Critical Masses: Towards a New Medium for Art Criticism

Suzanne van der Lingen

Suzanne van der Lingen is a practicing artist currently based in the Netherlands.

With advances in technology and cutbacks in finances, change is a given. Circa has to take on the difficult task of maintaining its position as Ireland's leading art-criticism publication whilst shifting from the printed medium to a virtual, online platform. While this transformation is immense, it is not isolated; it is representative of a paradigmatic shift in the relationship between the economy, technology and culture. The move by no means equates to diluting critical judgement. The possibilities that an online publication brings with it - a higher degree of interactivity, wider accessibility, and the expanded possibilities of multimedia coverage - all offer brilliant potential if approached conscientiously.
If art is already and always moving away from established forms, it seems correct that the critique of it follow suit and appropriate new forms of communication as well. Jörg Heiser refers to the art dealer Seth Siegelaub and his claim that "the possibility of the dissemination of an artwork is its only ‘physical reality'."1 Bernard C. Heyl has written, "...if a quality recognized by one period as a certain kind of value becomes for another period an entirely different value, how can the value reasonably be considered to have ontological subsistence in the object?"2 Grasping this instability, an online format offers exciting ways to disseminate art and its theoretical framework, potentially enabling a further democratisation of art and its audience.
For example, the artist Marcel van Eeden posted a new drawing up on his website daily as a supplement to his exhibition in the Nederlands Fotomuseum in Rotterdam this year.3 He also has a Facebook page, a Twitter account and a YouTube channel. Equally, an online publication can easily make articles interactive by including related links in the text, adding slideshows and video interviews, allowing comments, and even going so far as to organise online real-time discussions. Flypmedia.com is an ambitious example of an online publication fully exploring its multimedia potentials, and last year in the US the first-ever National Summit on Arts Journalism was streamed on ustream.tv (the videos are still available to watch online), with online viewers able to e-mail questions to be directly answered in the live discussion.
What really makes the potential of online culture so intriguing is that lesser-known names have the potential to reach as large an audience as more established ones. Jen Bekman, a curator based in New York, is a pioneer of using the internet as a tool for cultural promotion. Having launched Hey, Hot Shot!, an online competition for up-and-coming photographers, she has given relatively unknown practitioners the possibility to reach a wider audience. Their work is published on her website, they receive online feedback from a panel of professional judges, and can win the chance to exhibit in Bekman's eponymous gallery in New York. Since its launch in 2005, the competition has grown to become a significant accolade. Bekman's goal is to nourish emerging artists as well as emerging collectors; as for her wide-reaching online presence, she has stated in an interview, "I don't think you need to be mediocre to reach a broad audience ...There is a lot more permeability now, in terms of class and taste."4
Heyl has written, "...liking, understanding, and approbation are three different aspects of participation in a point of view."5 Ideally, an online art journal can promote a debate, involving both contributors and readers, which will consider these three aspects as individual but significant factors in the critique of art. To cite curator Philippe Vergne:
I like what Thomas Hirschhorn says about theory and philosophy. He reads it, needs it, absorbs it, and at the same time isn't sure he understands all of it. But he makes it his. I like this idea that what we do carries this element of misunderstanding. I like the idea that we might be writing a history of misunderstanding.6
The budget cuts and the culture industry's response to them could have as big an impact on art criticism as Duchamp's Fountain did on art, or the critics of Cahiers du Cinema did on French film. What art criticism should promote above all is a considered approach to opening up conversation around opinion, theory and context. In her book The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project, Susan Buck-Morss wrote:
... the transmission of culture (high and low) ... is a political act of the highest import - not because culture in itself has the power to change the given, but because historical memory affects decisively the collective, political will for change. Indeed, it is its only nourishment.7
A convergence of critical thought and medium is a powerful political tool. The current economic and consequent technological shifts should act as a catalyst for a constructive debate around critical discourse and its dissemination.


1. Jörg Heiser, All of a Sudden: Things that Matter in Contemporary Art, Berlin, Sternberg Press, 2008, p. 239.

2. Bernard C. Heyl, New Bearings in Esthetics and Art Criticism: a Study in Semantics and Evaluation, London: Oxford University Press, 1943, p. 105; available at: http://library.du.ac.in/dspace/bitstream/1/7103/1/New%20Bearins%20In%20Esthetics%20And%20Art%20Criticism.pdf

3. See http://www.marcelvaneeden.nl/cm/ and http://www.nederlandsfotomuseum.nl/index.php?option=com_nfm_agenda&task=view&id=241&Itemid=166; see also Chris Fite-Wassilak, ‘Marcel van Eeden: The Archaeologist', Circa, Issue 122, Winter 2007, pp. 106 - 107; available here: http://www.growgnome.com/Downloads/eeden.pdf

4. Eric Miles, ‘Jen Bekman's Gallery Without Walls', in FOAM international photography magazine, winter 2007, issue 13, 2007, p. 26.

5. Bernard C. Heyl, op. cit., p. 98.

6. Philippe Vergne, in Ice Cream: Contemporary Art in Culture, London: Phaidon, 2007, p. 11.

7. Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1991, p. x.