The Demise of Artnet Magazine and the Crisis in Criticism

by Michael Pepi

September 2012

In 1996, the venerable art historian and critic Donald Kuspit identified two chief modes of art writing—metaphysical and journalistic—accurately describing the ways they have contributed to different forms of malaise within criticism at large. Kuspit describes academic, “metaphysical” criticism as “formal and poststructural analysis” that “‘redesigns language’ in its attempts to articulate the metaphysical truth about the art it addresses,” thus alienating the general, uninitiated reader. Journalistic criticism by contrast, “tends to be unconcerned with the larger generalities that are implicit in and sustain the art it addresses—in order to preserve access to the particulars of the art for the ordinary public that uses ordinary language” [emphasis added]. The text above is from Donald Kuspit’s Invisible Ink: Art Criticism and a Vanishing Public: In Contact with Metaphysics, which was published online by the young Artnet magazine just a few months after it was delivered to a panel sponsored by Art Table and organized by the International Association of Art Critics, or AICA, discussing the waning audience for art criticism. The supposed obscure academic logic of many critics was rapidly pushing readers and writers towards the more popular journalistic variety of art writing, if not scaring them away entirely. By publishing texts from such a panel, the new online magazine was perhaps positioning itself within the debate over the style of art criticism. Artnet’s direct, practical prose would serve as a salve to the negative reaction to the theory-laden “art speak” that to some was an object of scorn and embarrassment.

One might first pause to consider how tepid the crisis of the disappearing public for art criticism must have been in 1996 compared to what we face today. For starters, most people still read publications that were printed on paper. At that time, the personal computer had reached just over 50% of American households. The “screen time” that readers did engage in was largely confined to TV, never mind the news feed on a mobile device. When you read something good, you had to physically save it in order to share it with a peer. Sending comments to an author might require a stamp. These were slow but rewarding experiences, and they created a deep sense of community and intellectual exchange.

In these early, heady days of the web, Artnet began to publish art writing online. The magazine section launched in 1996 to provide “expert analysis of the art market,” supplementing the web-based professional art market services of Artnet AG, its parent company. Some seventeen years later on June 25, 2012 Artnet unexpectedly ceased publication entirely. Artnet featured many talented writers in its almost two-decade run. Its loss is a significant event in the shrinking endeavor of art criticism, both online and off. As the well-known critic and longtime Artnet contributor Jerry Saltz has commented, Artnet “convinced me that if my writing didn’t exist online, it didn’t exist at all.” Yet beyond Donald Kuspit and a few others, it rarely published writing that aspired to a discursive consideration of its subject: the art market. By many accounts its editor, Walter Robinson, possessed an allergy to theory and was partial to writing that satisfied only the most anodyne inquiry into the art “scene.” The publication, after all, was conceived in part to drive traffic to Artnet AG’s revenue generating services, foremost of which is their massive database of auction records. Perhaps by design, potential clients on their way to pricing their Basquiat prints were happily insulated from any bothersome critical tools of the Frankfurt School.

How is it that at a time when most all forms of cultural production have their future set in digital distribution, the very first art criticism publication to recognize the power of the Internet has closed? To be clear, the direct reason for the magazine’s demise lay in executive decisions at Artnet AG, which, though related, are only indirectly tied to the climate for criticism. For years the magazine’s expenses heavily outweighed its revenues, and no doubt the withering cultural demand for art criticism was a factor that prevented Artnet from amassing the required advertising dollars. Even if Artnet’s demise had more to do with fiscal mismanagement than anything else, it still smacks of a now irreversible trend. The magazine was a symbolic casualty in a domain that is rapidly shedding its traditional business model. At a more fundamental level, the ideology of the art market and the entrenched poststructuralist disdain for hierarchical, subjective judgments have pushed the voice of the critic to the extreme margins.

Anyone sensitive to the deterioration that has befallen the discipline of art criticism can examine Artnet’s history in an effort to understand the current shift in the critical landscape. Writing art criticism has for generations been a questionable career choice. There exists the constant pressure to write art news, which, may masquerade as criticism, though it is markedly different from the historically sensitive commentary produced in and around the academy. Increased competition via the internet, as well as the inherent fluidity of its publishing, has encouraged and rewarded many in the art writing field to migrate toward a content more befitting the medium. Artnet’s writing was a laboratory for the development of this trend. Even as the publication continued to advocate thoughtful writing, gossip and fetishistic auction price reporting held court under the glib umbrella of arts press.

Like many of its peers in art criticism, Artnet failed to internalize the ways that digital content ecosystems, reader attention spans and perceptions of authority are eroding the notion of the professional, institutionalized critic. As the discourse in the visual arts has shifted, partially toward the agency of the curator, the notion of the paid critic—who “merely” writes—has for its only rational basis a given writer’s scholarly knowledge and ability to contextualize the pluralistic contemporary art market, museum exhibitions, biennials and fair circuit. The new secondary art writer that offers such contextualization and generic narrative in the journalistic mode need not be held in high academic esteem—in fact this is often a hindrance. These realities are, for the most part, outside Artnet’s control, though they are worth considering because they speak to larger issues that the crisis in criticism has faced vis-à-vis the web. If after Artnet we fully recognize our transitional phase in the production and reception of content through shifting media landscapes, then those assessing the crisis in criticism ought to consider the challenges posed by the Internet, as opposed to blindly assuming that it is a one-size-fits-all emancipatory force for good.

Kuspit’s formulation draws a boundary that is central to negotiating the sustainability of art criticism, whose future is now all but destined to occur online. Commentary on the arts that sways too far to either direction threatens to be ignored altogether, further weakening the institution of art criticism by virtue of irrelevance. Similarly, dumbing down art criticism erodes its privileged status as a humanistic discipline worthy of careful study. At present, we can take the liberty of assuming that far fewer people “pay” for art criticism now than in 1996. Less of it is in print, and we know unequivocally that fewer mainstream newspapers employ full-time visual art critics. What is within the control of those who are left to write about the visual arts is the degree to which they attempt to balance what Kuspit refers to as the metaphysical—to engage the depth of art and make it explicit—with the journalistic respect for the audience’s comprehension.

Artnet was perhaps never really positioned to establish a healthy balance among Kuspit’s dual modes of art criticism. The magazine’s tenure presided over a gradual privileging of the journalistic over the academic, discursive or metaphysical. In the same panel where Kuspit and his colleagues debated the future of criticism, Lynne Cooke commented on one reason for the shift in its audience: “There are probably more publics than before, and certainly more bodies attending museums, but the reasons why people come to museums is changing” and many of them “are not activities that need to be supplemented by reading about art, so the audience for criticism is declining.” Likewise, auction sales records and online gallery activity—Artnet’s true raison d’être—tend to carry on just fine without the cerebral meddling produced by scholars and critics. Artnet’s critical production, chained as it was to the art market and its associated ideology, has long been a liability in the struggle for criticism’s relevance.

On what made Artnet magazine different from its peers, Robinson offered the following: “I always liked to say that you could read an art review in The New York Times or Art in America—where I worked for twenty years before Artnet—and not even know the damn things were for sale. We liked to mix all that up in Artnet Magazine—art criticism without too much blah blah blah.” Yet the “blah blah blah” to which Robinson refers is critical. Such is the rarefied judgment of a critic, which, under the enlightenment model, is the very commodity justifying their existence. The art writing industry, as frail as it has been, developed around this privileged space. Mocking the specialized nature of the discourse is akin to killing the goose that laid your hermeneutic golden egg.

Regardless of the backgrounds and abilities of the individual writers published on Artnet, the editorial program erected little defense against the onslaught that seeks to reduce the critic’s voice to a crumpled afterthought, a cantankerous chorus to the sublime market soirée. Careful observers of Artnet will note its relative comfort with which its contributors enabled the commodity relations of art, doing little to promote the value of criticism as a discursive practice. There is evidence that this stemmed not only from the market-driven orientation of the parent site, but also from a programmatic dismissal of the formal trappings—specifically, the prose—of the academic left. Ben Davis’s “Rancière, for Dummies” reads like a tongue-in-cheek analysis of the French Marxist philosopher’s ideas. Apart from guiding the reader through the major concepts in The Politics of Aesthetics, Davis is largely occupied by questioning the merits of Rancière’s style. Despite his own ideological affinities, Davis affirms his distance from Rancière’s formulations based on the unnecessary complexity with which they are espoused. Here we find frank, immediate prose privileged at the expense of an aging, leftist academic who showed little regard for the practical. Though at the end of the review, after a dose of theory bashing, Davis makes an insightful point that fits squarely into the debate about the public for art criticism:

Such an inability to call obscurantism as one sees it—the confusion of complex form with serious meaning—is, of course, an intellectual problem, leading to the substitution of quirky diction for critical thought. It is also, in this case, a political problem, in that it draws good people’s efforts into false intellectual debates. But it is, finally, an [a]esthetic problem as well. Failing to deal with such thought skeptically can only make the art world more insular, and more pompous.

Its editorial position notwithstanding, the fact that Artnet once provided a voice for either side of such a debate, and that this voice is now lost, is lamentable. Under Kuspit’s rubric, Artnet arguably represented the height of journalistic criticism—and if we update the terms of the 1996 panel debate to include the collective experience of humanism in the digital age we have known since, Kuspit’s polarity gains new resonance. Amidst the decline of art criticism, the practice will have to seek new models beyond those based solely on the emancipatory promises of the Internet. As the ubiquity of facile commentary spreads by way of—though not necessarily because of—blogs and a democratized publishing sphere, criticism can count among the developments threatening its extinction the waning reliance on its ever-more-distant academic cousin. The less rigorous journalistic criticism can be produced by anyone with a pithy take on a Chelsea gallery show, very well squeezing out those who respect art’s metaphysical potentialities: its unique relationship to history, culture and judgment about which Kuspit speaks.