Artists on the Internet

An Xiao, The Artist is Kinda Present, 2010. Image courtesy of the artist and Flavorwire.

By using the Internet to promote themselves where users collaboratively create content, artists place themselves in direct contact with their audience and art world elites. This bears a striking similarity to public relations, which employs the same technology to engage the general population on behalf of corporate clients.

Artists employ Web 2.0 – Facebook, Twitter, blogs, forums – to bring themselves closer to critics, curators, dealers, collectors, and the public. Now more than ever, artists are directly responsible for their public image, which is directly related to their online presence. Self-promotion is not new for artists, but engaging directly with the public and the art world is.

Recently, there have been exhibitions (I Like the Art World and the Art World Likes Me curated by Eric Doeringer, #TheSocialGraph curated by Hrag Vartanian, Escape from New York curated by Olympia Lambert), panels (New Style Curators at the New Museum organized by Joanne McNeil), and an overwhelming amount of writing investigating how social media is changing the art world’s social landscape. Here, chronologically: An Xiao’s history of art on social media, June 2010, my essay on Hyperallergic, July 2010, Ben Davis’ art v. social media, Aug 2010, Brad Troemel’s essay on ArtInfo, Dec 2010, Karen Archey’s op-ed at ArtInfo, Dec 2010, James Panero in The New Criterion, Dec 2010, Brad Troemel’s essay on 491, Jan 2011, and others.

Kevin Zucker, Encyclopedia, 2007. Image courtesy of the artist and Greenberg Van Doren Gallery, New York.

As varied and dynamic as art practices are online, all use the Internet to project their ideas, images and, crucially, their identities to the public. There are multiple approaches to artists’ engagement with the Internet:

  1. Artists that make art about the Internet – where the Internet is treated as source material or subject: Kevin Zucker, Search Within Results, 2007, Tom Moody’s digital works – note the exchange these two artists had on ArtFagCity here on the use of digital tools to make art;
    a., or analyze the cultural implications therein: Kevin Zucker’s “link” essay, Cory Arcangel, “Search History”;
  2. Artists make performance art using social media as a tool: Man Bartlett, #24hKith, 2010, An Xiao, The Artist is Kinda Present, and Telepresent, 2010, Nate Hill, Punch Me Panda, 2010 – 2011, Ann Hirsch, Scandalishious, 2010;
    a., that use social media as a form of documentation of their work: Man Bartlett, #Theseus, 2010, in which documented his progress on Twitter not unlike Vito Acconci’s notes documenting his Following Piece, 1969 (Thanks to Rachel Wetzler);
    b., that use it as permanent log of correspondence, like letters (Thanks to Brian DuPont);
  3. Artists who make work about the art world in which the role of the artist blurs with historian and critic: William Powhida, Dear Jeff Koons, 2011, Jennifer Dalton, Making Sense, 2010, Loren Munk’s diagrammatic and map paintings;
    a., their self-published critical engagements with contemporary art: Loren Munk’s James Kalm Report, with useful conceptual inroads here from James Panero, William Powhida’s blog and Twitter essays, Joshua Abelow’s Art Blog Art Blog which reblogs selected works, which James Fuentes LLC describes as an activity “reflective of a significant paradigm shift for visual culture today,” Sharon Butler’s Two Coats of Paint, and her TEDxTalk which addresses artists’ use of Web 2.0 technology as a good alternative or inroad to commercial success.
  4. artists who present their work and opinions online, such as on an eponymous URL, and publicize via Facebook and Twitter.

There is considerable overlap between these, and when there is, it provides an exponential opportunity for publicity.

Art meets PR

User-specific advertising is the primary source of Facebook’s revenue, which could total anywhere between $300 and $500 million USD (2009). Virtually every consumer-facing product is now connected directly with its “publics” via Facebook and Twitter. Goldman-Sachs is valuing Facebook at $50 billion USD (2010). Major companies are investing serious money in social media.

We can compare this to the tailored audiences that artists, dealers and critics design for themselves on social media, e-mail lists, and link pages. They maximize the effectiveness of their self-promotion by customizing to whom which they are broadcasting. Furthermore, by developing a discourse on contemporary art, artists locate themselves in a specific art historical context.

Left, installation view of Oh! Abelow, 2011, Joshua Abelow at James Fuentes LLC, New York. Right, Martin Creed, Work No. 1151 at Houser & Wirth, London, featured on Abelow’s ART BLOG ART BLOG on February 1, 2011.

Web 2.0 technology has changed how we interact with the world. Social media is used in presidential election campaigns (2008), to organize protest movements in Tunisia (2010) and Egypt (2011), fire employees, and even insight suicide. There has been a noticeable shift in big business’ spend away from advertising and toward direct consumer engagement. Consider the Pepsi Refresh Campaign (2009), which netted 61 million votes alone, not including public visibility beyond direct engagement.

This is echoed in art practices that engage directly with audiences in a participatory way: enter online performance artists An Xiao, Man Bartlett, Ann Hirsch, others. Furthermore, artists that address the art world and specific institutions or individuals within it – such as William Powhida, Jennifer Dalton, and Loren Munk – generate automatic visibility with those institutions.  Note Jerry Saltz’s “William Powhida is making fun of me and I love it.”

Art world professionals who have used the Internet to launch their voice into roles beyond their original occupations. A consistent voice of reason in the art world, art dealer Ed Winkleman’s blog has provided an ongoing forum for discussion. He is transparent about its aims at promoting his gallery’s program via insightful observations, but it is clear he is no longer just a dealer. I have called Winkleman a thought-leader.

Art critic Jerry Saltz on Facebook has graduated from weekly reviews to direct daily interaction, with threads upwards of 200 comments. Saltz hit the 5000 Friend mark almost immediately, and he has since been called a rabblerouser. James Panero sums it up with, “[Saltz has] flipped the traditional critic’s role from peripheral character to central actor.” Artist Jennifer Dalton immortalized the ongoing conversation on Saltz’s Facebook page with her 2010 graph, What Are We Not Shutting Up About?

Jen Dalton, What Are We Not Shutting Up About?, 2010, at FLAG Art Foundation, image courtesy of the artist.

The line between business and friendship is notoriously blurry in the art world, but on social media, its almost indiscernible. Many artists, critics and dealers who are active on Facebook and Twitter are infinitely more accessible, particularly to emerging artists, than they once were. In-house Twitter and Facebook management are common (see the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “gifts of flowers” on Twitter). The Museum of Modern Art is currently in the process of collecting research by issuing a public call for proposals for a survey of digitally interactive art called Talk To Me, slated for July 2011. Not to mention ArtForum’s Scene and Herd.

Most galleries are on Facebook and maintain up-to-date news and information there, notably, P.P.O.W. publicized the recent censorship of David Wojnarowicz. Social media removes several social barriers between art world elites and emerging artists. Most galleries, curators and artists are now all accessible online in a public forum (just as news reporters now have Twitter feeds).

By taking on multiple roles these artists, dealers and critics increase their visibility. Dealer as blogger, critic as social media celebrity, artist as curator or writer. These shifts are made easier and more public by the Internet. As noted above, Zucker publishes image essays, and even moreso, Moody writes for blogs, and does something called “surf clubs” in their spare time.

According to Skate’s Art Investment Handbook, “Fortunes in art are made in the spotlight of publicity, not outside of it.” The world of art is similar to the world of celebrity: visibility equates value.

The Web 2.0 Model

The “Web 2.0” model has reassembled the unknown artist’s path to success. Artists use the Internet as an engine for visibility and publicity through self-publishing and personal branding. Brad Troemel posits in his essay that engaging online “is not an example of an alternative structure to the art market, but a newly available path to succeeding within it.” To paraphrase Troemel, artists are elevated by peer consensus – inlinks, Likes, Shares, Tweets, Retweets – and public content – articles, references, blogs, “reblogs.”

What artists are doing online cannot be mistaken: it is self-promotion. By interacting with the right critics, dealers, curators, more-famous artists on public forums, they gain visibility. From visibility comes expanded opportunities – exhibitions, curatorial engagements, collaborative projects – which may finally lead to financial compensation.

Online visibility may prove to be the primary way artists come to find recognition going forward. Despite consistent reminders from various critics to get out and see the work in person, the Internet is everyone’s primary source for viewing art, and our eyes shift based on where our trusted sources tell us to look. Is there sufficient content in these artists’ to sustain this kind of critical attention?

Is art becoming a PR game, each artist vying for greater publicity and celebrity? It is not my intention here to answer these questions, but I do hope to call attention to the very real relationship emerging artists’ self-promotion has to current methods of corporate PR, and would like, going forward, for us all to take that into account as we view art on the Internet.

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