Cultural life online

Finnish art critic Helen Korpak reflects on arts and culture online

In spring 2020, when the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted every plan and event across the globe, as an art critic, I sat at my computer frustrated, and tried to comb through museum websites for something to write about. Until then, I’d insisted that the internet was a sphere for leisure, but suddenly the choice was no longer mine: if I wanted to experience art and do my job, I had to pull up my sleeves and wade into the online ocean. It took a lot of splashing before I learnt to swim, and it’s still not easy to get it right. Where’s the line between having cultural experiences online and wasting time surfing until you start getting anxious?

A few days ago, I seized the opportunity to talk to the Norwegian curators and researchers Caroline Ugelstad and Susanne Østby Sæther as part of Nordic Culture Point’s livestream series about art online. Inevitably, those first months of lockdown two years ago were at the centre of our discussion. Now, in retrospect, we were able to rejoice at how quickly both institutions and artists threw themselves out into the online world. There was nothing cynical or calculating in the examples we talked about: the museum’s Instagram initiatives and the artists’ collective projects had been born out of an honest and genuine need to continue living a life of cultural experiences even during a time of isolation at home.

We reached the conclusion that the fact that art is increasingly present online doesn’t mean that we’ll suddenly start consuming works of art digitally. Rather, our cultural life suddenly has a broader horizon. The art experiences and cultural contexts that we enjoy in real life should be enriched, not replaced by the internet. So it’s about choosing what feels right for you: if it doesn’t interest you to follow the big museums’ social media channels or you’re bored by streaming this month’s most important documentary or series then, quite simply, don’t do it! Sometimes it can be more fun to just read Wikipedia on the bus to work.

Personally, I want to address criticism in the online sphere. After a shaky start, over the past two years I’ve realised that the most rewarding digital cultural experience for me is to incorporate criticism into my digital routine. It’s stimulating to get well-reasoned opinions!

Three online art criticism tips

As paywalls have become the norm on the websites of almost all major newspapers, criticism has taken on new forms. In the Nordic Region, a phenomenal example of this is the page Kunstkritikk which is based in Oslo. There you can find high-quality art criticism published in Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, and English.

The Swedish website Örnen och kråkan is, in turn, completely dedicated to the serious criticism of poetry, not only in written form but also as a well-produced podcast.

If you go outside the Nordic sphere, sooner or later you’ll come across a British website called The White Pube , whose name is an ironic pun based on the modern tendency to exhibit art in empty white galleries and museum halls, the so-called “white cubes”. The website is run by the young critics Gabrielle de la Puente and Zarina Muhammad, who are also very active on Instagram (@thewhitepube), where their cheeky and relaxed language and fearless critical tone have reached a large audience. Criticism is for everyone, says The White Pube, and writes about everything from murals with racist imagery to video games and food. I couldn’t agree more.

Helen Korpak