Old School Future
It’s funny that nothing seems to get dated faster than our depictions of an imagined future. Reading Nineteen Eighty-Four in high school, the future looked grim, but inevitably, when 1984 popped up on the calendar, life still looked cheery, and when the long-awaited movie lumbered along, it was a period piece indulging in high-kitsch Cold War paranoia. Likewise, 2001: A Space Odyssey is a much better snapshot of 1968 than anything we’ve seen in the new millennium.
Ignoring these warnings, I can’t help but wonder what the future of our little art world, specifically the critical side of it, will look like in five years. Irving Sandler’s “A Call to Art Critics” appeared only two years ago in the December/January 2006-07 issue of the Brooklyn Rail, yet today the double trouble of a faltering economy and a burgeoning Internet makes Sandler’s questions of critical taste, market manipulation, and relevance seem like a debate over the best buggy whip. No matter how you arrange the deck chairs, the entire enterprise of hard copy art criticism is sinking. It’s not a question of relevance, but of whether it will exist as anything recognizable in the near future. How will this brave new world, where anyone with a keyboard and a phone line can become an art blogger, affect the consumer? Who’ll guarantee quality and editorial ethics? Has the era of paradigm-shifting essays like Greenberg’s “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” Rosenberg’s “The American Action Painters” or Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp’” (all first published in “little magazines”) passed? Will it be replaced by celebrity gossip and hot button issues designed to drive up views at the expense of aesthetic investigation? Knock, knock…who’s there?…Not art criticism.
About six months ago I started to notice little things. The e-mail address of a rising young editor at one of the big three art mags was deactivated; although she was still working there, her job was strictly “freelance.” Soon after, the New York Sun folded. Despite what you might have felt about the paper’s political slant, the art section featured some of the best local arts writing and lots of color photos. Publications not closing were slimming down, looking to slow financial hemorrhaging and tap additional revenue streams. The first thing to go is always the unprofitable art review section. Even rumblings from The New York Times about cutbacks on writing and editorial staffs and the leasing of major portions of office space in their Midtown building shows that no one is immune. If current trends continue, we’re looking at a cultural shift equivalent to the invention of the printing press or TV.
Meanwhile the emigration to the Internet is frenetic. A laggard like Art in America recently debuted a spiffy new site (http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/), while established mega-sites like Huntington Post are expanding their arts sections. Given the niche market for art reporting, a profitable business model remains elusive. Even some high profile art bloggers like Art Fag City have turned to fundraising, asking fans to pony up for the privilege of their expertise. Sharon L. Butler’s informative “The Art World on Facebook: A Primer” (which appeared in the March 2009 Brooklyn Rail) delves into the recent “social networking” aspect of the Internet with a special focus on Jerry Saltz’s recent Facebook participation. And although his 4,829 “friends” might not equate to the number of his readers at New York Magazine, there’s something to be said for the immediacy and volume of response he achieves with each post. It’s a world in flux, but once you get over the fear, the potential for innovation is astounding.
In the spirit of this new game I posted a query through my own Facebook account: “What’s the future of hard copy art criticism?” Although it didn’t generate the number of responses some of the FB stars get, there were some interesting posts. Sharon L. Butler put in her two cents worth: “Art critics better head over to Blogspot or Wordpress, sign up for their blogs now, and think creatively about new sources of revenue. They should stop wringing their hands and look at it as an opportunity...or else they’ll go down with the ship.” Mark Kramer chimed in with “As long as there are coffee tables, there will be hard-copy art media to adorn them.” Some tech-head art pundits have already predicted the decline of blogs, saying the trend has passed its prime, they’ve become too mean, restrictive, and inhospitable to innovation and new technologies.
What are some of these new approaches that might use the internet to extend art reporting? Recently Twitter has set hearts aflutter. Based on my own experiments in online video art criticism with the “Kalm Report,” I’d nominate online streaming video as a possibility.
I decided to throw out some questions via e-mail to an expert, NewArtTV’s (http://www.newarttv.com/) founder Robert Knafo. Robert was an editor at GQ and Connoisseur magazines (1983-89), and he has organized exhibitions at the Chelsea Art Museum, produced StudioVisit.net (http://www.studiovisit.net/), and contributed to Art in America, Arts, Artforum, Art News, Slate, and The New York Times Magazine.
James Kalm: What made you decide to start NewArtTV?
Robert Knafo: I’ve had a long-standing interest in documentary film on art. In 2006 it occurred to me that online video offered a great new platform for doing what I had been doing in an online magazine format with StudioVisit.net, which is to document and write about contemporary art and artists around the experience of a studio visit. The Internet and editing software meant that you could make “documentaries” or videos on art, to be less grand about it, for relatively little money, and bring them to an audience more or less on your own. I found that very exciting.
James Kalm: Do you think the Internet has made conventional print journalism, specifically that of art criticism, obsolete?
Robert Knafo: It is undeniable that less art criticism is to be found on newsprint, but I am not sure that this is the crucial issue regarding the future of critical writing on art. I’d worry if it meant that there’s less art criticism, or less good art criticism, but is that the case? Judging from the hundreds of art blogs, and the fact that I can read online many if not all of the art critics I follow—I’d say no. I think that art exists as a crucial focal point for discussion and debate about aesthetic, cultural, and a myriad other issues and concerns, and criticism will always be essential for proposing the key terms of the conversation. I think we’re witnessing a morphing of art criticism into different forms (the blog entry, the crit-tweet) as it makes a sometimes-turbulent transition onto a new platform.
James Kalm: As someone who worked as a critic, do you feel your current video practice at NewArtTV functions as critique, and if not, why?
Robert Knafo: What I do on NewArtTV is not art criticism, but it is related, I believe, in that it contains aspects of criticism. In contrast to the explicit and interpretive propositions of criticism, I think that in each video I make there’s an implicit initial argument at work, which is that this work, this artist, is worth paying attention to; beyond that, I am conscious of drawing out certain lines of investigation (through questions, focus, emphasis, elaboration) and, in the editing process, structuring the raw material I derive according to how things relate and connect to each other, their relative importance, their place in a kind of story or discursive experience.
James Kalm: Perhaps you could comment on what you see as the difference between writing a review of a show and your video programs in which you visit studios and interview artists.
Robert Knafo: I’ve come to think of producing videos as having a critical dimension, but I also like and want to emphasize the neutrality of creating a platform, a medium, for someone else’s voice or “performance.” I think video is a crucial way to record the ephemeral as well as the enduring aspects of art production and creativity (the artist’s thoughts and views, the work environment, etc.). I see the videos as having a documentary function about artwork, the critical interpretation and judgment of which I am happy to leave to posterity. I’d love to be able to watch a video studio visit with Manet, or Cezanne, or Duchamp, or Picasso, and I hope that the videos I make will be seen and have a similar interest for people who are not yet around to see them.
Robert demurred from prognosticating further on the future.
However things work out, we’ll have to use our noggins to transform the ancient Chinese curse “May you live in interesting times” into our own blessing.
JAMES KALM has written extensively on the Brooklyn art scene. In 2006 he began posting video reviews of local art exhibitions at his two YouTube channels that have generated over six million views.