PRINT December 2013


Causes and Effects

I appreciate many of the observations in Michael Sanchez’s essay titled “2011” [Summer 2013]—particularly his observation that the rhythms of the art world have recently shifted due to the widespread use of iPhones and the introduction of Web feeds and aggregators such as Contemporary Art Daily.

Clearly, the shift in the rhythm of the art world is symptomatic of a culture of speculative investment. It is, as Sanchez notes, an attention economy—one that bypasses critical judgment and careful analysis and instead rewards those who know and control what’s now and what’s next.

Sanchez goes on to propose that a few young galleries and artists have already internalized this rhythmic shift and now symptomatically produce exhibitions and artworks seemingly designed for IPS screens and scrolling blogs. In response to this situation, Sanchez decides the appropriate way to analyze their work is to look at it only in the context of Contemporary Art Daily.

The problem is that the iPhone-size scope of Sanchez’s analysis is not only self-fulfilling but perpetuates the very condition he diagnoses in the article. If you perform an analysis of an artwork as though it only exists as a fleeting image on a blog, how could you conclude anything other than that the artwork is a meme that can only engender a blank stare? If you begin an analysis of a group of young artists with the assumption that Contemporary Art Daily is equivalent to the totality of social relations, you will inevitably conclude that the formation of individual subjectivity under these conditions is impossible.

Sanchez’s overdetermined method disables the very possibility of judgment—resulting in the unqualified cynicism of his conclusion—and potentially lowers the role of the art critic to that of mere trend spotter and investment adviser.

What is the alternative? One place to start would be an expansion and diversification of the critic’s attention investments, and an acknowledgment that critical judgment is only born of experience in multiple registers of time and space. One last note—David Joselit, whom Sanchez cites in his text, has some more helpful suggestions in his manifesto at the end of the book Feedback: Television Against Democracy [2007].

—Daniel Lefcourt
New York

Michael Sanchez responds:

I agree with several of Daniel Lefcourt’s points, particularly about the need to cultivate different forms of attention. Yet it is precisely the way in which myriad forms of attention are changing now, amid undeniable shifts in viewing habits and technologies, that was the focus of my essay.

Many of the claims I make in “2011” originated in observations I made in a lecture that very year: about the changing relationship between the production of art, its reception, and specific new interfaces—including the small and mobile screen of the phone—and the programs designed for them.

Between that year and the present, it has already been possible to see a variety of responses to the emergence of these conditions. These reactions, in some cases, do exactly what Lefcourt proposes, insisting on the continuing necessity of the gallery experience as a complement to the presentation of artwork on the screen. Consider the number of performances and other events that accompany exhibitions now, even during the usually dormant summer months. These operate, I think, on two interdependent levels. On one level, the e-mails that announce such events serve to keep the exhibition (which can last for a month or more) constantly on the minds of a mailing list of increasingly overloaded readers and viewers. On another, however, galleries and museums are clearly anxious about getting bodies into their spaces, and events are a way to encourage this.

By scheduling events that insist an audience show up in person, an artist or institution would seem to be resisting the conditions I articulated in my text. But is this really so? Or is it that, in fact, such events are inextricable from an apparatus of distribution that encompasses many interfaces and platforms, experiences and tempos? Artists must now work in the feedback between physical spaces and portable devices, accommodating very different rhythms and behaviors that do not necessarily align. This is not to say that the scenario at hand is one of simple technological determinism—on the contrary, my point is that we are dealing with a complex dynamic of causes and effects, reciprocal mimicry and recursion, in which traditional models of artistic influence no longer apply.

While such hybrid conditions will no doubt persist in many segments of the market, it seems likely to me that galleries will increasingly reflect the needs of Internet distribution—functioning as photo studios and storage units—just as screen interfaces have in part internalized the aesthetic of the white cube. This is not something to be mourned or ignored, but to be confronted.

Finally, I was puzzled by the value Lefcourt ascribes to terms such as critical judgment and individual subjectivity. As I’m sure he knows, the current sense of the term judgment gained currency in the eighteenth century, alongside that of the individual subject who exercises it and the critical public sphere in which it is exercised (a public sphere, I might add, that developed almost entirely via print).

But all three of these things are historically specific and contingent phenomena. They are variable effects of the interactions between media infrastructures, economic paradigms, pedagogical techniques, and more. To insist now, with blinkered nostalgia, on the value of judgment and individual subjectivity is to extend these terms ahistorically in a way that strikes me as untenable. Not only is this at odds with any rigorous form of the social art criticism to which Lefcourt’s language seems to appeal, it promotes the myth of authentic judgments of quality, which, from a Marxist perspective, are in fact constructed by the market. The opposition Lefcourt creates between cynical trend spotting and authentic critical judgment is, then, not only the product of a false humanism; it inhibits the possibility of conceiving the forms of resistance we so clearly need.