Readership: A Survey

5.2 / Readership

Readership: A Survey

By Dorothy R. Santos, Felicia Hayes, Marion Cousin December 4, 2013

The roles of the author and reader are undergoing radical shifts as channels of circulation are redefined and reconfigured. A hallmark of our contemporary moment is the self-reflexivity with which we examine or situate texts and by extension, their reading publics. With this in mind, we asked writers, editors, and scholars to define readership as a concept and describe for whom they write. The answers we received ranged from poignant memories of writing for a loved one to thoughts on the criticality of the public through social media. These reflections also provide perspectives on how we might synthesize ideas, concepts, narratives, and histories to catalyze dialogues within and beyond the page or screen.

Accompanying the survey is a portfolio of images from San Francisco–based artist Anthony Discenza's 2010-2011 series of vinyl street signs, courtesy of the artist and Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco.


Define readership in a tweet format (140 characters or less) and then at greater length.

Anthony Discenza. AMBIVALENCE, 2011; vinyl on aluminum; 30 x 24 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco.

Deanne Pytlinski: The community interpreting a text collectively in varied and heterogeneous ways.

Studying the quality and practice of readership allows us to consider readers as communities who share an experience of texts or artworks together, not necessarily in proximity to one another. Since Barthes wrote about reading as active and pleasurable, it allows us to think about this as a critical project. Reading and responding to writing or to artworks allows us to think of this whole enterprise, as critical practice—the conversation, the discourse, remains socially engaged.

Lauren O'Neill-Butler: I don’t tweet so I’m not sure how to respond to this—is it supposed to be quippy?

So, perhaps the better answer is that readership is ephemeral.

Glen Helfand: Engaged eyes on the page or screen, in the best case generating a sense of community and dialogue, however briefly.

That said, the definition of readership seems more elusive and fractured than ever. Pondering that question seems to open up a void, a digital one. It’s quickly scanning eyes or the only thing that kicks into gear when a text gets multiple posts on Facebook. (The request to put this answer in tweet form affirms this idea.) But this readership seems fleeting, coalesced for brief moments. So, perhaps the better answer is that readership is ephemeral.

Michele Carlson: A certain audience who reads and engages with a particular publication or writer’s oeuvre.

Who do you write for? Is there a particular reader you envision while writing? Does this imagined (or actual) person/public change when you address either a print or online audience?

Anthony Discenza. EMBRACE OF THE CINEMATIC, 2010; vinyl on aluminum; 30 x 24 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco.

Deanne Pytlinski: I overthink the whole process of writing, and have a hard time imagining that reader in concrete terms, so that I fear the unknown. If anything, the imagined reader has been a judge sitting on my shoulders whose image I have to shut out if I’m going to get any words down on the page. If I thought of the reader as my friend and colleague, who would respond immediately with enthusiasm, or a student who is eager to hear my perspectives and offer her or his own, I might write more. This might translate to going from a print to an online audience. The process of peer review in traditional formats is inherently intimidating, though I think it’s probably less so than I make it out to be. Although I’ve never written for an online publication, I imagine its readership and formats to be more flexible. 

Since writing about countercultures in the 1970s, I sometimes think of my dad while I write; he wanted to live off the grid during that period and is an avid history junkie. I know if he gets to read my writing, he’ll devour every footnote and relate my research to his own experiences and his personal archive. I should write for him more—he’s a feminist and my advocate. 

If I thought of the reader as my friend and colleague, who would respond immediately with enthusiasm...I might write more.

Lauren O'Neill-Butler: I suppose I write for the other senior and executive editors of Artforum, and nothing changes for me between print and web. The piece is the same for either platform.

Glen Helfand: There’s not a specific reader but a spectrum. My aim in writing is to find ways to have the material have some relevance and entry points for a variety of readers. And of course, I write for myself. The person doesn’t change based on print or web, but the imagined attention span does.

Michele Carlson: On one hand, I write for myself. The upside of a freelance practice is that I have a greater level of autonomy when selecting my subjects. So, to be frank, I write about what I want. I don’t think I’ve ever envisioned a particular reader or public when I write, but that does not mean the presence of an ambiguous public is not nearby. It is most obvious in the constraints and needs of the publication for which I am writing—word count, voice, tone, and so forth. Of course, my editors try hard to not be far from my thoughts.

On the other hand, sometimes there are specific people I think about when I write. My curiosity for writing projects tends to be piqued when I, and/or those around me, have been wrestling with certain topics. Sometimes I write with a person in mind. Most often, I write in response to a landscape of writing and social/cultural representation, or lack thereof. This also seems to happen when some voices are heard more than others.

No, my public doesn’t change when I address either a print or online audience except for the fact that when writing online you can have more direct evidence of having live readership. Shares, comments, and page view stats all give immediate testimony of a tangible and physical engagement with your writing, even if only online. This rarely happens in the same way with print, where you spend more time imagining who is reading your work than knowing for sure.

Where do you perceive the boundaries of your readership to be?

Anthony Discenza. TRANSPORTED, 2010; vinyl on aluminum; 30 x 24 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco.

Deanne Pytlinski: I think of my readership as basically academic or a museum-going audience who is interested in contemporary art. I’m not out to convert a viewer or reader who is dead-set against conceptual, performance, or political art. There are fewer and fewer of those audiences, though, since installation and interactive spectacles have fostered audiences generally friendly to art in an expanded field.

Lauren O'Neill-Butler: Most of the people reading my work (if any!) are probably involved in the art world in some way. So that’s a definite boundary.

My personal ideology as a writer is to have a diverse audience and a wide readership.

Glen Helfand: I’m not entirely sure what you are asking here. If you mean what readers I might not get through to, it would be the large segment of society that is uninterested in contemporary art. In that sense, I am interested in pushing some boundaries.

Michele Carlson: I don’t [perceive readership boundaries]. My personal ideology as a writer is to have a diverse audience and a wide readership. Though my training is in academic writing, I come from a more creative and colloquial writing background. I write for a wide range of publications, from mainstream news outlets to niche/indie publications, and write about a multitude of different topics. Art is one small part of that; I probably write more about artists than art, nowadays, anyhow. I follow hunches, impulses, and interests. I take an explanatory approach to my writing and do the same with my readership.

Is there a text that has changed how you interact with or consider art (either a specific work of art or art in general)?

Anthony Discenza. LIMITS OF POETRY, 2009; vinyl on aluminum; 30 x 24 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco.

Deanne Pytlinski: Amelia Jones wrote on male artists in “Dis/playing the Phallus,” and it was a really powerful model for both identifying myself as a writer, because she talks about being a feminist and wanting to recuperate some of Vito Acconci’s and Duchamp’s work, and for coming to terms with the possibility of artists performing gender in conflicting ways.1 She didn’t resolve anything about their work, just provided new readings, new openings.

Michele Carlson: Art and writing have always been something I do, as a way to engage with the world around me or with other people. It wasn’t until I began to study art in college that [writing] began to be constrained as something that one could consider art. So, yes, there are hundreds of texts that taught me how to conceptually, historically, and theoretically interact with art. These texts gave me a language and landscape in which to engage with art and art making, in thrilling and tedious ways I couldn’t have anticipated. But [no specific text] comes to mind. 

I often think about the care of this gesture and it still influences me to approach art and criticality with a wide scope.

What does come to mind is perhaps more apt for the questions in this survey. While I was growing up, my dad and I used to always read the comic section of the local Seattle newspaper together. In the ’80s, there were two competing daily papers, the Seattle Times and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, or P.I. We were a P.I. family. I’m sure this had some sort of social meaning, but practically it meant our paper came in the morning. This morning ritual of Garfield, Calvin and Hobbs, Doonesbury, Cathy, and 3G (which I remember always disliking) was one of [my first memories of] habitual, critical, and transformative engagement with something someone made. These were the days when printed newspapers were a part of daily life, not just to be read (or pile up unread, as my Sunday New York Times do now). But reading the newspaper was engrained into a daily routine, and then the leftover paper was integrated into everyday life in unexpected ways: to protect your table from finger paints, to pack a shipping box, to clean up dog mess, [to make] book covers, and so on. 

My dad saves the funnies all year long so that he can use them for wrapping paper. It is his signature under the Christmas tree or in a stack of birthday presents. He doesn’t even have to sign his name; everyone knows it’s from him. This is one of my earliest remembrances of text that made me understand that art is an engagement. It starts off in the world as something and then its meaning changes over time. It can be misunderstood, misused, or misinterpreted, but it is being critically engaged with and offers evidence of simple transformation that may or may not take itself so seriously. And sometimes it does, as my dad still painstakingly curates a year’s worth of comics every holiday season for each member of the family, with a keenly critical eye. 

I often think about the care of this gesture and it still influences me to approach art and criticality with a wide scope. 

Has the capacity for commenting affected or changed how you write for an online audience?

Anthony Discenza. LONG TIME AGO, 2010; vinyl on aluminum; 30 x 24 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco.

Glen Helfand: Comment functions on websites are wonderful in theory but are incredibly problematic. As with many aspects of digital communications, the capacity for irresponsibility and/or insensitivity tends to outweigh thoughtful or productive dialogue. It doesn’t seem to be the place where the conversation that we dream about actually happens.

Michele Carlson: No. My job is to be critical, and I write all my pieces knowing the work goes into the world from this perspective. I hope that my readers would equally engage with my text with a critical eye. In my experience, criticism at its best is a space where converging thoughts and perspectives can collide in a discourse that might generate something in the world besides criticality. How does this happen if we hide from our readership, readers, and audience?

Commenting is simply dialogue around what a writer puts out into the world. Not every comment is productive, approving, on point, or demonstrates any understanding of your work, but neither were [comments] when we lived in a print-only world. Comments now just come much faster and writers have a greater chance to feel confronted with their non-imagined public’s opinion of their work. And isn’t this the point? At its best, commenting allows the writer to engage in a critical conversation with a public that is actual, present, and responding to them. This is readership.

Anthony Discenza. END IN TEARS, 2010; vinyl on aluminum; 30 x 24 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco.


Deanne Pytlinski is an associate professor of art history, theory, and criticism and the assistant chair of the department of art at Metropolitan State University of Denver. Her doctorate is from the Graduate Center of City University of New York, where she wrote a dissertation entitled “Utopian Visions: Women and Early Video Art.” Her essay, “San Francisco Video Collectives and the Counterculture” has appeared in the anthology West of Center: Art and the Counterculture Experiment in America, 1965–1977, published by University of Minnesota Press. She recently curated a group exhibition entitled Craft Tech/Coded Media: Women, Art & Technology at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art.

Lauren O’Neill-Butler’s criticism and nonfiction have appeared in publications ranging from Art Journal to Bitch. The managing editor of the online Artforum, she has also been a regular contributor to Artforum since 2007. She has penned catalog essays on Jo Baer, Nancy Spero, Polly Apfelbaum, and Ellie Ga. Recent collaborations with writers and artists can be found here and here. She is currently a visiting assistant professor at Hunter College and has previously taught courses at the Rhode Island School of Design and the School of Visual Arts. She has also been a visiting critic at Yale University, the University of Chicago, the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, and Parsons The New School for Design.

Glen Helfand is an independent writer, critic, curator, and educator. His writing has appeared in Artforum and on its online version, and he has contributed to the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the website Art Info, and many other periodicals and exhibition catalogs. He is a senior adjunct professor at California College of the Arts, where he teaches courses on contemporary art. He also teaches in the graduate and undergraduate art programs at Mills College and at the San Francisco Art Institute, where he organizes the Visiting Artists and Scholars lecture series. He has curated exhibitions for the De Young Museum, San Francisco; the San Jose Museum of Art; the Pasadena Museum of California Art, Pasadena; Rena Bransten Gallery, San Francisco; Dust Gallery, Las Vegas; and the Mills College Art Museum, Oakland. His most recent curatorial projects include Temporary Structures, at the Walter and McBean Galleries, San Francisco Art Institute; and Fabricators, a collaboration with Creativity Explored, at Jack Fischer Gallery, San Francisco. He organized a three-part exhibition titled Proximities for the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, with iterations on view from May 2013 through February 2014.

Anthony Discenza received his Masters in Film and Video from California College of the Arts and his Bachelors in Studio Art from Wesleyan University. His work is directed by a preoccupation with interrupting the flow of information in various formats.  While his work has been primarily video-based, it has also taken the form of other mediums such as text, imagery, and computer generated sound. His work has been presented widely around the United States and globally, including with the San Francisco Arts Commission, the United Nations Pavilion in Shanghai, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Australian Center for the Moving Image, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Getty Center and the University of California Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive. His work has garnered critical acclaim in Artforum, Artweek, and ArtReview, among other publications. 

Michele Carlson is a practicing artist, writer, educator, and curator whose interdisciplinary research investigates the intersections of history, memory, loss, race, and popular culture. Carlson was born in Seoul, Korea, but grew up in Seattle, Washington, and attended the University of Washington, where she received a BFA in printmaking and BAs in interdisciplinary visual arts and history. After her undergraduate work, she moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, where she completed an MFA in printmaking and MA in visual and critical studies from the California College of the Arts. Both her critical and creative writings have been published in numerous publications including Art in America, Art Practical, Afterimage, and various exhibition catalogs. She is a regular contributor to KQED, for which she writes about art and digital culture. 


  1. Amelia Jones, “Dis/playing the Phallus: Male Artists Perform Their Masculinities,” Art History, 17, 4 (1994).

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