Gangs of New York
“Don’t talk, paint. If you can express what you want in words you should be a writer or poet, not an artist.” This was one of the slogans frequently repeated by faculty members in the art department where I studied during the late seventies. Somehow this vestigial wisdom spread from the kingdom of macho existentialism on East 10th Street to generations of academic artists whose only contact with the “real art world” was a monthly dose of highbrow “critical theory” indoctrination and gossip from East Coast publications like ARTFORUM, Art in America, and Art News. With exhibition opportunities limited to faculty shows every other year, and the chance of making a sale slim to nil, life in the American hinterlands during this period wasn’t easy for artist wannabes toiling in the vineyards of higher education. This situation created a conflicted sensibility: on the one hand, these academic artists relied on writers to tell them what was happening in places like New York and Los Angeles while, on the other, they were dismissive of writers for not being practicing artists. Still, I’m inclined to think that their pedantics were a self-serving device designed to keep students in a repressed state, as idiot-savants in a goofball utopia unable to communicate in writing and biased against anyone who did. Critics were seen as energy vampires, sucking their sustenance from the creative juices embedded within authentic art objects and spewing out a perverted literary facsimile that diminished the actual viewing experience. In short, when I landed in New York and began to establish my own artistic practice, I was lugging a Buick-sized chip on my shoulder
At a well-attended panel discussion about Clement Greenberg organized by David Cohen a few years ago at the Elizabeth Harris Gallery, Geoffrey Dorfman recounted the tale of Arshile Gorky’s confrontation with Greenberg. It seems Greenberg had recently reviewed Gorky’s 1945 show at the Julien Levy Gallery and the review implied a suspicion that, because of his stylistic loyalty to Picasso and Miro, Gorky “…lacked independence and masculinity of character.” When they met in the street after a group discussion, Gorky challenged Greenberg to draw a simple portrait, reasoning that before a critic could be taken seriously they should at least have a minimal level of expertise. Of course Greenberg copped out, knowing he couldn’t hold a candle to Gorky’s legendary facility as a draftsman, and though known as a brawler himself, perhaps he was a bit intimidated by Gorky’s strapping physique. Eventually Greenberg changed his opinion and admitted Gorky to his pantheon of art stars. By that time the accolades were delivered posthumously. Though this account may be apocryphal, it illustrates the energy that made for such scintillating criticism in the forties, fifties, and sixties. The art world was divided into two camps and critical diatribes were delivered like pot shots over trench berms. The “Jets” were headed up by Harold Rosenberg and Thomas B. Hess and the “New York School,” while the “Sharks” were made up of the “Greenbergian formalists”. Young conscripts were enlisted on each side; girlfriends, boyfriends, acolytes, and favorites of either team were fair game for attack. Somewhere the fun went out of the game. Nowadays we’re way too “civilized” to indulge in anything that might rock the art market boat or rattle the windows of the bureaucracy. Perhaps things are just too pluralistic for any kind of “critical mass”. Despite Sandler’s complaint about the diminished prestige of today’s art critics, I’ve personally seen the directorial staffs of New York’s finest galleries snap to obsequious attention when an influential critic drops in for an opening (certainly not me). Current valuations for a gushing review from one of New York’s top five critics are rumored to be worth in the neighborhood of $50,000 in sales and a lifelong boost that will be recycled on résumés even after the cold fingers of death try to snatch it away. The prestige of said critic is usually measured by circulation numbers, targeted audience (upscale trumps hip), and ad revenues generated by their publications. All too often I hear art world types mouthing rehashed views of the two or three hot-shot critics they read. Even though they haven’t bothered visiting the shows, they seem to think talking about the critics’ views is important to dinner-party conversation and God forbid you should confront one of the big three or four critics with an opinion in variance with the current thinking.
Maybe it’s time to stop being afraid, start challenging the status quo and ask the critics if they could draw a portrait, paint a hand, make a video or do a performance. Heck, it’s even been suggested that we turn over art critics, many of whom have been pontificating for over thirty years, as regularly as they turn over artists. Maybe we should have a critical petting zoo and allow young artists to get up close and personal with the big-time critics. Of course they’d have to be hobbled and muzzled so the newbies realize they have nothing to be afraid of.
Today, instead of a cultural crisis, we’re facing a paradigm shift. Thanks to the Internet, the monopoly of the elites and the publishing empires they represent are crumbling, and if the blinders imposed by the powers that be haven’t yet been pried off, they have at least, for the moment, been bent back. If you don’t believe in democracy, this is a problem. If you do, then this is could be the dawning of a new golden age. Anyone who visits websites like artnet.com, artforum.com, or our own brooklynrail.org, is aware of the vast amount of valuable content on the net. Within the past few years individual art bloggers have appeared. As a confirmed contrarian, committed to opposing any structure whatsoever, the idea of a venue where the only limitations are an individual’s intellect, energy, and time is very appealing. Though the list of people writing and creating forums for discussions in cyberspace is long, indeed very long, for the purposes of this article I interviewed three who have made unique innovations.
As you might assume from the name, Paintersnyc is a blog which concentrates on painting. That’s what brought it to my attention about a year ago, after reading about it at artnet.com. Log-ins can leave comments on the posted paintings de jour in a free-form critique not unlike what might have occurred at the local artists’ bar a decade or two ago. Thus far Paintersnyc has posted 391 works with some artists repeated. It’s run by a young Greenpoint-based artist who’s racked up a track record that includes several group shows and a solo exhibition with a hot young gallery that has recently pulled up stakes in Williamsburg for the big time in Manhattan. Painterpaparazzi (to maintain her anonymity here, she’s chosen to use her blog moniker) joined the blogosphere almost by accident in November 2005. “I didn’t get the idea originally. I didn’t even know what a blog was until someone told me to look at Nicole Eisenman’s “A Blog Called Nowhere.” Then I signed up to get a blog. I had a group of photos of friends’ works that I started uploading just to see how they would look together. I didn’t think there would be much of an audience but people started showing up. No one commented at first. Someone might ask a question like ‘where can I see this painting?’ Then a couple of people with blogs came and started posting comments and connecting it with other blogs and then everybody started showing up and leaving comments.” With that, Paintersnyc took off. Now, with an average of 1,500 views a day and about 40 comments, painterpaparazzi has seen the blog take on an independent character at odds with some of her original intents. “Things have changed considerably. For the first two months I participated a lot, posting comments and trying to lead the conversation. There are no personal comments allowed, if they show up they’re deleted. At first I wanted to show the paintings of people who were working in New York, then it was people who showed in New York. Now I just pick what I think is best and most interesting. There are so many comments posted these days that I can’t even read everything, I just scan it.”
With a project like Paintersnyc there’s always a danger that it might take over your life and detract from studio time. Painterpaparazzi has had some doubts, “I feel like I’ve learned a lot about other painters, but sometimes I don’t want to look anymore. It’s hard to look at and search out paintings all the time when you’re a painter yourself.” It was the critical aspect of Paintersnyc that intrigued me. Here was a blog where anyone could be a critic, and your value was based on the merit of your argument and its relevance to the work. “I don’t think of the posters as critics,” said painterpaparazzi, “It’s good that people correspond but they don’t have to be professionals. You have to realize that you’re looking at a blog, not an art publication. Some of the contributors are just as smart or insightful as the critics, but mixed in you might have someone writing about last night’s dinner.” When asked about the future of art blogs, painterpaparazzi was less sanguine. “I’ve created a forum, and I hope it’s a positive service. I don’t have an agenda, it’s not about me, but sometimes I worry. The blog format is flawed, and the anonymous nature of posts a problem. I think it might evolve into something like TMZ.com, a celebrity stocking site, or perezhilton.com, where they just deal with celebrities.” Perhaps art world blogging will morph into just another version of B-grade Hollywood celeb watching.
As honorees at the recent Nurture Art benefit at Chelsea’s CUE Art Foundation, James Wagner and Barry Hoggard have become legendary with young and under-recognized artists and upstart galleries in both Chelsea and Williamsburg. With a pair of the longest-lived art blogs in the New York community, jameswagner.com, and bloggy.com, as well as the listings site, artcal.net, James and Barry have trekked to and reported on darn near every new and emerging space in town. As true enthusiasts with extraordinary eyes for quality, and daring confidence as collectors, they are pioneers in the arts blogosphere. James explained the beginnings of jameswagner.com, “It started after 9/11. We were feeling overwhelmed by what was happening and I began to send out e-mails to friends trying to express our distress. Barry set up a blog site for me without images. A lot of it was political, but we were also interested in emerging art, performance, and music. As it progressed we became more discouraged with the ineffectual nature of our political activism and so we began to concentrate more on the arts, though we still comment on politics. Since we both had digital cameras it was natural for us to begin to add photos. which has become very important.”
Because they’ve come to their appreciation of art without benefit of formal art educations, both Barry and James feel that their critical stance is more akin to fandom, so there’s an aspect of friendly documentation that informs their blogging. “I think what we do is important for small galleries. Sometimes we’re the only people who write about these unseen artists. Occasionally we’ll go into galleries and see copies of entries from our blogs on the reception desks. We’ve had artists tell us that they were noticed and invited into other shows because of our little blogs. It’s exciting to be able to help those artists,” mused Barry. James added, “I write these entries out of a sense of intimacy. Technically we’re not critics, we don’t criticize anything, but we only write about the things we like. We live in Chelsea so I can visit a gallery even on the last day of a show, and sometimes almost accidentally l can document the artist’s work and get immediate response, and once you put something on the web it’s there forever. The magazines can take six months, sometimes longer.” Between them, James and Barry have written about over a thousand artists.
Because of Barry’s computer expertise I was able to delve into some of the demographics of the sites: “Well artcal.net gets between 1,500 and 2,500 page views per day. As of April 1st, jameswagner.com had 5,000 views and bloggy.com had 1,500 per day. Generally the distribution for artcal.net is 85% in the US followed by Canada, the UK, Germany, Japan and France. Last week jameswagner.com had six views from the Sudan!”
The potential for art blogs seems more positive to James and Barry: “Everyone is so independent that I don’t see the bloggers joining an association, but I’d like to see museums and some galleries relax their policies concerning photographing the work. This is a chance to get a wider availability of images out there, to introduce the public to more artists and their work. What could be wrong with that?” questions James. Barry would like to see the blogs “become more interactive, perhaps with guest editors or even containing mini-blogs.” He’s even considering on-line surveys that would allow frequent users to vote on exhibitions or artists they would like to see covered.
It’s a glorious new world. Now, not only can everybody be an artist with the potential of a worldwide audience but a critic as well, and it’s all just a click away. Take that Dinosaur Art Media.
JAMES KALM has written extensively on the Brooklyn art scene. In 2006 he began posting video reviews of local art exhibitions at his two YouTube channels that have generated over six million views.
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