Essays

The Anxiety of Being a Critic on the Internet

(photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
(all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of reflection posts by the three participants in the Superscript Blog Mentorship program, for which Hyperallergic partnered with the Walker Art Center to provide guidance, editing, and publishing opportunities to emerging arts writers at the #Superscript15 conference (May 28–30).

HALIFAX, Nova Scotia — After a total mindfuck of a weekend at Superscript — of having the invaluable opportunity to participate in the first-ever Superscript Blog Mentorship program, of racing to report on the weekend’s discussions, of cascading engagement with critics and editors both virtually and IRL, of being the furthest west I’d ever been — perhaps it is fitting that I began writing this attempt at a postscript in a note on my iPhone in airport terminals both with and sans-wifi, while hovering over grids of gradated green, ascending through strata of cumuli and back. As I did so, I asked myself: What has stayed with me? Is my idea of what it means to be a critic in the digital age a little less foggy now? Pragmatically speaking, how will this past weekend inform my practice? What happens now that #Superscript15 is no longer top-trending on Twitter?

I’m pretty sure I heard a collective sigh of relief when Superscript organizers Paul Schmelzer and Susannah Schouweiler declared in their opening remarks that the question of whether criticism is dead or dying or on life support was not of concern here. Instead, the conference at the Walker Art Center set out to dissect the manifold intricacies of digital journalism: the definition of professionalism in a DIY age that (supposedly) allows everyone to be a critic, how to make online media sustainable, how to generate inclusive virtual communities, and so on. It set out to be both speculative and retrospective; to focus on ideas rather than craft; to be live-streamed, live-transcribed, and live-tweeted so vehemently and comprehensively that you almost didn’t really have to be there.

Merrayphoto2But I was there, and since America’s McDonald’s menu is increasingly expansive and the diminishing value of my Canadian dollars won’t fetch me as much of it, I came into Superscript with an archaic understanding of how the (imaginary) border between us differentiates us. At first, one of the questions looming in the background for me was whether and how this information will be applicable to me upon my return to Canada. But when I bumped into Canadian Sky Goodden, the founder of the online art publication Momus, whose tagline is “A Return to Art Criticism,” she set me straight and pointed out the silliness of my question: location is irrelevant in regards to digital publishing.

Convening with mentors of different backgrounds who emboldened me to air my grievances with the glaring lack of diversity in both panels and audience, I learned the value of face-to-face mentorship, writing in a non-solitary setting, and trusting my instincts. Though I followed most of the panels through a livestream in the Walker library — and though I regret not getting a Jucy Lucy and missing out on Hello Kitty’s Supercute Friendship Festival and the theme-park-containing Mall of America (for which Jillian Steinhauer and I coined the term “Debaudrillardian”) — I had some thrilling conversations about the first post that I wrote, where I pointed out my frustration with some panelists’ one-size-fits-all approach to dishing out advice to would-be critics (I also wrote “as we say in Canada” and sounded like a total hick). Later, outside the Walker Cinema after her poignant, sans-script “Connectivity and Community” talk, The New Inquiry Editor-in-Chief Ayesha Siddiqui inadvertently drew two handfuls of people of color at the conference into a circle around her, continuing the discussion about race politics in digital media and the false perception that a multiplicity of voices equals heightened democracy.

In this consciousness-raising circle, I met Dana Bassett, one of few women at the conference who somewhat resembled me — olive skin, dark curly hair, wide hips — and asked her the same questions I asked myself. Bassett is the managing editor of Chicago-based Bad at Sports, which she describes as “the Dennis the Menace of art world podcasts/blogs,” and makes reading lists and covers the news, local parties, openings, and fairs for her monthly column, “What’s the T? With Dana B.” “My gossip is mostly innocuous, but my commitment to covering local artists and happenings is sincere,” she says. Her motivation for attending Superscript: “I wanted to meet writers I didn’t know, see what ‘real’ art critics and journalists were talking about, interested in, and prescribing for engagement with their own audiences and communities. A fake gossip column is a natural extension of my verbose personality, so it just seemed like it would be the right type of event for me to attend.” Plus, artist-designed mini golf.

Merrayphoto3Superscript has also left her brain feeling a little soupy, but what’s stayed with her so far is “how seriously people take this whole game and how undefined the field is itself,” she told me after the conference ended. “I feel I’ve emerged with a fire under my ass about how to be a more responsible editor, how to think about the specific capabilities of the internet more, and how to create a sustainable and ethical model of compensation for our project. During and post-conference I’ve been thinking a lot about my position regarding post-descriptive arts writing (what that could be) and the question of ‘negative’ reviews. I’d like to think harder on how I can honestly address these questions, and I have to think I would start by complicating them (i.e. neither negative nor positive, but full and experiential commentary). I think that asking questions and demanding examples and best practices from others is a good place to start.”

“I’ve never felt so emotional about the internet,” adds Carrie Ruddick, a New Jersey–based artist who likes to write, and whom I’d met on Twitter leading up to and due to the conference. I asked her if she feels that she’s emerged with a clearer idea of the implications of being a critic/editor/creator on the internet. “Yes and no,” she says. “Putting myself on the internet through art, images, or text felt very vulnerable to me prior to this conference. Now I feel more that it is imperative that I do — that it’s my responsibility as an artist and a thinker. However, I am treating everything I do on the internet as an experiment because I am still figuring it all out.”

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I echo this apprehension about putting myself on the internet, but unlike Ruddick I walk away from Superscript feeling dissuaded from my desire to be a critic there. The cause is not, for once, the state of criticism (we already know that the finances are in dire straits, etc), but rather the state of the internet itself. In a sphere where anyone can create a Yelp account and post their critiques of anything, where content is churned out relentlessly and competes for the same limited set of ADD-addled eyeballs, when whether you’re read or not is dependent on arbitrary algorithms, metrics, and what time of day you post, even if you concede that writing for little to no pay is worthwhile for exposure, is that exposure guaranteed? What does it say about my drive to be a critic that I’d feel more propelled to do it with such a guarantee? Do likes or shares equate to eyeballs following through from your lede to your punchline? As I’ve lost sleep about writing my first piece for a platform with the standing and the reach of Hyperallergic, this question actually eases my anxiety: will anyone read this a full five days after the termination of Superscript, when our attention was already onto the next thing as soon as farewells and “see you on the internet” were said?

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