"Brooklyn Dispatches: The Ethics of Aesthetics," Brooklyn Rail / by Fredrick Munk

By James Kalm

Little did I realize when I wrote “The Gangs of New York” (Brooklyn Rail July/August 2007), on the new phenomenon of the art blogosphere, that shortly we’d be witnessing a major power shift as some of these bloggers flex their newfound muscle.  Until recently, their torrent of opinions, reviews, and excruciatingly clever snarking about artists, critics, curators and other bloggers has been ignored by the mainstream press and art establishment.  Because, in the “democracy” that is the Internet, where anyone can start a blog, those who succeeded in building a readership did so through the uniqueness of their voices, the consistency of their entries and the thoroughness of their cross-linking. With time the cream has risen to the surface, creating an online network despite the near-impossibility of generating income from a site and the amount of time and effort it takes to maintain a blog, while the desire to take part in the larger conversation keeps lesser talents bent over keyboards clicking away in the pursuit of relevance.

It wasn’t till last fall that a valid possibility for the blogosphere evolved: that of moralistic watchdog, in essence, an art world “Bullshit Detector”.  In his October 9th posting on ANABA (http://anaba.blogspot.com) titled “Jerry Saltz is an UNDEAD ZOMBIE,” the untiring Martin Bromirski took New York’s favorite (and one of its most influential) art critics to task.   Bromirski, an ardent fan, complained about Saltz recycling several phrases verbatim in his October 15, 2007 New York Magazine essay “Has Money Ruined Art?” from an earlier essay “Seeing Dollar Signs” published in the Village Voice January 18, 2007.  Bitching and moaning are the bread and butter of blogging and for an influential critic, like Mr. Saltz, this kind of carping comes with the territory.  (Indeed, Teresa Duncan, one half of last summer’s bizarre double suicide had railed relentlessly against Saltz and his wife Roberta Smith on her popular blog The Wit of Stair Case (http://theresalduncan.typepad.com/witostaircase/art/index.html) in the weeks just prior to her OD.)  But the nose of the camel got into the tent when Saltz immediately published a mea culpa and admitted in part that “I was guilty of using many of the same ideas, lines, and quotes that I have used in previous articles. The blogger called this ‘very lazy’; actually, he/she also called me ‘an undead zombie.’ I’m afraid I agree; it was lazy. It’s also unfair to the reader and undermines my credibility”.  Though the response was appropriate—the reference to Mr. Bromirski as he/she not withstanding (maybe a holdover from the gazillion Shemale adds in the Voice)—many times in the past these types of screeds would simply be ignored.   This tidbit and its aftermath must have induced a wave of nausea rippling through the upper levels of the critical “Good Old Boys and Girls Club” as they realized an uncomfortable precedent had been set.  Chalk one up for the bloggers.  

Charlie Finch, our favorite grump, in what may have been a preemptive blitz to discredit the entire blogging enterprise, and no doubt trying to cover Saltz’s back, staged a counterattack from his artnet.com column titled “The Not-So-Vast-Right-Wing Conspiracy” from October 26, 2007.  If equating bloggers with the Right Wing wasn’t heinous enough, he goes on to say “Unfortunately, the proliferation of art blogs has taken all the day-tripper fun out of criticism by circle-jerking, recycling and regurgitating the effluvia of critique beyond the wildest fantasies of Rosalind Krauss.” And further that “They all refer and link to each other, since their primary audience is themselves.”  Finch goes after Tyler Green with special gusto, saying he ”… sucks up to every curator on the planet, and I wish him well on his world tour of speaking engagements at obscure museums, cashing his money orders at the bus station.”

On the heels of Finch’s trash talk, Peter Plagens gathered together five leading art bloggers from diverse cities across the country for a roundtable discussion in the November 2007 Art in America titled “The New Grass Roots.”Included are Regina Hackett who writes for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (http://blog.seattlepi.nwsource.com/art/), Jeff Jahn, based in Portland Oregon,  (http://www.portlandart.net/), the above-mentioned Washington, D.C., writer, Tyler Green, (http://www.artsjournal.com/man/), the Philadelphia team of Roberta Fallon and Libby Rosof (http://fallonandrosof.blogspot.com/), and our own former-Williamsburg-now-Chelsea-hotshot-galleriest, Edward Winkleman (http://edwardwinkleman.blogspot.com/). This very informative dialogue covers basic question about motivation, number of page views, financial arrangements, and the editorial responsibilities of online art critics. 

At this point, the blogosphere is garnering more positive attention than at any time in its still nascent history.  But for art world insiders, good word of mouth and media buzz, especially on the Internet, are short-lived.  What really gets their attention is money or the exercise of raw power, and that’s the crux of this brief recap.

When Christian Veveros-Faune, the recently installed replacement for Jerry Saltz at the Village Voice, sat for a three-part interview with Tyler Green, he probably wasn’t expecting to do more than kibitz and wow an out-of-towner art writer with his hip insights. (Full Discloser: I’ve known Christian for years, reviewed shows at Reobling Hall while he was a partner there in Williamsburg, and interviewed him in his capacity as a critic at the Village Voice.)  In the ensuing chat, Green went after Ververos-Faune’s apparent conflict of interest, asking how a critic can also function as a curator for two commercial art fairs (the Volta fair which runs concurrently with the Armory Show locally, and the Next Fair in Chicago).  In an editorial epilog Green calls on Ververos-Faune to either separate himself from the commercial fairs or for Voice editor Tony Ortega to “stop publishing him.”  When the dust settled, Ververos-Faune was out of his job at the Voice (leaving us with one less reason to pick up the paper) and drawing undesired attention to his two other positions as art fair organizer.  Beyond that, Green’s questions and implied standards have art world operators looking at their tally sheets and dance cards and questioning whether they were in compliance with this new blogger-enforced code of ethics.

Response was instantaneous (a tactical advantage of online media) and expected.  Most bloggers cheered, hailing Green for nailing an influential critic, and dealing Ververos-Faune his comeuppance.  Many members of the New York critical community just grumbled and circled the wagons.  Some blamed the new pusillanimous management at the Voice for folding so fast.  The final results, other than driving thousands of eyeballs to Modern Art Notes (Green’s site), and giving the fingers of countless bloggers a thorough workout, is yet to be seen.  For anyone with local experience, the art world is and always has been nothing other than one giant knot of conflicting interests, whether political, financial, institutional, professional, sexual, or pharmaceutical.  As a fan and champion of both the art blogosphere and the New York scene, I’m conflicted.  Yes, it’s great to see the real world take action when prodded by the virtual but, call me a chauvinist, I don’t think out-of-towners possess a realistically sensitive view of the subtle relationships that make up this particular milieu.  Are art critics, as Green asserts, mere journalists, that report only the facts of who, what, where, and when?  If, as Camus implies, the making of art is an act of rebellion, then shouldn’t its most impassioned commentators likewise be rebels?  What of pathos and poetry?   Is it time for an art critical code of ethics, complete with signed affidavits and oaths?  Geez, I hope not.  Good critics, first of all, have to love art, and that is in itself a conflict; second; they have to voice strong opinions which, in this all too politically correct era, keep many mum for fear of alienating possible allies; third we want them to be entertaining, make art viewing fun, challenging, risky, and spare us the market analysis (this is art, not financial instruments we’re talking about).  If we extend this to “purge trials,” then let’s start at the top with the museum boards, their directors and curators.   How do their personal, political and financial interests impose boundaries on what and who gets shown? Then let’s go after the big time commercial art publications, their editors, advertisers and critics, then on to government and private foundations and their grant selection process.  Let’s not forget academia and the vagaries of tenure and funding and on and on and on. If this is a harbinger of a reformation, a cyberspace nailing-of-theses-to-the-door moment, then there’ll be plenty to keep bloggers typing for an eternity.  But after they’ve all worn their fingers bloody, and all our eyes are bleached by cathode rays, will any of this make for better art or art criticism?  As Granny said, don’t believe everything you read in the newspapers.