Reflections on the Internet, Art and Politics

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Since this was my first experience blogging, I thought I would finish the series with my thoughts on the internet. Of course, this is a very broad topic so I will narrow it down by musings about the ways in which online material and activity affects the art world versus the way it affects politics and current events.

I'll begin with my observations over the past month while writing for this blog. When I agreed to be a guest writer, I had some preconceived ideas of what this type of writing would entail. Based on other blogs I've read, I envisioned a slew of commentary following each post. In a way, I was looking forward to hearing what people had to say on the comment board. After all, I'm only one voice with one point of view. What I have often found with the comment boards, however, is that they often descend into junior high level, base insults and one-upmanship. I attribute this to the anonymity of the comment board format and the realization that a lot of people simply aren't very nice when they don't have to talk to someone face to face. I anticipated this possibility too.

As it turns out (the current post not-withstanding) I have yet to see a posted comment on the comment board, yet I have received many emails sent directly to me regarding the posts. All of the emails were respectful, mature, intelligent and positive which has certainly improved my general view of the blogging format. I recently mentioned this lack of comment board activity to artist/designer Colleen Plumb who seemed to understand why people might be reluctant to post on a public forum. "You're really putting yourself out there," was her comment. It appears that the downward spiral of immature insults and one-liners that we are all familiar with on comment boards has dissuaded those who would maintain the forum as a vehicle for intelligent discourse.

So, the blog seems to have evolved into something that I feel can be very beneficial for the arts. The declining use of the comment boards allows bloggers to post essays without the distraction of the inherent weirdness that comes with the open commentary. The blog becomes more like a published journal or 'zine without the cost of production or the exclusivity associated with academic writing. Art is a subjective subject matter that can only benefit from broader discourse. Perhaps this format can help to loosen the hegemony of the academic, gallery and museum system by giving voices to intelligent, working artists, critics and thinkers. Perhaps…

On the flip side, the blog becomes problematic when dealing with current events and politics. The issue is the damage that misinformation, hate-mongering and outright lying has imposed on the collective psyche. Even before the popularization of the political blog, our news outlets had abandoned the idea of impartial news reporting. They like to advertise that they are "fair and balanced," "no bias, no bull," but we all know that each outlet comes with it's own slant. In some cases the slant is more like a steep pitch, or even a sheer cliff. If you don't understand what I'm talking about here, try watching The National on Canada's CBC network. Possibly one of the driest news reports you'll ever find, but you get the information in a straight forward, matter-of-fact manner that leaves much of the analysis up to the viewer (with a Canadian bias, of course). It would never fly in the U.S. because it gets a D- for entertainment value.

We are at a point in history where we can't trust any of the information we are given. I suppose this has always been true to an extent but it seems to have gotten more pronounced with the media and technology explosion over the past two decades. At first, the blog seemed like a good way to counteract this phenomenon by putting some power back in the hands of the people. Anyone could write about anything they wanted and we would be able to get information from thousands of sources beyond the mainstream media. It may have worked like this for a while, and it may still to some extent, but the very qualities that make blogging and the internet an excellent forum for art, make it wrought with problems when applied to news. If we can't be sure of our news outlets who are held to a certain code of conduct and ethics, how are we to decide what is credible from someone writing a blog who isn't subject to any checks or codes of conduct?

It seems to me that the last thing we need right now is more political bloggers. Perhaps this is evidenced by the alarming number of Americans who continue to maintain that Barack Obama is a Muslim despite every available fact placing him in the Christian faith. I don't know what is more disturbing; the fact that people are so confused about what to believe that they'll believe outright lies, or the darkly racial issue of his faith being an issue at all. I'm sorry all you young Muslim-Americans, apparently you are not allowed to dream of becoming president just yet.

But I digress. My long-winded point is that the blog format seems to be fantastic for things that are clearly opinion-based (like this essay) but problematic as an outlet for fact-based information, especially if it is masquerading as opinion (this means you Rush).

Enough about blogs for now. In 1994, James Enyeart, director of The George Eastman House, wrote his essay Pathways to the Future of Digital Imaging for the journal Image. In it he makes a number of predictions about the future of the photographic medium and art in general. He puts himself a ways out on a limb by suggesting that in the future we would be dealing with entire museums based on CD-ROM. The idea would be that we would interact with the art spontaneously and selectively on computer screens rather than viewing the actual objects on the wall or in the gallery. This would put far more art at the viewers finger tips since the number of pieces viewed would not be limited by the available space in the gallery.

Thank goodness we haven't come to that yet and I think most of us would have a hard time envisioning an entire museum basing itself on files stored on CD-ROMs, DVDs or any other storage media for that matter. However, in a way, he wasn't that far off when it comes to experiencing art via the screen. Without a doubt, the vast majority of photographs the average American citizen encounters in 2009 is via the internet and ever-shrinking LCD screens. Most of these images are not presented as "art" images unless we are doing searches for "art" photographers. But the majority of contemporary artwork that I am familiar with today I have never seen in print form. I'm familiar with the artist's website or their Flickr page but the interaction with the work is facilitated by ones and zeroes. I realize that this is true of my work as well and it's evidenced by people's reactions when they see my exhibition prints on the wall. I am currently producing portfolio books for all my galleries because I realized last summer that they were all using my website to show the work to collectors. I felt that image samples on paper would be a better way to sell the work than through crappy jpegs off a website.

The question is, how far will we go toward Enyeart's prediction? Brian Ulrich recently taught a class at Columbia College Chicago called The Medium is the Message which was based in non-print photography (and a lot of Marshal McLuhan). One of my students this Fall chose to present his entire final project on a 30" LCD television which he wheeled into class on a luggage cart. Are we actually heading away from the printed image? How many personal photographs sit on people's hard drives and never see paper at all? If we are, it has staggering implications for the gallery/museum paradigm. That may be a good thing, or a bad thing, but it is definitely a thing.

I think there will always be a place for the commodification of the photographic print. I personally still prefer to view images in print form but I think it is important to be aware of these potential changes. If we want to be forward-thinking artists, we need to be more than aware. We need to be looking for ways to embrace the unprinted image to find out what it's does well and what it doesn't do well. As a culture, the screen has become our most familiar medium through which to view photographs, videos, etc.. There have to be an enormous number of ways in which this can be taken advantage of by the art world beyond the artist's portfolio website.

I am starting to feel echoes of David Carson's The End of Print from the early 1990s which proposed that the internet would be the death of the printed word and a transformer of graphic design. He was right to a certain degree with the dramatic drop in printed newspapers and magazines but rather than seeing the "end" of print altogether, we are starting to see the re-emergence of the small-time printing houses dedicated to producing short-run printed books and 'zines. I wonder if photography will have a parallel to this in another ten or fifteen years. Maybe it already does?

This final blog entry ended up much more rambling than I anticipated. Although I have many criticisms to offer the internet and all it encompasses, I can definitively say that I wouldn't be where I am today without it. Without a website, blogs and email, the job of self promotion becomes much more difficult and slow. How did they do it before we had all these great tools at our disposal? It is also fair to say that I wouldn't be aware of as many young and emerging artist as I am today if it weren't for their websites, blogs and inquiring emails.

Before I sign off, I would specifically like to thank Taj Forer, Ethan Clauset and Brian Ulrich for giving me the opportunity to write for Daylight Magazine. I would particularly like to commend Taj and Ethan for running a publication with integrity and a genuine sense of intelligent discourse. At this point, we are our own overseers and these guys are setting and excellent example for honest, responsible and independent publication.