Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The Plagens Questions

Per the suggestion made by Kriston Capps, the writer/editor responsible for Grammar Police and a contributor to Washington's City Paper, I've below answered a number of questions originally posed by artist and former Newsweek critic Peter Plagens to Regina Hackett, Tyler Green, Jeff Jahn, Roberta Fallon & Libby Rosof, and Edward Winkleman as part of an Art In America round table discussion about the role of art blogs.

There's been a lot of hullabaloo about this topic of late, and I have some reservations about adding my voice to it. Still, I was flattered to be called out by Capps, and so figured I'd give it a go.

What's the purpose of your blog?

Although I created Hungry Hyaena with the rather modest goal of improving my critical writing skills, "purpose" isn't a word that I like in this context. I have no mission statement or fiscal goal. Initially, HH focused on environmental issues but, an artist, compulsive reader, and part-time space cadet, I found myself wanting to write about a wider range of subjects.

Over two years later, I've come to regard HH as a record of my creative inputs. That is to say, the collected poetry, ramblings, reviews, and photographs posted here are a sampling of the questions (and sometimes answers, transitory though they are) that consume the hours when I'm unable to be in the studio. As my father, a freelance writer, says, "I'm always writing, even when I'm chopping firewood or picking up mail at the post office." So it is with any creative person, I believe, and the scribbles in my notebooks that don't become drawings, paintings, or videos, often turn into blurbs or essays. My exhibition "reviews," too, are really projections of my own obsessions.

What are the boundaries of your blog?

I'll steal from Bill Gusky here. "Whatever interests me enough to write about at any given time."

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 magazine-like 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?

They aren't. Blogs are poorly positioned relative to "print." As mainstream print publications, particularly newspapers, begin to incorporate the op-ed blogging approach on their websites, I think unaffiliated blogs - that is, those not operating under the auspices of a corporation or conglomerate - will continue to lose an already fractured audience.

Yet blogs do have a leg up in at least one respect. Unaffiliated bloggers need not worry about copyright laws or other use restrictions and are therefore able to sample from a broad array of sources without obtaining permission via "the proper channels." As a proponent of Creative Commons, I find this promising. In time, perhaps, our major "print" sources will look more kindly on works (or reproductions) intended for the public domain. That may be the greatest legacy of the World Wide Web's early years; in any case, blogging highlights the possibilities.

I don't think the strength of Joy's blog has much to do with any of this, however. A newspaper blog could accomplish what Newsgrist does...if the moving forces at the paper were ready and willing to do so. But the larger media outlets remain reluctant to blur the imaginary line between art and politics because their advertisers are uncomfortable with erasing these distinctions. Let's face it, the majority of Americans are uncomfortable with that proposal, too. If a major newspaper began printing "Arts" articles alongside reports from its war correspondents or financial columns, the "sociocultural and political context" significance of art would be made available to a wider audience. At the very least, it would encourage a connecting of the dots. Sure, some of the best blogs, including Newsgrist, are doing this now, but art bloggers are kidding themselves if they believe they're being read by anyone but members of their own clique.

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?

Like most of the bloggers who have answered this question before me, I think bloggers can and do "go further." In fact, as mentioned above, I view my "reviews" of other artists' work as part of my own creative output. They are extensions of my own ideas and concerns. In an Art World so determined to provide viewers with wall texts and artist statements, I don't see why a literate artist's blog shouldn't be considered part of their greater project.

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

All, I suppose, those I sometimes ask more tech-savvy friends for template assistance. I don't think I've ever credited them, however. My bad. (And the original title banner was designed by my friend, Frank Castaneda. )

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

I invite comments and usually respond to all of them, even the toss-offs, but I don't often read the comments section of other blogs anymore. I used to...and I also used to comment much more often. Sometimes fantastic conversations take place in the comment section of, for example, Edward's blog, but usually I find that the exchanges are soon dominated by one or two belligerent voices. The conversations become boring as a result. It's a shame.

As for anonymous comments, I don't really care unless the individual becomes particularly nasty. Even then, they're entitled to say what they like, and to do so anonymously. I used to get angry when people posted something hateful, but now I generally find it amusing.

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

The term refers to those anonymous commenters who flame you (to stand out) and do so with the intention of drawing you (and your other readers) to another site (via a provided link). It's annoying but, other than deleting the offending comment, I'm not sure I understand how bloggers prevent them. In any case, it rarely happens on a blog with as few readers as HH has.

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

I'm not really sure. I don't consider it particularly egregious if the comment made by the "troller" is at all relevant.

Of course, it's now considered a federal offense. Technically, then, no blogger should "allow" it, but I'm opposed to having posters/commencers register. This is a free and open forum, more or less, and should remain so.

What about liability coverage?

"Oh, brother!," exclaimed Charlie Brown.

What's the economic model of your blog?

HH is free and easy, and generates no revenue, although I recently began participating in an art blog experiment that may offer some slim returns. (See upper right, just below the banner.)

But as regular readers of HH know, my thoughts on income of any sort are complicated. Though I'm not a traditional socialist, I distrust free-market capitalism and, in an ideal world, I'd opt for an alternative social/economic structure. But ecology and economics are forever works in progress, so we'll see what happens...to HH. to the blogosphere at large, and to the rest of it.

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

My answer depends on the day.

At the moment, I feel that HH is something different from print art media, that it is a complement to my artwork, more art than art media.

Tomorrow I might feel that the blog is a complement to the art media.

Whatever. Has anyone seen Comet Holmes? I saw it over the W train in Queens tonight. It's bright enough to punch through even the city glow.

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

Actually, I don't much talk about the blog. When I started HH, I planned to have only a few friends as regular readers, but people started reading and returning.

But the HH "audience" remains small. On an average week, I'll have between 800 - 1500 readers. When I write a post that is linked by a more prominent blog(s), the numbers jump markedly.

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

No, although sometimes bloggers are more slash-and-burn in their criticism, likely because they are less self-censorious (or less hemmed in by an editor).

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?

I disagree with Bill Gusky's assessment that, "Blogs are fast and to the point. If you can't say it in a few paragraphs, it's not blog-worthy."

I often write long (some would say long-winded) essays for HH. As I said earlier, I'm reluctant to call it "art criticism," but the question still stands. Would I read such long posts on other blogs? Of course, though, if the essay is good, I'll print it. I know, I know...I'm a "green" hypocrite, but I can't stand reading on the computer. As Anthony Grafton wrote in a recent issue of The New Yorker, "the form in which you encounter a text can have a huge impact on how you use it." The principal reason that I print lengthy articles or posts is that I annotate most everything I read. If I find that the text is particularly satisfying, I save it in my ever-expanding files, into which I delve when looking for a reference to this or that subject. Reading an essay on the computer screen doesn't allow me to record my thoughts.

Also, I'm a paper sniffer. I can't make it through more than two pages without taking a moment to appreciate the paper's scent. There are a wide range of smells dependent on the age and the chemicals used in production.

So, I'm not at all surprised that some blog users don't want to read lengthy posts on the screen, but I see no reason why we shouldn't print them, excepting for the nagging eco-guilt. (At least print double-sided and recycle the paper.)

I wish I could say, as Kriston Capps did, that "I can't actually afford to write things on my blog that I could get paid to write." Then maybe I'd save longer posts for publication and get paid by the word, but I'm only rarely paid for what I write. If nothing else, the blog offers me a venue to "save" ramblings that would eventually be deleted during a computer hard drive cleaning.

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.

Absolutely not.

I'm not sure how one defines "the pace of art-making," anyway, but if it is accelerating, it is following the same cultural rivers that blogs are.

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?

I think so, yes.

I'd point to four reasons: the "dialogue" is more international and culturally inclusive; "first-worlders" of a certain means are brought up to believe that they are each capable of achieving great things; there are more people on Earth than ever before; intense concentrations of wealth lead to greater luxury spending and art, as product, is luxury (even though it should not be, in spirit, impetus, or intention).

Reviewing those four reasons for the surplus of art making, the parallel between our contemporary standing and that of the late Roman Empire is apparent. Our over-extended "global economy" and "military industrial complex," too, will collapse. It will be curious to see what role artists play when, once again, we are called to task for the church(es) and warlord run states. What will Jeff Koons be in that world's memory? Will Damien Hirst's stunning skull be exalted, and for what reason?

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?

Do they help correct the bias? Yes, but only in the context of the blogosphere.

Do they help correct the tendency "to think that most of the important stuff happens in New York or Los Angeles?" For the people living outside of the cultural meccas, absolutely. In fact, part of the reason I began considering a move away from NYC is that I believed I could stay abreast of the art world via the blogs (much more so than by reading the major art magazines, most of which I have little interest in, in any case). Unfortunately, I think most people installed in either of those two cities still believe that anywhere else is no man's land, a faraway place off the cultural radar. This attitude might yet change. I hope so.

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?

I've heard that this is the case, particularly in Philly, Portland, Richmond (Virginia), Seattle, and Houston, but I can't really speak to it one way or the other.

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

I don't understand this question.

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.

I don't think of myself as a blogger. I write stuff and post it on a blog because it is an easy mode of dissemination. Do I want my art (writing included) to reach an audience? Of course. Would I like that audience to be large? Yes. I make it to communicate, after all.

Where will your blog be in three to five years?

At the same URL if Blogger doesn't get bought out. Otherwise, dunno.


Bill Gusky said...

Hey how about that comet? Man, get some binocs on it. It's starting to show the beginnings of a tail: one side is all soft and smeary, and the other side is sharp.

Hungry Hyaena said...

Incredible. You can almost spot those details with the naked eye...almost. Fortunately, I have my binoculars at home for bird, people and (now) comet watching. ;)

bioephemera said...

Reading your answers made me laugh. :) Why do we have to have a media agenda just because we blog? At least you can articulate some sort of overarching premise to HH. . . I'd be like, "uh, if I didn't post stuff, I'd lose it in a pile."

Hungry Hyaena said...