In the age of hunched-over iPhone overachievers, Facebook has birthed a hybrid form of participatory art chat, a free-for-all dialogue sometimes charged with a level of meanness that would do an HBO series proud. These heated conversations have an added layer of social intrigue in the art world: just as often as they are anonymous, your Facebook friends are real-world acquaintances, ones you might run into at an art fair or on your gallery rounds. I’m as guilty as anyone for the tone of the art conversations on Facebook, what with my catty proclamations (more on that in a bit) but probably we all bear some responsibility.
Not yet a decade old, Facebook already has a spicy history as a facilitator of art world debates. Jerry Saltz was the early adopter and form pusher of a genre we might as well call Facecrit. His New York magazine column and two-season stint on an art reality TV series have grown him an audience of more than 35,000. Just over 5,000 of these are “friends” (he’s somehow managed to go beyond the official Facebook limit) and the rest are subscribers. For art criticism, a form of writing that is regularly declared dying or dead, that is like filling an Olympic stadium.
The difference, of course—setting aside comments sections—is that Facecrit is participatory. And it was only a matter of time before others joined Mr. Saltz in initiating conversations. What follows is a peek inside the cutthroat world of digi-debate, art-world style.
Facebook thrives on an innate desire for confrontation. Hegel said that an infant’s first inclination is to put something into his/her mouth in order to overcome it—in later years that impulse evolves into a master-slave relationship with putdowns and subjugation. Facebook deals in self-aggrandizement and self-invention. It’s a fantasy expedition helmed by the ultimate avatar: a digital version of your idealized self.
People’s idealized selves can end up pretty ugly. Enveloped in a comment thread, we expose ourselves to schoolyard bullying. There are the fame-seekers, those who hanker after seeing their names in the ones and zeroes of binary computer code. Then there are the do-gooders raising their hands over and over in the digital classroom. They don’t have much to say, they just want to contribute—often to the dismay and annoyance of others. And then there are—well, let’s just say that the social media park has more than its fair share of trench-coated flashers. But all of this is also why we love it: it’s a zillion-car pile-up, and we are all looky-loos armed with megaphones.
The delete button is the superego, the remorse course. But we Facebook bloggers are a recidivist lot, always back online with arched backs, ready to strike again.
One regular art-world poster serially lashes out, then invariably recants. We’ll call him Doug-the-Deleter. Says artist and Facebook regular Dana Martin Davis, there are “those who leave a conversation, taking their comments with them like tearing the strands from a web.” With all the unfriending going on, you can see how the whole enterprise can breed paranoia.
Put your foot in your mouth on Facebook and you’ll quickly be called on it. Not too long ago, I took my family on a trip to Ghana and was struck by the blanketing and wrenching poverty. While there, it occurred to me how utterly inappropriate a shiny, giant Jeff Koons balloon dog sculpture would look, plunked down into one of the shantytowns surrounding Accra. When I Photoshopped one in and posted it, a commenter threatened to lop my head off with a machete on my next trip over. Ouch.
I have other foibles. I could fairly accurately be said to suffer from a Damien Hirst obsession, but as a London-based art-world participant, armed with Google Alert, that is practically an unavoidable affliction. I’m not sure that, or anything else, justifies one David Gibson, a New York gallerist and curator (who never quite measured up to his father’s early championing of Beuys and others) referring to me as “old and useless.”
Jerry Saltz should be included in the Facebook owner’s manual on how to engage a crowd on the subject of art. (Art! That’s no mean feat.) Thousands of words could be spilt analyzing the hijinks Mr. Saltz gets up to, from commissioning a fake Gerhard Richter painting to lambasting the art market . (See his recent campaign to have all art cost the same amount.)
Facebook in general definitely leans hard to the left in opposition to what the Facebook crowd seems to see as the truffle-sniffing caviar-slurping Basel-bound boys that dominate the market. The digital art debates are largely driven by the creatives: the artists, curators, some dealers and writers. There is no shortage of people, including myself, who shamelessly suck up to Mr. Saltz in every thread.
One reason for Mr. Saltz’s Facebook popularity is simply that he’s a big fish in—well, in a big pond filled with lots of little fish. “There are so many jerry followers because he is among the few real actual famous people who is a fb regular and who does his own messages,” said artist Terry Ward. “so the big crowd came because they like jerry and want his attention. but many stay because there wind up being some real GOOD debates about art, art-making, the art market, and the role of art. about 20% percent of the banter there –amid piles of joking, politics, and locker-room humor– is excellent aesthetics debate. some voices from the great unwashed masses get to be heard –sometimes by major players. retired museum directors, print-world art critics, art bloggers, recent mfa grads, teachers, collectors, curators glom together there and are heard –the top powers of the art world and the beginners and the outsiders in one place. that happens in no other gallery or classroom.”
And yet, there can be an almost dictatorial ruthlessness to Uncle Jerry, even as he would seem to bill himself as the art world’s ultimate populist, its Johnny Appleseed, spreading his elucidating words one post at time. His timeline exudes benevolence and charm. But the unspoken rules of the game on his playing field apparently must be strictly adhered to or you are unceremoniously given the boot. Don’t get me wrong; I wouldn’t be a bona fide FB addict myself without having first come down with a severe case of Jerry-itis. And Mr. Saltz has said he periodically prunes his friends (there is a limit, after all) to make way for those waitlisted and drops only those who attack others.
He himself claims to be open to criticism, even of the ad hominem variety. But according to evidence I gathered through (why not?) Facebook feedback while researching this piece, this latter fact is contested.
One well-known New York artist’s artist was dropped by Jerry for simply stating an idea, though one firmly contrary to those held by the maestro. What did our intrepid friend do in response? Like a Trojan Horse, he went back in as Jerry’s friend—but undercover…as a girl! Espousing the very same views, the female impersonator has been embraced.
Mr. Saltz is well aware that Facebook can breed negativity. “The very first post I made was something where I merely said that I found Marlene Dumas’ paintings pretty derivative and lame,” he told me via Facebook. “People tore me about 100 new assholes; still don’t shit straight. (But I was right! hah!).” And yet he is also the stand-bearer for unbridled optimism. Recently he posted about seeing the good in what, in my opinion, were some very bad new Carroll Dunham paintings. “Well, just the other day I posted two pics of my friend Carroll Dunham’s giant nudes,” Mr. Saltz told me. “I said how powerful I find them. About 1,000 people commented; LOTS of ‘em way-negative. It was my aesthetic-fiscal cliff.”
Facebook sometimes seems almost to be a contact sport. It can be knee-jerk reactionary (see the name-calling of David Gibson.)
But the putdowns are reminiscent of 1970’s insult comedy—think Don Rickles. It’s natural to laugh when someone trips and falls; on Facebook, a zero-sum blogoshpere where everyone is making an effort to look clever, there is frequently someone on the scene to knock you over. Or try to anyway. Maybe drugs and alcohol are to blame for some of the more heated (and less sensical) rhetoric, says artist and Facebook user Sarah Ann Filler. “It gets to a point sometimes where you can kind of tell when people have been partaking of a bit too much,” she said. (Could there be a market for a patented Facebook breathalyzer?)
“The best are the threatening private messages,” said artist and frequent Facebooker Lisa Beck. “I had one that warned me that I should watch out because: ‘the art world is a very small place’—it’s just someone typing mean words as they sit alone brushing the crumbs off themselves.” Funny enough, I was crumb-wiping as I read her comments. (Surprisingly, given the tenor of some of my posts, I have never had any private threats via Facebook message, though I’ve nearly sent a few malicious messages to myself.)
But Facebook nastiness in the art arena could have a very simple explanation, according to artist Matthew Weinstein, who became briefly famous in the digital realm last year for being kicked off by Facebook for posting Courbet’s painting The Origin of the World. “But seriously folks,” he said. “Contemporary Art becomes contentious because. Because. Because. Because most of it sucks. And things that suck make people grumpy. Like grumpy cat (net video star if like me, you didn’t know).”
As I write this article, I’ve been periodically checking my Facebook page. Facebook exists in the space between our private bathrooms and writing on public bathroom walls. Hating is fun—we do it on Facebook because we are, by nature, social animals. Which is to say, what are friends for?
Kenny Schachter is a London-based art dealer, curator and writer. His writing has appeared in books on architect Zaha Hadid, and artists Vito Acconci and Paul Thek, and he is a contributor to the British edition of GQ and Swiss money manager Marc Faber’s Gloom Boom & Doom Report.