Franklin Einspruch

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The Virtual Critic: A Thought Experiment

AICA-USA Magazine, April 20, 2020 (read there)

Last weekend an email arrived from a gallery that I have long admired. They announced that they will be closing permanently after seventeen years of operation in Chelsea. They cited “the virus and the ensuing chaos” as the reason. They promise a new virtual gallery and an upcoming program of online exhibitions.

With this announcement comes disappointment. The proprietrix is astute, the space handsome, the gallery assistant delightful, the roster full of bright talents. I will miss them. The biggest disappointment of all is that there are no online exhibitions. There are only web pages. Some are sophisticated, some are basic. All of them are textual markup with linked images. I build them. They’re not a big deal.

I doubt that even the most hardened conceptual art adherents think that this forced remove from real objects is a satisfactory situation. In the midst of physical closures, museums and galleries are doing what they can. Their viewers are making do. Hence the online viewing experience—a header under which I include virtual exhibitions, online viewing rooms, digital walkthroughs, and similarly vague terms whose meanings are currently getting hashed out under duress. Most of these are what we used to call back in the ’90s DHTML. The germane term, hailing from the same time, is dancing baloney.

Several of these, in an attempt to create a sense of exclusivity, require visitors to fork over an email address before being allowed to look at the DHTML. Whether it works to type “hello@noneofyourbusiness.meh” at the prompt I leave as an exercise for the reader.

In many cases, the web pages have embedded video. These verge on being exhibition-like. That said, computer monitors are 72dpi, less than a quarter of the resolution of a reproduction in a book. Compared to print, JPEGs are rough. The image quality of online video is even worse. But seeing a show from the point of view of a camera moving around an exhibition space can give the viewer a sense of context and a feeling of proprioception, however passive. Still, it’s nothing like real life.

Of most interest are the new in-browser 3D environments, basically first-person shooters with art on the walls and no shooting. (Whether the ability to shoot would improve the virtual gallery-going experience, I also leave as an exercise for the reader.) Online 3D environments became possible only recently thanks to new developments in computer graphics. Unlike the gesticulating hamsters of the ’90s, these advances are the product of some of the finest minds working in applied mathematics.

Three platforms have won much of the market for 3D gallery environment-building: Artland, Matterport, and Eazel. Artland undergirds the virtual exhibitions “Pungent Distopia” at Freight+Volume (I’m using “at” loosely), “David Mann: Before Our Eyes” at Margaret Thatcher, and “Hermann Nitsch: The Shape of Color” at Galerie RX. Matterport exhibitions include “Skirting the Line” at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, “Ugo Rondinone: good evening beautiful blue” at the Bass Museum of Art, and “Upsurge: Waves, Colour and Illusion” at Lawrie Shabibi. Eazel supports Nancy Margolis’s exhibitions, including the recent one of Kathleen Craig and Sarah Lubin, Karma’s show of Thaddeus Mosley, and those of quite a few other galleries.

Art viewers of the future may one day look back on these efforts as the dancing baloney of the early 2020s. But in the meantime these 3D tours have the advantage of providing something like the feeling of having gotten out of the house. They also raise the question of what will happen to art criticism if such presentations become the new normal. I’ve long held the position that you can’t see the future, but if you see the present as clearly as possible, it’s the next best thing. What I see at the moment is a stymied, struggling art world and a whole honking lot of web pages.

When MP3s started to circulate widely in the 2000s, audiophiles complained that the format was garbage. They predicted that the iPod would bomb, and proclaimed that it deserved to. Call me a philistine, but I was one of the many people who couldn’t hear the difference between an MP3 and vinyl, particularly if I was going outside for a run, which would have precluded vinyl anyway. People keep entire music collections on their devices now. Vinyl records and compact discs are traded by specialty shops or thrift stores depending on rarity.

The longer the shutdown continues the easier it is to imagine a scenario in which virtual viewing becomes the default. In-person viewing would be like going to a live concert, a rarity and a treat for which one might dress up. The rest of the looking would happen through screens. Everyone will know that it’s not as good as real life, but that won’t matter, because real life entails finding a parking spot on Harrison Avenue when it’s seven degrees out, dealing with the L train, battling traffic all the way to Culver City, or nowadays, risking a case of COVID-19. As the shutdown forces more galleries to abandon their physical spaces and more tourists to cancel their plans, the lure of mounting exhibitions in the digital ether grows stronger.

It will soon become clear to presenters, particularly to galleries that lost their real-life spaces, that drywall can be arranged any old way when it consists entirely of math. Eventually, some clever artist is going to build a veritable cathedral to himself in 3D, the sort of space that would be the envy of the art world if it were a real building in Chelsea or Berlin. Some clever curator will do likewise, and design the exhibitions that she always wanted to mount, free from the limitations of the physical world and its outsize shipping costs. It will become normal to present virtual exhibitions that have no real-world analogues.

All this will give rise to the virtual exhibition as a freestanding creative form. Visual art will finally have produced an equivalent of the record album in music: something understood to be a diminished reproduction of the core creative activity, yet able to be appreciated as a statement in its own right, and capable of expression not possible in the core creative activity. We’re content to let music critics review albums. We don’t regard their doing so as a cut-rate version of reviewing a live performance. We could get used to making the same allowance for art critics.

Sound is much more amenable to digitization than visuals. We rightly insist that art reviewers look at art in person. But the technology that enables virtual exhibitions is improving quickly. Meanwhile, we can’t have the real thing. The longer this goes on, the more people may learn to accept the virtual exhibition on its own terms. It seems that even a heavily digitized art world will still provide opportunities for criticism.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that the above scenario derives from the history of music criticism, and the current field of music criticism is a heap of smoking wreckage. Ted Gioia, the renowned jazz critic and historian, penned a headline three years ago that read, “Music Criticism Has Degenerated Into Lifestyle Reporting.

Record label execs and critics never actually announced that they had given up on music as music, but their actions made clear how little faith they retained in its redemptive power, how much they craved the glamour of other fields. They acted as if music were a subset of the fashion or cinema or advertising industries. Songs became vehicles, platforms for something larger than just notes and words. Or—dare I suggest?—something smaller.

In music, one used to have to buy a concert ticket or an album. Reviews could help a listener decide whether to make the investment. Now people can go online and hear new productions for themselves. Music criticism is no longer a service. It’s merely an ancillary entertainment, if even that. The virtual exhibition promises the same sort of easy access to visual art. It’s now possible to see the route by which art criticism follows music criticism into a chasm of irrelevance.

Presenters will still need able writers to pen the digital equivalent of catalogues and wall labels, and those too may acquire new, interesting forms. Art writing per se will likely stay around. But it’s getting difficult to imagine a strategy that maintains forms of criticism permitted to defy corporate and institutional power and challenge commonplace thinking. As it was ably put by novelist and jurist Helen Dale,

When considering COVID-19’s possible longer-term implications, I think my novelist’s hat is likely to be better than my lawyer or policy wonk’s hat. This is because part of writing fiction is a willingness to entertain ideas with which one disagrees.…a lot of people have made predictions about our post-coronavirus future that are essentially a list of all the things they’ve always wanted to see happen. I can’t think of a way to be more spectacularly wrong—wrong in the way swathes of British and American pollsters were in 2016.

It’s too easy to see the pandemic as justification for whatever one already advocates. Our politicians are doing that, and we follow along at our peril. Rather, we critics should look realistically yet imaginatively at our situation, with survival in mind. Current events oblige this profession to turn its famously sharp eyes on itself.

Word count: 1557

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