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.

In decades past, we trained our attention on talent, virtue, and character. Our positive attention was bestowed on people in reward for their excellence. Thanks in part to reality shows, which replaced talent with willingness, virtue with profligacy, character with sensationalism, and distinction with notoriety, we no longer differentiate between positive and negative attention. In fact, I’m not even sure we could if we wanted to. And one could argue that the distinction is irrelevant in an attention economy: the algorithms have no way to distinguish whether you’re hate following someone or a true fan; the computer overlords simply tell us how many eyeballs are on a particular person and how much each set of those eyeballs is worth.

If all forms of attention—sympathy, admiration, adoration, horror, outrage, disgust—all lead to the same place (read: $$$), then one needn’t be picky about which type to amass for oneself. To wit, in the last month: a working actor allegedly staged a hate crime against himself to generate press that would inflate his already ample salary; an R&B singer’s song and album sales doubled after a documentary was released accusing him of two decades worth of child sexual abuse; and a political operative who may face the rest of his life in prison, declared in a press conference on the courthouse steps following his arraignment, “As I have always said: The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” (He cribbed that quote from Oscar Wilde who said it in the 19th century—a reminder that our need for attention long predates Instagram and YouTube, though Wilde and his contemporaries likely wouldn’t have been willing to photograph themselves eating Tide pods to get it.)

Twenty years ago, there may have been value in a thoughtfully written negative review of an artist’s work. Best case scenario: it might have caused the artist to look at their work through a different lens and to make some adjustments to it, and it could have warned museum/gallery goers to avoid a poorly conceived or insipid exhibition. Today, in an attention economy, a negative review does the exact opposite of what it was intended to do.

I offer as an example the excoriating review that Jerry Saltz, the arts critic for New York magazine whom I admire, gave to two collaborating artists for one of their whimsical but vapid public art pieces in Manhattan. The review is unequivocally negative, ending: “As an art critic, I also feel compelled to add that if you like the sculpture, I’m afraid it means that you have pretty bad taste.”

In response, the artists posted an open letter on their website to Mr. Saltz that begins, “The two of us would like to personally thank you for critiquing our work. The very fact that you have written an article about our sculpture…is a huge success in our minds!” It goes on to say, “Another comment we wanted to bring up is your mention about us being ‘ditzy and clueless when it comes to sculpture,’ but with our hearts in the right place. Well, this is not entirely incorrect; our hearts are in the right place, and we appreciate your acknowledgement. Yet, we are certainly not clueless when it comes to sculpture, which has been further affirmed by the fact that you critiqued our artwork!…There are countless works that you, a respected art critic, do not draw attention to. However, you chose to write an entire article about [our sculpture] so thank you!”

When all attention—including negative attention—is good attention, even the worst review can be spun into something positive for the artist. In practical terms, it can become either a flashpoint for additional attention, as in the above example, or, more mundanely, a line item on their resume showing that their work received press attention. More press attention leads to more funding opportunities. More funding opportunities lead to greater economic viability and influence.

If every review we write is an opportunity for advancement for the artist whose work we are writing about, we should be focusing on artists who are worthy of that advancement. Each month, all arts writers have a certain number of reviews in them, just as readers have a certain number of articles they will read in that time. I would argue that the writer’s efforts and the reader’s attention are best spent on artists whose work makes a positive contribution to the cultural conversation. I would also argue that instead of writing a takedown of a well-funded white male artist’s show, an arts writer/critic/journalist could use the time and those column inches to tell the world about an artist of color, a queer artist, a disabled artist, a woman artist, or about an artist who is producing excellent work but hasn’t broken through yet.

As someone who lives in a city where the art market is severely depressed and the lack of community engagement in the arts is stunning (I stopped counting after we lost 9 galleries and one museum in the course of a year), it has always been my approach to write about shows that I think might turn people on to seeing art and which have the potential to be transformative experiences. I don’t spend my labor on exhibitions that are, at best, unsuccessful or, at worst, infuriating. We know, from a psychological perspective, that negative attention reinforces undesirable behavior. More impactful than negative attention is no attention. If you hate a work of art, ignore it.

Some will say that negative reviews are the only way to keep alive a robust critical debate, which is vital to the health of the arts ecosystem. This is a specious argument, given the fact that flagrantly negative reviews are often an outlet for the critic’s ego and peacocking. Also, this position overlooks the notion that a positive, or mostly positive, review can still be an opportunity to explore challenging themes, cultural sticking points, and matters of artistic practice. Choosing to highlight an artist’s work doesn’t mean that all of that artist’s work is successful or that the review must be glowing. It simply means that the artist’s efforts are substantial enough to both warrant the light of our attention and to provide a vessel for productive cultural debate.

Comments are closed.