Michael Bell-Smith, Composition Books: Red, Green, Blue, 2009; digital inkjet print (in three panels)

Postscript: Arts Writers Online

Recently, celebrity critic and social media enthusiast Jerry Saltz logged 458 (and counting) comments on his New York magazine’s Vulture blog, arguably exposing the potential for a new form of collective criticism. Meanwhile, original online journals and the multimedia spawn of art-world glossies, as well as the largely visual analysis of surf sites like VVORK.com crowd the browser space once ruled by blogs. Though artist CVs are slow to evidence it, art criticism is increasingly produced and experienced on- rather than offline. Such developments beg the questions: How do we read art writing today? How do we write it? And, considering the open invitation presented by online comments sections, who is “we”?

To consider these shifts across digital and print media, Art Lies invited four writers and editors to reflect on their own position within the expanding terrain of contemporary art writing: Paddy Johnson, writer and editor of ArtFagCity.com; Kelly Klaasmeyer, editor of Glasstire.com and art critic for the Houston Press; Tom Moody, visual artist and blogger (http://www.tommoody.us); and Lauren O’Neill-Butler, writer and managing editor of Artforum.com.

The “discussion” that follows, in the spirit of much online posting, is an aggregate. Art Lies asked each participant to respond to a survey of five questions, one of which was directed to her or his specific Web engagement. Published together these answers offer shared insight into our present transitory and provisional moment—to continue Tom Moody’s concluding point, this printed text will remain, but these ideas may not. — KM

Art Lies What are the primary differences between writing (and editing) for the Web versus for print? How does the delivery vehicle of art writing shape the content?

Paddy Johnson I think when most people ask the difference between writing for the Web versus for print, they are usually asking what defines “blog writing,” though of course Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook writing are treated differently as well. I rely on freelance fees to run the blog, so I typically don’t have time to write the long form I’d like on AFC. This has a large effect on the content because the blog needs to be updated daily.

Past this, I think you can look to punctuation use to examine the stylistic changes brought on by the Web. The overuse of the exclamation point and em-dash are common amongst bloggers. The former is an example of what I like to call the false exuberance of the Internet—the act of sounding really excited about a story or event so people will pass the news along to their friends. No one is ever as excited as they claim to be. Increased em-dash use is an easy (and often lazy) means of condensing words into short posts.

Kelly Klaasmeyer My editorial mantra for Glasstire has been “smart but readable.” Art writing shouldn’t make you hate art, and too much of it does just that. A lot of the discourse about art is defensive. When we write about it, we shouldn’t feel we have to give it a thick coat of turgid language just to make it valid. And that kind of writing doesn’t work on the Web.

Print publications don’t really know what gets read, they just know their circulation and what generates letters. Mediocre writing can run under the radar. On the Web, we know which articles people read and exactly how many times those articles have been read. Much has been said about the Web’s short attention span, but people will take the time to read good writing. They will not read or purposely navigate to good-for-you writing that is excruciating to read.

This does not mean that the writing has to be dumbed down. On the Web, a writer can mention an arcane artwork, term or film and link to an image, a definition or a YouTube clip. A reader unfamiliar with the reference can click the link and immediately get it. They can learn something and feel included in the conversation rather than excluded. You do not have to dumb down to be inclusive, and I think we should be inclusive. Art is not some elite club that will go to hell if too many people join.

Tom Moody As a visual artist who has expanded a gallery-based practice to include animations and Web-based projects, I think the more interesting question is, what do you view as the distinctions between blogging and art-making? I did write print criticism for many years, for Artforum, Art Papers and other venues, while actively exhibiting as an artist. I published thirty-one Artforum reviews in all, over an eight-year span, all in the back-of-the-mag reviews section. Writing is dangerous for an artist in the gallery world, though, because it gets you perceived as “mainly a critic.” By 1999 I had pretty much stopped submitting reviews anywhere for that reason. In 2001, I was invited to join a small group of bloggers publishing on an independent platform called Digital Media Tree, still active (and independent). Blogging, I realized, was a way to talk about the projects I was working on involving the “computer in the gallery” in the context of a larger dialogue—or rather, to begin building that dialogue in discussions with like-minded others. That led to exposure in the “new media” sphere, as well as shows in galleries in Brooklyn and elsewhere that were testing the computer-gallery boundaries. This body of writing continues on my current blog as well as other sites such as Paddy’s and Rhizome.org.

The “reasons” for print vs. computer screen, or gallery vs. computer screen, at this point, have to do with physical convenience and limits. For a large amount of text, I prefer a book. If I need to do careful reading of the content of a PDF, I will print it out. If artwork requires close scrutiny over time and would benefit from “live” public discussion, it belongs in a gallery.

Lauren O’Neill-Butler I don’t think there are significant differences between writing for print versus the Web. In my experience, they mirror each other. The content, tone, approach, whatever—it all depends on the assignment, which comes with its own limitations (word count being the most obvious). I write a short review for a show that I have less to say about, and a longer review for one that needs more space. The voice is the same. As an editor, I’m working to help the writer’s ideas come through, and that process is the same for print or Web.

AL How does Artforum distinguish between its print publication and website?

LOB Nearly all the content on Artforum.com is unique to the site, and our role as editors is to make that content stand out as a complementary force to the magazine. Artforum is one beast with many heads, and with that in mind we also draw from the same pool of the best writers in the arts (both emerging and established). That said, one thing that differentiates us from other art websites (and also art magazines) is that Artforum magazine and Artforum.com share rigorous standards of editing, copyediting and fact checking. Artforum.com is an online magazine, and we’re very lucky to have publishers who are committed to quality writing.

PJ One final thought on all this: A few years ago bloggers were frequently labeled as opinionated, a misplaced stereotype about Web writing that persists today. In fact, the most successful are usually either cheerleaders or reporters. Only a few of us take positions on issues that really matter, and it’s not easy work. I can’t help but think the derision implicit in the term “loud blogger” is evoked by a deep, often unconscious investment in maintaining the status quo.

AL There seems to be a lasting, though diminishing, preference (by writers and artists) for print publication/review over online publication/review. Is this valuation merely a generational habit/bias, or is the permanence and materiality of print fundamental to the idea of criticism as (authoritative) historical record? Are there other advantages of one medium over the other?

KK I love the object-ness of the printed page and the fact that you interact with information in a tactile way. You touch the page, fold a corner down, cut out a photo or an article and tape it up on your refrigerator. Glossy print publications become things to be collected and displayed. Traditionally, reviews have appeared in print publications. It’s what people are used to; a printed review is a tangible, authoritative thing like a certificate or a diploma.

But the Web is a great place—arguably the best place—to address contemporary visual art. You don’t have to cut good writing to fit into a puzzle of advertising. You can host interactive projects, create slideshows, use video and audio. You can have immediate feedback from readers. And in the best-case scenario, that feedback and those comment streams can create their own rich and interesting dialogue, with the author and each other. Paddy’s Art Fag City posts generate some great examples of this.

AL You write and/or edit for two local/regional publications. How is each publication form helpful or problematic in responding to local/regional interests?

KK Glasstire is a regional publication on the World Wide Web. We don’t cover “regional art,” we cover the art in our region. [Glasstire founder] Rainey [Knudson] often points out that while the Web is everywhere, people still live in one place. As for the Houston Press, there’s a lot of stylistic freedom in an alternative weekly and there is something very satisfying about writing for a general readership. The average reader probably doesn’t give a damn about art. But I like the idea that while leafing though the paper on their lunch hour, they might read a review of a show and then actually want to see it for themselves.

PJ I’m more interested in Web criticism precisely because the good writers and critics have less authority. The best criticism isn’t the product of one mind but many working together on the same problems. This is why it’s so important to maintain an active comment section. These debates can get a bit bloody, but that’s how they should be. Staking a claim in what you believe in is really important, but so is the ability to adapt them when necessary. That kind of flexibility and willingness to learn doesn’t happen without a little bruising.

As for advantages in one medium or another, of course everyone benefits from an editor, so print magazines have that over independent blogging. Still, I’m inclined to think of these problems as being largely defined by resources, not distribution methods.

LOB I think the question of preference is moot in the end. Ultimately, writers want to cover artists, and artists want to be covered. But the very idea of “permanence” is an interesting one. Aren’t print and online media both fragile in their own ways? Print may seem more durable, but online content is always accessible. Each medium has its own advantages—what’s most important is the quality of the content that we deliver. The rest sort of works itself out.

AL Considering your perspective as an art historian and the question of utilizing the Web for academic research, how do you feel Artforum.com (apart from Artforum) offers an art historical resource (the 500 Words section clearly offering a primary source record)?

LOB “500 Words” is one of the best parts of what I do, and I see no problem with citing online content as a source. Brian Sholis, who is now editor at large, helped to organize the column in 2008, and since then David Velasco, Dawn Chan, John Arthur Peetz and I have been building it with slideshows and videos. So many wonderful people—from Agnès Varda to Rebecca Solnit to Jo Baer—have contributed.
I think I can speak for everyone at Artforum when I say that we see “500 Words” as a resource for students and scholars and hope that they use it. It’s important that [Artforum.com] encompass both primary sources and critical texts.

TM Again, I think the more interesting question isn’t “Web vs. print” but the value of already old-fashioned blogs such as mine and Paddy’s versus the various social media Borgs—Facebook, Twitter. Is independence from large commercial platforms a virtue, or does it matter at all?

AL Are existing forms of written criticism still viable in digital translation? Or does the Web offer and encourage new forms of criticism (and discourage preceding forms)?

KK Good writing is good writing, whether it’s on the page or on a screen. But on the Web, writers and editors are more willing to experiment. Asking an artist to review his or her own work sounds like the worst idea ever. In Glasstire’s series “The Worst Piece of Art I Ever Made,” artists offer first-person accounts of the making of bad art. The pieces are entertaining, often funny and sometimes poignant. But by writing about work they believe has failed, artists reveal a lot about their thought processes and what they consider successful art.

LOB Most readers don’t want to stare at a screen for too long. Short reviews and interviews just seem to work better online. “500 Words” seems more consumable than 1,000. There are other advantages to the medium, though: Artforum.com has been publishing videos and audio content to supplement the features and columns in our “In Print” section. We’ve also begun to publish our own video interviews with artists in the “500 Words” column to supplement the text. Additionally, on Artforum.com there’s a massive digital archive that you can search, a database made even more accessible through the individual links in each entry to the names of artists, curators, critics, etc. As for Twitter and Facebook, we use them to post notices about new content on the website.

PJ Criticism isn’t new just because it’s on the Web. The only thing that’s happened to it over the last few years is that it’s become a lot less precious. A lot of this has to do with the relative impermanence of what’s on the Web. Text can be changed in an instant, blogs come and go as quickly as their various platforms and there’s always some new social media tool that will once again transform distribution.

Anyway, I hesitate to talk about the Web as encouraging a “new form of criticism” as I think it aggrandizes a lot of meaningless chatter. Ninety percent of the conversations that take place on the Web are idle chatter and not worth labeling.

TM If someone wants a printed catalog as a permanent record of a show, writing for that will tend to be careful and eloquent, as there is no going back to correct it. In a blog post readers tolerate a more conversational tone. Twitter and IM-ing tend to be more like speech. Each is the “right” way to write for that vehicle.

AL How do new media affect the position of the critic or visual arts writer? Does the Internet, and social media, foster exposure, readership and community in ways other forms of popular media (radio and television, for example) have not? Or does the interactive and decentralized structure of the Web diminish a critic’s authority (the supposed leveling democracy of the Web)?

LOB It’s not really the case that the Web has made art criticism more democratic (a term I’m suspicious of anyway, especially in the context of “criticism”), although on the surface it may seem that way. Critics still need to develop their voice and spend some time writing about art and sharpening their words before they develop an audience, and also before established outlets pick up their writing.

PJ The last thing the Internet fosters is exposure to new communities. If you’re interested in fine art, you read the fine art blog; if you like music, you go to the music blog. In other words, the days of randomly surfing the Net for undiscovered material are gone. Google and Facebook are now so efficient at search and sorting methods, it’s almost impossible to actually stumble upon anything.

As for the “leveling democracy” of the Web, does anyone even know what that means? The only marginally leveling force I see has to do with Flickr and Google image search, which levels every search result into the same sized thumb. In this environment it can be almost impossible to locate art. This leveling will likely come to an end once cable companies give us the American Dream: a slow Internet for independents, and a fast network for giant corporations.

AL How do you view and value the discussion produced by the comments section on ArtFagCity.com? How would you define your role in the comments section of the site? Can you speculate as to the future of comments sections or how this critical engagement can be improved?

PJ I’m of the opinion that healthy comment boards don’t exist without a moderator, so I try to participate frequently. My job on AFC is to spark discussion, but also to make sure there aren’t five million people leaving comments like “good stuff” after a post has been written. Luckily that’s become less of an issue on AFC as I’ve gotten better at moderating. The site tends to have a rather intellectually competitive comment crew, which means as a group we can really get to the root of some issues, though it’s not always pleasant.

KK While Glasstire’s reviews and features are edited, our blogs are not. (We do read them to make sure nobody does anything too ridiculous—or libelous.) The editorial control comes in our choice of bloggers; we look for passionate people who have something to say and can write. Then we turn them loose and basically let them do whatever they want. They not only write their blog posts, they craft the layout and visuals. Many of our bloggers are also visual artists, so having control over the way their ideas are presented is especially satisfying.

I have really grown to love the blog format and the personal, conversational nature of many blogs. I realize there are innumerable examples on the Web of those things going too far, but I see good blogs as like having a conversation with a really interesting friend. The much-talked-about death of print media has also meant the death of respected critical voices at many daily papers. While this is a real problem, all these new voices are broadening the range of dialogue about art as well as people’s involvement with it. I believe that the better blogs eventually rise to the top. Bloggers have to earn their authority. The Web is fickle, and really, it isn’t about authority anyway. Art shouldn’t be, either. Yes, some opinions are significantly more informed than others, but it would be impossible today for one critic to wield as much power as Clement Greenberg did in the mid twentieth century, and that’s a good thing.

TM The Internet exponentially increases an artist’s chances of coverage. But the authority of the online critic is based on “presentness.” Like the Woody Allen joke about the shark: if it doesn’t move forward it dies. If the critic is active in a particular forum, his/her ideas can have traction. But there isn’t much going back to look at old writing, and websites disappear and take years of conversations with them. The so-called permanence of the Net is half-true: that photo of you acting out at a party will be online forever. Those three months of guest writing you did for the “art and technology” website will vanish without a trace.

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