Art Bloggers: A Blessing or a Curse?

Everyone’s a Critic – a film community website and experiment that gathered together critics, reviewers and film enthusiasts using a collaborative filtering algorithm to obtain recommendations from people sharing similar tastes in film. It is also a phrase mockingly referring to the proliferation of internet-based opinions from people who are not professional critics in the occupational sense. Blogs, websites, and social media platforms have become the new authority for critical inquiry, overriding the traditional medium of journals and news media.

Here lies the question: where do we draw the line? How should we treat these popularist ideas circulating in the digital aether? As less credible criticism by the uninformed viewer or as equally valid considerations by a loving target audience with a discerning eye for good (and bad) taste? Furthermore, for something as diverse and subjective as the visual arts – whether it be Old Masters, modern or contemporary art – what role do the views of art bloggers have in the highbrow world of art criticism?

The art world is a tricky maze of authority figures and conflicting opinions, each with the common aim of promoting the next big artist and shifting the artistic tastes of the decade. On the front lines are the galleries representing the best and brightest of the recruits. The victors are the ones shortlisted for the attention of experts, connoisseurs and critics. Mid twentieth-century America saw Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg arguing for the appreciation of Abstract Expressionism, whilst Roland Penrose was bringing the art of Pablo Picasso and the Surrealists to the attention of the British public. Post-war British art was also being promoted at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, around which time the art dealer Jeremy Maas was trying to revive interest in Victorian art, eventually selling Lord Frederic Leighton’s iconic ‘Flaming June’ to Puerto Rico for a mere £2,000.

Nowadays, we are still living in Charles Saatchi’s legacy which told us that the Young British Artists were worth the attention in 1991, with Damien Hirst becoming the UK’s richest living artist and Tracey Emin pieces being as recognisable and numerous as Picassos. Popularity and fame dictates taste in art – remember Andy Warhol? – but so do those who write about them. From the critic’s and academic’s view, surely the opinions of our existing community of art world experts are all we need to decide what is fashionable in our time. Surely they would be enough to determine what is good and bad art.

The reality may not be as simple.

Art bloggers are carefree creatures. Being typically unpaid and self-motivated, they do not carry the burden of reputation associated with established journals and institutions, unlike traditional critics who make a living being our era’s all-powerful, all-credible judges of cultural taste. The former has the freedom to write and comment on any topic, exhibition, and artist he or she wishes without much consequence; the latter is restricted by the aims and values of their journal, often sticking to major galleries and movements. As a result, art bloggers have the upper hand regarding diversity of content and freedom of speech.

However, blogs are only as good as their outreach. Site traffic for blogs are entirely reliant on keywords, search engines, and audiences looking for specific content. Journals are less affected by this due to their existing readership. A brief note concerning their respective demographics is important here: journals are largely aimed at academics whereas blogs appeal to the young, student market.

Admittedly, a blog’s popularity is no guarantee for its quality of content nor its credibility of opinion. However, the large number of existing blogs that do feature similar content allows for a better understanding of the weight of opinion: this contribution to a consensus in critical scholarship is a defining characteristic of art bloggers and their content. The authority of critics is autocratic; for bloggers it is democratic.

A better way to say this might be the following: bloggers are the popular vote. Representing a wider pool of cultural and educational backgrounds, what emerges from their content is art discourse unfettered by institutional bias. Though their writing styles may vary, they are often not afraid to say what is really on their mind. We can also take their opinions at face-value. This is valuable in itself and instantly makes it more accessible, maybe even relatable for the reader. Oftentimes, there are even gleaming interpretative insights of works of art that are unique and only accessible from the perspective of a specific individual or culture. The existing pool of academics might not be able to bridge this gap.

Hidden among the honesty and directness of a blogger’s content might be found something even more valuable than mere verbal accessibility. Bloggers are more likely to voice their observations and experiences in their writing, creating content that is laced with an aesthetic interest personal to the blogger. A community of content emphasising this kind of interest can thus be representative of a sort of public eye (literally). That is not to say that academics do not rely on or voice their observations – in fact, many do – but being academically oriented they are only representative of a small group of observers with similar educational backgrounds and training. Therefore, the things they choose to write and publish may be hindered by the kind of content other people expect them to produce.

Bloggers are free from this. They can voice their opinions and observations without heavy judgement, largely because the prevailing view of bloggers is that they are not critics, simply commentators. They can produce content based on what they see, not on what they know. Academics know too much already. Bloggers don’t, and thus they will rely heavily on their instincts. By resorting back to basic human instincts, they become surprising effective and relatable, contributing to their appeal as valid sources of criticism.

Academics write criticism; bloggers make comments. Instead of viewing this statement negatively on the part of the blogger, perhaps we should recognise this as a redeeming and necessary feature within artistic publishing discourse. In their ideal form, bloggers represent a public set of opinions that are unbiased towards institutions and organisations. Their strength in numbers allows for a richness and variety that can not only fill certain gaps in interpreting culture-specific art but also provide a more direct and consensus-based view of cultural events. Poetically, bloggers are what academics used to be: passionate, naïve and desperate to have their say.

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Nigel Ip

Nigel Ip is a visual arts blogger and art historian. He runs the blog Flâneur of the Arts. He has an MA in History of Art from the Courtauld Institute of Art, and a BA in History & Philosophy of Art from the University of Kent. He spends a lot of writing time in cafés where his dissertations on Raphael and selfies were birthed from the dying souls of caffeine-addicts, past and present.