Have you ever straight-up hated an artwork so much you wanted to rip it off the wall and paint the distance between the gallery roof and sidewalk with its tatters? You're not alone. Since about as long as critical discourse has existed, art has been suspended between the dueling emotions of its proponents and detractors. "The unexamined life is not worth living," said Socrates—like it or not, art is perhaps the longest standing record of our lives, but little examination has been given to the significance of that Socratic sentiment today.
Love? Hate? These are questions at the heart of all human passions. But do they matter? A new position presents itself in the Information Age in a way we as critics are only beginning to graze. It suggests that when making data, as all human efforts have been reduced to, any hierarchy of taste—the superiority of like over dislike—is a calculable fiction. In a world of monitored clicks, hating art, right down to destroying it, is an act every bit as productive as enjoying it.
Of course, this comes at a time when ill will has perhaps hit its documented peak. One needs to look no further than their favorite comments section to recognize what theater talking shit has become; “I’m just here for the comments,” is just as much the huddle before the inevitable racist, sexist, or otherwise incendiary hike as it is cogito, ergo sum—I think, therefore I am—reformed into a battle axe for multitudes whose chief modes of critical engagement are mediated by publicly-traded companies.
Art has been subjected to this same kind of sport-spectating for the better parts of the past 150 years, and despite greater public scrutiny than ever, today emerges refreshed from the unmoving trenches of the War of You Call That Art? “When people make judgments they close all the possibility around them,” Jeff Koons told The Telegraph in 2012. It should come as no surprise that one of the world’s most reviled, widely misunderstood, and unbearably triumphant artists ever understands this alternative paradigm, what Sean J. Patrick Carney, in a profile of hybrid art-music duo Extreme Animals, calls “the lateralization of culture.” “There’s no hierarchical difference in value or meaning between a John Cage score and a Katy Perry music video,” Carney explains. “Both exist as cultural artifacts, although representing different pockets of culture at large.” Love or hate; thumbs up or thumbs down on YouTube; clicking “like” or sharing with a frown and an “smh” all boil down to an absolute value metric that is worth something to the Koonses, the Trumps, the Zuckerbergs of the world, but not you (after all, you commented, so you’re either just a fan—or hater): Engagement. Attention. Time served, depending on whether you think the panopticon exists already or is long overdue.
At the risk of invoking Godwin’s Law, one art historical example mirrors what we might call the modern hater’s dilemma. With the invocation of the Reich Culture Chamber in 1933, the art the regime hated most was given its very own label. This “degenerate art” was so publicly reviled, such an affront to the National Socialist identity, that it simply had to go on display. Thus, in 1937, over 650 works by Chagall, Kandinsky, Klee, and more than a hundred other “degenerates” were hung askew inside the Institute of Archaeology and subsequently viewed by millions. Had the Reich triumphed, perhaps we’d be living in a world where all art would reflect the consonance of an imaginary master race’s absolute control over nature, and therefore be enjoyed by all. Instead, the works received their greatest audiences possibly to date. Remind you of anyone? Meow!
In a world where the Beckettian promise of a dislike button is actually more like Kafka—a ‘dislike’ is really just another, more refined set of data, anyway—what’s the modern hater to do? This is where the creative genius of Abramovic, Hirst, Koons, Prince, fuck it, Scooter Braun really exists: an aloofness that belies an unstoppably productive, arguably evolutionary ambivalence. Even the highest-up are susceptible to the career-destroying time suck that is “negative” engagement—here’s pointing the finger at you, Kanye—so for a young hater, née artist, publicly frustrated with the success of others, the daily rejection of engaging with personal opinion tactics is perhaps the best strategy for destabilizing that which they truly have a distaste for. Hating gives art power, especially when it comes from a place of ignorance. Luckily, knowledge takes that power back—not least of all, knowing when to keep your mouth shut and curled into a smile.