BY Christy Lange in Opinion | 04 APR 09
Featured in
Issue 122

Critical Values

The world of difference between writing a blog and an article for print publication

BY Christy Lange in Opinion | 04 APR 09

Recently frieze introduced an editors’ blog on the magazine’s website. Not knowing exactly how to approach it, I steered clear of it for a while. A blog must be both personal and instantaneous, with all the hazards that brings – what Andrew Sullivan, who writes and blogs for The Atlantic, calls ‘writing out loud.’ There is undeniable critical currency in this type of writing. Publications from The New Yorker to the Guardian ask their journalists to blog, in an effort to trade on the medium’s seemingly unfiltered subjectivity, which in turn prompts candid and sometimes emotional responses from readers. Writers who were hired based on their journalistic experience are now being asked to rely less on research or evidence and to sound more like they’re just jotting down notes. Of course, this informal voice is appealing. What critic doesn’t strive to access their own gut responses and intuitive reactions in their published pieces? If the printed page is a place for carefully plotted, measured arguments, then the blog might be a place to express the opinions we normally reserve for casual emails or pithy two-word text-messages describing (or dismissing) a show. But if I started writing in a more subjective voice on the blog, would it make my other writing sound stuffy, or even worse, disingenuous?

When bemoaning the way blogging might endanger professional criticism, you always risk aging yourself. I was born three years shy of the ‘digital native’ generation (which, according to John Palfrey in his 2008 book, Born Digital, began in 1980), so I wasn’t born to blog. But I do read blogs on websites like Television Without Pity or Gawker that ruthlessly but exactingly dissect, satirize, even ridicule all that’s hypocritical and deplorable about media and pop culture. They make irreverence feel like the most important critical tool of my generation. This kind of commentary is appealing precisely because it’s not tempered or even-handed, but because it’s ‘snark’ – the fired-back insult, the sarcastic aside.

In his book, Snark: It’s Mean, It’s Personal and It’s Ruining Our Conversation (2008), New Yorker film critic David Denby expressed his fear that America will turn into ‘a kind of endless zany brouhaha’ if young bloggers are allowed to peddle their evil brand of ‘pure ridicule’ on the Internet. What Denby fails to realize is that bloggers’ snark is actually a reaction to the mediocre criticism and affirmative spin that can dominate the printed press. As Adam Sternbergh poignantly wrote in a review of the book in New York magazine: ‘Snark, irony’s brat, flourishes in an age of double-speak and idiocy […] When you are living in a nation awash in bullshit, it should not be surprising when people cry out, “The nation is awash in bullshit!”’

There’s a difference however between a thoughtful argument and wilfully anti- intellectual invective. So as art critics, especially in the forum of the blog, we are presented with a dilemma: presumably our love of art is what makes us critics, but we also want to point out what we see as its flaws and faults without dissecting what we love too cruelly. It’s as if art were a friend we cared deeply about, but who’d made a horrible mistake, and we at least try to temper the way we tell them, as a sign of respect.

The task is to strike the right balance between expressing our intuitions about what we see, which can be proven wrong in the long run, and making sure our criticism is thoughtfully argued, supported by facts, and, not least, voiced with a certain amount of fairness and care. In the end, we’re accountable for everything we write, whether it’s on the printed page or on the web. We want to record our gut reactions to things but we have to be prepared to defend them for the long term – because in the blogosphere, while the responses are immediate and brutal, our remarks echo back for ages. Even when putting out our most urgent, impulsive, candid opinions – artists whose work we feel is phoney, or institutions that we think should be ashamed of themselves for their policies – the argument is still best served when it’s considered, evaluated and edited.

It’s hard to deny the allure, and critical value, of snark. But it’s also hard to deny that your own snark can kill your social or professional life. Last December, a 100-year-old article by Mark Twain curiously appeared in the pages of The New Yorker. In ‘The Privilege of the Grave’ (written in 1905 but unpublished until now) Twain lamented his inability to express his own negative or unpopular opinions: ‘We suppress an unpopular opinion,’ Twain surmised, ‘because we cannot afford the bitter cost of putting it forth. None of us likes to be hated, none of us likes to be shunned.’ Twain thought that only after he died could he truly speak freely. So he proposed we put those deepest darkest opinions into a diary and letting people read them only after we’re dead. Today critics put them into blogs, and face the consequences.

Christy Lange is programme director of Tactical Tech and a contributing editor of frieze. She lives in Berlin, Germany.