“Where Is the Public Discourse Around Art and Technology?”

By Hrag Vartanian

Hrag Vartanian

Photo by Aram Jibilian

As the emerging field of art and technology continues to garner media attention, the critical dialogue around the work remains uneven and underdeveloped. While various academic programs profess to teach art writing, they continue to champion an old formula that has not evolved and has yet to incorporate the tools of 2st-century culture. And while artists and audiences adapt, the majority of journalists, critics included, have yet to embrace the same tools of photography, memes, audio, video, and multimedia. Foundations, academia, museums, and other institutions should embrace a broader notion of discourse driven by media and art professionals, and not only academics, dedicated to innovative approaches.

University art writing programs still privilege longform writing in an impersonal and analytic style that is largely unread by anyone but the faithful. This type of writing is reinforced by traditional writing prizes, foundation grants, and academic committees, which invalidate other forms of writing during hiring processes. This reliance on traditional print-like media, rather than more contemporary and digital forms, makes writing about these works appear staid, esoteric, and uninteresting to the general public.

While many more conventional contemporary artists have embraced the tools of technology, creators who fully integrate technology still face obstacles, one of which is a lack of art criticism and critical dialogue. Criticism serves as an arbiter of “taste,” appealing to the patron classes who buy art or visit art institutions. Today, that has shifted as audiences are more fluid and broad, encompassing a wide range of types and media consumption habits. Criticism’s slowness to adapt is exacerbated by the fact that many art market-focused or -supported print publications rely on academics and graduate students, while supplementing words almost exclusively with gallery- or museum-approved press images that show work in a noncritical light. These types of writers often idealize and romanticize art as something detached from its financial realities, while being uninformed about or uninterested in more underground and emerging forms that do not receive institutional support and approval, or challenge the orthodoxies of the field.

Online journals, even if they write extensively about art that embraces technology, have also been slow to embrace the challenge. As Charlotte Frost, Karen Elio, and Keiko Suzuki, authors of Art Criticism Online: A History, have pointed out in one of their more interesting insights, these online journals, which they curiously distinguish from blogs, “have become the establishment when it comes to art and cultural criticism. Partly this is because they have been cautious about the real benefits of web-based art discussion.”

That aversion is partly reinforced by the majority of accredited academic programs that devalue innovative forms of writing and discussion that are both accessible and public-facing. A variety of funding sources is required to encourage this while seeking a broad impact for the work. Art-focused foundations, such as Creative Capital, have attempted to support blogs and other online forums as part of their annual grants, but their funding has been limited and has either targeted small, localized projects that are clearly unsustainable or those that have reproduced the same exclusionary tactics and values of the commercial art world that is embraced by conventional arts institutions. One project, for instance, created a very long-form text-only blog with no hyperlinks, which has since been archived by Rhizome at the New Museum. Funders also often support graduate student projects, and thus reinforce the romanticized notions mentioned above. This is in contrast to more public-facing art writing projects, such as Artblogin Philadelphia and Art F City in New York, that need annual—and not one-time—support to continue efforts while sustaining themselves.

Conversations that influence society and the arts need to be sustained (and sustainable), embracing continuous and constant discourse that doesn’t lionize one-off supposedly “authoritative” articles that are more often read in grad seminars than by the public. Like technology itself, which permeates our lives, conversations that tackle art and technology need to be multifaceted, digital native, and changing, reflecting a thought process that evolves, reflects, absorbs, and synthesizes new information rather than relying solely on text-based analysis. This drip approach is what makes social media particularly well-suited to the constant stream of information many people now produce and consume, and is part of the reason social media continues to dominate information flow and networks today.

A lack of media and digital literacy is one of the obstacles, as many art writing and art programs do not support those forms of literacy. During a recent lecture at Chautauqua by Dr. Erika Wong, the U.K.-based scholar and artist pointed out that art programs often shun social media as an unreliable source rather than embracing and teaching it as part of a larger curriculum. Considering the recent role of social media in our politics and culture, this is concerning. An example of this disdain for social media was echoed by Johanna Burton— then New Museum’s Keith Haring director and curator of education and public engagement, and currently the director of the Wexner Center for the Arts. During a curatorial symposium in 2018, she shared that she has never engaged with social media and is not interested. This raises questions as to who those who shun social media are actually engaging and listening to other than the donors, curators, and administrators—who are almost all white and affluent in the United States—who dominate institutional settings.

One case study that may help illuminate the challenge is the way that critical discourse has treated the appearance of memes. While not traditionally seen as part of “contemporary art'' and culture, the emergence of memes, particularly in the 21st century, is now being embraced after years of being ignored by various elites in the mainstream. The 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign proved to many people that nontraditional media such as memes have political power.

Back in 2011, An Xiao Mina wrote about “social media street art” for Hyperallergic, which I edit. Riffing off the recent success of street art during the influential 2008 Obama presidential campaign, she noticed how users of the Chinese microblogging site Sina Weibo wielded images during moments of national crisis (such as national or human-made disasters) as a form of artistic dissent. During the same period, contemporary artist Ai Weiwei was actively using memes to engage in creating subversive images that evaded official Chinese censors, often using sunflower seeds, “grass mud horse,” and even images of people holding their legs like rifles with the words “京城反恐系列” (Beijing anti-terrorism series). “Grass mud horse” is a Chinese meme and symbol for defiance on the internet.

Mina was also briefly at Ai Weiwei’s studio, and she found that the art community was largely unwelcoming of writing about this type of work, particularly since it had not reached art galleries and museums and was not being taught in colleges and universities. “In the early 2010s, it was hard for me to find art world venues to write about the phenomenon of memes as political expression in China, as much of the art world was focused on Ai’s traditional sculptural and video work,” she noted in an interview for this essay. “I was interested in exploring the internet, culture, and power and found early opportunities to do this in a limited number of art venues. I then began writing about this in civic technology spaces.”

Her experience mirrors many others’ experiences around critical dialogue and new forms of art that embrace technology outside of the strict confines of the academy. In the case of Ai Weiwei, the memes have now become crucial parts of our larger understanding of his oeuvre, but the language around this work is reduced to more traditional conversations rooted in older Western art historical forms and images rather than within a larger media and social discourse.

In 2019, Mina went on to write Memes to Movements: How the World's Most Viral Media Is Changing Social Protest and Power, which was widely praised by those in a post-2016 world as a way to understand memes. Writing in the Atlantic, Megan Garber characterized Mina as a “digital-culture scholar,” encapsulating work in a manner that echoes many of the artists and projects featured in this current National Endowment for the Arts report, Tech as Art: Supporting Artists Who Use Technology as a Creative Medium. Garber wrote, “Memes, participatory and productively remixable, tap into the deep desire for storytelling—and for story-receiving—that is such a profound part of being human.” In her book, Mina wrote, “memes allow us to more quickly develop the visual and verbal language around which movements organize.” This is of particular interest to the creators in the field of art and technology, who are fully engaged in innovative approaches that respond to new realities.

Mina began her career as an artist and an innovator in social media art—she was the first commissioned artist by the Brooklyn Museum for its 1st Fans Twitter feed—and an early adopter of crowd-sourced art, such as Kickstarter.
But while she has found support at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University and elsewhere, the art community has provided little support for her work.
Many of these projects outlined in the report often receive press in non-art-focused publications. Most art publications, including many academic ones, focus on art market or art market-adjacent works that have established systems of circulation and commerce. This echoes their financial support structures, which can often be commercial art galleries and art foundations.

The lack of market and auction track records for most of the art being discussed in the National Endowment for the Arts’ report points to similar non-market dynamics, as these makers function outside the traditional commercial art market for various reasons. This lopsided ecosystem is certainly influenced by the current state of inequality in society, in which the wealthy institutions and companies dominate media attention through press agents and marketing departments pushing out related content, including art writing. The digital artists who succeed in the market-based gallery system are often engaged with artificial scarcity to maintain the aura of the art object and step away from the qualities that make the technology unique: its easy circulation and reproducibility.

While the commercial art system is not the only network in the art community, it tends to dominate art discourse because of its patronization of magazines through advertising and press trips, and because academics often contribute to their in-house publications and catalogues. There is a growing trend at major blue-chip art galleries to create in-house publications, such as Ursula at Hauser & Wirth and Gagosian at Gagosian gallery, that do not offer any negative reviews and support their sales priorities. A large number of writers for most of these art publications and catalogues are graduate students or academics, who often infuse their words with theoretical constructs that turn off general readers and laypeople, and raise serious questions about the independence of academia from the art market. These same people regularly appear at large corporate art fairs where sales dominate any other discourse, even if panels and talks offer an intellectual veneer to the brash commercialism of the event.

Similarly, art forms and practices such as networked photography, installations for festivals, and other projects that reject the traditional market model or system—which is often antagonistic to collectives and other non-traditional forms of art-making—suffer from the same issues. They have found support and traction in startups, corporations, or even universities (though rarely in art or art history departments). But the discourse in more traditional art media and scholarship channels doesn’t always situate the work in the dynamic history of art and technology without falling back on conventions that elevate the established canon that continues to underrepresent non-European, non-male, and non-object-based histories of art.

It is crucial that the art community expand the discourse not only to ensure that more diverse voices enter the field, but also to reflect the changing atmosphere in which art is being created. Art writers and critics must be engaged in art in order to accurately reflect the new waves of creators who often reject established forms to create new worlds that contain us all.

Hrag Vartanian is an editor, art critic, curator, and lecturer on contemporary art with an expertise on the intersection of art and politics. He is the editor-in-chief of Hyperallergic, which he co-founded in 2009 in response to changes in the art world, the publishing industry, and the distribution of information.