art criticism

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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