Monday, November 05, 2007

amusing myself to death

As you all may or may not know, this month's Art in America contains a roundtable discussion lead by art critic Peter Plagens and featuring some top tier art bloggers. The topic, naturally, is art blogging itself. I haven't read it yet, although I picked up a copy at the newstand yesterday. (I've allowed all my art magazine subscriptions to lapse, mainly from lack of interest). Although not selected for the piece, Kriston Capps over at Grammar.police has taken it upon himself to answer the questions himself. He also challenged "a few select bloggers" to do the same. Kindly enough, he chose me. So here it goes.

What's the purpose of your blog?

I use it to put together thoughts, mostly informal, about the visual arts and other miscellaneous subjects. My focus is on things that I like. I do this for my own sake, as a record, and for the sake of anyone else who might be interested. I also use it to bring together things from elsewhere on the Internet, some of them created by myself. I'm not much of a media pundit, though; I prefer to write about things I've seen with my own eyes.

What are the boundaries of your blog?

I write about what I feel like writing about, which changes. There aren't really any formal constraints. I don't go into much detail about my personal life, although I'm not particularly consistent on this. Mostly, it's about visual art, which is what I feel most competent to write about.

Tyler has cited Joy Garnett's NewsGrist blog as doing a great job of "placing art within a sociocultural and political context." What I see on NewsGrist is a magazinelike interspersing of short profiles, exhibition reviews, op-ed pieces on how other people are covering things, and Village Voice–like political takes. But what does Tyler's comment mean to you, and why are blogs in general better positioned than print to do what he describes?

I think blogs are better suited to explaining the micro-level context: what goes on at a street-level, what goes on in small galleries and artist's studios, what goes on in obscure parts of the world. Bloggers can be found in places where the mainstream media fears to tread (often with good reason). As for the national and international level, I don't know that blogs have any particular advantage. Certainly Tyler does a fine job over at Modern Art Notes, but it seems to me that he could do most of what her does online in print. No doubt there are political issues with working in big journalism, but it ought to be possible, in theory, to work around them. Of course, I can't speak from personal experience here.

Why can't blogs go further, to the point where there's hardly any discernible difference between artist and critic/commentator, blog and work of art?

They can, in theory at least. Certainly, these boundaries are being blurred, to a greater or lesser extent. But the differences will persist, because many people in our society continue to find them valuable, myself included.

What scope and degree of editorial control do you exercise over your blog?

Aside from reader comments, total control.

What about posting comments from readers, and what about anonymity?

I don't have an active culture of regular commenters. Certainly, I would welcome it. Anonymity is acceptable, although I've seen it abused on other blogs. In a sense, anonymity is the basic condition of people on the internet. Anything more is a privilege. Even with people that I think of as blog "friends", my actual familiarity is quite limited. I know almost none of them in real life.

What's "trolling," and why don't some of you allow it?

A troll is somebody who comments on an online forum (be it a blog or whatever) with flagrantly anti-social intent. They stir up trouble for the sake of stirring up trouble. People disallow it for the same reasons they would disallow such behavior in "real life" situations. It hasn't been a problem for me, since I get very few comments anyway.

Is trolling really so easily identified and universally bad? Is having posters register a solution?

Yes to the first two questions and a probable no to the third one. It might work, but unfortunately, most comment welcoming bloggers would find it to cumbersome. It impedes any lively back and forth and it creates unnecessary work for the blogger.

What about liability coverage?


What's the economic model of your blog?

It's part of a gift economy. Having found other blogs (art related and otherwise) to be interesting and informative, I feel motivated to give something back in return, no matter how small. I do so to the extent that my time and motivation allow. It costs me basically no money and I make none in return.

That said, my blog has lead me to a fairly regular paying gig writing reviews for my local weekly paper, the Ithaca Times. I welcome further paying opportunities, although I haven't been seeking them out actively.

How do you see your blog's relation to the established print art media?

One useful thing about blogs is that they can act as an intermediary between the media establishment and the informal chatter of artists, critics, gallerists, and others. But this leads to confusion and distrust from both sides. The former group accuses blogs of being too chatty, too subjective, or too informal. There are accusations—not without basis—to the effect that blogs merely feed off of and recycle the original work of trained traditional journalists. The latter group sometimes sees art blogs as being too stuffy, too aridly intellectual, or too disengaged from worldy concerns. There is truth there as well.

To me though, there is something exciting about a network that has the potential connect big-name gallerists and art critics with the struggling artist next door. Perhaps this is just my youthful idealism (which is now beginning to fade).

As for my own blog, the situation is a bit confusing for me, since I started it before beginning art-reviewing work for an established print publication. There is a marked conflict between my original and enduring impulse to write as an amateur and my newfound sense that I should be respectable and write as a representative of an organization. I have staid mostly in the formal role, perhaps because my lack of formal journalistic qualifications.

Tyler and Regina, what's the relationship between your blogging and your work in the print media?

I can answer this as well. My work for the Times has been mostly limited to reviews of art exhibits. My blog lets me write about other things: about books and music, about my social and cultural environment, and about my personal life, for example. It allows me as well to write about art in ways that avoid black and white judgments—this is good and that is bad. Obviously, it allows me to converse with people, which the paper does not.

How do you attract readers/posters other than by word of mouth?

Posting smart comments to other people's blogs is a typical way of getting attention. If people like what you have to say, they might follow the link back to your site. Certainly this strategy is ripe for abuse. There are a lot of "hey look at me" type comments, which are generally frowned upon.

In general, is blog art criticism more open and liberal, and print criticism more closed and conservative?

I'm not sure I get the drift of this question. Art criticism isn't like partisan politics, or at least it doesn't have to be. From what I can tell, there is a wider range of positions and writing styles online than in print. This isn't necessarily a good thing; it takes some work filtering the relevant from the irrelevant.

Some people say that there's a dearth of art criticism at length on blogs. Is this true? If so, does it have more to do with reading on a computer in general, or with art criticism in particular?

It appears to be true, although there are no doubt exceptions out there. I re-post my Times pieces on my blog but otherwise write full-length reviews only sporadically. When you are able to get paid for doing something, the motivation to do it for free tends to disappear. The paper reviews aren't that long, either: no more than 800 words. They are however more formal and thought out than most of what I blog.

This dearth has nothing whatsoever to do with computers or the Internet. It has to do with blogs where the pressure is to produce a steady flow of material and to keep it topical. There are magazine-type art publications online that appear on a regular and typically less-frequent basis. These can provide plenty of full-scale art criticism. For example, there is the Boston-based Big Red & Shiny, for which I have written myself.

Art magazines come out once a month. Newspaper art reviews usually appear once a week. Blogs appear more or less daily, and sometimes have updates by the hour. Do you think that the faster pace of blogs will start to affect the pace of art-making.

It is conceivable, although probably only for people who blog and make art, both an regular basis (something I have yet to manage myself). There are plenty of pure artist's blogs out there, ones about the writer's art and little or nothing else. There is a pressure to present readers with new work constantly, which might encourage prolificness, for better or for worse.

Tyler just said that there's more good art being made by more artists in more places than at any time in history. Is this true? And if so, what's the reason?

This seems likely, given the increasing number of artists. To know for sure would require both the aesthete's sensibility and the social scientist's commitment to hard empirical facts. Needless to say, this is a difficult combination to come by.

Do blogs help correct the geographical bias in print art criticism, i.e., the tendency to think that most of the important stuff happens in New York or Los Angeles, and the difficulty of art outside those places to get national attention?

Yes. As I like to remind my readers, I live in Ithaca, New York, a small Upstate college town. Although not a hotbed of artistic activity by most standards, the community does have more than its fair share of talented artists. I believe that I have made some modest progress in giving them wider exposure, although probably more as a curiosity than anything else. I think that this goal requires me to play more of a cheerleader role than might be appropriate for a larger scene. Still, I try to cheerlead only for those artists and groups that I believe deserve it.

More generally, I think its great that you can find out what is going on anywhere (although of course language barriers inhibit a truly world-wide scope). The fact that most visual art is tied to direct encounters with physical objects does act as a limitation though. If you have never seen an artist's work it person, that limits the relevance of writing on that work. I sometimes worry about this, about the fact that many of my readers don't have this direct link. This makes blogging about paintings and sculptures importantly different from blogging about (for example) books, where everybody has access basically to the same material.

One index of a city's gravity as an art center is young artists—perhaps recent MFAs—from elsewhere coming to set up shop. Is that happening in Philadelphia and Portland?

In Ithaca? No, not it any significant numbers, although I do know some people.

Is there any constructively negative edge to your blogging and, if so, what is it?

Not as much as I'd like. I think my relative isolation—both geographical and Net-wise—makes it harder and less rewarding. I have my enemies or would be enemies, but there isn't the sense that other people would care much if I lashed out at them. So things are pretty friendly, for the most part.

Let's throw something back into the mix: naked human ambition. Unknown bloggers want to be little bloggers; little bloggers want to be bigger bloggers; and bigger bloggers want to be called, as is Tyler's Modern Art Notes, "the most influential of all the visual-arts blogs" by the Wall Street Journal.

Yes, of course. Vanity does play a major role, especially since most of us are doing this for free.

Where will your blog be in three to five years?

If I'm still doing it—which I'd like to be—I imagine that it would still have the same basic character. I hope for change in terms of numbers: more frequent posting, longer posts, more readers and more comments.



Anonymous Steve Durbin said...


Nice responses, more thoughtful and informed than mine at Art and Perception. Though it's interesting how similar our takes on the subject are, given the different nature of the two blogs. Of course, you played a significant role at A&P when posting there, so your legacy lives on.

I especially liked your comment about blogs being better at the micro-level. True by default, I guess, since there is little other coverage of the micro-level. I wonder if the political-democratic and economic-theoretical idea that the macro-level is an aggregation from the micro-level really holds here.

12:35 AM  
Blogger arthur said...

Thanks, and I'll take a closer look at the discussion at A&P.

As for levels (I seem to be using that much hated metaphor again), I tend to think the blog advantage isn't just by default. Looking at the kind of discussion that goes on at A&P, for example, it just isn't news. By journalistic standards, its mostly chatter. MAN, on the other hand, is all about the news. (This bias is also reflected in the sidebar to some extent.) While its an impressive piece of work, it doesn't really have a classic blog feel. Its informative but somewhat cold. Tyler Green, of course, is a trained journalist. Not that I want to police anything, just to point out differences between the professional and the grass-roots.

12:18 PM  
Blogger arthur said...

Kriston's site has something of the best of both worlds.

12:33 PM  
Anonymous Steve Durbin said...

Quite right, news is not at all what A&P is about. Blogs have a wider variety than print media, because there are fewer constraints. That's why I thought it was worth doing the survey, to highlight that variety.

7:02 PM  

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