Jennifer Rabin

 

In an attention economy, the critic’s most powerful tool is silence

Attention isn't just a human need anymore—it is a valuable commodity. Art critics need to be a lot more careful with it.

Humans are wired to crave attention. We want validation and recognition that our lives matter to other people. But our desire for attention has become bottomless, stretched, and grotesque. I keep reading reports of social media darlings meeting their ends—falling off cliffs to their deaths, drowning in picturesque waterfalls, and dying of hypothermia on treacherous climbs—in their quests to obtain the most over-the-top, swoon-worthy images to deliver to their followers. This is not a drill, folks: we are literally dying for attention.

We’re in this situation as a result of the fact that attention, which was an amorphous concept before the digital age, is now a quantifiable commodity. People are putting themselves in harm’s way because likes, subscribers, and followers can be valuated and monetized such that attention is now currency. It translates to money, fame, clout, and influence, so it makes sense that some people will do anything for it.

As such, it’s time for arts writers, critics, journalists, gatekeepers, and arbiters of culture—anyone whose job it is to bestow attention onto others—to reconsider how to allocate that currency. More specifically, the most responsible thing we can do, as people who professionally dole out attention, is to withhold it more often than not.

But hear me out—there’s more to it than that.

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The misdirected tizzy over shredded Banksy

Jennifer Rabin considers the target of Banksy's auction prank

Last week, during the ache and anticipation of the Kavanaugh debacle, the art world had its own to-do. Sotheby’s auctioned off a painting, Girl With Balloon, by the street artist Banksy. A split second after it sold for $1.4 million, its unassuming gold frame shredded it into what some reporters would have us believe are now worthless strips of a formerly precious work of art.

Girl With Balloon at Sotheby’s in London on Image posted on Banksy’s Instagram account

Arts writers were aflutter. What would happen next? Would this void the sale? What would it do to the resale value? “Sotheby’s has not named the client whose $1.4 million purchase was destroyed,” one article informed us, perfectly illustrating the art world’s inability, or willful refusal, to see past an object to the intention behind it.

They missed the point.

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