Art critics need to get serious if they want to thrive online

The long read could counteract superficial reviews that focus on search engines or sales


Amazon announced last month that it would change its payment structure for independent writers who publish directly on the online retailer’s different Kindle platforms, giving out royalties according to the number of pages read by Kindle users, rather than per book downloaded. A per-page payscale privileges a certain kind of writing, one that relies on cliffhangers and withholding information. The writing Amazon is promoting with this decision reflects what we, as readers, have come to expect as the result of technology’s effects on reading and writing habits, but this attitude fails to echo the complexities, possibilities and variety of web-based publishing platforms. True, the internet has given rise to a specific style—news-oriented, quickly written, usually packaged with an eye-grabbing title—but in the arts, there is no shortage of serious art or art-and-culture journals online (such as e-flux, Triple Canopy and East of Borneo). Print art magazines are reconsidering their online presence and commissioning writing directly for their websites. A growing number of museums and other cultural institutions use their web presence to communicate their programme and its wider context to an audience beyond the walls of their buildings. We are witnessing a slow—and interesting—adjustment to the web as the primary place for publishing. But if we think of the internet not only as a space for dissemination, but also as a space of production, what form of writing should it promote?

The critics get buried (again)

It is a hobby of all cultural fields to bury their critics every few months with another essay on the death of criticism. But one afterlife we may not have considered rigorously enough is online publishing. So far, the web has promoted a specific type of criticism thus far, one that I call “service criticism”. This is especially visible in cultural industries that have experienced the digital shift in a much more extreme way than the visual arts, mainly because their output—film, music, literature—is easily circulated via digital files. Take Pitchfork, for example. Started in 1996, it is an online music publication dedicated to album reviews, which has gained increasing influence in the music world. Why? Because readers are looking for a trusted source that will guide them through the possibilities for discovering new music online. They’re looking for recommendations.

This kind of criticism is not new, but it is increasingly what’s on offer online, especially given that search algorithms favour reviews. When a user is looking for information about a book, an album or a film, the first result Google provides is often a link to buy the product—Amazon, Fandango, iTunes—but the following list of links often consists of reviews. Users want analysis, yes, but more so, they want direction. One result of the review-as-recommendation is the rise of the aggregator, most visibly Rotten Tomatoes. The website, which is devoted to film and television, collects reviews from a variety of sources to rank films and shows by their critical reception (there’s also a section for viewers’ scores; the two rarely correspond). Like Pitchfork, Rotten Tomatoes has become so influential that it is now quoted on film posters. The reason for the power of this type of aggregator is that it offers consensus rather than opinion: exactly what the recommendation-seeking reader is looking for.

Keeping the market in check

If this is all the internet has to offer in terms of criticism, then why advocate more online art criticism? Because as the art market eyes the online sphere, we need criticism to keep this market in check. There is an amazing proliferation of organisations—both for-profit and non-profit—grappling with the presentation of work online on different levels of complexity. Then there are the many projects dedicated to selling contemporary art online, like Artsy, Artspace and Paddle8. There’s a sense that there is money online, and the first company to monetise the online art marketplace will win it. Christie’s has invested $50m in its custom-built e-commerce business and Sotheby’s has entered a partnership with eBay to “make premium art and collectibles accessible to buyers everywhere”, according to a press release.

Who will write about these online sellers? And where? In an economy where content is king, where digital marketplaces like Amazon promote writing (especially user-generated criticism, that holy grail of free content that instils value in a product without the company needing to pay or take responsibility for it), the role of criticism—to respond to the work—also includes responding to its marketplace and the way the market regulates what viewers are exposed to, even online. A website dedicated to art criticism will provide a new place to assess these different initiatives, since no print magazine has stepped into this ring. And it needs to be done online because much of the art writing currently offered on the internet is a vague confluence of journalism and critical writing that winks at the structures of criticism but doesn’t engage with it, mainly because—as in the cases of editorial content on Artsy and Artspace—it is used to feign the kind of writing that creates value.

New York Review of Art

What will the model for this kind of online criticism be? I would like to suggest the New York Review of Books (NYRB). Why was there never a New York Review of Art to launch in the way the NYRB began with a bang in 1963 with a list of contributors that included Susan Sontag, W.H. Auden and Norman Mailer (and that was only the first issue)? The publication’s circulation now stands at more than 135,000, double that of the London Review of Books (LRB), which the Guardian described last year as “the most successful literary publication in Europe”.

Online advertising revenues are notoriously low compared with print, and they focus on click-throughs from banner advertisements and analytics to assess readers’ exposure. Internet audiences are fickle. Why would a model of art criticism akin to that of the LRB or the NYRB gain traction online? First of all, simply because of the length of the texts they publish. Whether or not they are read in full, long-form essays are shared and circulated online by virtue of being long. There is a hunger for considered, substantiated writing in a space where so many short, declarative texts are promoted—a hunger that has led to the commonplace use of hashtags such as #longform and #longread, denoting the special attention granted to these essays merely because they are long.

Time for something new

These terms originate online and are some of the first examples of the promotion of new forms. We can—and should—develop new forms online: newspapers are experimenting with enhanced digital content, and social media has not only changed circulation, it has also promoted a new kind of discourse around online writing, one that gives a voice to the reader beyond the fraught comment section. The first form that art publishing could reconsider online is criticism.

Will the result be a Pitchfork of contemporary art? Or will it be the New York, London or Berlin Review of Art? An amalgamation of the two is exactly what we need, so that we can reclaim discovery from the algorithm, and so that there will be a possibility for writing that, just as it responds to art, responds to its market. The online marketplace for art is developing quickly. We need to pre-empt the rise of art service criticism by developing models for online criticism that make room to discuss art and the structures that make it possible.