What is the role of the digital-age arts critic? Superscript conference hopes for answers

Kryziz Bonny, Flickr Creative Commons

The New York Times film critic A.O. Scott, writing in 2010 about the shrinking ranks of arts critics, said that “the surviving full-time classical music, dance, and even literary critics might have trouble filling out a bridge game.” His has been just one voice in a chorus of lamentations. Theater critic Jeremy Gerard said in January that a flattering Times or New York Magazine review can no longer save a good Broadway show, while jazz writer Ted Gioia bemoaned last year that music publications write more about pop stars’ fashion choices than their musical proficiency.

Anxiety about arts journalism and its struggle to adapt to the digital world hasn’t abated. The inherent subjectiveness of music, film, and literature encourages anyone with a blog or Twitter handle to play critic, drowning out once-authoritative voices. A nuanced essay lacks the sheer quantified certainty of Rotten Tomatoes—which may itself be supplanted by Netflix recommendation algorithms.

Later this May, the Walker Art Center and affiliated arts website Mn Artists will host Superscript, their first conference on arts journalism and criticism in the digital age, to tackle these concerns. A key question at Walker, a museum in Minneapolis that also has its own online arts magazine, will be: What is the role of the critic today?

“I’ve seen a lot of essays and think pieces about the decline of arts coverage and criticism, and a lot of hand wringing about the move from print to the Web—how do we monetize it, how do we make it sustainable, why does nobody want to read it, where did critical authority go,” says Susannah Schouweiler, Mn Artists editor in chief and a co-organizer of the event. “I feel like this has just been an ongoing conversation in my profession for the last 15 years.”

To Schouweiler, there is an abundance of lively, insightful journalism about the arts today, but much of it takes place on small sites that don’t get traffic. “It’s a cacophony of cultural comment,” she says. “To rise above the fray and get any kind of mass visibility, that seems incredibly daunting to me.”

She also worries that shoe leather arts reporting—on how taxpayer-funded grants for the arts are spent, for instance—may be falling by the wayside. “You really need the job security and institutional support structure of a larger publication to confer the authority on you and give you the breathing room to do a labor intensive story like that,” she says. “It’s a lot easier writing a personal essay responding to arts.”

Yet even a critic’s personal essay doesn’t have the same authority it used to. Getting published in Harper’s, for instance, won’t confer automatic respect and readership on its own. On social media, artists, just like politicians, are increasingly speaking to their audience directly.

“If you get reviewed in The New York Times by Roberta Smith, that can make a career still,” says Paul Schmelzer, another Superscript co-organizer and Web editor at Walker, referring to the Times’ art critic. “But I think other simple things can drive an artist’s career like virality, popularity, and how savvy you are with social media.”

There are other ways criticism may change. Ben Davis, a critic for global art market newswire artnet News, will deliver Superscript’s keynote speech on “post-descriptive criticism.” In an era where images can be found instantly on the internet, he will suggest, to what extent does criticism even need to describe what a piece of art looks like?

Other speakers include Pitchfork founder Ryan Schreiber, The New Inquiry’s editor in chief Ayesha Siddiqi, and Veken Gueyikian, the publisher and co-founder of Hyperallergic.

Launched in 2009, Hyperallergic is a high-profile example of internet-age arts journalism, breaking even last year and now turning a profit with 1 million unique visitors per month according to Gueyikian, who will speak about financial sustainability at Superscript. Hyperallergic’s business model is unique among arts publications: About 95 percent of revenue comes from its in-house ad network Nectar Ads, which creates ads for brands like the Guggenheim Museum, Sotheby’s, and Audi to display on arts sites like Vandalog.

Yet, as with the media industry at large, there is no common revenue source for arts publications. Temporary Art Review uses an “anti-profit” model, in which writers are paid in ad space on the website that they can then use to spotlight their own work and interests, or to sell to other advertisers. Mn Artists, meanwhile, relies mostly on grant money.

Hyperallergic accepts that the role of the traditional authoritative art critic has diminished. “We think the role of the critic is multifaceted,” Gueyikian says. “It’s not just speaking at an audience, but it’s also listening, responding, engaging, and leading the audience in a discussion.”

Indeed, whether the critic should be an authoritative expert or down in the Twitter trenches with everyone else’s opinions appears to be one nub of contention. The Times’ Scott was ultimately sanguine about criticism’s future, saying “provocation, that spur to further discourse, is all criticism has ever been.” Others don’t think the critic is there to merely mediate or encourage discussion. James Panero, executive editor of The New Criterion, believes critics should form their opinions about art in a social vacuum, a “private space for aesthetic consideration and judgment,” instead of making themselves online stars.

If all goes according to plan, Superscript can be a hub to thrash out these questions. The event will be livestreamed, while panels are fully transcribed and blogged. Walker is publishing as many as a dozen essays on the future of arts journalism that will continue to be published after the conference ends. “I’m thinking of Superscript as a concept or as a broader publishing thread. I would really like it to be an ongoing thing which can advance the discussion about the future of criticism and journalism in the arts online,” says co-organizer Schmelzer. “It’s not just for these three days.”

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Chris Ip is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @chrisiptw.