions. Don't waste your time here." [From a review of Family Business, April 2013.]) Droitcour says the more he wrote on Yelp, the more these reviews morphed into a process of questioning the role of the critic and the nature of criticism, and a way to get outside of the process of value-creation that most writing about art participates in. "As an art writer, when you write a review at times you feel like it's just giving the gallery something to publicize, another page in the binder, another line on the CV for the artist. I was just super frustrated with reviews," Droitcour explains. Yelp reviews, generally speaking, are not included in such binders.

In a writing style that picks up on both the casualness and directness of reviews on Yelp, Droitcour manages to avoid many of the pitfalls of art reviewing, those traits (convoluted sentences, overly grand claims, reliance on jargon) that have led to the many essays putting art criticism to death. Could Yelp be the answer for some of the stylistic issues with criticism? It's hard to ignore the prevailing tone in Yelp reviews. As they refer largely to experiences, they are highly subjective; every other sentence begins with "I," and they include a lot of storytelling and little information. ("I went with two of my friends who live for this sort of place.") Droitcour picks up on that style—developed to describe food, drink, beauty, or shopping—in a very conscious way. "It was like the art was made for the brand of the place and beyond that it's unremarkable. Two stars is 'meh' and that was how I felt about this gallery. First lol, then meh" (Venus Over Manhattan, review from October 2013). Droitcour's use of language is not just an attempt to make his reviews accessible or to participate in Yelp culture: it's meant to inflate certain propensities of Yelp syntax in order to point out both the absurdities of value creation through art criticism, as well as the evasiveness of a lot of writing about art. "I think user-generated content is imitating the discourse of PR, advertising, and journalism," Droitcour concedes, "but at the same time it's something that's more individual and personal and doesn't belong to a body of discourse in the same way that criticism does."

Although the personal nature of user reviews is central to their appeal to Droitcour, it is their descriptive content that is often valued by readers. In a survey of Amazon reviewers, 90 percent of them said that a concise description of the content of a book is an important factor in making a review useful. So much of writing about art, too, has traditionally been about description. This is especially true when reviews are published after the fact, in magazines that will hit the stands a month or two after a show's close. On the one hand, these descriptions will one day provide crucial primary information for researchers (especially with contemporary work, where installation shots do not always do the display justice). On the other, they also lead to the questionable tendency to write reviews that can be best described as a shopping list of what's there (Peter Schjeldahl said it wonderfully that in the 1970s criticism "became a matter of just keeping track of things, making taxonomical systems").6

These shopping list reviews rely heavily on flair. In a roundtable of art critics published in October magazine, writer James Meyer explains the role of writerly style in magazine writing:

The word "writerly" is used to describe a criticism which, having pretensions to the literary, is valorized for its tone of sensibility and its capacity to seduce, to sell a magazine. It is not writerly in the Barthesian sense of a disruptive kind of writing. On the contrary, the belletristic model, as one finds in the current Artforum, or in a collector-oriented publication like Parkett, could be described as antiwriterly in ambition. And because it often concerns the author's "feelings" or personality, belletristic writing of this kind tends to avoid a sustained reflection on the art. This style is supposed to appeal to readers; it keeps the magazine afloat. All well and good—but at what cost?7

Often, the cost is nonsensical writing for the sake of writing. The Yelp style, in contrast, describes personal taste in a way that is uninhibited by the need to demonstrate one's expertise. Sure, a lot of reviewers qualify their pieces by rhetorical gestures that point to a certain amount of experience ("I go to a lot of restaurants," "I've lived in this area for twenty years"), but all in all, even though writers on Yelp or Amazon have a sense of the structure of criticism, their use of language is a mixture of tropes of professionalism, the language of press releases (not to mention outright plagiarism), and unrestrained personal claims that stand in for arguments ("This is my favorite lobster roll in town"). This slippage is one result of the explosion of participation in criticism. But just as formalized criticism informs the style of writers on Yelp, maybe part of its candidness could seep back into other kinds of reviews. 

III. Positive/Negative

One of the strongest statements in a review is its subject. For every review a magazine runs, countless exhibitions went unnoticed. Not having space to cover everything is one of the virtues of the magazine. It's selective. Yelp, meanwhile, could potentially include every storefront in New York City. How do the economics of criticism change when something traditionally scarce becomes so abundant? Reviews turn symbolic capital—attention and critical writing—into monetary capital. The brilliance of Amazon's introduction of the user-generated reviews is that the company could monetize something that it needn't take any responsibility for. While the integrity of many—maybe even most—reviews on Amazon can be questioned, the effect of having original (or semi-original) content pertaining to the product sold reaches beyond the actual constituents of any single review.8

Yelp is often seen as an enemy of small businesses.9 It's so easy to take down a place via a negative review that it often motivates disgruntled clients to write, even if they do not habitually contribute to Yelp. Similarly, Amazon reviews recently made the news after a group of Michael Jackson fans self-organized on social media to bombard a new biography of the singer with one-star reviews. The New York Times reported that "The fans, who call themselves Michael Jackson's Rapid Response Team to Media Attacks, say they are exercising their free speech rights to protest a book they feel is exploitative and inaccurate."10 The fans' sentiment that it is their privilege to use Amazon reviews as they see fit (that is, in order to take down a book some of them presumably haven't read because they disagree with its premise) is indicative of the way we conceive of user-generated reviews as discursive apparatuses. Thus, even though a lot of user-generated reviews draw on the language of advertising, they can be extremely disruptive to branding. Could art criticism make a similar move? And could Yelp, or sites similar to it, propose a subversive location for such criticism that is not as dependent on market forces?

Artforum.com's reviews section is framed as "picks." While the in-print reviews for the magazine introduce a multiplicity of voices, both negative and positive, the online reviews are shorter, published more quickly, and almost always positive—that is, they are recommendations. Droitcour too admits to largely writing positive reviews on Yelp—"Most of my reviews are four or five stars. The thing is, I like art. My writing on Yelp is not about making fun of the art world—it's about problems with art, but it's also about trying to figure out what people respond to, or ways to respond to complex things in everyday language. If I were to write a negative review then I'd think a lot about it." Artforum.com's Picks have different goals than the magazine's reviews section: they aim to offer timely, original analysis of work while alerting readers to worthy exhibitions as they happen. But they don't allow the critic much latitude. Negative reviews have certain benefits; they allow a writer to engage with art in a way that isn't only cheerleading. Is it really possible to develop a coherent, lasting voice when all one writes is positive reviews?

We trust each other on Yelp. The reviews have the caché of word of mouth recommendations, and even when considering their marketing-like language, they do not necessarily reflect the intentions of the brand in question. This subversive character of the user-generated reviews can be completely seamless and unintentional, since the reviews are often rooted in the gap between expectation and experience—and users seeing this gap as the content other people may look for. A high-end fashion store won't appreciate Yelp reviews discussing the value-for-the-money of its products (since what it sells is not the products but what they represent), but a reviewer may feel like that is exactly the kind of information he or she is looking for in reviews of said products, since the brand identity is already common knowledge. Yelp seems to try and minimize brand-driven content—it's no accident that one of the feedback options on reviews on the site (all feedback buttons are positive, by the way) is "useful"—as the assumption is that readers are scouring it for a certain kind of data.

Could there be a similar subversiveness in formalized art reviews? What would that read like? A number of the essays and conversations on the aforementioned death or crisis of criticism refer to an absence of clear criteria for judgment as the number-one sign of said death. It seems like when art critics have nothing to say, they revert to saying very little, an amalgamation of prior knowledge slapped onto new work because that seems like the stuff of art history. I've seen a number of writers confess to wanting to write "around" a certain topic, a shifty way to not take responsibility when writing about a subject. If formulaic writing on art is a way to cover a lack of things to say (Polly Staple marvelously termed "binary fluffing" the routine use of oxymorons that seem as if they'd mean something, but are actually devoid of all content: "complexly simple," "ironic and clear," "unequivocally ambiguous"), then maybe relying on experience can be one model for a form of writing that focuses on looking at work, similarly to the way restaurant reviews are a good archetype for writing illustrative, description-oriented prose.

IV. Professionalization

Droitcour sees a political possibility in Yelp. "I read about the Soviet Union in the 1920s and ideas of amateur criticism that emerged then, when people were asking questions about what the goals of Soviet culture should be: to educate everyone and bring them to the same level of bourgeois taste, or let people do what they want and be amateur artists?" If bringing everyone to the same level would result in homoegeneity, Yelp holds a potentially radical political proposition in that it allows everyone to be an amateur critic, to voice ideas and opinions, even if that goes toward writing mainly about lifestyle, restaurants, and so forth. There is a kind of overindulgent, privileged tone to a lot of Yelp reviews, but a large part of the motivation for writing them is social. In their survey of the top thousand reviewers on Amazon, sociologists Trevor Pinch and David Kesler asked what motivates them to write. While the top results were self-expression and enjoyment, a "sense of community" was also key, as well as the idea that it is "clear that altruism in its own right is very prominent," with users citing "educating readers on other topics" and "introducing others to writers they might not otherwise know" as motivating factors.11

If we socialize via criticism online, could reviews reshuffle social relations? "You can escape politics as a theoretician, or as an art historian, but not as a critic," says theorist Boris Groys in an interview with Brian Dillon. "This politics excludes absolutely the possibility of being representative of the public, in whatever sense you understand that. Instead, it presupposes a certain obligation toward artists, curators and so on. You mention people that you like, and you don't mention the people you don't like."12 What Yelp offers, then, is a way out of this impasse—a possibility of not just being obligated to professional colleagues, but a sense of belonging to a public. But however democratizing and promising this may sound, it is not an alternative to peer-reviewed, remunerated writing. Contributing to Yelp is not professionally motivated—it is, in fact, the ultimate hobbyism, which is exploited by the corporation.

Thinking about the role of reviews today, Droitcour ties the work of the professional critic to capitalism and the market. "I'm not saying Yelp is going to smash this system, of course not. But it can be seen as modeling a weird mix of exploitative forms but also ones that are destroying these other oppressive regimes." But it also means that the labor relations on Yelp favor deskilled workers as contributors. They 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. In the best-case scenario, this feeling of community produces criteria.13 But it also allows for a sloppy, irresponsible style and lack of editorial oversight. So much so that restaurant critic Hanna Raskin wrote Yelp Help, a how-to book about writing online food reviews, explaining that she firmly believes that "our culinary culture would be tremendously enhanced if users of online reviewing sites such as Yelp, Urbanspoon, TripAdvisor and Voice Places had the tools they needed to produce valuable write-ups of their meals."14

The questions of labor relations and ethics in online criticism seem undetachable. Since reviews on sites like Yelp and Amazon can be anonymous, the writers do not necessarily have a sense of personal culpability for their writing (which leads to the aforementioned attacks on Yelp as the enemy of small businesses), but since they are not paid, there is also no quality control—not only for style, but also for fact checking and plagiarism. Amazon reviews redefine plagiarism in relation to utility—Pinch estimates that about 1% of the reviews on the site are plagiarized (in full or in part)—as one result of said lack of responsibility is that once language is deemed useful for one object of review, it can be shifted to another. Moreover, not paying writers while controlling the content allows sites that feature contributed reviews to arrange information on the site in ways that align with advertising and other corporate needs without heeding to any conditions posed by the writers, since they are not contracted employees. Deskilled, unremunerated labor also means a loss of any control over how one's intellectual property is presented.

V. Not Dead Yet

The reason to consider Yelp, Amazon, or similar websites' relationship to criticism is rooted in a historical moment in which users' accounts of an experience or a product began to be framed as reviews. As with many other online concepts that caught on, these contributions were framed as "reviews" early on and came to define our continued use of the term for years to come. (See: Facebook's "like" button.) Amazon's use of the word "reviews" means that our expectation of criticism is now tied to a practice that is only loosely related to the formalized practice of writing reviews for print. In this time of "quiet crisis" of criticism, the standing question is whether Yelp is a solution or a problem.

Now that Amazon has launched its secondary-market art store (as old fashioned as its approach is, with information like "signature location" and the visualization of the work "in a room," above a modernist-inspired couch, it might quickly catch up to other commercial entities like Art.sy, Artspace, and Paddle 8). Artspace, for example, invests a lot of energy into creating original content about the works on offer, as well as features and other writing around art (sounds familiar, like the early days of Amazon?) If the expansion of discourse is to include formalized and vernacular criticism, maybe we should envision a Rotten Tomatoes–style aggregator for art exhibitions. (The possibilities for a playful title for such a site are endless.)

In an essay about art criticism today, writer Diedrich Diederichsen describes a dream world of high art, where

human production is not measured and debated on the grounds of normative ideas and criteria. This dreamworld—in which art exists outside of the rules of cultural industrial production—is not pleasant. It is a hellish, petit-bourgeois dystopia in which people play games without winners and the idea that anything is preferable to anything else is grinned away by zombies who avoid conflict by all means.15

(Note the deadly language, again.) What Diederichsen points out to is the need to tie contemporary art, or "high art," to the larger cultural production—he uses The Simpsons as an example. I suggest a similar expansion of the practice of writing to include Yelp, rather than The Simpsons. To say that Yelp democratizes criticism is too popular a term—and too problematic a wording when discussing an economy of free labor and the large corporation that benefits from it—but by changing around who is in and who is out of the reviewing game, it does shake up the structure of criticism.

Are professionally-written art reviews still a resource? The variety of outlets for criticism have made one style of review—the magazine review, published months after the fact—into what one critic has called "the oil painting of art writing."16 Magazines do provide a larger context—by relating to the history of any particular journal, to other reviews therein, and by a close reading of who-writes-where and a mapping of affiliations—and a sense of continuity and commitment to publishing that few websites can compete with. All these factors point to their usefulness as documents for the future, but the real question is, can they still be relevant in shaping contemporary discourse? Yelp, surprisingly enough, provides one answer in its promotion of taste rather than professional affiliation, and in addressing a broad user base. While an online review assumes a kind of shared knowledge—when reading a review of a Michelin-starred restaurant, a reader brings in an idea of the kind of standard these restaurant uphold (white tablecloth, silver, wine lists) as opposed to the review of a pizzeria (large ovens, plastic tables, quick service)—art reviews must make more of an effort to bridge the gap between those who are in the know and the uninformed. The layering of the practice of criticism to include the deskilled online space makes for different expectations from reviews. If, for example, the difference between a nonprofit and a commercial gallery isn't really considered in a review, how can a writer address anyone but the informed, the initiated? I am not calling for us to abandon magazines in favor of unpaid, irregular writing on Yelp. Rather, I am saying that the openness of the approach of some writers on Yelp—and the demands that the proximity to one's audience on Yelp pose to write clearly and directly—could be valuable. Reading permeates into writing. We should become better readers of Yelp and similar outlets; we should start finding influences, examples, and dialogue in new places.



[1] See Peter de Jonge, "Riding the Wild, Perilous Waters of Amazon.com" in The New York Times (March 14, 1999): http://partners.nytimes.com/library/tech/99/03/biztech/articles/14amazon.html. The article is a now-amusing account of Amazon's early public image, describing Jeff Bezos's "political genius for telling each of his divergent constituencies exactly what they want to hear. To his employees he holds out the rare chance to create from the ground up an entirely new medium that will reshape the world for the better. To his online visitors he offers a kinder and gentler form of commerce, in which a community of customers, armed with the right information, help one another make the purchase that is perfect for each one of them. And to Wall Street he presents a lean, mean virtual juggernaut that, unburdened by such anachronisms as sales clerks, operating hours and inventory, will run circles around any brick-and-mortar dinosaur, whether it be Barnes & Noble or those Arkansas boys from the Wal-Mart Stores." 

[2] A quick note on terminology: while I use "criticism" interchangeably with "reviewing" because I see the latter as a critical practice, in this essay I consider only one kind of writing—the art magazine or newspaper review of an exhibition, a work, or any other specific project—rather than all work of critics writing on the arts (longer essays, art historical books, and so forth), even though those clearly fall under the rubric of criticism.

[3] Jennifer Allen, "Death Becomes Them," frieze 114 (April 2008). See https://www.frieze.com/issue/article/death_becomes_them/

[4] In fact, it progressed pretty quickly from "A Quiet Crisis"—the title of an essay by Raphael Rubinstein (Art in America, Vol. 93, No. 3 [March 2003])—to "death," discussing the demise of the profession in an overstated, playful tone (because clearly, no art critic wants to be buried alive in his or her own writing) as in Allen.

[5] The latter is a direct quote from Hans den Hartog Jager. See the entire series of contributions in frieze: http://blog.frieze.com/who-do-you-write-for-a-survey-of-art-critics-in-the-media/

[6] Quoted in "A Quiet Crisis," 2.

[7] "Roundtable: The Present Conditions of Art Criticism," October 100 (Spring 2002): 216.

[8] See Garth Hallberg, "Who Is Grady Harp?" in Slate (http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2008/01/who_is_grady_harp.html) and Trevor Pinch and Filip Kesler, "How Aunt Ammy Gets Her Free Lunch: A Study of the Top- Thousand Customer Reviewers at Amazon.com." See here: http://www.freelunch.me

[9] Yelp has been organizing town hall–style meetings with small business owners across the country in an attempt to allow businesses to voice their concern and convince them of the company's merits. The result seems far from convincing. See, for example, "Yelp gets an earful from L.A. business owners" on the L.A. Times (http://articles.latimes.com/2013/aug/21/business/la-fi-yelp-town-hall-20130822).

[10] "Swarming a Book Online," http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/21/business/a-casualty-on-the-battlefield-of-amazons-partisan-book-reviews.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&

[11] Pinch and Kesler, "How Aunt Ammy Gets Her Free Lunch."

[12] Brian Dillon and Boris Groys, "Who Do You Think You're Talking To," frieze 121 (March 2009). See https://www.frieze.com/issue/article/who_do_you_think_youre_talking_to/

[13] I thought this was a very interesting point made by George Baker during the October roundtable cited above:"I would like to hear more about the question of criteria, about criteria "after quality," not just from David but from James and Helen—from a younger generation that has not had as much public discourse to develop what their criteria are. My criteria are not single or unified. Sometimes they are formal and sometimes political. They are deeply reactive, in two senses: reactive to a transformed field of artistic practice that it is still the task of the critic to attempt to delineate, but also reactive to the difficult situation in which the critic and the artist now operate, where certain types of work and certain types of aspirations are judged by many as cashiered, over, finished. So one criterion that is really important for me perhaps only comes into view as a criterion at all in the current situation, as a function that I think criticism today has to hold onto ever more tightly. Namely, to bring into public discourse practices that are being silenced." See "Roundtable: The Present Conditions of Art Criticism," 210.

[14] See Hanna Raskin's blog post about the book in L.A. Weekly, "9 Ways Not to Make an Ass of Yourself as a Food Critics," here: http://blogs.laweekly.com/squidink/2013/07/yelp_help_hanna_raskin.php

[15] Diedrich Diederichsen, "Judgement, Objecthood, Temporality," in Judgement and Contemporary Art Criticism, 83.

[16] "The review is by now the most musty of master forms, the oil painting of art writing," Tirdad Zolghadr, "Worse than Kenosis" in Jeff Khonsary and Melanie O'Brian, Judgement and Contemporary Art Criticism (Vancouver: ArtSpeak/Fillip Editions, 2010), 15.