Speculations on Digital Arts Media’s Future(s)

We asked journalists, artists, and critics — from Washington Post and ArtSlant to MinnesotaPlaylist.com, Culturebot, Art in America, Glasstire, and more — to speculate: How will we be reading and writing about the arts ten years from now?

1Norman Rockwell, The Art Critic, 1955, pixelated.

introductionWe asked a range of web-savvy writers, critics, artists and nonprofit advocates to enter the fray and speculate: How will we be reading and writing on the arts ten years from now? 

Sasha Anawalt, USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism

Over time we have become more flexible, more fluid — even the term “liquid journalism” is for-real. “Slow journalism,” too. And “360-degree journalism,” don’t you hear that all the time now? These refer to an abandonment of the precious ideas and principles that told us arts critics could not gather in one place and share ideas, impressions, or stories with one another. The arts writing profession was about isolation, because isolation and hermetically sealed criticism was thought to be more original and more ethical. Once in print, it was fair game. But we arts critics avoided gatherings, because we might influence one another. We were resolutely competitive.

If I have learned one thing over the years, it is that our field strengthens when we congregate, when we share information and expertise, and are as diverse as we can possibly be. Bring in the web developers and designers, the venture capitalists and media leaders. And always keep artists at the center. If we stay focused on them, we’ll be fine.

In ten years, we will see more arts journalists working inside arts organizations, providing journalistically-sound work and opinion in service to the public good. It will be based on fact and data. But perhaps not criticism – likely not. This is already happening at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Geffen Playhouse and Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  Arts writers have positions as staffed, in-house journalists. The idea originated at USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2010 with me and Douglas McLennan of Arts Journal (though as is true for most good ideas, others had the same one). We’re seeing this arrangement play out; I am interested in it and have some skin in the game. (Just to be transparent about my prediction.) Check out this Washington Post article, “Arts organizations are hiring pros to tell their stories.”

Funnily, I still think we are about words. Words are our trade — even if articulated through an Instagram visual, a Facebook video, a Soundcloud podcast, or a 140-character tweet with link. All those ideas, in my experience, continue to originate in language and words. I’ve seen us share this across language differences.

I think we need to congregate, because it keeps arts journalists informed, connected, and sentient — and, I hope, loud. Visible. Relevant. Together, we count. And we have a greater chance of being paid. Of being restored to a profession. (We are a young profession still. Full-time, paid staff critics didn’t exist much before 1924.)

Competition makes us evolve, but community and tribal, face-to-face gatherings keep us more honest. Thanks for holding one.

Sasha Anawalt directs the Master’s Program in Arts Journalism at USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. A dance writer, she wrote the book on the Joffrey Ballet.

Geoff Edgers, national arts reporter for the Washington Post

Arts coverage is dying. I’ve heard that rap for years. Yes, clearly more people used to be paid more money to write more stuff about arts and culture. But that’s just one snapshot. In reality, even the darkest, recessionary moments were marked by the rise of that first wave of great arts bloggers. Magazines and newspapers still boasted dynamic critics, feature writers and investigators. And then, post-recession, new wrinkles appeared. A wealthy entrepreneur, John Henry, bought the Boston Globe from The New York Times and launched new initiatives. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post and showed he cared about more than hiring SEO hotshots. I was brought in as the paper’s new national arts reporter and Peggy McGlone, a dogged veteran reporter, was hired to cover the local arts. There is a growing understanding that the only way to grow audience is to do better work, even if it costs more. I know that’s a rosy picture for folks at less ambitious companies, where cuts ruled. But as the ad money continues to shift from print to online, I imagine it will become obvious that only the strong will live on – and they will not only survive but grow.        

The material and talent is clearly out there. The question is how to support it. Features work and dynamic multimedia campaigns can certainly be generated by institutions, as we’ve seen from the Walker, Kennedy Center, and Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Personally, it’s hard for me to imagine independent, investigative work emerging from the in-house writer. So, we need to find a way to fund those we consider valuable. Otherwise, we risk losing our best voices to paycheck realities.

Where does this new coverage universe leave arts reporters? For me, it means working vastly differently than how I did when I started as a town reporter at a weekly newspaper in 1993. I pump out tweets and blog entries as well as 2,000-word print and online profiles. I go on camera for video pieces. I contribute graphic ideas that can be pitched to our Facebook page. And I never forget that I’m lucky to be doing this. Arts writing – any writing – is not riveting on a car assembly line. It is getting to examine the most dynamic, adventurous, ambitious, and (sometimes) crazy people in the world.

And these days, if you’re good, you can compete, whether you’re owned by a billionaire entrepreneur or bashing out blog entries in Wisconsin. Which brings me to a confession: Last year, when I was covering the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s contract dispute, I didn’t worry about being scooped by the New York Times or Wall Street Journal, though each publication has excellent arts reporters. I worried about Song of the Lark, a blog written by a 26-year-old violinist named Emily Hogstad. As she covered the dispute, she blended insightful commentary and considerable access with eye-opening statistics. Hogstad doesn’t get paid for her work. Let’s hope, sooner than later, she does.

Geoff Edgers is the Washington Post’s national arts reporter. Before that, he was an arts reporter for the Boston Globe.

Stephanie Cristello and Joel Kuennen, senior editors at ArtSlant

How are changes in media infrastructure, technologies, and tools changing the ways we engage with and respond to culture?

New technologies of dissemination change the way we write art criticism more than how it changes the way we read and digest it. Beyond increased accessibility that applies to how we interact with all publishing media, we could use words such as integration, media saturation, newsfeeds—but that type of absorption is not intrinsic to art criticism. Contemporary art is not the voice of the masses. Yet at the same time, the practice of art criticism has broader responsibilities and greater implications. The words we write on art are still—and I think will grow more to be—a reflection of the times, meaning that contemporary criticism incorporates ideas and references, allusions, and experiences outside of the realm of art proper. The cultural criticism of the past two decades has left its mark on the field. The availability of other information, cultural or otherwise, gets absorbed by the author and becomes part of their response. Cultural criticism is more informed than ever before. The human aspect within mass phenomena so often gets left out of the discussion when we think of technological advancements—the individual gets left out of the picture, but if anything I think the opposite of the future of art criticism. Writer’s opinions will become more valuable, reading people (their voices, finding a way to connect with them through reading their positions) will be ever more essential.

Is there a role for professional critics and arts journalists in the brave new media world, or will arts writing be self-published by enthusiasts, or cultural institutions and commercial entities with a vested interest in such coverage?

You cannot take power, it is given to you. A voice of authority in criticism is no different than in any other field, which is to say if you have credibility and integrity as a writer, an editor will work with you. Self-publishing is not an invalid practice, but it is often used irresponsibly and has in many ways become synonymous with a sensationalist, or egoist practice. However, the expanding field of literature on and around arts and culture by amateurs can lead to a more informed professional practice. There are a good number of active artists and critics who self-publish as a means to explore concepts in their work, as pieces important to them that add value to their persona and language. The devaluation of the written word does allow it a certain amount of freedom that it did not have before. The co-reliant professions of writer and editor are not going anywhere. Rather, they have been strengthened by the use of comment sections and social media where the reader also acts as an editor, inserting comments, links to further reading, etc. Writing online has become collaborative, with multiple editors/readers interacting with the author. If editing equates to conversation, then everyone is an editor—though the necessary position of Editor (with a capital E) remains intact.

How will the brass tacks of storytelling change as both the medium and outlets for arts journalism and criticism evolve and shift?

I was once told by my thesis advisor that writing is a way you insert yourself into a conversation with people whose works you admire. I think storytelling will become more speculative in this way. I would love to write interviews between myself and dead artists, or even not-dead artists, where I write both sides of the question and answer [Stephanie]. Well thought-out and meditative fiction will work its way into how we canonize and write about contemporary and historical figures. We know so much about people, and yet nothing about people. But that’s why we write—to create the people we want to know and understand the world we want to live in.

Stephanie Cristello is a writer and critic, and is a Senior Editor US at ArtSlant, and the Editor-in-Chief of THE SEEN. Joel Kuennen is the COO and Senior Editor at ArtSlant and an arts writer.

Carl Atiya Swanson, theatermaker and director of Springboard for the Arts’ Creative Exchange

The formidable critic Dave Hickey was recently interviewed about the disastrous Björk exhibit at MoMA. In the middle of citing his preference for the music world over the art world, and bemoaning the “vast bureaucratic exoskeleton” around art, he had this to say: “We no longer have, in any of the arts, a ritual of intellectual accreditation. In other words, I was an art critic for many years and I still write about art, but I’m not an art critic anymore because the only people who get to fly to the Istanbul Biennial work for Rupert Murdoch or they work for the Times or they work for New York Magazine.”

Now Hickey’s an ornery bastard, which is why he’s a great read, and why a voice like Hickey’s could and will be still relevant in our internet-fueled writing frontier. The “ritual of intellectual accreditation” in his explanation means “someone to pay for expensive stuff” and ten years from now, that will mean a flood of in-house, self-supporting institutional blogs, and native advertising gone truly native. We’ll know it, we’ll acknowledge it, and some of us will make livings doing it.

But there will be much more than that. Interpreters of multiple disciplines, personal story-tellers, strong voices with local opinions acknowledging that art doesn’t just happen on the coasts, people who can translate across mediums, podcasters who narrate gallery exhibitions, guerrilla live-video streaming events, all of this will happen, continue to happen, be made possible by technology that doesn’t exist yet.

We’ll use a phrase like “reading and writing on the arts” in the same way we know that “film” refers to moving pictures with sound, even if they bear no resemblance to the media in use. And, in the great way of the internet, if you’re not seeing the criticism you want to see, you have the tools to make it yourself. Lots more people will, too.

Carl Atiya Swanson is Springboard for the Arts’ Director of Movement Building. He manages Creative Exchange, a hub of toolkits and stories for artists and communities to work together on fun, relationship-building, and inspirational projects. He is a theatermaker with Savage Umbrella, a company dedicated to creating new, relevant works of theater, and is on the board of the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network Twin Cities. Swanson’s writing has appeared in City Pages, The Onion, CakeIn15, Mn Artists and other outlets.

Andy Horwitz, critic and founder of Culturebot

In a world of seemingly infinite possible futures it feels foolhardy at best to predict the world a decade from now. In the year 2000, I was working as an interactive producer at the then-mighty advertising agency Fallon Worldwide. Executives were carrying Palm Pilots and using Blackberries, social media didn’t exist, Blogger had just launched, and when I offhandedly speculated to a co-worker that this new Google search engine thing was going to be massive because their endgame seemed to be to own All of The Information, Everywhere, my statement was met with a bemused chuckle and the suggestion that I Ask Jeeves.

Of course, that world ended shortly thereafter.

From a technological standpoint, it seems likely that the trend towards mobile will continue, that the desktop will recede in importance, and that wearable technology will become ubiquitous – so the means of cultural production will continue to become more widely available and affordable. Consumer technology enabling people to record, shoot, edit, collage, disseminate, comment on, and mash-up content will continue to become even more accessible and easier to use.

I will offer that the proliferation of the means of creative expression will continue the trend of increased artistic output to the point where Joseph Beuys’ famous dictum, “Everyone is an artist” will come true, to the point where Arthur Danto’s “artworld” is supplanted by Jurgen Habermas’ “lifeworld;” art and life will be indistinguishable. There will be no art that is not mimesis, as the act of imitation or representation will be fundamentally no different than action in “the real.”

In this new world, criticism will be a parallel creative practice to art-making, and individuals will shift between those roles fluidly. This is not really new. Virgil Thompson was both critic and composer; many other critics have been artists – and artists critics – over the years. What is new is that this generation of critics will have to develop forms of cultural authority not derived from social position.

As the world moves more fully into a horizontally-oriented, interconnected, decentralized and networked structure of conditional hierarchies, traditional ideas of “storytelling,” journalism, and criticism will fall by the wayside. There will be a vital, dynamic, robust, and constantly shifting landscape of conversation and debate happening in public. I have a utopian vision where widely inclusive communities engage in rigorous conversations about art the same way they currently dissect every line of the script, frame of film, and plot point of Mad Men.

“Legitimate” arts criticism will probably not evolve at a similar pace. In America, anyway, where 55% of all philanthropic arts funding goes to the 2% of arts organizations with budgets over $5M, and financier-turned-artist Jeff Koons sells 10-foot-tall mirror-polished stainless steel Balloon Dogs for as much as $58.4 million to other financiers, it seems unlikely that cultural authority in high art will be ceded to the uncredentialed and unapproved masses. Though it may eventually be wrested from their grip through grassroots efforts to build communities of practice around art-making and critical discourse that propose alternative possibilities outside the institution.

More likely is that commercial entities and cultural institutions with a vested interest in deploying critical discourse to reinforce their cultural authority and determinations of cultural value will continue to confer legitimation on critics. They will designate who is “professional,” “serious,” and “important” based on an existing, well-known set of criteria – status attainable at great expense that, in practice, excludes wide swaths of the population and keeps aesthetic and critical discourse narrowly focused.

That being said, there are few certainties about the future other than that it is uncertain. The best way to predict the future accurately is to set oneself to the task of creating it.

Andrew Horwitz is a critic and curator who currently lectures on contemporary cultural production at UC San Diego. He is founder of the website Culturebot.org and Culturebot Arts & Media, a non-profit dedicated to critical cultural discourse on, and from the perspective of, the arts. He is a 2014 recipient of the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant for his research project, Ephemeral Objects: Art Criticism for the Post-Material World.  Previously he has served as Director of Public Programs for the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council where he curated The River to River Festival, Producer at Performance Space 122 and, from 2007-2009, co-curator of the PRELUDE Festival at the Martin E. Segal Theater Center at the Graduate Center at CUNY. Other curatorial projects include The Future at the End of the World at the Farley Post Office (December 2012) and Ephemeral Evidence at Exit Art Gallery (May 2012).

Alan Berks, playwright, editor and co-founder of MinnesotaPlaylist.com

Anyone who cares about the question of how we’ll be reading and writing on the arts a decade from now is afraid that, ten years on, no one will actually be reading. People will still recommend Things of Art to other people through tweets, status updates, happy selfies taken outside of venues, or video blogs, but none of these mediums are “reading or writing” in the way that we hope real arts journalism nurtures deep engagement with a subject. Unlike reading and writing, none of these new formats require much thought.

However, if you believe, as I do, that people will still be reading and writing, then I imagine we’ll find ourselves in the midst of a renaissance in arts journalism. With such a diverse range of publishing choices almost equally accessible online, writers will become better at—must become better at—justifying their positions and establishing their credibility in the writing of the work itself. The Internet opens up the possibilities for an actual meritocracy. The length limits in newspapers are no longer an excuse for shallowness; the retreat into formula is no longer defensible by the brand-name of the publication. On the Internet, we can write as much as we want in whatever manner we want as long as each paragraph somehow justifies the next. Yay! Fun!

But if ten years from now people really don’t bother to read (or arts writers aren’t good enough to earn their attention), then I suspect what we will be reading and writing about art will likely look almost entirely like art itself. As professional critics and arts journalists are chased off the field, perhaps artists will learn to be more explicit about the way their work is responding to, critiquing, or praising other work, and the implicit conversation artworks have among themselves will become the very way in which more audiences enter the conversation as well.

Alan Berks is the editor and co-founder of MinnesotaPlaylist.com, the state’s online trade publication for the performing arts. He is also Minneapolis-based theater-maker whose work has been seen around the country and especially in the Twin Cities. In his 14 years and counting in Minnesota, he also co-created Thirst Theater, directed communications at Pillsbury House + Theatre for four years, and taught creative and non-fiction writing at St. Cloud State University and the University of Minnesota. He is a member of the Workhaus Playwrights Collective, and he is also the co-Artistic Director (with Leah Cooper) of Wonderlust Productions.

Sofia Leiby and Jason Lazarus, founders and editors of Chicago Artist Writers

There is no “crisis” in criticism.  Rather, the traditional mandates of art criticism are obsolete.

The new art criticism will be a story, a poem, or a website. It will be written by artists. It will be anonymous, on Instagram, lateral, quick, durational, born-digital, embedded, remixed, inward-facing, casual, durational, subjective, implicated… numerous and dispersed, like dust in a mars sunset.

Jason Lazarus and Sofia Leiby are the founders and editors of Chicago Artist Writers, a platform that asks artists and art workers to write traditional and experimental criticism that serves non-profit, temporary, and alternative arts programming in Chicago.

Rainey Knudson, founder and publisher of Glasstire

  1. How we will be reading and writing on the arts ten years from now depends on what art will look like ten years from now. What is still generally referred to as “the art world” is not the art world anymore. Much of what is written about “the art world” is not art writing. Most of the “art” isn’t art.
  2. Art is doing fine, of course. It’s just moved on from the realm of luxury décor. Minimalism meant something once upon a time. Now it means Calvin Klein Home.
  3. The technology that’s most influenced the way we engage with culture is not social media, online advertising or even the Internet itself. It’s the camera.
  4. Writing about art on a regular basis for an extended period of time demands more stamina than most enthusiasts can muster. If enthusiasts do manage to keep it up, they’re probably not enthusiasts. They’re real critics.
  5. Even the best museum blogs cannot fully shed their essential PR function.
  6. Good ideas expressed well and entertainingly will always win in the long run. Unless of course we’re headed into another Dark Age of general illiteracy. In which case, we’re fucked.

Rainey Knudson is the Founder and Publisher of Glasstire, one of the oldest online-only arts journals in the country. The site covers visual culture in Texas and Southern California.

Related links and information: This is one of two installments: find the second round-up of responses by critics, curators, artists, and journalists on Walkerart.org and the Superscript Reader later this week.

Superscript: Arts Journalism and Criticism in a Digital Age is a three-day conference, copresented by Walker Art Center and Mn Artists (May 28–30, 2015). Here’s a list of all the ways you can participate in the conversations and events surrounding Superscript (whether you attend in person or not).

Susannah Schouweiler

Susannah Schouweiler is a writer, editor, and museum wonk. For 12 years, she was Editor-in-Chief of Mn Artists at the Walker Art Center and responsible for publication of original arts writing on the homepage, blog, and social media assets. Back in the day, she served as Editor of Ruminator magazine, a nationally distributed art and lit mag. She has written on the arts for a number of regional and national outlets, including Hyperallergic, Rain Taxi Review of Books, MinnPost, The Growler, …   read more