Has the Internet Changed Art Criticism? On Service Criticism and A Possible Future

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Mel Bochner, BLAH, BLAH, BLAH (2008)

A version of this essay was initially written for a panel discussion with Pitchfork's Ryan Schreiber, Isaac Fitzgerald from Buzzfeed Books, and LA Times art critic Christopher Knight at Superscript: Arts Journalism & Criticism in a Digital Age, a conference at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Watch the panel discussion here. 

Look at the title. I'm asking has, not "how." Contemporary art is still in the early stages of the digital shift that other industries have already experienced. To better understand what might be happening to art criticism, we should look to other fields and assess the structures that have developed as a response to the internet's effect.

There are two facets to this "internet effect": the first is in publishing and circulation, the second in the way this dissemination shapes a discipline and the discourse around it. Music and literature experienced the digital shift in a much more extreme way than contemporary art has thus far. This experience began with circulation—the adjustment from object to mp3 and from independent, or even megachain bookstores to Amazon—but continued with an altered discourse that poses really valid questions about the function of criticism. I'll call it "service criticism." In a nutshell, "service criticism" is criticism that's discovery-oriented. Criticism that assumes the reader who is looking for recommendations.

Take Pitchfork, for example. I remember the first time I heard of Pitchfork. I was a teenager and I had a friend who spent his days reading Pitchfork reviews, then (excuse the illegality of the following) downloaded all the albums he thought he'd find interesting in order to listen to them. (The embrace of streaming technologies helps with the legality question today.) That's a great use of criticism: as a direction, pointing to the good in the midst of overproduction.

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Art Criticism in the Age of Yelp

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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

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Heroes and Villains: Nate Hill in New York

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Nate Hill, from the series Trophy Scarves (2013).

To the extent that people know his name, Nate Hill is a controversial figure in the internet art world. He gets into bizarre, seemingly one-sided fights with art blogs, sends fake computer viruses to his press contact list, or generally puts people off by relentlessly focusing his web projects on "white women"—the most recent example being Trophy Scarves (2013), a photo series in which Hill, who is biracial, poses wearing a tuxedo while nude white women are slung across his shoulders as if they were recently slain wild animals. Like many, I found myself turned off by some of these projects, but, nonetheless, wanted to know more: the satire was clearly there and he was prolific. I also liked how committed he was to being an artist and how thoroughly he followed his artistic voice, no matter where it took him. In a growing series of conversations with Hill, what impressed me was how consistently every project revolves around the idea of a performative "character" and how committed he is to the idea that his artistic voice is channeled through these different characters. I quickly learned that the majority of these characters aren't even internet-based, but performed in public, on the streets and subway cars of New York. Be it online or in New York City, though, these works share a common motivation to be catalysts for disruption, to interrupt Hill's daily passage through networks of various kinds. While I can't justify everything Hill does, after speaking with him regularly and engrossing myself in the work, I am convinced that he is, in a strange way, a significant artist, as well as an interesting if unacknowledged heir to David Hammons and Andy Kaufman, whose projects Hill cherishes. Because he so frequently invokes the idea of character, I thought that to write about Hill necessitated describing him as a character in a fictional style—a mode of prose that I've been experimenting with recently. What follows is an impressionistic story following a few hours in the life of Nate Hill.  It precedes two upcoming projects: a live reenactment of Trophy Scarves and "Lights: Nate Hill and Ann Hirsch," a performance event I am curating at Interstate Projects on November 2nd.

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