“When I was growing up everyone would read Artforum,” Jerry Saltz tells me over the phone. Jerry is a senior art critic at New York Magazine, the winner of this year’s Pulitzer Prize for art criticism and an avid social media user with over a million followers across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. “I, of course, never understood a single word that was in there. But that was what was cool. So that was what I read.”
The art world has always belonged to the elite. From the patrons of the Royal Court to Oxbridge-educated commentators, those who dictate, fund and validate the quality of art production have routinely been limited to the privileged few. This long-standing hierarchy of inaccessible debates and academic jargon is now being radically challenged. Twitter, Instagram and Facebook are opening up art criticism by invading the old model and breaking down its stratifications. “Social media have made it possible for people to speak to one another on a roughly equal playing field. They have made art commentary juicier, more risky; the critic has become as vulnerable as the artist,” Jerry continues. The power dynamic is shifting. Criticism is being reborn.
A few months ago, for instance, The Museum of Contemporary Art in Lyon was forced to remove a video of live chickens in CGI-generated flames following a Twitter outrage campaign that denounced the work for animal cruelty. The Guggenheim found itself in a similar position last year. The esteemed gallery withdrew three artworks from an exhibition after animal rights activists created a petition that labeled the pieces “instances of unmistakable cruelty against animals in the the name of art”. The power to decide what hangs inside a gallery’s walls is now as much with the curator as it is with a smart phone-user.
Max Geller is exemplar of a man who knows the potential of his iPhone. In 2015, Max set up the contentious Instagram account @Renoir_Sucks_At_Painting (RSAP) centred around one major complaint: that Pierre-Auguste Renoir was a dreadful artist. Over the past three years, RSAP has staged protests outside Renoir-exhibiting galleries, made headlines in newspapers like the Guardian and The New York Times and accumulated over 11,000 Instagram followers. “We’re past the moment where critics ‘matter’ in the way they used to. RSAP has been denounced by no fewer than five Pulitzer prize-winning art critics,” Max says. “Our enemies keep labelling RSAP as vulgar. At root, vulgar just means popular on a mass scale. It is the semantic opposite of snobbish and elite.” Crude or not, Max’s Instagram movement is a testament to the high-profile influence a social media-user can yield over the world’s most elite galleries and established press.
Social media platforms promise to give everyone a voice — even if this voice castigates one of the world’s most celebrated artists — and expand the spaces and places in which art is discussed. Instagram and Twitter account @TabloidArtHistory, founded and run by Elise Bell, Chloe Esslemont and Mayanne Soret, playfully compares masterpieces to paparazzi shots and television stills. “Tabloid Art History is a space that is accessible to a wider number of people, one that has less barriers than art institutions tend to have,” Mayanne writes in an email. William Blake no longer needs to be understood solely through Northrop Frye’s academic writing. There is value in considering the circular composition of Blake’s Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing in the light of the ring formed by the Love Island girls when fellow contestant Laura Anderson arrives at the house. “We have to keep questioning who the gatekeepers of power are,” Elise emphasises. “We need to ask ourselves what we can do to give way to other voices – social media allows that to happen.”
This levelling of hierarchies enables art criticism to morph from a top-down tutorial system to a dialogic exchange that includes “high” art as well as “lowbrow" culture. “Social media can be a really good place to foster conversations about art. I love following groups like The White Pube and Black Blossoms, I am constantly educated by and interested in their various discussions around art. I’ve definitely been able to learn from them and engage with them in a way that is different from an article on JSTOR,” Chloe says. “Our page is a place where I can make jokes about Real Housewives and chat about art, and our followers will reply and discuss both with equal fervour.” Social media accounts like @TabloidArtHistory are reimagining the art world to unapologetically include RuPaul’s Drag Race, the Met Gala and Kim Kardashian’s perfume bottle.
Social media platforms don’t just reshape the conversations around art, they also reconfigure the spaces in which art can exist. The portable museum is a prime example, one that fascinates art critic, curator and artistic director of the Serpentine Galleries Hans Ulrich Obrist whose Instagram followers are nearly at 250,000. “I have always considered Instagram a curatorial platform. It makes sense to actually generate an exhibition online instead of merely showing images of art shows,” Hans Ulrich tells me. “When I was a student I had a portable museum which was two-by-three inches. I used to curate exhibitions within the little frame and carry it wherever I went. When I downloaded the photo-sharing app more than 20 years later, I saw it as a similar opportunity. Only now I can share my shows with hundreds of thousands of people.” These digital spaces, Hans Ulrich suggests, offer alternative art experiences and unexpected cultural collisions that prompt people to rethink what art is, where it belongs and how it can be enjoyed.
“The danger with social media platforms,” Hans Ulrich cautions, “is that they can become filter bubbles. When Tim Berners-Lee invented the internet, he wanted it to be a space of discovery. But, with social media algorithms guessing our interests, we face the threat of a lock-in with our own predilections. We are being fed things that we have shown we already like. This restricts us to a specific taste or aesthetic.” Algorithms can be compared to the patrons of the Royal Court: an arbitrary invisible force that dictates and regulates the distribution of content. By sorting posts on users’ feeds based on relevancy over publishing time, algorithms legitimise particular artworks, marginalise others and determine the content readily available to Instagram, Twitter and Facebook users.
It’s true that algorithms may be setting the parameters through which we encounter art online. But, beyond the discovery feed, social media present a platform for multiple voices, opinions and arguments. By questioning — and clicking away from — suggested posts, our engagement with art criticism has never been so open to democratic scrutiny. Jerry Saltz is not one to shy away from his own critics. “Artists are expected to be held accountable. So why should my idiot comments on social media not be too?” he asks. “Everybody dances naked in private. But what I need to do, what you need to do, is dance naked in public. It’s to be expected that you’re going to be held accountable and that someone will look at you and say, ‘you’re an asshole’. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.”
With hundreds of thousands of followers behind them, Jerry Saltz and Hans Ulrich Obrist undoubtably belong to the art world’s elite. The difference is, however, that these modern decision-makers no longer have the final say. Their words and actions are consistently challenged through comments and DMs, embedded Tweets and like buttons. “We need to be careful not to present social media as a complete utopia,” Mayanne Soret says. “We need to be careful of the ways in which it recreates structures of oppression and exclusion offline. It’s about who we are willing to listen to. Do we want a slightly different message delivered by the same people using the same methodologies? Or are we willing to create radically new platforms, new thoughts and new ways of thinking and seeing?"
Mayanne’s words are a note of caution. Rather than think of social media as a replacement to the art critic, online platforms should be considered a parallel reality. They are another source of information that complements newspapers, magazines, exhibitions and cultural institutions. Social media are about polyphony, the plurality of voices that can now speak, be heard and responded to. The art world may still favour the elite. But the elite’s voice is no longer the only one.