Jerry Saltz's Burden

James Panero and me discussing social networking media face-to-face over pizza and beer at an exhibition at STOREFRONT in Bushwick. Photo courtesy Jason Andrew.
In "My Jerry Saltz Problem," a spiritedly discursive philippic in the New Criterion about the changing nature of art criticism, James Panero articulates how disgruntled print journalists and traditional art critics feel about new media such as blogs, Twitter, and Facebook. Panero pines for the longer deadlines, the romantic hours spent at his desk crafting insightful long-form essays, the touch and feel of ink on coated paper, the discrete objects known as magazines. Then he suggests that Jerry Saltz, one of the few art critics to fully embrace social networking tools, has compromised the art critic's role by becoming part of the story. "On Facebook and now elsewhere online," Panero writes, "Saltz regularly mixes portentous metaphysical questions with internet messianism, unctuous flattery of his followers, treacly self-doubt, and gaseous emissions of political cant. The ultimate topic of discussion is not art or even his devoted followers, but Jerry Saltz himself." As both a social media proselytizer and an enthusiastic contributor to traditional print publications, I think Panero is exaggerating the downside and missing the upside of the new media's effect on art discourse.
When I started blogging at Two Coats of Paint, blogs were almost exclusively considered the domain of exhibitionist teenagers and oversharing adults. This reputation was somewhat deserved, but I still loved the immediacy of the process, the ability to link easily to related online content, the conversations that developed with other artists, and the small but generous art-blogging community. Then Facebook, Twitter, and other social media tools emerged and expanded the internet's potential as an engine of dialogue and mobilization well beyond the whims of narcissistic shut-ins. At one point, a writer friend who, like Panero, valued print publications more highly than online publishing, suggested I submit an article for publication in a print magazine. I saw it as a new challenge, and perhaps as a good way to promote the blog. When the article was accepted, my friend was pleased and saw it as a validation of my online work.
Of course, I was used to the immediacy of blogging. Several rounds of editing, contract approval, gathering legal images, and the long wait until the article was ultimately published were a little exasperating. If the article was timely when I wrote it, the drawn-out process threatened to render my ideas old news by the time anyone else got to read them. To make matters worse, print publications often withhold online content in order to encourage readers to buy the magazine, so initially there was no way to link to the article from the blog and get a conversation started. Even though I was often paid for print articles, I preferred the public profile and immediate back-and-forth that blogging provided. Yet publication in print undeniably gave me more respectability in the art criticism community, which in turn helped increase the readership of my blog. So in my experience, blogging and print are evolving as complementary rather than truly competitive modes of publication - or at least that is the most constructive way to think about and shape the relationship.
From that point of view, perhaps Panero and others who scold Saltz for degrading his print brand with an uneven and impetuous online presence should be less wary of social media's encroachment on old-school dialogue and more supportive of the risks Saltz is taking in venturing into new territory. Traditional journalists and art critics tend to dismiss Saltz's move to Facebook (and more recently, Twitter and blogging) as an expression of self-indulgent megalomania. But that assumes an improbable degree of calculation on his part. It seems to me that Saltz just took a shot at something new, intrigued by the prospect of quick and unmediated feedback. On account of the name recognition he had established as a print journalist, he had a huge Facebook following within weeks -- he and I have been Facebook friends since he joined in 2009 -- before he had any clear idea of how social networking might affect his status and perspective as a critic. Notwithstanding Panero's fear and loathing, Saltz is a long way from becoming the Hunter S. Thompson of art criticism. His stumbles and excesses -- highly visible and heavily scrutinized due to his pre-internet exposure -- are simply part of the process of acclimating to a new environment.
Panero suggests that involvement with social media might compromise a critic's independence. But professional conflict of interest on account of social relationships is nothing new. What's new is that thanks to Facebook and Twitter awkward relationships between critics and those who want something from them are no longer secret. On balance, that seems a good thing. In any case, there is nothing intrinsic to a writer's online activity that imperils his or her credibility as a "serious" art critic. It remains eminently possible, if not likely, that Saltz's print publications and online presence will cross-fertilize and establish a healthy and sustainable equilibrium.
Although critics tend to label Saltz's Facebook friends sycophantic loyalists, there's more synergy there than meets the eye: they have used Saltz's Facebook wall to build a real community. It's true that to an extent the internet has "dematerialized" our social relationships, but virtual relationships do have genuine substance. For extremely sociable, outgoing people (which hugely successful artists and writers are more likely to be), the dearth of more tactile contact may be lamentable. For less extroverted types (including many artists of less conspicuous achievement), though, it's something of a relief that lowers the threshold for productive interaction and networking. Relationships formed online still eventually lead to the real-life interaction that Panero applauds -- studio visits, art exhibitions, and more. On that score, Panero's viewpoint and my own converge: to have an authentic art experience, there's no substitute for seeing art "in the flesh."

This article was originally published at Two Coats of Paint.