In the digital age, where seemingly endless topics shift in and out of focus from one minute to the next, art struggles to retain its status as a subject of interest, and the decline of conventional journalism leaves art criticism in a precarious position.
This was the bleak portrait that served as the backdrop for the presentation on Sept. 25, “Paper Trace: Contemporary Art Writing,” a companion to the Gund Gallery fall exhibit, Publishing Against the Grain. The exhibit, a collection of arts-based publications ranging from internet journals to print newspapers, was a frequent reference point for the three panelists — Sean O’Donnell, editor in chief of the Lake Erie region-focused ArtHopper; Peter Plagens ’03, an arts writer for the Wall Street Journal; and Nancy Gilson, former features editor for the Columbus Dispatch — as they discussed the state of art criticism from both a national and a Midwestern perspective.
In his introduction, Chris Yates, associate director of the Gund Gallery, explained the Gallery’s desire to contextualize the popular perception of art journalism.
“We’re really interested in the way that we think about art criticism and art writing,” Yates said. “So we started thinking about what’s going on with our writing here, in this area … and really trying to understand where things exist in this moment.”
As the panelists began to give their impressions on the issue, a distinct contrast arose between speakers. The first speaker, O’Donnell, found much to appreciate in the age of internet-based media consumption.
“I want to be a little flip in saying, ‘It’s fine,’” O’Donnell said. “And why it is fine is because of access. We have ease of access in ways that we haven’t had previously.” The proliferation of blogs and independent outlets has brought a greater range of voices to art criticism than ever before, according to O’Donnell.
The other speakers were far less optimistic. Plagens considered the growing number of small, internet-based arts outlets a result of lessening popular attention to major news outlets.
“The authorial voices have diminished in quantity especially,” Plagens said. “Chicago has no daily newspaper art critic. San Diego has none. Houston has none. Philly used to have one, but the guy retired and they do a few little things coming in now and then. And Miami, which has Art Basel Miami for God’s sake, doesn’t have an art critic.”
His concern for the absence of art critics in regional newspapers reflected the need for coverage from a diversity of publications. “[The small outlets] are more democratic and there are more voices, but there’s a kind of cacophony and an evenness to them,” Plagens said.
Gilson was the last to speak. She described the many facets of journalism that have been lost as arts writers move from major regional newspapers to small arts-focused outlets.
“My heart is in newspapers, and it breaks my heart what has happened to newspapers in the last decade,” Gilson said. “My paper, the Dispatch, in 2008 — right in the heart of the recession — in our features department, they let go of every single arts critic.”
Between the three panelists, a deliberate and conditional stance on the issue emerged: although more art critics are being heard, those voices are not nearly as powerful as they once were.
The speakers made sure to emphasize, though, that journalism is not about the writer, but the reader.
“Your first responsibility as a critic,” Plagens said, “is to your reader.” The panel agreed that ultimately, this transformation in art criticism has been so detrimental because it has disregarded the casual reader.
“If you’re reading a general newspaper, by gosh, you might be reading the sports page and all of the sudden you stumble into a review of an art exhibit that you never would have read,” Gilson said. “And I love that. And I think that’s what we’re really missing today.”