Thoughts on the End of Artnet Magazine, From Someone Who Worked There

Thoughts on the End of Artnet Magazine, From Someone Who Worked There
Outside Artnet's old offices at 61 Broadway
(Photo © Ben Davis)

It’s been two weeks since Artnet Magazine came to an unceremonious end, shuttered by the ailing art services company of which it was a division. The publication, one of the first serious attempts to create an online art magazine, had been around for 16 years. Its editors and writers were given a few hours of warning before they had to leave the building.

I worked there as associate editor for five years, between 2005 and 2010. For most of that time, there was very little pressure on the magazine. It just floated there as a kind of hood ornament on the company, a way to catch the eye of the various segments of the art world that it was trying to sell things to. "It is a particular characteristic of art that both its monetary and its symbolic value are merged inseparably together," the company wrote in its 2007 letter to investors. "We take this into account with the artnet magazines... This aspect is tremendously important for the business." In 2008, the powers-that-were even expanded it to include an independent French-language edition. The magazine was certainly the best-known part of the site.

Then there was some kind of technical change in how expenditures were reported. Suddenly, the investors in Germany were looking at it as an unprofitable product rather than as a defensible form of PR for the site as a whole. There were patience-trying conversations about ways to reorient it. The stress that came out of those discussions was part of why I left.

In the last year, something called Skate’s Art Market Research has issued a series of scathing reports on Artnet, hammering the company for its stagnation. The reports contain very few positives. "Frankly, we are at loss to see how artnet’s management can reverse the trend" is the phrase that stands out. Its sole actionable idea, repeated hypnotically, was the need to shutter Artnet Magazine to make a statement.

Despite its generally bleak perspective on the company’s future, two months ago Skate’s was retained by an investor in Artnet, and, at the earliest possible juncture — literally moments after long-time boss Hans Neuendorf stepped down — it seems to have contrived to put its one idea into effect, offering support in return for an unsparing focus on the bottom line. The moneymen, it seems, were determined to prove that they were as murderously unsentimental as serious business requires.

Artnet Magazine was very, very good to me. Walter Robinson, the editor, was and is an important mentor. Occasionally, my writing has been complemented for its clarity, and for that I owe a debt to Walter. He can be a finicky editor, but his agenda is not difficult to understand. He likes personality, he likes to mix it up and stir the pot — but first of all he likes clear and clean descriptions, and he does not like writing that feels like it is talking down to you.

Reporting on the closure, the L.A. Times said that the site "published reported stories, commentary and reviews, all geared generally toward the buying and selling of art," which is not at all a fair or accurate assessment. It is true that its news reports were careful to mention prices, and I can’t say that there wasn't a convergence of interests, but in fact this focus — which at a certain moment in art writing was even novel — is more a function of Walter’s personal take on art. He worked at Art in America alongside Craig Owens and Hal Foster, and, as a working painter, reacted against their disdainful academic formalism, their allergic reaction to the commercial side of art. (Andrew Russeth's extensive Walter Robinson profile gives a feel.)

Once I had to pinch hit for Walter on a panel at SVA about small art publications. What I emphasized then, and would emphasize now, is that the editorial agenda of Artnet Magazine was Walter's agenda, which reflected something of an East Village sensibility. By which I mean, like the '80s East Village art scene, it was programmatically eclectic, more about a variety of personalities than an overall aesthetic, though it did treasure the offbeat. Walter insisted on spelling "aesthetic" as "esthetic;" "it's good to have your quirks," he explained. While I was there we serialized Donald Kuspit’s dense psychoanalytic tome, "A Critical History of 20th-Century Art," and Peter Plagens's novel of midlife male writer angst, "The Art Critic" (whose glimpse at the humiliations of writing art criticism for a mainstream publication now seems to me to be worth rereading), as well as Tom Hoving's boisterous memoir, "Artful Tom." None of these were "geared generally toward the buying and selling of art."

There are criticisms of Artnet Magazine, some of which are legitimate. People say that it was slow to change (there was no real appetite to invest in a redesign, and all management's recent impulses were towards hiding it more and more in the weeds of the site’s inexplicable "Knowledge and News" section), that it was insular, that it published indefensible things by Charlie Finch.

What I'd say, though, is that such criticisms are in part the flip side of what made it a positive place for me to work. We had a lot of autonomy, which could be used to publish things that were probably indefensible from any sort of reasonable publishing perspective. I once spent some weeks writing a nearly 4,000-word piece on the history of Iraqi art, pegged only tenuously to a show by an unknown painter at a nonprofit SoHo space. I'm proud of what I wrote while I was at Artnet; I have a lot of personal investment in those essays. I am at a loss to think of another situation where I might have been able to develop a voice and an audience in quite the same way. 

In art, discourse logically comes first. It is what inspires and shapes works of art. Without some kind of idea about it, there is nothing to frame works of art as more than just random emissions, starting and ending nowhere, the one as interesting as the next. Yet the way things stand today, discourse comes last. First you have an artist who makes something; then a dealer who sells it and a collector who buys it. Finally, maybe, you have a critic who comes along afterwards to explain why this whole process happened. Discourse appears as an afterthought. A footnote. A waste of resources.

From this perspective, the moneymen are right, I guess. Artnet Magazine was not particularly the best at justifying itself against the unsparing logic of business. If you close your eyes and think about what kind of publication an art services company like Artnet might support, you’d expect something a lot more like Skate’s Art Market Research — cold-blooded, ruthlessly uninterested in art as anything other than something that makes money — and a lot less like the odd creature it actually was.

Still, personally, I don’t think that the art world is particularly lovable without its odd creatures. In fact, it is quite hateable. Now, the word on the street is that Artnet may be looking to retain a good "art PR" company. Good luck with that, guys.