When Fans Become Critics:
The Controversial World of the Art Blogs
Have you lost patience with the cryptic art blah blah in reviews and at openings? Do you really want to know if an exhibition fits the bill? Are you looking for someone who tells you subjectively and without mincing words what his or her opinion of artists and their works really is? Then you're ready to enter the vast universe of the art blogs. Achim Drucks has put together a guide for beginners.
||"The Most Excessive Use of Toast in an Art Work," or "The Best Use of Cacti in Art"—these are the categories Art Fag City uses to categorize the works at the current Art Basel. C-Monster, another popular art blog, had it out with the Venice Biennale: correspondent San Suzie—allegedly an ex-ballerina born in Karl Marx City who once danced with the Cuban State Ballet—gives out her own awards. The Mussolini Award goes to John Baldessari "for the distinction of interfering with fine architecture in the most uninteresting (dare we say 'boring'?) way." The Union Carbide™ Memorial Award for Most Toxic goes to Huang Yong Ping's installation Hands of the Buddha for the poisonous fumes it gives off.
Welcome to the blogosphere; welcome to the realm of radical subjectivity, where everyone gets a shot at expressing his or her own private opinions, judgments, and passions to the world at large. Ever since the Web designer Peter Merholz coined the term "blog" in 1999 to refer to online journals, the number of them has exploded to around 110 million worldwide. And the number of sites on the subject of art is legion: C-Monster alone lists around 400. With the competition for attention this stiff, you either have to be very informed and up-to-date or controversial and caustic enough to entertain your fans in the long haul. Art Fag City and C-Monster show little respect for the sacred cows of the art world; they respond with wit and irony to the elevated art talk of elitist art critics. Thanks to her unpretentious reports, Paddy Johnson, the New Yorker behind Art Fag City—"as relevant as Eric Fischl" according to her own assessment—has made it into the Wall Street Journal, among other places, while her reviews recently earned her a grant from the Warhol Foundation. Before her career as a blogger Carolina A. Miranda of C-Monster has reported for Time. She has also contributed to the New York Times lifestyle blog The Moment.
Blogs have brought a fresh new wind into art criticism. In the magazine Art in America, Peter Plagens speaks of a grassroots movement. In an interview with the artist and critic, Regina Hackett of Art to Go explains that "blogs offer an alternative to the usual power structure of art criticism." In summing up the motivation of many bloggers, Tyler Green (Modern Art Notes) says: "We don't see what we want to read, so we create it." But the "amateurs" in the Internet don't only have friends among the professional writers. The do-it-yourself principle that punk once used to shake up the music industry is not held in high esteem by all. Charlie Finch of Artnet, known for his scathing commentaries, considers blogs to be overestimated and superfluous. They are "conformist, reactionary, redundant, and self-referential," he writes; "they all refer and link to each other, since their primary audience is themselves." On the other hand, the art critic at the Village Voice, Martha Schwendener, stresses the positive aspects of blogging. She likes the "laissez-faire climate": "Art blogs have created a new, largely unedited, admirably 'unprofessional'—hence, democratic—venue for people to speak their minds (…) about art."
New York is one of the key locations in the blogosphere, and the websites speak particularly to a younger audience, of course. Artcat primarily reports on alternative art spaces and events such as the first Bushwick Biennial in Brooklyn: "artist-run, no-profit, performative and rad!"—this is the kind of project the makers of Artcat really like. John Haber's New.York.Art.Crit is one of the oldest art blogs. But don't be put off by the grey textured design of the site—Haber has been recording his thoughts on artists and shows in New York since 1994 and has built up a huge and informative archive since that time. On the other hand, The Cool Hunter offers a completely different approach: instead of leaden deserts, it features brightly colorful pictures and short articles. Awarded the best cultural blog in 2007 and 2008 by the Weblog Awards, The Cool Hunter reports on design, architecture, and art all around the globe. There is, however, an all too frequent concentration on spectacular graphic design in the area of art; Rhizome, a platform for projects on the borderlines between art and new technology affiliated with the New Museum, seems intellectually more challenging.
A phenomenon like Street Art is a welcome subject for the democratic, alternative spirit of blog culture. The projects in public space, which are often ephemeral, can be quickly made available with a series of photographs or videos to what is frequently a global fan community. Since 2001, the Wooster Collective, named after a street in the Manhattan district of SoHo, has been reporting on Street Art worldwide—from wall paintings on condemned buildings in Valencia to the Banksy show at the Bristol Museum. On the other hand, the Hamburg-based site Rebel Art presents itself as far more political—it seeks to connect artists and activists in a network for "street artists & street vandals, notorious nuisances & subversive troublemakers." The Berlin blog Just Street Art entertains similar ambitions. But the German capital's most popular blogger is Kunstkontakter Konstantin Schneider. The equivalent of Beuys' felt hat is for him a hardhat with a small digital camera. Schneider is present at every important exhibition and presents his images and interviews in the Internet.
The success of some of the independent blogs has also led the established media to set up their own blogs on their websites: a fact that "real" bloggers eye with suspicion, of course. Journalists use the format to report more quickly and often more personally than in print on artists, exhibitions, and phenomena they are currently thinking about.
In the blog of the English Frieze magazine, the Venice Biennale is the current focus of attention. Jörg Heiser, for instance, reports why he is not entirely convinced by Tobias Rehberger's café, which was awarded a Golden Lion: "The visual experience is a bit like being stuck in a youth culture center decorated by an over-ambitious skateboarder."
The blog Art Review also merits a closer look. Along with reports about the British and American art scene, it also addresses—with a generous portion of laconic humor—urgent questions like "Who cares what David Hockney does with his iPhone?" The magazine's website sees itself as a platform for discourse, exchange, and debate. Artists, gallery dealers, collectors, critics, curators, and art lovers can become members and open their own discussion forums. Texte zur Kunst also carries its discourse into the Internet: in Kofferleben (Suitcase Life), artist Gunter (Gunnar) Reski writes about ongoing exhibitions. After viewing the works of Imi Knoebel, Karl Georg Pfahler, and Sergej Jensen in current shows in Berlin, he detects a "latent leaning on the part of abstraction towards the traffic sign." On the other hand, in her column Reiche Römer (Rich Romans), Isabelle Graw directs her attention in an intelligent manner to what is commonly referred to as lifestyle.
Anyone interested in learning what the movers and shakers of the international art community are doing should consult Art Forum Diary on a regular basis: whether it's Jeffrey Deitch and Brad Pitt at Art Basel or Miuccia Prada and Cindy Sherman at the Biennale—they all smile congenially into the camera for Art Forum. Apropos stars and glamour: anyone who has finally managed to catch up with the latest art discourse through the many blogs online is allowed a reward in the form of forbidden fruit—the personal website of a prominent art lover regularly spotted at the larger fairs like London's Frieze. On her site Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow collects the various tips and advice of her famous friends. Under the motto Nourish the inner aspect, there's more to be found here than pasta recipes by Giancarlo Giammetti, the partner of the fashion designer Valentino, or Steven Spielberg's DVD tips. Under the heading Be, there is some very concrete advice on raising children, or on all the harm an evil tongue can do. Art Fag Paddy Johnson or C-Monster Carolina A. Miranda would certainly enjoy the highly moral observations on the themes of gossip and libel.