On Tuesday morning, I tried to log into Facebook via my iPhone. It didn’t work. I didn’t think anything of it, as I often don’t remember my passwords. When I tried again on my laptop, however, I wasn’t able to log in either, and instead got some sort of note saying that owing to complaints regarding particular posts, that I’d violated “community standards” and was banned from Facebook. I don’t know how to do screen-grabs so I clicked “I agree,” it disappeared, and I was able to see my Facebook but was no longer able to participate in any way on it. That was that.
My first thought: Here we go again. Last December, Instagram had shut down my account during Art Basel Miami Beach when I posted (from New York) a picture of Charles Ray’s great MoMA-owned sculptural masterpiece of four nude figures holding hands, American Romance. Instagram reinstated me within three hours, claiming an errant algorithm had made a mistake.
This time, I didn’t run afoul of any Facebook algorithms scanning for nude photographs, pornography, genitalia, hate speech, civil-rights violations, etc., however. Instead, it was my “friends” who’d driven me out of town. Apparently, over the last bunch of months, I’d run afoul of art-world conservatism and moralism and been demonized by artists, whose names I recognize from social media — people policing my borders. In particular, Facebook had repeated complaints from my “friends” and followers objecting to my numerous posts of ancient Roman and Greek art and medieval illuminated manuscripts. (Not to any nude photos or the like.) At a certain point, after posing art questions almost every day for five or six years, I began to get interested in a lot of art-historical material that was coming to light online as a result of high-definition digital photography. Art from one of my favorite periods in all of history; what we roughly call the Dark Ages and medieval art. I loved the idea of communicating in pictures — with idiotic jokes often attached. But I wanted people to see these lost images. Over the course of the last year or two, these pictures that reflect a kind of internal consciousness and external condition that feels relevant again in this time of ending American empire, have sort of taken over my life on social media — though not in a way I had planned, exactly. Scads of people took these pictures in more ill-intended, sick, and literally wayas than I could ever have imaged.
These pictures are powerful. Many were made in the tumultuous period in the West between the collapse of the Roman Empire and the hegemony of Christianity. Most of these images are hard to take. They contain body parts, defecation, plague, death, boils, brutality, emaciation, torture, severe tooth decay, horrific attempts at surgical remedies. Most of all, these pictures portray demons. Thousands of them besetting humanity at every turn in every color, plumage, and guise, snakes, birds, pigs, dragons, frogs, flowers, roots, devils. I love them, the color, scale, subject matter, mythos, and pain. These were people trying to live by Christ’s “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” The pictures from these stormy centuries over a thousand years before Freud remind us that one core human state is self-hate.
I’d gotten on Facebook in 2008 when a student created a page for me. I had no idea how it worked or what I’d do with it. After a few months of writing about the weather and what I was wearing, apropos a show I’d just seen, I wrote a few lines saying why I didn’t like the paintings of Marlene Dumas. It was like a bomb went off. Out of nowhere, scores, then hundreds of people flooded onto my page to tell me in no uncertain terms why I was wrong. (I still think I’m right.) Other than a little bit of “ouch,” in an instant in my underwear I had a digital epiphany: Facebook might make it possible to invert a model of art criticism. Rather than the critic speaking from on high, alone, unassailable, from the top of the pyramid to the many, Facebook might make possible for the many to speak to one-another, coherently. I tried. It worked. Like wildfire. And I kept doing it. Trying everything I could think of, following my fancy.
Social media seemed to imply a giant meta step forward in art criticism to me, a way to get through a period when print is waning and we’re finding our ways on blogs and the like. And there’s no money to it, so there’s nothing to lose and everything to gain. It felt like the Wild West to me, borderless. I really thought I was experimenting with art criticism, but the truth is that I was not really in control of the experiment; it was in control of me. And had only very little to do with art or criticism, and much more to do with communication and self-expression.
On Facebook, the boundaries between high and low seemed finally to slip away. Doing criticism in public, in real time, live, was thrilling, satisfied my need to try new things, reach a much, much wider audience, be a ham, alleviate the long terrible hours of aloneness that all writers and artists know well, all the while exercising my own demons and dancing naked in public. Facebook, then Twitter, then Instagram, changed the way I see criticism and the art world. Social media makes all this much bigger, more participatory, and even possibly more horizontal. It makes me think hierarchies can be flattened, that there were many ways to form communities, even for those of us who don’t only want to speak art world to art world, who write for glossy general-interest magazines, have no degrees, only leave our house to do our jobs. The housebound could have voice. And have fun at the same time. And take micro-breaks between writing paragraphs to mix it up about art with real artists in real time. I loved that criticism could be practiced in public and not mainly in specialist journals or in classrooms. I’d like to think that on these platforms a sort of accidental criticism happened. And is happening still. And will again.
But what happened this past week made those possibilities seem foreclosed (even if I was relieved, for a bit, to be relieved of my account). Letters to Facebook objected to these images (made by artists) being “abusive to women,” “sexist,” and “misogynist.” Letters branched out from there, accusing me of being all these things too. Soon I was being called “a confirmed sexist.” This from people who subscribe, navigate to, seek out, and read my Facebook page voluntarily, people who then use their energy to criticize how I’m trying to use mine. This seems perverse to me. Especially when we remember that a click away from my page are numerous others devoted to white-supremacy groups, guns for children, sex trafficking, the Westboro Baptist Church, and much more. ISIL has Twitter pages! Facebook complainers objecting to medieval illuminated manuscripts clearly have too much time on their hands and some misplaced feelings about authority, not to mention critics.
My impression from Facebook is that the large majority of these complaints come from people of my generation, people between the ages 48 and 68 — and that the objections are not to photographs or contemporary works of art. Even on my Facebook, I regularly find people telling me not to post such “sexy” images, or to post only about art issues. In the past, I’ve been blasted on Facebook, called a disaster for art, a sell-out, a fraud, someone “promulgating a massive deception.” After I tried to be on a reality-TV game show, artist William Powhida opined that for him to be on my “top ten list” was like “an anchor around my ankle.” I read these criticisms and think, They could be right. And anyway, I love that the art world is always getting its panties in a wad about the collapse of cultural values and the like. I didn’t mind being “the like.” But that’s gotten darker.
But, if my banning tells me anything, it’s that my sense has been right that this criticism has mutated of late. I hope that all of these finger-pointing little Napoleons get a grip and go elsewhere. I know that I’m going to probably keep loving these old images as they come to light, post them, even with my idiot jokes about them depicting me, Klaus, Marina, and others having sex, or whatever. In the meantime what does it tell us that pictures made by artists and posted by an aging male art critic now bear witness to Facebook being more open and permissive than many in the art world? I’d only ask people who hate the pictures and captions I post not to visit my page anymore, please unfollow me, block me, forget about me. Please quit me.