From May 28–30, 2015, the Walker Art Center hosted Superscript: Arts Journalism and Criticism in a Digital Age, an international conference on cultural publishing’s current challenges and its possible futures. All sessions of the convening were transcribed live by a stenographer; below is an edited transcript of the conference-opening panel, Credibility, Criticism, Collusion, featuring short presentations followed by a group discussion with panelists Ryan Schreiber (Pitchfork), Orit Gat (WdW Review), Christopher Knight (Los Angeles Times), and Issac Fitzgerald (Buzzfeed Books).
Download a PDF of the full conference transcript. To view videos of all Superscript panels and keynotes, or to read commissioned essays and live blogging by participants in the Superscript Blog Mentorship program (a partnership with Hyperallergic), visit the Superscript Reader. To report errors in this document, email email@example.com.
Credibility, Criticism, Collusion
Friday, May 29, 2015
I was raised in the western suburbs of Minneapolis, and as a young person, the Walker’s collection served as my first introduction to contemporary art, so it’s exciting to find myself involved with Superscript. I was lucky to grow up with access to this city’s arts community. My taste in music was strongly shaped by its influence. The alternative radio stations KJ104 and REV105 introduced me to bands like Jesus and Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine, Guided by Voices. KUOM at the University of Minnesota taught me about underground punk and electronic music. KMOJ introduced me to hip-hop, First Avenue and the Cedar Cultural Center made me a fan of live music, and the City Pages, along with local defunct zines, such as Cake and the Squealer, inspired me to be a writer and a critic.
Pitchfork began here in 1996. I was 18 and just out of high school when a friend introduced me to the Internet. I’ve always loved the idea of working for a music magazine and immediately recognized the potential of the web as a publishing platform. At that time, only a few web publications existed, but none with an eye towards independent music. I thought if I didn’t start one, someone else was going to beat me to it. So, despite having no formal writing background, I began typing up a few record reviews every day, and soon we added a new section and features, and after a few years of this, Pitchfork managed to accumulate a small readership and other larger music publications began to take note.
It was around this time in the early 2000s, that the old vanguard of elite arts journalists started to take issue of the influence of young new voices on the Internet, and we weren’t alone. There were fresh film publication, arts publications and, most loathed of all, that terrible scourge known as bloggers. The general idea was that these guys weren’t really critics, because they didn’t understand what real criticism was—simplified version, but nonetheless. And fair enough, this generation of Internet opinion makers were, in many cases, not formally trained, but we knew our subjects well and we weren’t content to regurgitate the same canon laid out by our forebears.
So, the idea that criticism as the world had known it was dying was totally unfounded, and as it happened, the web made room for all sorts of writers, from all kinds of different backgrounds, including those more seasoned, veteran critics and newer critics with the same kind of training. And part of the beauty of this was that, no matter who you were, you could find a voice, or several voices, that you trusted and related to. So now, as the web has expanded, there are recommendation engines, algorithms, user reviews and all kinds of other ways to discover the arts, including just going online and listening or seeing for yourself. So where does that leave criticism?
Some people argue, as they have argued for years, that criticism is no longer relevant, that in an age where discovery is so accessible, so-called gatekeepers are an anachronism. For those who have only ever reviewed criticism as a consumer report to guide their listening or viewing habits and find they have a higher rate of success when looking to these other avenues, there might for once be a very faint ring of truth to that. Still, the popularity of sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic, which aggregate critical consensus, would seem to counter that idea. And Pitchfork itself has seen continual growth to its review section year after year and more time spent by readers on those pages. So the demand is clearly and quantifiably there.
So with more media being made and released than ever before, and virtually all of it accessible online, the question readers are hoping to have answered is not so much “How should I spend my money?” but “How should I spend spend my time?” And of course, criticism is much more than a consumer guide. I read it to learn, not just about the subject at hand, but to gain insights that confirm or challenge my own, to grasp the ideologies between different scenes and movements, and to better and more capably argue my positions as a fan. As often as I disagree with reviews, even sometimes those published on my own website, I’m nonetheless educated by them.
At their best, they lead me to reexamine my enthusiasm or distaste for certain artists and albums by offering an intelligent counterpoint. And like any other genre of writing, criticism is an art form unto itself. The greatest critics, Roger Ebert, Lester Bangs, Pauline Kael, Richard Meltzer, are wonderfully entertaining, educational, and thought-provoking and their work remains as relevant today as it was in their own time. And yet reviews, especially negative ones, are increasingly falling out of favor with editors and publishers. Over the last decade, several major music magazines have shrunk theirs to single paragraphs or tiny capsules. Some have ceased reviews altogether. Many of the newer music publications launched without them in the first place. And why shouldn’t they? Negative reviews are often unpopular, not necessarily by metrics but by the reactions. They cause all kinds of trouble. They can break important editorial relationships, incite fans to essentially riot on social media against writers—they upset people.
Pitchfork has succeeded, not just because our critics have distinctive tastes and insights, but because we’re willing to assume the weight of these consequences. This doesn’t always make us well loved, but it does create an active discourse around the music we cover. Because passionate music fans hold their own convictions about the artists and albums with which they engage, and the differences between those convictions are often the basis of engaging and lightening discussions.
There’s a cliche that critics use about the dialogue—that the opinions they express are essentially conversation starters, or jump-off points, for a larger productive conversation, right? Well, that’s pretty true. We understand our pieces figure into a larger critical framework, and that readers and writers may identify with any number of critical resources with broadly varying takes. We throw ourselves into our work and attempt to ensure that ours will be the definitive piece on the subject, but we also acknowledge that our taste is somewhat subjective. But our insights, our knowledge of our subjects and our recommendations, gradually built trust with our readers that translated to influence, and we don’t take it for granted.
Today Pitchfork is among the largest and most comprehensive music publications online. Our site sees 7.5 million unique visitors per month, we have a staff of 50 people spread between offices in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, annual music festivals in Chicago and Paris, a quarterly print journal called The Pitchfork Review, our sister site, The Dissolve, which is dedicated to film, and our video arm, Pitchfork TV. So, in an era where so many avenues exist for recommendation discovery, where you can listen to complete albums with the click of a button, or simply rely on the taste of friends or algorithms, our readers continue to turn to us to help them parse music’s ever-expanding world. And our work is for them, it’s not for the artists, the managers, or the industry. We do it because we love music deeply and care intensely about its future. So, thanks again to Minneapolis for helping me find my niche and to the Walker for having me here today. It’s an honor to be here.
I’ve been making the same joke for the past like few weeks, I think: I’m so happy to be here, because this conference is exactly everything I’m interested in, and if they didn’t invite me, I would have had to pay to come here. That said, I’m going to use this time to actually ask if the Internet has affected or changed art criticism at all. I figured I’ll use this time to work through ideas with all of you. And yeah, I’m gonna ask “has” and now “how.” I think what’s really interesting about this particular panel is that we have people from different industries, and I’m using the word industry really carefully, but not so much, because I’m going to talk about advertising and money and financial structures, so industry seems kind of fitting and see what will happen to art criticism.
So, I’m going to talk about the structures of the Internet and how they changed music and literature, because those are the two other disciplines that we have here. And in case you’re really nodding off here, I’m going to tell you that my answer to “Has the Internet changed art criticism?” is “Not yet, but it definitely will.” So, when I’m asking about the Internet effect there’s two facets to it. The first is in publishing and circulation, the second is the way it shapes and affects the discipline and the discourse around it.
Music and literature experience a digital shift in a much more extreme way than contemporary art has thus far. As far as I see it, they experienced this digital shift and it began with circulation, the adjustment from an object, as in a CD to vinyl to MP3, and from the independent bookstore or even the mega chain bookstore, because now we have to start caring about Barnes and Noble, too, to Amazon.
But then it continued with an altered discourse that poses really valid questions about the function of criticism. I’m going to call this “service criticism.” In a nutshell, what I define as service criticism is criticism that’s discovery oriented—criticism that assumes the reader is looking for recommendations, for a way of making sense of it all. Take Pitchfork, for example, I remember the first time I heard about Pitchfork. I was a teenager in Paris and I had a friend who would read every review on Pitchfork and then he would download, and I’m going to say this even though I guess this is not a panel about law and copyrights, he would download everything he read about to see what he’s going to be actually interested in. That’s a really amazing way of discovering things, and it’s also a way of contrasting the sense of overproduction that the Internet seems to do.
So, just to clarify this, the use of a word like “service” does not indicate a value judgment at all. I’m not making that. I’m not making it, because I don’t write in an industry that could produce a service criticism. Yet. When I write about an exhibition, I often write for print publications, so it means that the exhibition closed months ago. I’m always writing in the past tense, and I also know that whoever my audience is, and I know it’s small, almost none of them are art collectors that are reading the reviews as a way of assessing the artist’s worth. It’s kind of similar to the way I read food reviews.
I don’t go to fancy restaurants, but I always make the joke that I really love living in New York, in a city where reviews like this makes sense: “Once in a while, this restaurant still gets a case of the ‘blahs.’ The dressing on the wax bean salad, allegedly a tahini-soy vinaigrette, made no impression, and curls of raw hamachi with diced apples didn’t rise above routine.” This is from the New York Times review of a restaurant called Montmarte, or some French restaurant in Chelsea. Just saying curls of raw hamachi is ‘routine’ to some people amazing to me. I’m never going to go to this place, just the chicken costs $26, and this is the kind of research I do when I write. So why do I care about it? Because I think food criticism talks about a culture that I’m interested in and I think that focus on ephemeral in experience is actually really similar to you do when you write about art exhibits exhibitions.
And, of course, the discovery oriented, or “service review” do the same thing, but we really can’t ignore the fact that in the popular imagination, they have a much more specific role. They act as a vehicle for recognition, as recommendations. Should I see Mad Max? Let me see what the paper said about this. Have you seen that review of 10:04? I really want to read it. And this is like the main point that I’m going to make here, is that search habits have only enhanced this sentiment. I’m going to go back to my example of Ben Lerner’s 10:04. I Googled it yesterday. The first response on Google is Amazon, buy the book, the next nine are all reviews. It’s the New York Times, it’s the Guardian, everything, the New Republic, Bookforum, etc. The next page on Google is the Wikipedia site. And you know that 99% of Google searchers don’t actually go to the second page of Google.
So, this explains my claim that digital circulation has changed the discourse. And I’m going to go back for a second to my “not a judgment” sentiment. I think the service review comes with an immense sense of responsibility to analyze the market, to give context to what is popular beyond just bestseller lists, even though I totally acknowledge and recognize the Internet’s feelings about lists, and we all love them. I also think that a sense of responsibility is what leads this discourse around positive and negative criticism. I’m sure we’ll get back to this later. When a publication decides to focus on positive reviews, in order not to “waste paper,” a line on negative reviews, a huge part of the reason for that is the presumption that people look to reviews as recommendations. My only problem with that is that it really neglects what I consider a really important role of criticism, which is to keep the market in check.
I’m going to talk about Jerry Saltz here, which I’ve never done as an art critic. But this is why the “zombie formalism” thing is so important. He coined the term that actually discusses what the market is doing right now, focusing on a certain generation of New York painters who do abstract process work. I think his argument was really weak, because he talks about sameness and not about financial structures, but I think it’s really decisive that he did that, because he recognizes that criticism generates cultural capital, which in turns generates capital, so actually keeping that market in check is really important. And the fact that it will be the same in every kind of publication. Like if you publish negative reviews on a book review site, there will be a much lower click rate through to Amazon. And if you publish negative reviews on a music site, less people will stream it. So I wonder, though, if this instinct to only publish positive reviews actually goes against the nature of the Internet. Mainly because I think negative reviews travel infinitely better. Have you ever seen a positive review that went viral? No.
But I did bring my favorite negative review that went viral for you guys. It is also from the New York Times. It is also Pete Wells, because he is the star of viral content. So, this is a review of Guy Fierri’s restaurant in Times Square, which is written as a—I love that you’re laughing—it’s written as a list of questions, and it starts with, “Guy Fierri, have you ever eaten at your new restaurant in Times Square? Have you pulled up one of the five hundred seat at Guy’s American Kitchen & Bar and ordered a meal? Did you eat the food? Did it live up to your expectations? And why did the toasted marshmallows taste like fish?” It ends with “Thanks,” by the way.
One of the most amazing things about this review, apart from the fact that it made everyone talk about criticism for a while, is that it sparked a conversation about the nature of negative reviews. The New York Times’ opinionated blog ran bunch of op-eds about the state of negative criticism. The public editor blog brought in the cultural editor to discuss negative criticism. I think this is all really, really valuable, but I’m not gonna be naive. I also know that sharing means participating in the economy of scale that is the Internet. Funny enough, even though the Internet should have been something for small scale operations, because you could all do that, this myth that audiences will self-organize online really doesn’t exist. There’s no “If you publish it, they will come.” What actually happens is that most of your audience congregates around like 10 websites, and they’re all underwritten by enormous corporations. The result is that we see a similar kind of mingling together in the culture sphere, too.
I’ve been really interested in this literary site called LitHub recently. I’m gonna read you their About page: “Literary Hub is an organizing principle in the service of literary culture, a single, trusted, daily source for all the news, ideas and richness of contemporary literary life. There is more great literary content online than ever before, but it is scattered, easily lost. With the help of its partners—publishers big and small, journals, bookstores and non-profits—Literary Hub will be a place where readers can return each day for smart, engaged, and entertaining writing about all things books.” I guess the assumption is that all these magazines and publications are stronger together, but it just seems to me, you can imagine more generalized, more popular, more eyeballs. That’s why aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes become so influential—they centralize the discourse.
So, what does more eyeballs actually do? It means more sharing, but is sharing actual participation, and what does it mean to go viral? I’m just going to remind you about the terms of engagement before we talk about sharing and participation. Every tweet, reblog and like means another moment when the cash register makes that beautiful little bell sound for a number of companies, too, the social media platform, the publisher, the advertising agency, the actual retailer that is selling you something. When the way we interact online is already so fraught in monetary terms, for something to just go viral means to activate the system time and again. But all in all, much of what we do online is to participate and it’s parceled into two, that personal feedback, so the fav, the like, whatever, and the quote-unquote useful feedback. I think it’s really telling that on Yelp when you create a review, it asks you was this review “cool,” “useful,” or “funny”? There’s nothing ever negative in that.
But I’m really interested in the use value of crowdsourced criticism, because it’s one of the very few new forms that developed online, except for blogging basically. So, while crowdsourced interaction is really easily monetizable, unremunerated labor, it also messes with predetermined economic structures, especially in the art context—in the art context that’s specifically scarcity. I think when you publish criticism in general, the actual strongest claim you make be it negative positive or whatever, is what you wrote about. That’s it. After that, all you can do is a shopping list of what’s in the exhibition, because you wrote about this, and that’s what matters.
For every exhibition I write about, I neglect, what, the other 600 galleries in New York? So it becomes this place where the subject is the real criticism. I think this is a really valid conversation to have right now, because the New York Times, this week, announced that they’re not going to review every film that opens in New York. Which is going to make the film criticism scene very different, but I know nothing about this. So not having a space to cover everything is definitely one of the virtues of magazines, it’s selective. Whereas Yelp could include every storefront in New York City. How do the economics of criticism change when something that’s traditionally scarce becomes so abundant? It means that reviews turn symbolic capital, which is attention, into monetary capital.
That’s where the brilliance of Amazon’s introduction of user-generated reviews is that the company can monetize something that it doesn’t need to take any responsibility for. While the integrity of many of the reviews, maybe even most of them, can be questioned, the effect of having original or semi-original content on the site means that it sells more. It’s kind of amazing, crowdsourced criticism enhances and plays on both monetary systems that are predominant in the digital economy—scale and participation. So is this where art criticism is going?
I started this talk talking about circulation and how the digital culture has modified circulation of music, literature, film. The main reason contemporary art has not been as impacted by the digital turn, is that the art object is not—sometimes, but not always—infinitely reproducible as a digital film like an .mp3, .mov, or .epub. Except for those artists who play with that. To me that’s one of the most interesting things that artists can do right now. And I follow people who do that and find it really fascinating, but that’s not what you see in most galleries in Chelsea. What you see in most galleries in Chelsea is zombie formalism. It’s this one object. So the way to deal with this one object, I think, is also to put it online. The result of that, though, is that I feel like the Internet promotes this behind kind of service-oriented criticism. So even though we’re talking about stuff that’s online, what you see online is only that. So look at artform.com, for example, while Artforum publishes a great review section, many of my friends write for it, online all they publish is positive reviews. It’s only meant to basically give you an analysis of what’s up and send you there.
I don’t know how that’s going to change when we start viewing more and more art online. So like right now we’re seeing this amazing proliferation of organizations, both for profit and not for profit, that are really grappling with the presentation of work online on different levels of complexity, especially moving-image work. London Gallery, Carroll/Fletcher initiated Carroll/ Fletcher Onscreen, which displays different video works for two weeks at a time. The same system fuels Vdrome, which is organized by Mousse Magazine. They also commissioned a new essay on each video they show on the site. Another London-based organization called Opening Times – Digital Art Commissions supports new work online, so they commission your work, they give you all the support in the world, it’s kind of amazing.
And a number of museums, like the museum in Tate Modern, have begun experimenting with the presentation the work on their websites beyond just the collection tour. And on top of that, there are all these sites that are trying to sell you art online. I spend so much time grappling with what the financial model is for Artsy or Paddle8 or anything like that but there’s the sense that there’s money online, and the first company to monetize the online art marketplace will win it. Christie’s invested $50 million in building a custom built e-commerce business. Sotheby’s has partnered with Ebay to make “premium art and collectibles accessible to buyers everywhere.” This is from the press release.
There’s this basic assumption that there’s a market for this and that market is only going to grow. I saw in the New York Times article about the Christie’s online initiative. Josh Auerbach, who is the manager of it, and by the way came from Gilt Groupe, the luxury sale’s company, said that their research shows that about 53% of those who registered to bid online are under the age of 45. As for the most popular categories of the online auctions, get this, post-war and contemporary art, fashion, followed by wine and cheese. I think it’s really telling. I think it’s really telling, also, that a major art fair didn’t step into this. Just think about Art Basel online sales, if there was a lot of money to be made there, Art Basel would have made it already. That said, I probably don’t know anything about money, because if I did, I wouldn’t have been an art critic.
I can’t tell you if they’ll succeed, but I can tell you that there’s this huge leap that needs to be made for art sales online to become the kind of game changer that Amazon was. Because you’re dealing with a singular or almost singular object. Artsy and Art Space seem to think that the solution is producing editorial content. This editorial ambition reminds me of the early days of Amazon in the 90s when the company, before reintroduced user reviews, actually hired maybe 30 editors and they would publish reviews, previews, interviews, forthcoming books. A lot of the language around companies like Artsy or Paddle8 and Art Store revolves around discovery, again, so what we’re seeing is these service reviews being pushed to that kind of editorial content. But to be honest, if discovery is the way artsy imagines it, like the art genome project that maps similar works, as in “People who bought this, also bought this” but it’s based on school and subject and methodology. In that world, I kind of prefer the service criticism. But really, if we’re talking in terms of the discovery of new art, how come we don’t have a Pitchfork for contemporary art? I’d really much prefer that to Artsy.
So as presentation of art online changes in a way that I find really curatorially fascinating, and that will be a huge promoter of digitally engaged work, we’re going to have to develop these new ways, or at least new outlets, to analyze it. I for example have a lot of hope for the mailing list as of a forum that we haven’t exhausted at all. Even though e-flux might have a little bit. I think it’s a really promising model, mainly because it’s a way of surpassing the digital advertising revenue as we know it, by which I mean selling your data bundled to a bunch of websites. But yeah, I’m looking for these new models.
Most of these structures that I discussed today relate to an ad revenue based Internet. I really hope things will change. I think there is no bigger disappointment on the Internet than free culture. If the user won’t pay, the advertiser will, the result of this is a digital economy where websites that are all aggregating and packaging the same material are hoping to attract as many eyeballs as possible and with the eyeballs come advertising revenue. It’s kind of weird that in my attempt to close on an optimistic note I’m basically telling you you’re all going to have to pull out your credit card or Paypal account or Google Wallet or whatever digital wallet we’re going to use. But I think that this will lead us to the kind of criticism that we deserve. The more the Internet veers toward paid models, the better off we’ll be, I don’t know if art criticism will catch up with this before or after. I think you can imagine what I’m crossing my fingers for. Thank you.
The redoubtable American writer Mark Twain once said that, “An expert is just some guy from out of town.” I’m from out of town. I imagine that my expertise, such as it is, has been requested because of all the symposium panelists, I pretty much represent the guy down at the boatyard where the ship is sailing.
He’s got one foot on the dock, and one foot on the boat, and watery doom is yawning wider and wider between slowly spreading legs. The dock in this instance is print. Newspapers, old media, dead trees, or the term that I prefer, “legacy media.” The boat, of course, is digital. The Internet and its proliferating social media formats. Now, we could talk about the differences between print and digital, starting with the limited size of a news hole on a piece of paper, versus the limitless space on the web, plus a lot more, but at this late date more than a generation into the revolution, we pretty much know what most of those differences are. For me, the most interesting and perhaps the most puzzling one has always been the audience. Who is the audience for print? Who’s the audience for digital? Are they the same person? Do they read the same way? How do they come upon the writing that is before them in print or in the ether?
In these kinds of discussions, the reader is often what Franklin Roosevelt once called, the “forgotten man.” The one being indifferently squashed down at the bottom of the pyramid. I think that one primary difference between most print publication and most digital publication has to do with the question of the forgotten reader.
Although the situation is changing, every writer knows that before something appears in print, it will be read by an editor. An editor is every print writer’s first reader. In digital publishing, this may or may not be the case. There may or may not be an editor. The span ranges from online journals, which probably will have an editor, to social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, which almost never do. Social media is home to society’s raging id. And readers, including editors, are its restraining super ego.
I write art criticism for one primary reason. I write art criticism in order to find out what it is I think. And my job as a professional art critic is to find ways to bring a reader into that process. Criticism is writing. If I knew what I thought before I sat down to write, I would not be writing, I would just be typing. I’d be taking dictation from my memory and transferring it through a keyboard.
Now, it will probably come as no surprise to you that no one is going to pay you a salary just to allow you to find out what it is you think. For a professional art critic, that’s where the professional part comes in.
The very first question posed by the folks at Superscript in putting together this symposium is this one: What is the role of the professional art critic? For me, there’s no question that’s likely to come up today that is more easily answered than that one. My role as a professional art critic at the Los Angeles Times is to sell newspapers. My role as a professional art critic at the Los Angeles Times is to generate traffic at our website.
I say this not to be sensationalistic or crass, although I suspect some institution somewhere will likely pull the quote and misrepresent my position. I say it instead simply for the sake of clarity. It was in fact the first lesson that I learned when I became a journalist 35 years ago. Like most professional art critics I know, I became one pretty much by accident. I had left my prior profession of art museum curator, which I discovered I didn’t have the temperament for, when one day the telephone rang. It was an editor at the old Los Angeles Herald Examiner, the afternoon newspaper in town. He told me they were looking for a freelance art writer and someone had given them my name. Would I be interested? I said, “Sure, but I don’t know anything about journalism.” And he said, “Don’t worry, we do.”
So I became a newspaper art critic, and I learned on the job. This was in the summer of 1980. And although the Herald had been publishing since 1903, it had never had a staff art critic before then. But it needed one now. A group of prominent and influential citizens had prevailed upon the mayor, Tom Bradley, to support the launch of a museum of contemporary art as part of a massive downtown redevelopment plan. In the face of this challenge, the old guard in town had gotten a bit nervous, so they launched a campaign of their own to build a big modern art wing at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. And most important of all, recently a dead man’s will had emerged from a lengthy probate, and suddenly the little J. Paul Getty museum at the edge of Malibu was the richest art museum in the nation.
As an afternoon newspaper, the Herald had been struggling against the changing environment of television news and it was determined that one final push would be made for stability and success. So they did what most businesses do, they commissioned a marketing survey to analyze the competition. The LA Times. What areas of coverage did readers of the Times find to be deficient? It turned out that there were four areas that readers found to be wanting: local news, sports, Hollywood, and cultural affairs. So that’s where the Herald decided it would direct all of its assets and it began hiring a roster of critics to fill the cultural affairs part. It made for a somewhat schizy newspaper, but that’s how I got a new profession.
You may have noticed that the generative impulse for bringing art criticism to the newspaper did not come from some high-minded regard for these spiritual, emotional, intellectual, or otherwise tonic qualities of art. This is America we’re talking about, and in America, art has always been a minority interest. It came instead from witnessing the movement of power. Institutional power, political power, and social power within the city. It came from recognizing that engagement with power is a primary function of the power of journalism. And before I’m an art critic, I am a journalist. There are lots of different kinds of art criticism. But as a journalistic art critic, my aim is to enfold the power of art within the larger dynamic of power relationships in society.
I relate all of this personal back story, because I think it illustrates something important. If you ask what is the role of the professional art critic and the context that comes to mind for that role is limited to art, then the answer is, there really isn’t one. Art criticism has no essential role. Art can get along just fine without it. Artists will do what artists do. In the body of art, art criticism is the appendix. Surgical removal of the appendix causes no observable health problems.
The idea that professional art criticism has an inherent role to play in art is a fiction, and fiction is what art criticisms write. It’s a form of literary prose in which the writer’s imagination, experiences and engages with the work of art, and it invites the reader along. In other words, art criticism is social media. It always has been. Ever since Giorgio Vasari was making up stuff about Giotto and Piero della Francesca in the 16th century. Today its potential reach and interactivity are bigger, faster, and its sources theoretically endless, but I would submit that its moral and ethical conundrums are not much different than they’ve ever been. If my digital job as as a professional art critic is to generate traffic to the LA Times website, I just have to decide whether that’s best achieved by a nonstop diet of listicles and cat videos which would probably do the trick. Or by something else entirely. Thanks.
Thank you so much for coming. And thank you to the Walker Art Center for having us. I think it’s really important, and I’m really happy to be here. So I’m just going to get into it.
I’m going to talk a little bit about myself, and why I came to be up here before you today. And then I’m going to talk a little bit on the subject of the discussion that we’re here to have. From the very beginning, I’m a book lover. I’ve always been a book lover. I grew up loving books. I grew up in the south end of Boston in the 1980s, before it got as ritzy as it is today. And then from there I actually moved to north central Massachusetts, which is kind of like the Kid Rock of Massachusetts. It’s a lot of trailers and beer and guns and that’s what we did with our time. When I could sneak away from the beer and the guns and the trucks, I would always grab a book. Books were kind of my escape, both in in the city and in the country.
From there I got lucky. I got a scholarship. I got to go to a boarding school. A place where education was taken seriously. And that meant the world to me. From there I got to go to college, which I actually wasn’t planning on doing before that. And I didn’t know what to do with myself. The whole time, though, I was reading. Sitting in the back of the class, I had a book under a desk, in between classes, after nights out, waking up, not wanting to move—I’d always be reading.
So for me, I mean again for me, books were just, they were constantly there and they were always there. But I had no idea how they got made. So going to college I said hey, you know what I should do is political science, because that makes sense, because that’s where I am. I don’t feel strongly about politics, I never carried politics with me throughout my life, but that seemed like the right decision to do. So I graduated, I went into politics, I helped get a guy into Congress, I realized I hated politics, and that I’d made a terrible decision and just wasted a ton of my life, education and time.
From there I moved to New Hampshire, where I painted houses for a little while, and from there I met a girl who went to San Francisco, and like all of us who don’t know what to do with our lives, I followed a relationship. I moved to San Francisco, and I worked at a wonderful place called Buca di Beppo. It’s like the Olive Garden but worse, for those of you who don’t know what it is. But at the time I probably made more money than I’d ever made to date, if you take it as an hourly rate, and that’s the truth. That freed up 20 hours, so I basically only had to work 20 hours a week. With 20 hours a week and nothing to do, the person that I’d moved out there for grew sick of me quickly and tried to find me something to do.
Look, she says, there’s this place called that’s called 826 Valencia. It says it has storytelling workshops, you love telling stories, because you wouldn’t shut up, why don’t you go to that. So, I went to this place called 826 Valencia, and five minutes into the training session there, I realized that we were talking about working with kids, it was not storytelling and book making for adults, but you can’t really get you up out of that meeting and walk away, because then you look like a big jerk who doesn’t care about kids.
So that what I started to do, I started to volunteer my time there, and I started to work there, and I started to work with these kids and watched reading affect their lives and affect the way that they saw the world. And at the same time I noticed around the center, this is a creative writing center for youth and its in many different cities now, and it was started by Dave Eggers and McSweeney’s, and around the walls I saw these manuscripts, these pages from these manuscripts, and they had this scribbling all over them.
And I realized that these were manuscript pages from very famous, famous people. Books that I have read, that I had grown up with. What are these? What’s this scribbling? Well, that’s to show the kids, the person in the training center said, that’s to show the kids that writing is a collaborative process, that’s to show them that no book is created by some person in a magical cave who sits down by a typewriter and just writes and prints it out perfectly and sends it out to a publisher and then it’s a book. That’s to show them that it’s an art form, that it’s a struggle, that there’s so many different voices that takes part in its creation. And I was so glad that they were teaching 8-year-olds that because at the age of 23, I finally found out where books came from. I finally realized that they weren’t made-because that’s how I thought books worked. And I came to it very late.
So from there, I got involved a lot in the literary community in San Francisco, and I got to work on this small website called The Rumpus, which is an online culture magazine. Now this was the mid 2000s, people have mentioned it here before, but what was happening in the mid 2000s is that everybody was convinced that publishing was dying, so why start an online arts and culture magazine in the middle of the sky is falling falling mentality of the mid 2000s? Well, we didn’t have a lot of money, and for the record I’d actually ended up working at a political website, and I wanted to, yet again, get out of politics. So, Stephen Elliott, the author who started The Rumpus, came to me and said, do you want to take 50% less pay and no health care and come work on this books website? And I said, absolutely, because that what you can do when you’re young and you’re dumb and you’re living in San Francisco in a one bedroom with three different people.
I didn’t think it would work. I definitely didn’t think it would work for as long as it did, and still continues to after I left. But those years were fundamental to me because I got to work with some incredible writers, Roxane Gaye, Cheryl Strayed, writers who I cared deeply about, and I realized that there was this whole world of people, and not just in the San Francisco literary scene, but out there online, all across the country, all over the world who really cared about books and cared about the discussion of books and cared about getting attention for books, the books that maybe weren’t on the New York Times bestseller. And I got to be a part of that, and that was beautiful for me.
At the same time, everyone like I said was saying that publishing is dying, I started to realize that publishing wasn’t dying, it was definitely transitioning, the same thing that had happened to music in the 90s, happened to publishing in the 2000s is probably happening to movies right now—the Internet was just changing the landscape. I feel like back in the day when like the printing press was invented, a bunch of monks were like, well, those new printing press books, those are not real books. These hand-drawn, hand-lettered books, now, these, mwah, these are the books, this is the stuff.
Because that’s what the publishing industry is. We’ve always been obsessed with our own demise. Like it’s crazy. If you take a group of neurotic people who care about art and some of the darker things in life and what it means to be a human being—so weird that we end up this concept of morbid mortality, no, it makes sense. It makes a lot of sense. The publishing industry has always been worried about itself. That’s always the been case and it’s always been changing. The Internet is one of these new changes. But there’s always been these different parts of it, these different things. It’s a marketplace, it’s capitalism, like Christopher was saying, it’s about getting attention for books-I mean it is. It’s all part of it.
So, after four years at The Rumpus, McSweeney’s actually needed a director of publicity, and after four years of championing books, I decided to actually start working on helping promote them, and at McSweeney’s I had the distinct pleasure of working on a book by Hilton Als called White Girls. And I bring it up because not only is it a fantastic book, and like I said, I love to champion books, and if you haven’t read it, and I think especially this audience it’s an important book for you to read, it’s this incredible mixture of memoir and criticism and it’s beautiful, and I got to work on that book, and it meant a lot to me, and to be honest I’d always read book reviews that I’d definitely come to approach it more from the you know, help me figure out what I need to buy approach that was being talked about earlier. But to see cultural criticism on that level, to see that it itself can be this art form was inspiring and incredible, and my job, though, was just to make sure that it got as much attention as it possibly could.
And working in publicity was an eye-opening experience, because I realized how hard it is out there. This is a roomful of critics, not a room full of publicists. But I think it’s a room full of critics, and all of us are probably guilty of ignoring a lot of emails from a lot of publicists. And that’s fine, because if you were to answer every single one of them that would be insane, but it did show me the other side of things, to have a little more empathy. But I did. What I missed was talking about books online. What I missed was getting in the mix and that’s when the book section at BuzzFeed was announced, that they were going to have an editor, and so many friends wrote to me about the job description and they said, you have to take it. You have to try for it. It’s—you miss talking about books online, and that’s absolutely true. And that’s what I did.
So I said a couple of dumb things when I was hired. I hadn’t actually started working. I hadn’t actually built anything, but like we like to do, we wanted to talk about it first. So there was a big discussion about it, and I’m going to open it up in this room. Something that I usually only tell in private. But it was hard being at the center of that, there was a day when I turned off all my lights in my bathroom and I crawled into my bathtub fully clothed. I didn’t turn on the water. It wasn’t as dramatic as all that. But I laid there for a little while, because it was hard. There were people that I loved, respected, and read on the regular telling me that, just because I said that I wanted to be nice about books, that I was full of shit. And when people you care about and respect say that about it, you it can be very difficult.
So I decided to step away from it, which I think is a good approach sometimes on the Internet. Not always. Sometimes you’ve got to fight for it. But I realized I hadn’t even done anything yet. So I stepped away from the fray, and I started working on it. So that was almost a year and a half ago, and BuzzFeed Books now gets—I mean I don’t want to talk exact traffic numbers, but gets a huge amount of eye, so much more I’m allowed to do for books than I was doing at The Rumpus. We have a mix of different things that all of which I’m very proud of.
One is quizzes. One is recommendation lists. Another way that we try to draw attention to books is a if there’s a book coming out, and there’s an author I’m really excited for, and I think the book is really great, I’ll approach them and ask them to write something for the site, not about their book, not so it’s a commercial, just something that is beautiful and unique, so that I can take this author whose work I think is really meaningful, I can put it in front of our massive audience, if they write something really good, it will do well on its own. I do believe that some of the cream does rise to the top. And there at the end of the piece is an announcement that their next book is coming out.
So if one person who doesn’t know about this writer gets to read this wonderful piece that moves them, then they discover that book at the bottom, they buy that, they read this, maybe they discover this person—all their work. That means the world to me. So that’s another way we do it, how we get out there. Another thing we do is 6-Second Book Reviews. I was told, play around with Vine, I’m like how can I play around with Vine for book reviews? That seems insane. So as a joke I started yelling at the camera about how great Kelly Link’s new short story collection Get in Trouble is. People actually really liked it. And that’s how I view these things. Those things are a launching off point. If somebody hears something, as I say a couple of quick sentences about a book, if it sparks their interest then maybe they go and they look up a review. Then maybe they go to their friends and ask, hey have you read this Kelly Link stuff. Talk about it. And that’s what I want to be doing, sparking interest.
Now, the lists, recommendations, the quizzes, the books entertainment as it were, a lot of people say oh, it’s a two-pronged attack. You have this high-minded stuff and you have this which Bronte sister are you stuff, and that supplements that, right? No, it doesn’t. For me it’s all part of the mix. It’s all part of what makes that little site work. It’s all part of my little slice of the Internet, which is going to get to our discussion now, today.
I really view this all, what we all do, as a giant garden party. And I think a while ago, especially before the Internet, that it was a pretty exclusive garden party, and there was champagne and people dressed certain way and had to be really, really nice and there were certain things talked about and things that are not. And what the Internet did was this still exists and it’s still incredibly, incredibly important, the champagne part—that still exists. It’s not about storming the gates of that and tearing it apart. It’s about building around that party, so that more and more voices can be heard. And so while that can exist over here, I’m going to be playing frisbee over there, maybe some people are playing beer pong over, there’s some fried chicken in the back, there’s a fish fry going on over here, it’s all a giant mix. The more people that can be brought into the discussion of this, the better.
There’s talk of, again, in the mid 2000s was that books were dying. Then there was indie bookstores were dying. Barnes & Noble is all the sudden something we need to care about. The fact of the matter is though now indie bookstores are on the rocks. E-books were going to kill books. Well, actually e-books have plateaued off and book sales are actually doing well. That kind of shakeup has happened and there will be another shakeup that happens next. But books aren’t dying. Books criticism isn’t gonna die. Because that’s what we do, that’s what we love and I’m coming from a literary standpoint, but I think it could be said of all art, because if we’re in here it’s because we care about it, it’s because we love it.
And so this party is open for everyone now. And if there are people in the audience here, if you’re students, all I can say is I have to encourage you to start something. It was mentioned earlier the Pitchfork of fine arts. Somebody wishes that that exists, so do it. Make something like that happen. The Rumpus was slowly, slowly built over four years, but to see the people that have come out of it and to see what’s happened with their careers has just been invigorating. So if you don’t see, if there’s part of the party that you don’t like or if there’s a part of the party that you wish was there, you yourself should reach out and should do it.
Because that’s why we’re all here, right? Negative reviews, positive reviews, we’re all here because we care about it. We’re all here because either we grew up loving books or we grew up loving art or we grew up loving some different aspect of it. Whether we love recommendation lists, or whether we really live for criticism as stand-alone art, we’re all here because we really, really believe in it, and we want to keep talking about it, and I think the fact that this conference even exists is a sign that everything is actually going really, really well. Because people still really, really care. So thank you so much.
Orit Gat: So I’m going to go ahead and start. I’m going to start with the first thing that I deleted from my essay, which was I thought that I would come here and like everyone will talk about the death of criticism, and I was like I’m going to start by saying that criticism is alive, and then I figured, maybe all of this conversation about the death of criticism is also related to online publishing somehow and to the proliferation of new voices online. And I wanted to see what you guys think about that and what the connection between that conversation and the rise of online publishing is.
Christopher Knight: True. I mean you know, several years ago when there was this whole brouhaha about, you know, is criticism in crisis and all of that. I thought it was really beside the point. Criticism was never in crisis. Publishing was in crisis and they’re not the same thing. And because the platforms were changing and fluid and unknown, and all of that, things I think sort of got misplaced, and one of the primary differences between—for me at any rate, between digital and print is that in digital, there’s much more opportunity for the kind of chitchat off the top of the head—as someone said, I think it was Isaac, but you know, it’s like being at a garden party. Where people are talking, and usually you only hear that face to face, or if you’re eavesdropping at the people in the next group, but now it’s online, now it’s in print, now billions of people can see it. So the whole—that whole layer of conversation has gone public. It used to be private. Now it’s gone public. For good and for ill, I think it’s created a lot of confusion about criticism.
Isaac Fitzgerald: Yeah. I would agree. One of the things that I’m most excited about, one of the positives that I think is coming out of it, that I meant to get to, but I didn’t, but is the rise of diverse voices, and I think that that’s so important, not just that we have art being made by diverse artists, which I think of course is incredibly important, but I think we’re starting to almost—it’s almost trickling up. Like I think we’re seeing more and more artists of color creating work, and then talking about that work, but we’re now also getting to see criticism coming from all these different avenues where there didn’t exist a place for that and I think online has been really, really great for this kind of rise in not just the diversity of the art or the diversity of the artists, but the diversity of the people that get to have the conversations around the art that we talk about, which I think is just so incredibly important, to all these conversations, like anything, anything gets improved through diversity, through having more and more voices and I just think that that—that’s one of the things that makes me so excited to be part of this time, I guess, is the ability to have these diverse conversation.
It’s one of the things I’m really proud of BuzzFeed actually, they really do reach out and try to work with so many different types of people from so many different types of backgrounds to make sure there’s this inclusive group. Because look at this panel right here, diversity is something that always needs, there needs to be more, like we’ve got one woman, and I don’t want to assume people’s backgrounds, but I’m a white boy from Boston. And so I just—I feel like to have the more diversity, the better, and I think that’s something that we’ve seen grow both with this online publishing art that’s being made and also the online conversation around art.
Ryan Schreiber: Yeah, when Pitchfork started there were not a lot of other music publications out there and as we’ve grown, all of a sudden there are now all these music publication, music blogs, so many different opinions coming out about all these different records. I mean there are—there’s just a tremendous number of voices and Pitchfork staff has grown, as well, so we have now like you know, somewhere in the range of 120 contributors or freelancers, so it’s really interesting to see how people engage with things differently and how people’s backgrounds play into it
Gat: I’m going to move from the death of criticism to the death of the critic, the appendix in the art world.
Knight: Don’t look at me.
Gat: This is—I like all of you so much—this is my first point of contention. I think criticism is still really important. I never shy away from telling artists, like I have dinner there’s a bunch of artists at the table, they ask me what I do, I respond I’m an art critic. I think it’s really important. I find myself as a completely equal within the arts scene to them basically I think my role is to have the exact same conversation at the exact same level of rigor as them, and I don’t think they give that up, maybe some of them would, well, especially some that I’ve written about, but I don’t think they want to give that up. I think that’s a really important thing to discuss, especially with, as you say, more and more criticism happening online, it seems crazy to think that that’s not just as important as the rest of cultural production.
Knight: An artist once said to me, you know, without me, you wouldn’t have a job, you wouldn’t have anything to write about, and I said that is not true, if there were no artists, I could write endlessly about why not.
Fitzgerald: Also, I just feel like also without you, you know, there are—how does their art get discovered? And I felt like your talk was just absolutely incredible and the honesty of it and what it means to work for a publication and to try and attract people to your readership and basically someone that’s been in the game for as long as you have, and had such an established career, but you have your own fan base and we were talking about this a little bit earlier but this dependability, people know that they can turn to you and that you’re going to have an opinion about it, and I feel like what the critic does, and even if it is scathing, it still is drawing attention to the artist and the artist’s work, so without them you would definitely have something to talk about, but without you, they maybe wouldn’t have people talking about their stuff.
Knight: Yes and no. I mean, I think—how can I put this? I think artists, as I said in my talk, artists are going to do what they’re going to do, and if I’m not around to you know, direct attention towards them, they’re going to find ways to make whatever they need to happen, happen. They’re really good at that and, you know, it’s much more, it’s much more of back and forth, I think, as Orit was saying, than me directing people to them.
I mean they’re directing me to them, the artists are. At any rate. And working for a newspaper, I also feel a certain obligation to principally write about art that a readership can see, so I’m not in the business of discovering people who haven’t had, you know, an exhibition or in an exhibition somewhere so it’s a little more of a balanced situation, I think. And also art is going to be more and more a discursive thing. So many artists right now they’re expected to be able to talk about their work, that even puts them on a more equal level. Do you feel the same way about music? I don’t see as many musicians talking about their work analytically.
Schreiber: No, I think that’s true. I think music, it’s almost automatic. Like I make music for myself. I sit down and play and I think that release, it’s not, you it’s not—you know, it’s more physical in a lot of ways and you know, I think obviously it depends on the artist. There are some obviously brilliant artists who do think extremely intellectually about it, but I think one of the rules to critics is kind of, you know, distinguishing where within the canon or where within an artist’s discography certain releases fall and telling the story overall and how that’s shaped. So I think that’s an interesting thing.
Gat: OK, now I’m going to warn you in advance I’m going to move to the positive and negative thing. Why don’t we start with the Bambi rule and what did you actually think about that.
Knight: What were you thinking about in the bathtub?
Fitzgerald: You should write your speeches beforehand. I did not expect for that to spill out of my mouth. I feel like I made eye contact with one person in here, and you looked really empathetic, and I was like, all right, man, I’m going to tell a bunch of strangers about the half a day I spent in the bathtub in the dark. This is a story I—and again, like I said, I kind of just walked away from it and tried to disengage so I’m talking about it kind of for the first time. But it was an interview that I gave at 6 a.m. If you read the whole entire thing, like you were talking about having a little segment taken out and then blown up, it was kind of a very offhand comment. Just trying to answer somebody’s question. It was born in The Rumpus, I won’t lie about that.
The Rumpus, we had a very hard and strict rule, do not review your friends’ books, I think we’re talking credibility here, right? Like you definitely should not do that. That’s very basic. But the other thing we wanted to do was, there are so many other places that are there and stand ready to protect the readership. If somebody who has a giant name and they’re coming out with a book, and that book is bad, that is somebody’s job to point that out to say, you know what, this is maybe that person’s not their best work. But at The Rumpus, we decided we’re going to stay out of that not because we don’t think it’s important, but because there are so many places that already do it, and I kind of carried that into it. And literally it came to me growing up like Bambi was the first movie I’d ever seen, and it has a place in my heart, and I have these McDonalds figurines that I got with my mom, and it’s all very precious. It’s not actually Bambi. It’s Thumper.
Knight: Thumper. It’s the Thumper Rule.
Gat: Should we have this panel about Disney, actually?
Fitzgerald: But if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. What I meant is that’s how I’m going to run my little area.
Gat: Isn’t that throwing responsibility away? Other people will do that, I’m not going to do that, but it is remunerating to do that because negative reviews travel really well but it also means that you’re escaping something that’s going to be hard to do. Something that means that you’re going to run into the street and someone is going to say, you published that thing about me.
Fitzgerald: I don’t go a lot. So I wouldn’t have that—no, it’s a responsibility that I personally don’t feel like I’ve ever picked up that banner, so I don’t actually feel like I’m letting go. That’s what I’m trying to to, I’m trying to be very straightforward. Like I didn’t want to hide it. I wanted to be very straightforward about that’s my approach to it but again that’s my approach. I’m not trying to be the best critic. I’m again, Boston, I hope America’s best critic, I hope America’s best critic doesn’t come from—That’s not what I’m setting out to do. And that’s kind of why I feel OK with it. The guy that you mentioned, the New York Times writer who wrote that incredible —
Gat: Pete Wells.
Fitzgerald: He just had another one. Which was fabulous. If you think I didn’t read that and think mmmm this is delicious. Like of course, absolutely, I loved it but just like I wouldn’t start reviewing food. What I know is my love of books. I promised I would never leave San Francisco and I left San Francisco. So what I really what I took away from it was never make hard, fast statements. But I’m open to discussing it here if you guys want to talk about it.
Knight: I have as a general rule of thumb in terms of negativity: only punch up, never punch down. If an artist is, you know, having their first show in a gallery and I hate it, I don’t review it. It doesn’t matter. If it’s a major artist having yet another show that I dislike, I’m more than happy to write about it.
Schreiber: Yeah, I think it’s actually really essential, because in a lot of cases artists can happen overnight. They can come out of nowhere and be suddenly relevant to the conversation and I think even with an established artist it’s worth pointing out. You know, these artists can become more relevant, they can start evolving. There’s a lot of amazing artists whose initial records are not their best work and maybe are their worst work, and within the greater conversation, for us, we want to have a complete catalog of that artist’s work. So if they start off on something and then they kind of evolve and become more relevant, become more significant, their art becomes better, it becomes brighter, I think having that initial review is really essential to, you know, parsing their work as a whole.
Gat: Yeah, and I’m going to bring money back into it, because apparently that’s my role here. We all work in industries that make a lot of money, it seems really important do you have to keep the market in check. I have written about artists who were younger than me who had their first solo show ever and wrote really negative reviews about them because they sell. And this is selling because it’s pretty and it looks digital, but it is not good work, point blank. I know that’s a matter of taste and opinion and etc. and etc., and taste is something you should get over, but it seems like a really crucial word. But I also in my research about this positive and negative thing, which all sparked by Isaac actually. I found this amazing quite from Susan Sontag that says, “I don’t ultimately care for handing out grades for a work of art, which is why I avoided the opportunity of writing about things I didn’t admire.” I’m also interested in the grading thing.
Schreiber: Yeah, I think ratings are, well, when I was—before I started doing Pitchfork, I read a ton of music criticism and I read a lot of books you know, guide books essentially, you know, and I think that—I think just having an ‘at a glance’ kind of a—it sets the tone sort of for what the review is about to say and I think it’s also good, like I’m sort of a populist type of person, and I also really like the ability to kind of—like it kind of opens it up to a little bit of a broader audience, like there’s a lot of people who just aren’t that interested in criticism, as well, so having something there and having something that kind of grabs their attention like OK, I kind of know what you’re saying, I’ll read a bit of it but I also—I think that the ratings are really, again, for setting framework of the artist’s discography.
They’re actually really tricky because Pitchfork‘s scale seems to be so scientific like 7.9, these really granular kind of ratings, and that’s sort of somewhat of a gut– there’s not really a lot of science to it, it’s just this is where we kind of feel, and I think that our readers kind of know the difference what the difference is between an 8.1 and an 8.8, that there is actually a vast difference. When you’re reviewing five records a day and you have a catalog of thousands upon thousands of reviews, these distinctions, you know, make a little—make sense. But I do think that, yeah, that ratings are—they’re a form of populism, but also I think, you know, just placing things in context.
Gat: So do you think ratings has to do with online attention? Do people expect that more online?
Schreiber: I think so, yeah. I think everything is really, pretty quickly on the Internet. It’s easy to be distracted, and I think having that there, I think it’s a nice balance because our reviews are often quite long, and I think that’s unusual. It allows the writer to go very in depth and gives the reader a lot to chew on and really back up their argument. And so, yeah, I think that—but attention is—it is—I think the rating does play into that a lot.
Fitzgerald: I mean I just want to think like as a fan, it works, yeah. Like you were talking about remembering, looking at Pitchfork for the first time, we were talking about this a little built before, but I was raised on two tapes like Les Miserables and Billy Joel and that was my musical education. And I remember discovering Pitchfork. As somebody who didn’t know music background, didn’t know theory, didn’t really know a lot, it became such an easy place to discover things for me anded that rating system, because that’s exactly who I was, I wasn’t going to read a bunch of different reviews, is oh, here’s this band, they obviously think very highly of this or like oh, it’s really rough but that’s what brought me in, it’s what engaged me, because like you said it’s this framework that I knew. I know what a grading system is.
Gat: Would you introduce grading system in BuzzFeed?
Gat: Why not?
Fitzgerald: I did that thing, you made me say something hard and fast. Again, because I would do with Pitchfork does. The way I view my role is I’d like to think of myself as like your friend who’s just like, this is the book you’ve got to check out. I’m not—there’s not going to be like a rating of how much I think this like thing is. These, the books that I tend to talk about, the authors I tend to talk about, are people that I really think other people should be discovering. So a rating system in the context in how I talk about books really wouldn’t make sense, but I really appreciate that Pitchfork does it.
Gat: Would a rating system make sense in arts?
Knight: Every now and then there’s been discussions at the paper—should we go to a multi-star review, five star, four star, and we’ve always resisted it, I think for a good reason. Whereas you’re suggesting that it can help bring people to it, I think it pushes people away. Oh, it’s only got three stars, I’m not going to read that, and if the writer can’t—if the writer can’t bring the reader through the piece, then get a new writer. My primary goal in writing a review is that once a reader reads the first paragraph, I consider it a success if they get all the way to the end, and if they don’t get all the way to the end, then the review is a flop. Whether they go see the show or something, you know, I’m really happy if it inspires people to go see a show or something like that, but mostly I just want them to read the whole thing, and you know, putting stars at the top would affect that, I think, in a negative way.
Schreiber: See, I would think that—I think maybe from kind of an intuitive place, that that seems like it makes sense, but in our case really we find a lot, we find that people, at least from the metrics, will spend an average of 3 to 4 minutes on our review pages. Which is a lot. Some people are spending 7 or 8 minutes on the review pages. So I think that’s something that like early on, pitch people would say about Pitchfork and oh, I’m going to look at the ratings or whatever, and that says something about you. That the ratings are a hook. It’s interesting knowing going into something, you know, how good or how bad do you think this is, and that to me is always sort of an engaging starting point. It just gives you like a little reference and from there you may be interested in reading something that you didn’t know you were interested in reading.
You know, if I—without any kind of rating system or without a best new music or whatever, I think that Pitchfork would not be what it is, I think that these types of things kind of allow, are a way of kind of just hooking somebody and getting them a little bit more interested. There are five reviews a day, so if I’m supposed to sit and read five 2,000-word reviews, you know, in a day, that’s a lot of expectation to place on readers, because we want to be comprehensive. We really want to be thorough, and I think that just giving people a place to start, it’s like, oh, wow, this Mumford and Sons record is a 2 or is a 1.9, what does that mean? You know, I think getting into that is—like, I think that’s a fun place to start, you know. Oh, I really have to read what they said about this.
Gat: I wonder, too, because having a rating system means that you have this recognizable structure that I know from food criticism, which I clearly read all the time, does that help people assert their authority? That seems important online. You work with young critics, you work with young critics, how do people assert authority online over Yelp if Yelp is considered something that is not as valuable?
Schreiber: I think through, how do they assert authority? I think really just through like through the strength of their opinions, you know, it’s like any other critic, in a lot of ways. I think that people who are experienced critics or experienced Yelp reviewers, in some case you can kind of tell. But yeah, they’re writing the review, just the practice of reviewing is asserting authority.
Gat: Could you assert authority if you’re only writing positive reviews? How do you develop a long-lasting voice if you’re only positive.
Schreiber: I think that would be really, really difficult. I think asserting authority, really at that point it just comes down to the taste of coverage, right? Like is somebody writing about, and what is kind of new and what’s coming to the surface, and I’m listening for myself, and do I like it? It’s a very different kind of practice, so I find that to be—it’s one way of doing it, but I think that asserting authority, I think the negative really, negativity lends weight to the positivity, you know, without one, there’s just, there’s not this balance, there’s varying degrees or varying shades of positive. And yeah, I think that you need to—that the negative really—I think that when—like, for example, Pitchfork is very—we kind of have a reputation as being tough critics or difficult to please, and I think because of that, it does lend more weight to when we think something is really exceptional, I think it creates a little bit more interest.
Fitzgerald: And not to keep hitting a dead horse, I will say that that works perfectly for him. To answer your question, though, for me it’s dependability. It’s do the recommendations that I make please my readership? So our newsletter that we have, it goes out twice a week and once a week we have a small review, just a paragraph long, it’s just art, it’s the new book to recommend that we recommend that people read that week. And obviously not everyone reads each book each week, it all depends on how much time you have, etc., etc., but that newsletter has over 150,000 subscribers, that means that those people find our recommendations, that they like them enough to keep getting, I mean email is time, and so for me it’s about being a dependable person.
I’m not walking around giving gold stars to everything. I really take a lot of time, and I read a lot of books, and I get pitched a lot of essays that I do not publish that I tend not to talk about, so for me it’s about dependability and really having the strength of having good taste. And again, Chris, this is something I feel like you have, in spades in both, the negative and the positive. People, you have a fan base that depends on you, and really enjoys, and sometimes probably disagree with you, but definitely enjoys hearing your thoughts.
Knight: Yeah, I was thinking what’s the opposite of a fan base? A loathing base or something? Because I have one of those, too. In terms of credibility, I think, you know, maybe just because I work for legacy media, there is a kind of built-in institutional weight that comes along with that. For good and for ill. I mean when I started writing in the 1980s, probably journalistically speaking, the most powerful journalistic art critic in America was Hilton Kramer at the New York Times, and since I didn’t know anything about journalism, I read him religiously, even though I find him to be a loathsome, reprehensible, hideous human being. He’s dead now, so—
But I also at the same time regard him as absolutely brilliant as a journalist. He knew how to push those buttons that a newspaper has in a way that very few other journalistic critics knew how to do. He was really, really good at it which is part of the reason that he developed, you know, whatever clout he had. So I would—I would read him for that purpose, to learn how to—to learn how to use journalism in certain ways, and he often had all of the right reasons for coming to the wrong conclusion. So I’d take the reasons and rewrite them. So the credibility thing can, speaking of negativity, can be useful in that way, too.
Fitzgerald: I want to say one thing, just to jump back a little bit. You also said that a lot of this conversation sparked from those comments that I made. And I just want to make sure that folks see things in like a broader sense. The—this is not—it’s not a new conversation, like I want to make that very clear. Like that blew up around that time about a year and a half ago, but before that, when believer magazine came out, it blew up. This positive-negative thing is a conversation that’s always been a part of criticism and talking about people of loving or clothing and fights between critics, the Renata Adler, and who did she go after? The name is slipping from me, say it louder. Pauline Kael. There it is, like again it is fascinating and it gives people things to talk about but these are all kinds of the conversations we’ve had about criticism for decades, if not longer.
Gat: I’m going to take that back and say that my research has come out of the links, it has been going on forever. I have been interested in it forever. Now to a really great came that came from the audience, I feel like I’m a radio show host or something. This is from Luke Finsaas who’s asking if critics have a role of guiding artists or the scene or the industry somehow? And that seems really important in this context, I know that you think you have a role, I can see that in your eyes.
Schreiber: Yeah, I think we do have a role. I think that it is—I think we have a role really for our readers, all different critics have different perspectives, different vantage points, different tastes and I think they resonate with their audiences in different ways and a lot of different publications, even covering the same type of art or same medium, you know, have different kind of a different perspective that they’ve built a trust with their readership that they turn to. So I mean it’s not really in shaping like the industry, it’s really in shaping our own kind of perspective on music.
Gat: Do you ever get feedback from musicians one-on-one?
Schreiber: Yeah, well, I mean I do to an extent. When prompted, I would say. You know, I don’t usually just go up and say, you know what, that show was really good, but have you considered like an in-ear monitor or something in it’s not I don’t usually do that kind of thing. Like for the most part, I don’t know, I generally am more interested in artists’ kind of perspective. I’ll usually ask them questions about their art and how they make it, I’m really interested in gear, for example, and I’m always interested in the actual process of that, so I’ll ask them a lot of those types of questions, but you know, when I’m asked about it, you know, I’ll be—I’ll be pretty candid, but you know, it’s a little bit of a different discussion when it’s one-on-one. You know, I’m not trying to be cruel, you know. So—yeah, it varies a little bit.
Gat: What about your role? Do you—
Fitzgerald: Um, yeah, I mean I think it’s—things affect other things. I think it’s like physics or something some scientist would understand. But everything you do kind of affects, and so for me, it’s really about like what we share, which again gets into the philosophy. I’m just talking about BuzzFeed Books here, but BuzzFeed kind of as a whole, like what is something that is so good that you want to share it, this kind of gets into the idea of like click bait, right? There was a time in the mid 2000s, that I worked another website like how to get a click. If you get a click and the person doesn’t like what they see, they’re not going to take the next step to share, so for me what we all share, what we all talk about, of course it’s going to influence what art gets created and what people are interested in things, because none of us live in a bubble.
And that’s—and I think that’s a very good thing. So art, much like music to be honest, is something that I really enjoy now, but I’m not very well versed in it so I just went to the Brooklyn art museum recently, and I had a very big fear moment which ties into music as well. I didn’t want to be the person at the show that holds up the camera and periscopes the whole, like, those people are really annoying, somebody’s got a selfie stick up for two hours and that’s really annoying. When I wanted to take pictures at Brooklyn art, they said no, we really encourage that, because it allowed maybe that somebody doesn’t get to go to the Brooklyn art museum to take a time with that and enjoy that and I do think that movement it’s a type of fandom, to be honest, but there’s no way that doesn’t influence it. It’s all part of the conversation.
Gat: There’s also a feedback loop that’s built into being an author, you have a relationship with your editor which you discussed. Artists don’t get that after art school. Do you do studio visits, for example, do you consider that as part of your role as a critic?
Knight: I don’t often do studio visits anymore, but it’s mostly just a practical consideration, like who has time? I love being in artists’ studios, you find out all kinds of things, but I typically, I will typically do that at my request, not there is, because I don’t know how to prioritize things. And in a—I don’t mean to completely change the topic and maybe I’m not, but I was thinking about in terms of criticism, negativity and so on, what one of the virtues that I think of newspapers is my column is not supported by advertising. There is some, you know, art-related advertising in a newspaper, but it’s like the only—the only newspaper where it’s significant is the New York Times.
So I find it a huge amount of freedom in that fact. And I get a lot of editorial support because I don’t think it—I mean they recognize it doesn’t impact that way and it’s the reason that I stopped writing for trade magazines in 1996. The Museum of Modern Art was doing a Jasper Johns retrospective and at that time Artforum when they commissioned a cover story, they would commission two so there would be two different voices because, god forbid, Artforum should have a point of view because it had advertisers to serve. So they asked Rosalind Krauss and me to write pieces about Johns, and as I was really excited to do it, because his work had been extremely important to me, just in the way I think about art, and I developed thinking about art, but his work from the early 90s and late 80, I didn’t like at all and I never had a chance to think through why, and I can quote the opening line of the review which is “I don’t like not liking Jasper John’s recent work.”
Because what I wanted to do in the piece was parse out why. And they went ballistic at Artforum, you can’t say that about Jasper John, and what? And we had a real knock-down, drag-out and they basically sent a rewritten review which started out elsewhere in the review and I sent it back and no, no, no, and by that point I had been used to newspaper writing where I could basically take a position which I think is an important thing to do. And we eventually came to terms and were I think both satisfied with the piece that ran. But I decided at that point I’m not going to do that anymore.
Fitzgerald: You got to keep that line? You got to keep that open line?
Gat: I have never had that problem with trade publication, I that seems like a really important thing to discuss, actually and the ethics of it, too, what does that mean to write, but I also wonder about whether or not multiplicity of voices cancels that out so you say Artforum god forbid would have a statement or anything. Would covering everything releases you from that? You talk a lot about the comprehensiveness. I talk a lot about selectiveness, because as far as I’m concerned what I’m covering, the fact that I covered it that it appears in the pages of whatever magazine, already means more than anything I wrote and I see that, too. This week a museum shared a really negative review that I wrote all over Facebook and Twitter. Orit Gat has some really interesting ideas about the show and my interesting ideas about the show is terrible. They don’t care.
Schreiber: Yeah, I think actually what you were talking about, I think I’ve seen that happen, I know writers talk about it, and have talked about it happening to them at other publications. In fact, we had a handful of writers come to work for us, because at a former publication they found they were being stifled by the publisher saying we need to be a little more positive or diplomatic because we have advertising and I’m sure the conversation wasn’t that direct, I’m sure it was a little bit more couched.
But the fact of the matter is a number of publications do have dollars that actually have an impact on what is and can be said. For us, the editors, the Editor in Chief are not privy at all to what ads are going to run on the site, so they can’t know. It’s something we want them to be to be oblivious of. And it’s also you know something that is—that really you just can’t have these two opposing forces, you know, you know, we’ve had many instances where a negative review ran on the site, and it was plastered around the adds for the album was plastered around this review. It’s such a strange, you know, feeling or a strange look, but it’s really necessary, and I always kind of revel in that and kind of take pride in it, because it shows. It’s right out there in front of everybody. Look, you can see for yourself, these things do not coincide. And I think that’s really crucial and also interesting that I kind of increasingly Pitchfork some of the ads are less supported by labels and things like that now, as well. But that’s not necessarily as by design, but it is—but it is sort of the reality of things.
Gat: I actually really believe in advertising that doesn’t come from your own industry. If all art magazines were supported by fashion labels for example it would release you so much, you could write anything you want. When I was an editor, I was told don’t cover certain things, that’s an advertiser, that’s the biggest gallery in the city.
Schreiber: No, you have to be willing to risk those relationships, because also people change at these companies all the time, an old person will leave, a new person will come in and these relationships they can be repaired. What’s really important is that, you know, we stand for our opinion, and that our opinion is not affected by that. I think it’s just like 101 journalism. And like you said, it’s something that you hear all the time, people are—publishers always want, you know, that they are planning playing a very difficult game of balancing both sides of this thing, trying to make everybody happy but you just can’t.
Fitzgerald: And it gets to the credibility. The fact that journalism, criticism, whatever, right, what are we all grasping at right? Life in general is grasping at truth. And if you start ignoring that.
Gat: So many questions from the audience. I want to like stay on the money thing, obviously. And talk about payments for writers, too, because that seems like a part of the an ethics of a website. You’re going to be writers for a long time.
Fitzgerald: At The Rumpus, let us be clear.
Gat: Sorry, sorry, I don’t believe in writing for exposure. I think it’s really important as a woman to say that, because people will assume that I’ll be supported somehow in some mystery way.
Fitzgerald: So to be honest, I agree wholeheartedly. It is actually part of the reason why I felt that I wanted to move on past The Rumpus. I was really proud of my time there. I was really proud of the work that was done there, and I still actually do believe that it’s help a lot of people’s careers and a lot of time I have to have faith in the writer that they are adult enough to make that call, if they want to work for free, that really is on them. Working for The Rumpus, it came out of my first year I can say this, I made $12,000 in San Francisco.
Gat: I hear that goes a long way in San Francisco.
Fitzgerald: Yeah. It does not. So I was working for nothing because I really believed in it so I don’t want to say that those publications like if you’re trying to make something happen, whether it’s build a community or cover a certain thing that you think there needs to be coverage out there and there’s just no money and it’s a labor of love, I think that’s important and that that place exists and that’s wonderful. I will say that one of my favorite things about being at BuzzFeed books is that I get to pay my writers, because I also do think, especially in this day and age, it becomes more and more important. In the mid-2000s, there was the shakeup, what are we gonna do? Build the airplane, figure it out when we’re in the sky. Great, what have we done? Beautiful editorial, anybody know anything about business? Shit! And that’s really a problem. But what we have now, you see it more and more whether it’s been around for 20 years or new websites, I think a lot of more attention to how, no pun intended but how you pay your writers, and not only how you keep the company afloat, but also that you’re treating your writers, your critics, whoever is creating the content for you as human beings and I think especially if there’s any way to make it work and in this day and age there’s so many tools to make it work. If you work on a wonderful website and you have no money, start a Kickstarter. If you have built up the fan base there’s different ways to monetize so that you can even just a little bit pay the folks and then it’s their call whether they want to write for x amount of money but I think it’s a very important part.
Gat: I also wonder about that connection between a salary and the kind of writing you get to do. I’m blanking on his name right now, the other art critic for the LA Times.
Knight: Current? Recent?
Gat: Current. He was amazing at a panel. Someone asked him what the value of criticism was and his response was a dollar a word.
Knight: It was David Pagel.
Gat: Yeah. But having a position, being paid allows you to write very particular things. What do you think is going to happen now that clearly I’m not going to get your job one day, never gonna happen. There aren’t any art critics anymore.
Knight: Well that’s good, because I’ve got a mortgage. Well, one of the other good things about legacy media is that they will—they will support me to do things like this. They will underwrite my being at something like this. I’m doing this for free. I’m not being paid to be here by the Walker because it’s not a good idea for the chief art critic at the Los Angeles Times to be cashing a check issued by a major art museum that is, you know, potentially part of coverage. So the newspaper allows me to be able to do something like that. In terms of monetizing criticism, that’s beyond my pay grade. That’s the business side and I don’t know anything about how that works. I don’t know how they do it. It’s a mystery to me.
Gat: I’m going to stick with that, there’s also a really good question from the audience about ethics. This from Anna Searle Jones who’s asking what about the boundaries between the critic, the journalist, and the publicist. I also think it’s really interesting that Superscript is about art journalism and criticism, whereas I differentiate myself from journalism because that is what happens online in the art world. It’s just journalism. What are these boundaries? How important are they?
Knight: Boundaries between?
Gat: Between journalism, criticism, and publicist.
Knight: I consider myself a critic. There are places where they converge and there are places where it’s clearly separate. My byline says critic so the reader is included in that what you’re about to read is opinion. And if that’s not on the by line what you’re about to read is theoretically fact. May or may not be depending on situation. But there is generally a separation between the two that is clearly clear in the way newspapers are laid out.
Gat: I think this is muddled a little bit online. Though, that separation that I consider really important. I think people look at an art website and say this is criticism, this is critical analysis and I think it’s reporting.
Knight: Do you consider yourself journalists, as well as critics?
Fitzgerald: I don’t have the memory, I don’t have the facts. And that’s what I respect about journalism. That’s what makes it—that’s what makes it what it is, and like I feel like the boundaries are actually just in the definitions of the words, you know, and then as far as to bring publicity into it, like that’s totally different. That is, somebody gets paid to promote something. That’s what publicity is, and from the place that either published it or the art institute that is throwing the show.
Knight: You know, at the risk of getting too philosophical here, the First Amendment to the constitution has our understanding of what the press is has really been negatively impacted in the last 50 or 60 years when we generally seem to think that freedom of the press means that the press will not be constrained by government. That that’s what the constitution—that’s what the First Amendment is for.
And it’s true. But it’s also only half the equation. The reason that the free press is in the First Amendment is an assertion that citizens have a right to information in order to make the democracy work.
And that’s the half of the equation that has disappeared in the last 50 years. The idea that citizenry has a right to information is gone. Nobody thinks about that at all. So the whole idea of monetizing journalism becomes a bigger issue than it really ought to be. Initially when, you know, after the constitution was written and the country was being founded, the government subsidized journalism. Because it was important. You paid less to send newspapers through the mail, than you know, business contracts, things like that, because it was important to do. And whether or not there is a way in which to make that half of the equation more prominent at a time when we’re all drowning in seas of billionaires’ money I think it’s arguable that that’s not going to happen too soon which is too bad.
Gat: Should we take questions from the audience? Why don’t we start with you and then we’ll go to you, OK?
Audience Member: Hi, I’m Patricia Maloney from Art Practical and Daily Serving, and I need to go back Isaac to the end of your presentation and just sort of call you to task on imploring people to start their own initiatives, because I think this is a room full of people who have either started their own initiatives or are like deeply invested in contributing to independent publications, so I just wanted to put that out there for this group. And then as someone who is really invested in an independent publication that is also invested in locality, I wanted to go back to that idea of the positive and negative, I think is much more nuanced when you think about the ways in which so much of what we do is trying to represent the values of our cultural communities.
Gat: I think that’s a self-canceling thing immediately. It means that because you’re committed to a scene you’re only going to write about it positively.
Audience Member: No. No. No, I think I mean I think it’s just like bringing into the conversation that, you know, like what you are calling to task, or like holding up as representative of the community, has to be invested in like what that—an acknowledgement of what that community values and like that positive and negativity has to include like presenting what that community revolves around and what and what it values. And I think, you know, that happens much more at an independent level than you know, perhaps you know at a—major media outlets.
Fitzgerald: So I’m confused, though, because you started by saying you wanted to call me to task?
Audience Member: Oh, just about that last.
Fitzgerald: But I feel like what I was doing was trying to encourage people to start.
Audience Member: But I think you’re speaking to, you know, the converted here, you know, like how many people in this room, like have started their own initiatives?
Fitzgerald: Yeah, no, no, so, yeah, I mean I just—it’s something that I believe strongly with. I guess I don’t get the task I’m being called to. Not that we should get into this quagmire, but to speak to this other point that yes, of course it is something that you have done and you have built and it’s independent and it’s location-based which I love this. I’m in Brooklyn there’s like numerous local blogs that I love to read, some independently owned, I think most independently owned probably and of course it reflects the community and I think that’s a wonderful thing. That’s something that’s very much come from the Internet. Instead of having this massive coverage of trying to speak to as many people as possible because you’re trying to get your circulation up, you can actually have a place like you’re talking about exclusivity that’s very, very small that’s power is drawn from the fact that it talks about the area, like either whether it’s a small online culture or an actual physical area. I think that that’s something that should definitely be applied.
Gat: I think that the Internet would have been a great place. I didn’t use the word exclusive, did I? Small scale operation. Selectivity. But it actually isn’t. That’s one of the biggest problems with the Internet is that it creates this platform, these possibilities, and then the ten most visited websites, the only one that is in control of a fortune 500 company is Wikipedia. Just saying.
Fitzgerald: So that’s the top 10. I mean the top 10 TV companies, I mean yes, you go to the top 10 it’s going to be conglomerate, absolutely, but that doesn’t mean that we should be disheartened by the fact that there are all these other ways to go to.
Gat: We need to find new ways to do so, though, because the economy of scale is really depressing. Should we move to you?
Audience Member: Yes, getting maybe more to the nuance of the relationship with the critic to the community, I just—I had left graduate school, a degree with painting and was given a grant in the late 1970s from the center for arts criticism which is based here in St. Paul to write art criticism, and I was cool, you know, I was living in a loft and everybody I knew was artists and everybody I knew loved me and I loved them and then all of a sudden I got a grant to be an art critic and everybody hated me. And I would go to the bar and people would say who do you think you are Clement Greenberg or Barnett Newman? And then suddenly it became antagonistic, and I felt like Sam Kinison. I’m just a kid. Leave me alone.
I didn’t have the power to do anything with that, I’d just write. But I think historically there’s a sort of antagonism between the critic and the community sometimes and the artists and I see this in institutions, locally, where people, you know, who put on plays or whatever they don’t want to, you know, talk to the critic or the critic is antagonistic or they want to like correct them or whatever. And I just wonder if you feel there is historical antipathy, and if that has a function in terms of collusion, credibility, all that sort of stuff that the antipathy, you’re not just building people up, I mean you’re writing—I like the definition, you’re just writing your own thoughts and you’re using writing to discover that.
Gat: And if that antipathy is historical how does the Internet change that in the comments section in the way you can see with your audience?
Schreiber: I think, yeah, I think there is oftentimes a sense that journalists are writing negative reviews out of a place of insecurity or just a vindictiveness or various other reasons and artists make this claim, sometimes fans who hold music really closely as part of their identity when something that they love gets you know, kind of torn down or just not fully supported in the way that they think it should be. You know, they always make these types of claims. And I think that really you know, you write negative reviews, really because you care. You care about your subject. I mean we care about music really a lot, and it’s really, really deep for all of us but I think that it’s just an absolutely necessary thing and I think in a lot of cases you’re speaking what’s on a lot of people’s minds. In some cases you’re just making the claim or you have a completely independent point of view.
You’re willing to put yourself out there on the line and risk that kind of backlash, but yeah, I think that kind of—it’s always interesting, I think that it’s just the kind of go-to response for people who, you know, who disagree with criticism and I think there was that great piece on Gawker almost a year ago on smarm, right, and that piece talked about the differences between snark and smarm and that kind of oh, you’re just insecure, you’re vindictive, you’re nasty, criticism comes from a nasty place in people and it’s this defensiveness, is that then what is categorized as smarm? I think that, you know, people don’t really have a real reason for it. It’s like, wow, you know, it’s really mysterious why you would have to put this out there, but it’s really a central part of the conversation.
Knight: If you’re in criticism to make friends, you’re in the wrong business. The fundamental thing that a writer has to do in addressing a work of art is take it seriously. You know, there’s got to be a level of respect involved, and short-term, people might be upset, long-term, I think people understand that.
Gat: What about the comments section? That is something that I consider really important and am always really disappointed by.
Knight: My solution for that is I don’t read them.
Fitzgerald: I want to jump in here because that actually, that one used to be my—I think I thought getting it tattooed on my chest. Never read the comments, and for a long time that was a driving philosophy for me, but I think this ties into a couple of things to your question that I kind of want to talk about. One, I agree, I was going to say the same thing, not here to make friends I think is very important and I think again my view of this is that it’s all of larger conversation. I think trying to break it down, is negative or positive right or wrong? Like of course it’s both right. I can’t believe that that’s a question. Like it is all important and it is all part of the conversation.
I want to talk about I love that this comes up around the Internet is that the inter net was a very negative place, like super negative and I think it still is. You only have to take a look, if you’re a guy, get a friend who’s opinionated and she talks on Twitter and look at her mentions just to realize that the Internet is can be a very harsh and terrible place. So that there is a lot of negativity. Negativity is not going extinct. Like negativity is fine because it’s important for some of it and some of it is people fucking harassing your friends, which is a horrifying talk. That said I’m glad I didn’t get never read the comments tattooed on my chest because I’ve actually switched roles and I really like defending the comments now. I mean don’t get me wrong, if somebody comes into a comment section and just like spews racist shit, then yes of course, delete it: fuck them! But sometimes the comments is where these things that we’re all talking about actually bump into each other. People have super smart and on the other side of the fence feelings about something, and in the comments section is where some of that it come out.
But that’s where I’d like to say that the comment section is very much about the Internet as a role. Whether negative or whether positive. You can find them and they’re gold and yes, sometimes they’re surrounded by garbage. Sometimes they’re surrounded by even lovelier conversations or more negative conversations but they’re still important. But that’s what it is. It’s humans bumping into each other all given a voice, all given a space. So actually I am here for—don’t get me wrong, not unregulated, I’m not—although maybe there’s a space for that, as well, but.
Gat: I think that’s one of the roles of the editor is to lead those. My editor at Rhizome responds to every comment on the site, which is kind of easy, because you don’t get every comment but there’s also a really smart thing there that that you’re keeping your readers talking. You’re keeping your readers discussing what you’re writing on the site, not on Facebook. It mean Mark Zuckerberg is not making money on your intellectual property. Which also leads me to another question from the Internet. This one is from Katie [unintelligible] who’s asking if what we share affects what gets made, and that seems like maybe the two of you will have a lot of opinions about that.
Fitzgerald: I’m going to jump in and just say to an extent of course. But I also believe what Christopher says, just about writing in general, whether it be criticism or whether it be art creation, right? People are going to make art. People are going to tell stories, from the literary world, this is like one of the things that the human race has not dropped the ball on basically since the beginning. So like it’s always going to happen. Now, what will what gets talked about force things, like the memoir blew up and had this other resurgence again in the late 90s and you saw a lot of memoirs, but I also think that art is a little self-correcting, and I believe people are going to express themselves how they want to express themselves. I feel if somebody feels very passionate about something they’re going to make it in spite of —
Gat: Regardless of you.
Fitzgerald: Regardless of any of us.
Schreiber: Yeah, I think that’s true and I guess I feel like it, I don’t know, that it doesn’t—it’s not necessarily, well, isn’t it kind of better to kind of take a back seat to that role? It says here you are paying attention and seeing what gets made and how people make it, I guess I feel like it’s not necessarily there. Criticism is not necessarily there to affect or influence. It’s not really its role, it’s not really our job, you know, if it happens, it’s kind of a byproduct. Ideally in negative reviews, as long as it’s not, you know, if it’s something that’s not completely harsh, completely totally negative, ideally, there is a form of constructive criticism there that an artist can kind of take to heart. But, yeah, I think it’s not—it’s really not our place. It’s something that I think can affect it and ideally it can affect it positively because we have different opinions about it, but at the same time it kind of lets nature take its course.
Gat: Let’s take one more.
Audience Member: I’m Skye Goodden. I founded a site promoting art criticism last October. I’m paying my writers, and I’m paying myself a decent wage, as well. I had a question from an advertiser of mine this morning, wanting to jump in, and saying, though, that he was worried, online advertising was a bit moot because of ad blocks that a lot of us employ on our computers, so my question was to Orit. You mentioned in your short lecture there that you thought we should return to pay walls or a similar structure. I thought that didn’t work out. I’m pretty sure it didn’t work out, so I just wondered if you could speak to that at a bit more lengths and talk about why you think it still has a possibility as a model for us.
Gat: That’s a really good question. I think it will work out, because I think that presumption that everything online will always be free makes no sense whatsoever. Advertising has never supported any industry that much. Journalism that happened there, and we all knew that that was not a great idea, actually, I mean the idea of like newspapers with like champagne in the rooms and that happened. That wasn’t the like high time of journalism. I think that people really believe in what they read. They’re interested in that. They will pay for that. It’s a really, really difficult move to do. I’m not jealous of the first ones to do that. A lot of art magazines have introduced pay walls on their site. A lot of people are doing it really smartly like frieze that closes the entire issue and then their entire archive is open. But yeah, your readers should support what you do, point blank, they should also prefer that, they should prefer to pay whatever they pay so as to not get advertising that takes advantage of them.
Knight: I think it also helps clarify—I mean one of the things that I run into a lot is the assumption that social media is public space. And it’s not. It’s private space. You know, it’s corporately owned private space, in which labor is given for free. I mean basically. And doing some version of a pay wall thing helps to clarify the situation in which you’re engaged.
Gat: Another question from the audience? Where is the microphone? I guess right there. Yeah, OK, go for it.
Audience Member: Hi. A lot of the criticism has been discussed is in terms of someone sort of on high discussing individual projects by a maker of some sort. Whether it’s art or a book or whatever. What do you think the value is of a critic in the sense of speaking to analyzing what cultural institutions for presenters are doing? Do you think the value of negative criticism changes within that context? And I don’t know, I’m just interested in hearing you speak to that a little bit more in terms of the broad scope of criticism and who it can be directed towards.
Gat: Anyone want to take that first or should I? I’m really into it.
Fitzgerald: Go for it.
Gat: I actually think it’s easier to criticize institutions than individuals. That said it’s terrifying because institutions are usually more powerful than the freelance critic. I have long dreamed of a blog or something that criticizes art magazines. I would never make a living if I did that. Every magazine would hate me, so I did that publicly with other people and it’s the most engaging conversation I’ve ever had, and I think museums should do that, too. I think we should have critical groups coming into to discuss what they do as an institution, because otherwise, all they get is basically pat themselves on the back, we’re so great, we do research and R&D. Oh, my gosh, I shouldn’t say this at a museum.
Fitzgerald: Keep going. You got it. It’s already out! You’ve gotta be brave about it now. We’ve got your back.
Gat: So I saw a curator at a major museum speak at a panel, she was amazing, she was great, but she also talked about the museum as an R&D lab and no one asked any questions about that, any questions about how you translate financial models from Silicon Valley to cultural production. Nobody really talked about that as something that needs to be critically discussed, and this was on stage at another museum, and I think those discussions should be easier and I think there’s a lot of room for them.
Fitzgerald: I think it’s important, because that’s how change happens, right? Calling out institutions, if we wanted things to stay the same, I think that’s incredibly important, you know, that’s how you fight if you’ve got a local museum or a publishing house that you love, if there’s somebody and you want to see change in those directions of course you’re going to have to stand up and have those conversations and like it’s just important, right? Like I feel like that is like—I feel like that’s being a good citizen, like that’s not just being a critic.
That’s being like I think all of us as Americans or as human beings, that’s what we should be doing all the time, because that’s usually the things that we care about, and that’s what you want to see reflected in the institutions around you. Sometimes—a lot of good can come from getting punched on the nose. I would not be here if I didn’t get punched in the nose. But I think. Not to get too philosophical, we’re getting to a much broader conversation. But we’re seeing that from our actual government right now, right? And I think that’s important as citizens to do that.
Gat: First Amendment in everything. As Americans.
Knight: Especially at art institutions. I mean, socially and politically the whole big trend since the 1980s has been to privatize, privatize public space, everything public has been privatized and privatized and privatized. Well, an institution, whether it’s the Walker or the Metropolitan or whatever public institution, I subsidize them with my taxes, as does everybody else, and the degree to which they’re handed over to money can become a real problem.
The commercialization of American museums that’s going on now is really disturbing to me. This is on the top of my mind because I’m in the midst of writing a sort of long piece about this. It’s getting to a point where it’s so pervasive, the commercialization of museums is so pervasive that people don’t pay attention to it anymore. It’s becoming the new norm. It’s like: of course, it’s that way. Well, it doesn’t have to be that way and I need to use my institutional clout, as I said in my talk, I need to use my power against their power and let them do with it what they want, you know. That’s not up to me. It’s just up to me to, as a journalist, to say this is what I see going on, and this is why I think it’s screwy. That’s all.
Gat: I think, well, that’s—OK. I any last words?
Fitzgerald: I feel like this is why it’s screwy is a perfect way to end.