When pop artist Jeff Koons had a retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, it seemed every art critic had to have his or her say. But it was Carolina Miranda of the Los Angeles Times, thousands of miles away, who got the last word—without any words of her own.
While arts writing is going through one of its richest periods of innovation, much of the experimen- tation is happening well outside of traditional media
Miranda celebrated the colorful and hyperbolic language used to describe the 2014 show in a poem, what she called “cut-up Koons criticism,” assembled from phrases in the avalanche of reviews. Her from-the-hip, literary aggregation not only celebrated Koons, it offered insight into the kind of heat, groupthink, and competitive one-upmanship an art-world phenom like Koons could generate among critics. He was described as the “reigning artist-king,” “a bland Mitt Romney Teletubby,” not “really that different from BuzzFeed,” and “the most potent and inventive artist of this mad, frothy era,” according to the ode.
Miranda’s work is proof that arts journalists can be inventive at a daily newspaper or its website. But it’s a rarity. It was one of the only specific examples of innovative visual arts writing at a legacy media outlet that arts journalists pointed to in a recent survey.
While arts writing is going through one of its richest periods of innovation, with an explosion of forms in recent years, much of the experimentation is happening well outside of traditional media. The internet seems to have reminded at least some writers of the kind of artistry that’s possible in art criticism, says Charlotte Frost, author of a forthcoming book, “Art Criticism Online: A History.” This represents a return to the roots of the field, she adds. The 800-word art review is actually a fairly recent invention. But if you turn the clock back a bit, to the 18th-century Paris salons, for instance, there were all kinds of critical responses to art, Frost says.
Gilda Williams, art critic and author of the go-to handbook “How to Write about Contemporary Art,” suggests we may be living through the most expansive era in the history of arts writing. “By and large the quality of writing has gone way up,” says Williams. “It’s a much broader sort of ecosystem and it’s often more enjoyable to read. The internet has really improved that.” As for the richest territory of inventiveness, that is happening at “the fringes,” Williams argues.
The fringe, in this case, includes a broad range of projects that bear resemblances to literary magazines, heady art journals, memoir, fiction, stand-up comedy, Tumblr manifestos, performance, and art. The production values tend to be high, the thinking dense, the forms endemic to the internet, and the writing literary and often personal. And yet, like Miranda’s poem, there is often a decidedly high-low sensibility, a playful irreverence or wit that makes serious thinking about art approachable.
Good, old-fashioned prose, insight, and—most essentially—judgment remain core to many of these experiments. Indeed some of the most noteworthy examples are less about digital bells and whistles and more about how words are used and art discussions framed.
Questions about what arts journalism might look like in the future were difficult to answer for many respondents to a survey I conducted while the 2017 Arts & Culture Nieman Fellow. More than 300 visual arts writers and critics working regularly for U.S. publications took the survey, which included more than 100 questions about the priorities and pressures of the field. Some of the questions replicate those of a survey done 15 years prior by the National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia University, which provides a basis for comparison over a period of dramatic change to both media and culture. About a third of respondents hold staff positions, while the rest are primarily freelance writers working for a mix of legacy publications and digital platforms from more than 35 states and several countries. The broader results of the survey will be published later this year.
The idea of an expansive era seems remote to many whose newsrooms have grown small and resource strapped. In those places, if arts journalism continues at all, sticking to the basics and doing them well tends to trump reinvention as a means of survival. “They don’t have the staff anymore,” says Christine Ledbetter, arts editor at The Washington Post. “There’s so few newspapers who still have a full stable of arts critics and writers, and they are relying on freelancers to cover those things that they absolutely have to cover.”
There are, of course, plenty of exceptional arts journalists who are not particularly interested in reinvention. Sites like 4Columns, for instance, have been recognized for doubling down on craft and traditional forms of criticism to great effect. Most of the critics that survey respondents found most influential fall into this category, too. Roberta Smith of The New York Times and Jerry Saltz of New York magazine topped that list. Saltz, who is married to Smith, recently won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. For all of the heat and energy he generates on social media, he’s a pretty old-fashioned critic, who reviews big shows and important artists. The examples of inventive arts journalism that arose from the survey and subsequent reporting could inspire a shift in sensibility and a willingness to invest in an area of journalism that many editors and publishers have effectively written off.
At legacy outlets, if arts journalism continues at all, sticking to the basics and doing them well tends to trump reinvention as a means of survival
The subtext here is this: We are living through a technology-induced cultural revolution and it’s not being covered particularly well. The ways we think about and derive meaning from art have changed dramatically, along with the ways we communicate and consume media and information. Some of the best arts writers today not only have a well-developed perspective on art—and write engagingly about it, of course—they also have a broader point of view about how visual culture is reshaping our lives.
What follows are scenes from a vanguard in arts writing. Most of these projects have been around long enough to learn from their experimentation. Others have been around longer than that and represent a renewed relevance for existing forms. I selected work that could be explored deeply and pleasurably, and I owe a debt of thanks to the survey’s respondents who drew me toward meaningful research and reading, including a surprisingly tall stack of books.
When the subject of arts writing and its digital future comes up, this New York-based journal is often the first to trip from the lips. Its mantra, to “slow down the internet,” is an ideal that people like to root for.
The editors have described themselves as lackeys from the publishing world—fact checkers and fledgling editors and writers—seeking a place of their own. They are literary minded and much of their philosophy is embodied in the site’s book-like orientation in which readers move through much of its content horizontally, from left to right. The standard vertical scroll of most web pages is the product of programmers and their big blocks of code, they argue, and that format is more conducive to skimming or scanning than actual reading.
The idea is to leverage the capacities of the web while being an antidote to its overwhelming volume and pace. Triple Canopy resists the internet’s general sense of urgency by publishing in “issues,” collections of content around a single concept that can take several months to fully unfurl online and at various in-person events. In this way, Triple Canopy can feel like a series of high-concept research projects that everyone in the publishing chain is in on, from the editors who craft a poetic prompt, the contributors who respond, and those who are committed to reading over a period of time. Lines of inquiry are pursued in a kind of temporary, networked community. It is oddly participatory for a website that allows no comments or online interaction whatsoever.
While Triple Canopy’s editors describe what they do as arts writing, the e-journal doesn’t publish anything resembling a traditional art review. Instead, they seek to gather sharp and diverse minds around philosophical questions in such a way that insights on art and contemporary culture are a natural byproduct. Formats might include a piece of experimental writing, a performance, a digital game, an art object, a public discussion, or—most likely—some hybrid of such things.
For instance, Triple Canopy’s most recent issue, Risk Pool, explores ideas about sickness and health. So far, it includes an experiment in typography that makes a common typeface more readable to those with dyslexia and vision impairments; an epistolary essay by Johanna Hedva about collaborative healing and political resistance; a sequence of poems by Prageeta Sharma with paintings by Ragna Bley; and a report from the Aspen Ideas Festival by Corrine Fitzpatrick. Like good episodes of “This American Life,” the varied takes on individual subjects such as The Long Tomorrow (the future), Standard Evaluation Materials (standards of measurement), or Vanitas (vanity) tend to resonate in combination.
After a decade of existence, one of the takeaways of Triple Canopy may be about the quality of its voices. People with literary star power, both heavyweights and up-and-comers, show up on the masthead, in the “issues,” and at the journal’s fashionable fêtes. It doesn’t hurt when your collaborators include figures such as Hilton Als, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New Yorker critic; Rachel Kushner, a 2013 Guggenheim Fellow and novelist; and Lynne Tillman, a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist and revered critico-fiction writer. “A lot of the work of criticism is about the people who are doing it … and the technologies, while they transform ways of working, don’t actually alter that fact,” says Lucy Ives, a former Triple Canopy editor and contributor.
Triple Canopy is in the midst of rethinking its publishing model and online platform, in part to reach a wider audience and further “combat the economy of attention,” says the site’s editor, Alexander Provan. Triple Canopy, which is supported by memberships and institutions, may ultimately produce less content. The editors may focus more on getting audiences to spend time with their content, Provan says. That could mean presenting work on multiple platforms, multiple times in multiple cities, working with regional institutions and partners, for instance.
Triple Canopy resists the internet’s general sense of urgency
With its future in mind, Triple Canopy recently held an event to support the next generation of inventive arts journalists, a “Publication Intensive” hosted by The Underground Museum in Los Angeles that featured an auspicious gathering of emerging talent from around the globe. A lot of thought goes into Triple Canopy’s collaborations and mindful uses of technology, says Frost, who in her forthcoming book positions the site and other online journals such as e-flux and The New Inquiry as part of a new establishment in cultural writing. But, Frost adds, the site is not particularly accessible for broad audiences.
One of the art world’s more in-the-now, countercultural publications, Dis magazine, is making the quintessentially unfashionable journalistic move: pivoting to video. Dis is looking to be “aggressively entertaining,” though, to compete with the likes of Netflix and Amazon programming rather than the digestible videos that news organizations produce, says Lauren Boyle, one of the founders of the collective behind the site. “We enlist leading artists and thinkers to expand the reach of key conversations bubbling up through contemporary art, culture, activism, philosophy, and technology,” the Dis collective states online. “Every video proposes something—a solution, a question—a way to think about our shifting reality.”
The New York-based artist collective of the same name, which includes Boyle, Solomon Chase, Marco Roso, and David Toro, had already slowed publication for its online magazine, launched in 2010. The internet’s noise became increasingly hard to break through, says Boyle. While the online magazine maintained a healthy audience, the number of people who reached the end of its long-form articles had decreased over time, she says. Also, while Facebook was essential to Dis’s early growth, the magazine’s content became less favored by the social platform’s algorithm over time, too, says Boyle, adding that Twitter and Instagram were less useful for attracting audiences: “It got to the point where just no one saw anything that we posted on social media.”
And so Dis, with a name that literally means to critique and that brings terms such as disrespect, discourse, discursive, and dystopia to mind, has gone post-Facebook and post-reading. It unveiled its “genre-nonconforming” streaming service in January and releases new programming on a weekly basis. The shift represents “a counter strategy to our incomprehensible moment of post-truth, a clickbait cultural landscape that has generated misinformation and overexposure as a general condition,” the collective states in an artist statement for the de Young Museum in San Francisco, where the Dis videos also debuted.
To drive home the point that we’ve all lost our heads in an era of inattention, one of Dis’s inaugural releases was the “General Intellects” series with media theorist McKenzie Wark. The series is based on Wark’s book of the same name, which profiles important thinkers. Wark’s talking head is detached from his body via special effects, turned on its ear, so to speak, as he provides tutorials on society and technology. In one episode, he explores the ideas of cultural theorist Sianne Ngai, who breaks aesthetics down into three basic categories, “the zany,” “the cute,” and “the interesting.” It is her way of explaining how we see art and the world.
Some of Dis’s videos critique the forms of entertainment they resemble. For instance, artist Ilana Harris-Babou’s visual essay “Reparation Hardware” has the feel of a promotional video unveiling a line of products at Restoration Hardware as well as TV programs that romanticize the work of “genius” artists in their studios. Harris-Babou remixes aspirational languages that, in turn, have the ring of political speech, retail advertising, and artspeak. In the video, we see her make tools from clay, dysfunctional objects she attempts to use in a kind of absurdist performance.
Harris-Babou is expressing something about the futility of repairing the American dream given the history of oppression and exploitation in the United States, a history in which enslaved Africans were themselves commodities. She’s also pointing to the narratives embedded in the retail culture and HGTV-esque shows so many of us consume passively and uncritically.
A video by artist, critic, and curator Aria Dean, “Eulogy for a Black Mass,” begins in a similarly reflexive way. The video essay, which explores the idea of blackness as it relates to meme culture, opens with what feels like a laptop takeover: a blinking cursor tapping out words on a screen. Those words are then deleted, letter by letter. It’s as if we’re witnessing thought in real time: “This is … a eulogy … for a form.”
Some of Dis’s videos critique the forms of entertainment they resemble
Memes unfurl, too, and we hear Dean’s voice: “Memes have something black about them. The something is complicated and hard to make recognizable. It has to do with a lot of black people making memes, caressing them, carrying them to and fro, spreading them. On a very practical level there is a blackness to claim, a blackness related to intellectual property and labor. There is an imminent theft to be guarded against.”
So far, Dis programming has also included a series about mothers and daughters by artist-comedian Casey Jane Ellison (known for her online talk show “Touching the Art,” which satirized the art world’s mind-numbing discussions while providing a meaningful alternative to them), a conceptual cooking show, a cartoon about work, a children’s show about capitalism, and a documentary on the “seasteading” movement. Both Ellison and Dean were mentioned by survey respondents as inventive artist-critics worth watching.
Most videos are in the four- to five-minute range, and some include artist-produced pre-roll, a wry alternative to ads. Dis videos can be streamed for 30 days and are marked with expiration dates. The service is free, for now, though Boyle says the Dis collective, which gets some support through its curatorial activities, hopes to charge for subscriptions later this year.
BLACK CONTEMPORARY ART
Black Contemporary Art started as an intervention into the art world, a way to make black artists more visible. Since its founding in 2011, the Tumblr blog and its founder Kimberly Drew have become authorities within that world. The visual blog is described as “a place for art by and about people of African descent,” and has presented thousands of artworks by thousands of artists from around the world.
“It is pulling together so many different forms of art,” says Tara Pixley, a photographer and media scholar with expertise in visual representations of gender, race, and sexuality. “There are films here. There are images, paintings, collages, portraits of important people like James Baldwin, poetry (after) Assata Shakur, like all of these things coming together to create this incredible tapestry of black thought, black life, the black experience through art.”
Recently, the Tumblr has featured images of the multimedia collages of black women and girls by Deborah Roberts, the fashion photography of Nadine Ijewere, a portrait of two girls by Miranda Barnes, and several works by photographer and multimedia artist Lorna Simpson. Part of what’s radical about the site, Pixley adds, is the way cultural touchstones of such range, from a Frank Ocean song to an Ellen Gallagher painting, are placed on the same level, inviting us to consider them as equally deserving of respect and consideration. For artists, being featured on the site can lead to real-world opportunities. “I’ve met people who saw my work on that platform,” says Dis contributor Harris-Babou, who creates conceptual ceramic works, performances, and video installations. “I got to be in a museum show in Georgia … and have my work shown next to a Martha Rosler video that inspired it. I got to travel to Paris and install my work there from someone who saw my work on that blog.”
Black Contemporary Art, and a few projects like it, have had an impact on the art world, influencing commercial dealers and large institutions alike
Black Contemporary Art has become a go-to resource, used in art history courses, for instance, and Drew has become an influential speaker and social media powerhouse. She has a following of more than 175,000 on Instagram and more than 20,000 followers on Twitter, where she goes by @museummammy, celebrates black culture, and sometimes calls power to account.
Black Contemporary Art, and a few projects like it, have had an impact on the art world, influencing commercial dealers and large institutions alike, says Sarah Douglas, editor-in-chief of ARTnews. The site is an example of what some have called Tumblr art criticism, making an argument through the accumulation and combination of images. “You see artists of different generations next to each other, and it really makes an impact,” says Douglas. “You know, this material was all there to be mined, and it takes someone with a strong perspective and desire to come in and do it in a new way.”
Drew, who is the social media manager for the Metropolitan Museum of Art and also a curator, writer, and activist, was drawn to the call-and-response nature of the Tumblr environment. The meme-driven discussion she created empowers others to submit and reblog images of works by black artists. “Remember: each of us has a role in writing art history and producing cultural memory,” the site’s administrators posted recently.
“I think Tumblr and Instagram provide a great opportunity for representation we don’t otherwise see in mainstream media,” says Jeneé Osterheldt, culture columnist for the Kansas City Star. “Artists of color aren’t restricted by the stark white walls of elite museums where black art has been historically tokenized or rarely fairly recognized. Social media offers a platform where we can hold space by sharing art that inspires us and represents us, highlighting unsung work and promoting shows that critics otherwise ignore.”
To understand how the Black Contemporary Art Tumblr functions, making a critical argument with images, it’s instructive to look at another—very different—project launched the same year, artist James Bridle’s The New Aesthetic Tumblr. Bridle was making a case for a visual trend, suggesting there is something about the way our machines, robots, smart phones, and satellites see the world that has changed the way we look at things, too. The result is an aesthetic of looking down onto, into, and through spaces and objects in a way that’s unique to our Google Earth era.
“As different as they are, Black Contemporary Art and The New Aesthetic are doing a similar thing,” says Ben Davis, national art critic for artnet News.“Through aggregating images, [they are] sort of defining a sensibility and the criticism emerges from that sensibility. That is a very internet-era way of approaching things.”
By borrowing the title of Susan Sontag’s definitive collection of essays, “On Photography,” for his New York Times Magazine column, Teju Cole claims a kinship with a formidable public intellectual and polymath. He is similarly promiscuous in terms of his obsessions, which range from 16th-century Northern European painters to Nigerian pop, from the telling textures of cityscapes to the physical act of taking a photograph.
Cole is one of the only photography critics writing for a general-interest audience in the U.S. today and was also, along with Carolina Miranda of the Los Angeles Times, one of the few arts journalists working at legacy outlets noted in the survey for inventive work. Cole is also a celebrated novelist, art historian, street photographer, and recently named Guggenheim fellow. His debut novel, “Open City,” won the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award in 2012.
Certain philosophical questions tend to recur across the whole of Cole’s work regarding the limitations of sight and the role of photography. His chosen platforms, from the novel to Instagram to his essays, represent different modes of thinking, all of which are employed to tackle these inquiries. He is looking at the “vehicles through which we see” the world, says Megan N. Liberty, an arts journalist who wrote about Cole’s work for the Los Angeles Review of Books last year. He is also exploring a cultural phenomenon about the sense of dislocation that photographs can create, the separation between where we are and what we look at.
After the mass shooting in Las Vegas last year, for instance, Cole wrote a column for the Times Magazine about post-massacre photographs of broken windows. He made observations about windows, shattered and not, through the history of photography and explored the role of glass in making and looking at photographs, from the glass plates of antiquarian cameras to smartphone screens. At the end of the column, he came back around to the present moment and the devices so many of us hold: “The mobile phone is a kind of window, and it is always on the verge of breaking. The image world, echoing the real world, is correspondingly fragmentary. This is perhaps what makes the various photographs of the broken windows at the Mandalay Bay resort so poignant. And perhaps here, we do have a political lesson. An intact window is interesting mainly for its transparency. But when the window breaks, what intrigues us is the brittleness that was there all along.”
One could read Cole’s columns without ever looking at his Instagram feed, reading his fiction, or listening to his Spotify playlists, but to do so is to miss out on his more experimental side. One of the things that’s inventive about Cole’s practice is the unique way his social media activity informs his criticism. At times, Instagram has been a platform for Cole’s intellectual field notes, an updating apologia of sorts.
“If you read the column regularly and you are familiar with his voice, reading and seeing his Instagram is really exciting because it has a similar tone, but it’s a completely different project,” says Liberty, referring especially to his “Blind Spot” project, which started on Instagram but evolved into a book, exhibition, and performances. “It gives you more insight into his mode of looking and seeing. It also shows what he’s working on personally … as an artist,” says Liberty, who writes about text-and-image relationships.
For the “Blind Spot” project, Cole creates tenuous and poetic associations between text and image. Rather than captions or literal references to the images, he writes expressively and provides “nuanced visual and metaphorical context,” Liberty wrote in her review. Sometimes he notes a time and place in the writing that is months off, drawing attention to the gap or passage of time. The imprecise connections between images, text, and time invite interpretation. He is conditioning us toward a form of close looking, to see beyond what’s immediately present in the photograph.
Cole also keeps his followers attentive by shifting gears on social media. He inspired a debate about racism as it relates to the language and sentimentality around relief work in Africa in a series of tweets in 2012. He famously coined the term “White Savior Industrial Complex.” About two and a half years later, he took a “Twitter break” and never went back. Cole has started doing something entirely new on Instagram, posting photographs of details of paintings. Sometimes the images are accompanied by no words at all. Sometimes he includes literary fragments, meditations on contemporary politics, or short exhortations.
In a survey in which there wasn’t a lot of consensus about who was producing inventive and noteworthy forms of art criticism, one name came up several times: Maggie Nelson.
Nelson is known for a mode of writing that combines vulnerability and seriousness, that puts criticism and intellectual pursuits within the context of embodied, complicated, lived experience. She won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 2016, in part for her genre-defying forms of nonfiction. Her work is sometimes described as critico-memoir, though she’ll use the term “autotheory” too. Usually, she is thinking her way through ideas—on queerness, gender, sexual politics, violence, media spectacle, and motherhood, among other things—through the lens of her life and with the help of a constellation of artists, philosophers, and theorists.
In “The Art of Cruelty,” from 2011, Nelson’s most squarely art critical work, she recounts unruly and conflicting responses—repulsion, pleasure, boredom, and bewilderment, among them—to a range of artworks in which brutality is part of the aesthetic. She is opinionated but rarely definitive about the avant-garde artworks she explores, including a Jenny Holzer project related to the rape and murder of Bosnian women or a William Pope.L piece about racial hatred. Important thinkers—including Susan Sontag, Hannah Arendt, and Antonin Artaud—are like companions convened on the page.
Nelson is known for a mode of writing that combines vulnerability and seriousness
In “The Argonauts,” from 2015, Nelson relates her experiences in queer homemaking and becoming a mother. From page one she drives her readers to the core of her love affair with the gender fluid artist Harry Dodge: “The Santa Ana winds are shredding the bark off the eucalyptus trees in long white stripes. A friend and I risk the widowmakers by having lunch outside, during which she suggests I tattoo the words HARD TO GET across my knuckles, as a reminder of this pose’s possible fruits. Instead the words I love you come tumbling out of my mouth in an incantation the first time you fuck me in the ass, my face smashed against the cement floor of your dank and charming bachelor pad. You had Molloy by your bedside …”
In a kind of literary jump-cut, Nelson then vaults from ravenous sex to Ludwig Wittgenstein in the next paragraph, where she ponders language, the inexplicable, and her own motivations for writing.
Later in the book, Nelson recounts an academic showdown between feminist theorist Jane Gallop with her “endearing style” and feather earrings and art historian Rosalind Krauss in her silk-scarf chicness. Those gathered look at images of photographs of Gallop with her son, in the bathtub and lounging naked, and a tug-of-war over the appropriate use of Roland Barthes ensues.
It is these sequences of thoughts, in various prose styles, that accumulate over the course of the slim book. These episodic passages, sometimes addressed to Dodge, or “you,” can be just a sentence or a few pages in length.
Nelson was one of several authors of books, writers of experimental fiction and memoir with art criticism embedded within their work, noted in the survey and subsequent reporting. Some of these writers emerged in recent years, while others have been at it for some time. In addition to Cole, they include Ben Lerner, Rachel Kushner, Hilton Als, Michel Houellebecq, Chris Kraus, Eileen Myles, Lynne Tillman, and Kathy Acker.
“We have a lot of doubt about traditional criticism and are continually looking for other forms of it,” says Lori Waxman, a freelance art critic for the Chicago Tribune and Artforum who is known for writing about art live as part of her “60 wrd/min art critic” performance project. “Some of these new modes of writing that overlap with criticism … they have built into their structure a deep acknowledgement of the many ways of seeing something.” The best writing on Christian Marclay’s much-reviewed “The Clock,” Waxman argues, for instance, was in Lerner’s experimental novel “10:04.”
What Nelson and some of these writers represent, says Frost, is a reviving of what’s been lost through the professionalization of criticism, both of the academic and journalistic sort. What a philosopher and poet can do so well is open a concept out, so it’s not just about critiquing art for critiquing’s sake, says Frost. Nelson helps her readers get to larger ideas embedded within experiences of art, she adds.