Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Blog as an Extended Artist Statement

“What, exactly, is a blog? This question is our contemporary moment’s shibboleth.”—Jonathan T.D. Neil, Sotheby’s, Los Angeles

Yesterday, I spoke on a panel at the South Atlantic Modern Language Association conference in Atlanta, Georgia, called Making Feminist Meanings Across Worlds: Print, Digital, and Networked Feminisms and Women’s Studies. The following is a shortened version of my paper, “The Blog as an Extended Artist Statement.”

Renowned art critic Jerry Saltz says, “You may think your work is about daffodils; I think it’s about scrambled eggs” (1). As a feminist artist, I don’t want to risk this type of misinterpretation, so I rely on language to supplement my art practice. Many artists feel that a one-page artist statement will suffice to explain their work, but to play it safe, I’ve written Artist In Transit, an 85,000-word blog.

Karen Evans writes that in the mid-90s, theorists were generally hopeful about the digital age. They perceived it as a place where traditional communities could be “superseded by open, democratic placeless cyberspaces in which equalities of wealth, class, gender and ethnicity had no purpose” (2). A few years later, blogs appeared, and took on this challenge.

In May 2009, the same month I started my blog, the power of social media to spur social activism was underscored when a blog by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was censored, removing three years’ worth of posts critiquing the government. He was later held in police custody for 81 days, arguably related to his activism. Going back to 2009, feminist art blogging was uneven: that year, Mira Schor lamented that the contributors lacked commitment, professionalism, and accountability (3). My goal was to be an exception, especially because I intended the blog to be a tool for tenure consideration as an academic art librarian. In my presentation, I spoke not from the perspective of a librarian but from the perspective of a feminist artist, touching on the capacity for blogs to promote art and art criticism, to spur new art ideas, and to encourage networking within the real and virtual art world. “An artist’s statement….gives you validation [and] visibility,” (4) and I feel that blogs can function in a similar way.

Before exploring these topics, I started with the basics: What is a blog? What is an artist statement? Jonathan T.D. Neil, Sotheby’s Director in Los Angeles, writes, “‘What, exactly, is a blog? This question is our contemporary moment’s shibboleth.” (5) Perhaps an easier definition to start with, then, is that of the artist statement. Definitions of the term ‘artist statement’ are plentiful and varied, but I particularly like this one by curator and art historian G. James Daichendt: “Usually a testimony of the interests, background and goals of the artist, this document explains, justifies, or contextualizes the work of the artist…The best artist statements prepare viewers to enter and engage the work.” (6) When I started my blog, I set out to capture elements that studio professor Deborah A. Rockman associates with artist statements, namely the sources of art ideas, ranging from favourite artists to influential books and articles (7).

Artist statements resemble blogs in several ways, making for a reasonable comparison: art critic Edward Sozanski notes that artist statements reveal the psychology and personality of the artist (8) and curator Lydia Yee feels that artist statements are “an opportunity to tell a story” (9). The story I planned to tell with my blog was how my art ideas developed. Initially, to borrow the phrasing that came out of a study at Rutgers University, I was more of a ‘meformer’ than an ‘informer’ (10). As the scope of the blog broadened to include art criticism of shows relating to my own work, it became something of a feminist soapbox.

The challenge in writing about gallery shows is that as artist Kate Britton says, “social media and networked culture has rendered everyone a critic” (11). Experts waver on whether a blog is a legitimate venue for art criticism and artistic expression. However, the two artists mentioned earlier are indicative of the credibility of blogs: in 2010, Mira Schor received a Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant to develop a blog for a year about her art as a counterpart to her latest book, and in 2011, Ai Weiwei's translated posts were released as a book and endorsed by curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist and by the directors of the Tate Modern (Chris Dercon) and Yale University Art Gallery (Jock Reynolds). My hope is that if I can write well-considered, thorough reviews, people will give my studio work a chance. Although personally, I find that blogging distracts me from creating art, I do believe there’s merit in the strategy undertaken by senior artist Denise Green; long before the 2.0 era, she began writing about art to establish credibility in an art world divided by gender (12).

The blog is a way to motivate myself to keep on top of what’s happening farther afield, but it’s also a way to let outsiders know what’s happening in North Bay’s small but vibrant arts community. I described some of the unanticipated connections I’ve made locally as a result of the blog. These experiences demonstrate the importance of keeping the ‘meformer’ impulse in check, and demonstrate what Hrag Vartanian, editor of the arts blogazine, Hyperallergic, says: “The online world is as much about giving back as it is getting. And if you think you’re going to put something out there because you want it back immediately, then you are not going to get it back. But if you help people online…you’re going to get it back tenfold” (13).

Sources:

(1) Qtd. by Wojak, Angie and Miller, Stacy. Starting Your Career as an Artist. New York: Allworth Press, 2011, 18. Print.
(2) Evans, Karen. “Re-thinking Community in the Digital Age?” Digital Sociology: Critical Perspectives. Eds. Kate Orton-Johnson and Nick Prior New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. 79-89, 82. Print.
(3) Schor, Mira, A Decade of Negative Thinking. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009. Print.
(4) Wojak and Miller, 131.
(5) Neil, Jonathan T.D. “Can I get a Witness?” Art Review, Oct. 2011, 139. Web. 1 Aug. 2013.
(6) Daichendt, G. James. Artist Scholar: Reflections on Writing and Research. Bristol, UK: Intellect Ltd., 2012, chapter 4. Web. 1 Aug. 2013.
(7) Rockman, Deborah A. The Art of Teaching Art: A Guide for Teaching and Learning the Foundations of Drawing-based Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000, 131. Web. 1 Aug. 2013.
(8) Qtd. by Grant, Daniel. The Business of Being an Artist. 3rd ed. New York: Allworth Press, 2000. Web. 1 Aug. 2013.
(9) Nieves, Marysol, ed. Taking Aim! 1st ed. Bronx, NY: Fordham University Press, 2011. Print.
(10) Naaman, Mor, Boase, Jeffrey and Lai, Chih-Hui. “Is it really about me? Message content in social awareness streams.” CSCW ‘10. February 2010: 189-192. Web. 1 Aug. 2013.
(11) Britton, Kate. “Social Media in Contemporary Art.” Das Platforms Emerging & Contemporary Art, 21, 2011. Web. Aug. 17, 2013.
(12) Green, Denise. Denise Green: An Artist’s Odyssey. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2012. Print.
(13) Nieves, 229.

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