text by ÉRIC TRONCY
They used to “advertise.” Now they “support” us. That’s the conclusion I came to yesterday as I welcomed an American friend and gallery owner to the Consortium. The Wade Guyton opening was just a few days off, and I was giving this friend the latest issue of Frog magazine. “Do we support the magazine?” he asked, being sociable. “I’m sure you do,” I replied, though in truth I wasn’t really sure, and it occurred to me that only a few years ago, if he had wanted to express his devotion to an art magazine, this well-meaning gallery owner would probably have said: “Could we place an ad in your magazine?” or “We would like to advertise in your magazine.” I found what he actually said striking because as a gallery owner, he had remained quite faithful to his original notion of what an art gallery should be, the notion he had started out with decades earlier. His is a successful gallery, representing artists “over the long term.” It’s a gallery that doesn’t take part in every art fair because the director has no interest in certain markets — Asia, the Middle East — despite their spectacular purchasing power. It’s a gallery that, unlike many others, has not doubled the number of artists it represents. All told, he had been exceedingly honest with me: galleries think no longer in terms of “advertising,” but in terms of “support,” because it makes little sense to publicize gallery activities through art magazines in an age when information circulates in other ways. Now the only reason to advertise in a magazine is to support the magazine financially. In other words, you make a donation, the kind you might make to an organization that strives to protect endangered species.
Thus in Art World 2.0 — a.k.a. the “art industry” — most art magazines are headed for extinction: first, naturally, because images of artworks spread much faster and with far less toil by social media; second, because it no longer benefits the art trade for critics to comment on artworks. Commercial success is quite sufficient, and critical opinion matters little as long as artworks sell and customers are satisfied.
This is pretty much indisputable. Today’s unit of measurement is the “like.” “Like is their currency,” explains Bret Easton Ellis, speaking of what he calls “Generation Wuss.” And its opposite is not the “dislike,” but the “hate.” To oppose any form of creation — if we properly understand these new terms — you no longer state reservations and perhaps back them up with some sort of argument or reasoned criticism. Instead, you simply express a highly reprehensible sentiment: hatred. Between the “like” and hatred, the art industry leaves no room for dissent argued on theory.
To be honest, it’s not quite accurate to write that art magazines are headed for extinction. Some eminent galleries (Gagosian, Almine Rech, etc.) have already launched magazines of their own, in which they promote the artists they represent and call on perfectly reputable critics for the task. In all probability,we will soon witness something publishing has already seen: the advent and triumph of the “blurb,” that little advertisement, just a few lines long, whose entire value lies at the end, in the name of the signatory. The going rate for “blurbs” generally eclipses the rate for art criticism. One sentence, one idea, is enough, but an idea there has to be. And, in the end, a single idea, a single argument, is already better than the arguments used in the art trade. In the aisles of the Art Basel fair, fairly quiet as yet during the pre-pre-preview restricted to buyers, I lent an ear to the arguments marshaled before undecided collectors. You see these haggard souls wandering about, hanging on the arm of their “art advisor,” a specialist in finding the right words. No one bothers anymore with lyrical or passionate descriptions of such-and-such artist’s work or intentions. What you get now is an explanation that this here is worth so much, that it was worth so much yesterday, and that it will probably be worth much more tomorrow. You get a list of other collectors who have already purchased one of the artist’s works. You get a list of exhibitions to come and references to the prestige of the venues where the retrospectives or exhibitions are to be held. If need be, you get the number of “followers.”
This whole economy, this new industry, can gladly do without magazines and critical texts. By the look of things, in fact, it works better without them. Except in one respect — critical opinion can, from time to time, cause a twinge of worry in one type of industry player: the artists themselves! A few among them — mired in the shame, perhaps, of an activity that has cut itself loose from critical evaluation — will still take the trouble to learn this or that critic’s opinion of one of their consumer products. Lately, to my surprise, I receive more and more correspondence from artists requesting an opinion on their production — and they often ask me not to mince words. The exchange usually takes place by e-mail, in strict confidence. They still want to know, albeit on the sly, what one thinks. There’s material here for psychoanalysis, between the shame of easy success and the desire for punishment. Whereas galleries will “support” a magazine as they might a lost cause or an endangered species, artists, to learn a different truth about their productions, will soon be ordering merciless criticism directly from the critics. And they will pay dearly for these opinions, just as did Francesco Vezzoli a few years ago, when he asked five art critics (Michele Robecchi, Dieter Roelstraete, Martin Herbert, Jens Hoffmann, and Stéphanie Moisdon) to write vehemently critical articles about his work for the catalogue of an exhibition (“Civica 1989-2009: Celebration, Institution, Critique” at Fondazione Galleria Civica, Centro di Ricerca sulla Contemporaneità di Trento). The idea was to deconstruct his success, explore its uselessness, vacuity, and flippancy. The articles were published in a book titled Contro Vezzoli (Against Vezzoli), and the critics in question — all of whom admired Vezzoli’s work — did not spare his feelings.