In “Contemporary Art, Uncovered,” Peter Plagens wrote about the decline in visual arts coverage in the popular press (Art in America February 2007). As a follow up to that article, Plagens asked five prominent bloggers to participate in a discussion about the growing presence of art writing online. The ensuing article (“The New Grass Roots,” Art in America, November 2007) provides interesting insights. The article isn’t available online, so I’ve summarized some of the key points.
The five bloggers interviewed and their blogs: Regina Hackett (Art to Go), Tyler Green (Modern Art Notes), Jeff Jahn (PORT), Roberta Fallon and Libby Rosof (artblog), and Edward Winkleman (edward_ winkleman).
Plagens asked the bloggers to participate in an email roundtable discussion, with everybody privy to their responses, and Plagens editing the responses into an article. Here’s my summary of some of the important points:
- The bloggers surveyed had been blogging between one and six years, and reported monthly hits in a range from 18,000 to 90,000. RF/LR claim the average hitter stays with their site for six minutes.
- Online blogs offer the author an independent venue not under someone else’s editorial control, providing the opportunity to reach out to a large audience. This independence allows the author to write about topics and artists that might not be covered in the traditional print media. According to RH, “Blogs offer an alternative to the usual power structure of art criticism.” “We don’t see what we want to read, so we create it.”-TG
- According to JJ: “Nobody should really be surprised that a grass roots arts-writing militia has emerged.”
- For most of the bloggers interviewed, their purpose in blogging is simple: communication (although EW is candid in stating his blog is a marketing tool for the art gallery). RF/LR highlight the “democratic spirit of blogs, which are about clarifying and communicating.
- What the blogs communicate isn’t so well defined: art, culture, visual art, and architecture. There was some discussion as to whether art criticism can exist on blogs, with their short texts and limitations on reading online. According to RH, “The best art criticism on blogs hasn’t yet been written.”
- Several bloggers indicated that their blogs are not better positioned than print media to write about art. However, blogs do have something unique to offer, including the immediacy of their content and links. JJ opines that art blogs may have a real role to play in filling the gap in arts education and writing left when traditional cultural institutions confuse their missions with those of entertainment venues.
- Most blogs allowed reader comments, highlighting the democratic nature of the medium and the potential for real dialogue with an art audience, while recognizing that comments may not be informed nor intelligent.
JJ: “…the comment sections of most blogs, with their mob mentality, don’t seem to attract informed opinions. Many of the most influential blogs no longer solicit comments because they lower the level of discussion.”
Here are some detailed responses to specific questions asked by Plagens:
What’s the purpose of your blog?
RH: “In a blog, instead of the old critical monologue, there’s the potential for real dialogue with an art audience […] Eventually, online criticism is going to bury anything in print…because of its interactive and transparent qualities.”
JJ: “…more informed and in-depth criticism. We are insiders to the scene, not spectators like some journalists are, so we don’t get fazed by the money or ideas that get flashed around.”
TG: “The purpose of [MAN] is to write critically about art and art institutions, to break news when possible, [and] to fill the gaps in the media landscape…”
RF/LR: “…our mission was to write about everything and especially to highlight those under-covered areas such as young art, minority art, edgy art. As populists, we saw the blog as art activism. Writing the blog is a political act—an end run around the print powers that be. We’re philanthropists, dedicating our labor to a worthy cause: the need of young artists to get reviews, feedback, and put them on the map.”
EW: “It’s a marketing tool for the gallery.”
Why are blogs better positioned than print to “write critically about art and art institutions, to break news when possible, [and] to fill the gaps in the media landscape…”?
RF/LR: “Newspapers have a history of [art] activism. Newspapers enjoy institutionalized power and art blogs do not.”
RH: “Blogs aren’t necessarily better positioned than print to expand the context.”
JJ: “Blogs can provide gut reactions while the guts are still reacting, so they’re great for sussing out developing stories. Still, there are some dangers in this approach, as the comments sections of most blogs, with their mob mentality, don’t seem to attract informed opinions.”
EW: “In a word, links. Blogs are much faster distributors of information and opinion because of them.”
What scope and degree of editorial control do you exercise over your blog?
TG: “I have complete editorial control…”
EW: “I have editorial control over the content.”
JJ: “I provide advice and on very rare occasions put my foot down.”
RF/LR: “We delete off-the-wall and anonymous nasty comments, and when contributors write for us, we exercise editorial control by asking for rewrites or clarifications. The main editorial check is from our readers, who occasionally write in to correct us.”
RH: “Topics are chosen by me and written in the way I want to present them.”
What about posting comments from readers, and what about anonymity?
RH: “I post every response, both those that come in anonymously and those that are signed.”
TG: “I very rarely post reader responses.”
JJ: “Commenters can be anonymous to the rest of the world…we do remove comments, and we reserve the right to ban people when called for.”
Let’s summarize some of the important points:
• Blogs offer a vehicle for the independent voice.
• The traditional print media are not providing adequate coverage of the arts.
• “A grass roots arts-writing militia has emerged.”
• Blogs may not be the proper venue for the critical voice.
• Blogs written by “those in the know” can provide detailed insider information.
• Blogs offer something the print media can’t provide: immediacy and linkages.
• While there is the potential for real dialogue, the democratic nature of the blogosphere may not be conducive to intelligent discussion.
The picture these experienced art bloggers paint is of a blogosphere that hasn’t yet fulfilled its promise. History provides a corresponding parallel. The late 19th century saw the development of new printing technology, inexpensive paper, and enhanced transportation modes (the railways!) that encouraged an explosion in newspaper and magazine publication. At the time there was great concern as to the source and quality of the published word. Eventually the market responded and numerous periodicals ceased publication.
Even so the blogosphere has reduced entry barriers, publication and distribution costs, encouraging the proliferation of that new online publication: the blog. The blogosphere offers even greater potential than the written word for the free flow of information and the “flattening” of the world. And raises further questions concerning the source and quality of information.
There will always be a demand for cultural information, a need that can be filled by art blogs. The consumer will continue to pay for that information, only now the currency is his or her precious time and attention.
• The demand for cultural information will continue to grow. Art blogs will continue to address this need.
• The free flow of cultural information will become global in scope. The sheer volume of information will encourage specialization and fragmentation.
• Bloggers will coordinate and cooperate, forming clusters around areas of common interest, and blog alliances.
• The pace of new blog creation will slow. Currently half of all new blogs cease posting after three months.
• Market forces will cause many established blogs to cease posting as consumers flock to blogs providing quality information.
• The ease of information distribution and immediacy of hyperlinks will challenge the established art hierarchy of galleries and museums. The art hierarchy will embrace the new technology, responding with its most powerful attributes: information, knowledge, and (dare I say it?) wisdom.
• The global distribution of information and knowledge over the Internet will continue to benefit the world community.