goodbye art criticism
text by ÉRIC TRONCY
The Internet will suck all creative content out of the world,” wrote David Byrne in the Guardian. The co-founder of the Talking Heads is not the only one to wonder how the Internet has deconstructed the system of our musical industry. Others have also expressed concerns about how it is affecting the film industry. It is not difficult to understand that an industry con- fronted with various illegal ways of broadcasting its work is ex- posing itself to damages that are more than “collateral” — it is also increasingly clear that downloading and fraudulent streaming are damaging an already fragile economy.
But we say less about how the Internet has ravaged the visual art industry; it is more difficult to pick up on these ravages because with or without the Internet, a work of art (a painting, sculpture, or installation, all the jargon that applies to contemporary art) is al- ways a unique object — even a piece in a series of seven and three artist’s proofs can be considered unique — whose possession can only happen with a direct acquisition (in a gallery) or indirectly (at an auction house). Besides, why should we be worried, since artworks are changing hands with such spectacular fluidity and for amounts that are equally spectacular? For example, $3,525,000 for a 2005 painting by Wade Guyton; $18,645,000 for a 1988 canvas by Martin Kippenberger; $8,565,000 for a 2002 painting by Richard Prince; and $11,925,000 for a 1991 painting by Peter Doig. The sale of all these works — which had the undoubtedly cool title, “If I Live I’ll See You Tuesday” — was judiciously located at Rockefeller Plaza and was organized by Christie’s on May 12, 2014, leaving few doubts about the excellent health of the art market. Well, it’s a sort of health.
In my opinion, however, the Internet has now entirely pulverized the activity formerly known as contemporary art, to borrow a line that Prince — a musician who foresaw quite early the evolution of his field of expertise — used to apply to himself. And in all possible ways.
Access in “real time” (although it is perhaps better qualified as “unreal time”) to images from the world production of works of art or of objects aspiring to be that, is not the worst of the insults. Every day the website www.contemporaryartdaily. com (its name clearly inspired by that of a “journal,” but from which all forms of real commentary have disappeared) shows us dozens of images sent by galleries, museums, and biennials. These images can be added to the thousands of other images of artworks or items aspiring to be them displayed on personal pages on Facebook, Instagram, or any of the other blogs, leaving us to gape at the spectacle of this production, which we never imagined would be quite so substantial. My god! All these things, this junk, these trifles that obviously cannot all find a buyer, which will probably end up as part of one of those giant artificial islands, like the Seventh Continent adrift in the Pacific Ocean between California and Hawaii. This floating Pacific Trash Vortex consists of the refuse produced by human activities and thrown into the ocean, measuring some 3.5 million square km — it is painful to estimate what size continent we would get if we combined all the artistic leftovers, since we can’t expect to sell them all at Christie’s. As the sociologist Pierre- Michel Menger explains, art is in all ways comparable to the lottery: many people try their chances, but the grand prizes are extremely few and far between. The Internet offers all sorts of visibility and validation to this future trash — it is fraud. And piracy. It is without hierarchy that all these images are exposed and offered to faraway eyes, a sculpture by Donald Judd standing next to god-knows-what, but at least serving as a point of reference; it’s all there, an infinite landscape. We have already seen (per Peter Schjeldahl, art critic for The New Yorker) that art history has changed its form: it used to be a journey but has become a panorama. The way forward driven by the avant-garde has been transformed into a spinning Lazy Susan, with everything offered up and visible. Art history has become a giant Tumblr page, nothing more.
In the new urbanism, the Internet has been able to tackle all forms of resistance, dismissing what was the base for art history and the avant-garde: criticism. In this miserable universe, the “post” and the “comment” have for a time replaced critical writing to the point where now the images are enough, all by themselves. It is difficult to continue in the critical tradition of a Baudelaire or an Oscar Wilde. We have so many voices, qualitatively completely empty, that now have access to expression: they can write a casual story that works for all occasions (again on the blogs and on Facebook, or even Wikipedia, in spite of itself). People of absolutely zero expertise can express their tastes, but a good art critic does exactly the opposite: he doesn’t express his own taste but constructs an opinion that is in- dependent of it. That’s not important in this new configuration of the artistic field, where for the first time in history artists no longer speak to history, but to the market. “When I asked students at Yale what they planned to do, they all said, ‘Move to Brooklyn’ — not make the greatest art ever,” said the art critic Dave Hickey as he announced his retirement from art criticism. It is a legitimate retirement — art critics no longer have a place in this industry.
Let’s look at Christian Rosa, the artist for whom art advisors are lining up to acquire pieces for their clients. Born in 1982 in Rio, Rosa was, a year ago, still a student at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Vienna, but he set the market on fire without having had a single curat- ed one-man show, without a single critique or review having been pub- lished about his work. That’s the way it goes now: the market moves faster than the critics. What happened? Images of Christian Rosa’s canvases (they’re really not bad, and they use the Tumblrization of art history in quite a clever fashion) circulated on the Instagram pages of the five most powerful American art advisors. Boom! His reputation was made.
In conditions like these, all we can hope for is to hear the sound of Dave Hickey’s voice explaining his reason for bailing on art criticism: “I miss being an elitist and not having to talk to idiots.”