Thursday, May 14, 2020

As good as it gets on the internet (Or the Three Penny Author)

I put my blogposts on Medium, a site that promotes writing on the web. My writing rarely gets any feedback as adjudged from the dearth of what Medium refers to as “claps”( I just got one for an article on Jed Perl). They offer some remuneration as readers pay a fee for access to the site. Last month I got an email that 3 cents($.03) had been deposited in my savings account from all the voluminous reading of my blogs. I really don’t despair anymore at the paucity of interest on Medium. I get emails from them touting what they consider to be the hottest submissions that are for the most part pulp stories of unsolved murders that have no real thinking going on, let alone narrative style.

I recently got sucked into another site called Academia that distributes scholarly papers. As an enticement to join they said my name is getting mentioned on their site. The only way to find out who mentioned me is by joining them for around $100 a year. (Linkdin uses the same trick where they say someone is talking about you, but again you have to pay  to find out) When I finally gave in and joined, the “mention” that they half-described was nowhere to be found.  There have been other mentions since that I vaguely recall as authentic but they tend to be chaotically strung together obscuring any real sense of where the mentions were made. They do reach out to people I have mentioned in my articles toauthenticate my referencing them. My blogs are not formatted academically but they have been disseminated by the site to numerous individuals who are often associated with universities worldwide as resident scholars, students or alums. Since my blogs are for the most part illustrated, I hope the recipients are finding them at least visually entertaining.

Twitter is all about power and the participants obviously love to wield it. Interactions with the famous can happen but they are for the most part short lived. You might be flattered to find your tweet acknowledged but it is never for interaction with the Pulitzer prize winning critic Jerry Saltz. I had sent him a rough draft of my self-published book on Drawing and Painting to New York magazine offices where he is on the staff. A week later I found him describing one of the exercises in his own words but with an illustration he could have only taken from the copy I sent him as the source of the image was rather obscure. I sent him a message asking him about the rip-off and he replied with cryptic .  He never acknowledged that I was the source of the exercise. He got 55 likes. Why did he bother to reprint what I wrote? With one hand he showed what I had written to his followers all of whom thought it was interesting but with the other hand made sure I did not get credit for it. It hurt and I think that was his intention. I think my hope was for the much vaunted and desired “retweet”, so important that often tweeters will say that a retweet does not represent an endorsement.  If he wasn’t interested in power then he might have just given the book a tweet. I would have sold a few copies and that would be the end of it. But that would mean I am piggybacking on the precious reputation he has so assiduously built on and cultivated over a lifetime. That reputation has monetary value.

I had a rather pleasant exchange with Blake Gopnik, a propos his recently published “Warhol”, where he engaged me in a dialog about what I had written on Warhol which he found very interesting but wrong. It was a quirky linking on my part of Warhol to Flannery O’Connor due to their shared umbrella of nihilism. Nihilism is sort of a dog whistle that you are clearly anti-humanist and he rejected that Warhol was a nihilist. And that the shared religiosity of Warhol and O’Conner was bogus as Warhol’s connection to his religion was rather shaky. Maybe he at least gave me the time of day as I knew from the horse’s mouth that Philip Pearlstein was Warhol’s roommate at Carnegie-Mellon. The accessibility he provided me by  answering my questions was an opportunity to show that he was the expert and that I should buy the expert’s book to have the definitive answer on Warholiana. He is promoting his book. That’s all. Nothing wrong with that. I was able to extend the discussion to his opinions on Koons whose artistic value is based on what Gopnik calls “esthetic agnosia” and the exchange ended there.

Facebook is folksy in comparison to the ego flaunting/flouting on Twitter. Twitter with its message limit forces you to hone your message whereas on FB you can ramble on. Topics are  mostly about family events and the Peaceable Kingdom where Lions get along with baboons and the endless casts of clever cats and more cats. If I get sporadic feedback on Twitter (as indicated by the stats)I am sure to get lots of likes on FB. I am sure this folksy image is  cultivated by the managers. The world of twitter discussions are short lived storms and then subside and can’t be revived. Maybe you leave a mark on your interlocutor or not. Things are more relaxed on FB. I recently posted for the hell of it an image of a painting I had done in NC years ago that ended up in the Weatherspoon Museum. It created some interest from students at UNC-Greensboro and some sincerely thoughtful comments from people who follow my work. I tried to flip the conversation to my book on drawing and painting in the hope of maybe selling a copy. FB is not a platform for forcing anything on anyone. We are just nice folks with an opportunity to celebrate Mother’s Day. It is not about making a profit except for FB. I didn’t bring up the book again. I flipped to my Amazon stats page and there was no sign of anything sold. Just some page views that have little monetary value.

It was the philosopher Rene Girard who talked about the magic of the “like” button. It offers us the illusion that we are all on the same (FB) page. It engenders a kind of harmony an often false sense of agreement. I think it is the power of the retweet that makes Twitter different in that our power on Twitter is based on your number of followers and to be retweeted by someone with numerous followers is inherently valuable as it gets you out of the bubble of your limited followers. I notice the editor of Hyperallergic is parsimonious with his retweets. I got one once when he retweeted an article he pretended to show interest in publishing and when I threw in the towel and put it on my blog he felt he could at least give me the imprimatur of his retweet. Never again, even though be follows me.

That brings up the existence of the comments section provided by many online magazines where I first interacted with the Hyperallergic editor who leaves the comment section open to anyone. Comment is often allowed only to buyers of a subscription. The monetization of the web is continuing apace. More and more sites not only now limit comments but open access to certain articles only to subscribers. If it doesn’t slowdown the number of readers and in fact increases them then there is nothing to stop it. But the comment sections have been my bread and butter starting with Hyperallergic. It was there that I made my first impact on the web commentariat. I read an article by John Yau, a well-known critic/poet from the days of hard copy. It described a phenomenon of a certain bland imitative abstraction that was being shown in NYC.  It was going for big bucks and he was not a fan. Based on the images he supplied I got on a tangential rant that became a blogpost with a label for the work: “Zombie Abstraction”. I linked it to the comment section for the Yau article and that was that. Four months later an article by Walter Robinson appeared in another online magazine referring to the same sort of painting as Zombie Formalism. Its publication must have appeared on the comment section of Hyperallergic. I pointed out in a back and forth exchange with Hrag Vartanian the publisher in  the comment section that it was I who first used Zombie to describe work of that ilk. Vartanian at Hyperallergic came to my defense although somewhat dismissively saying that zombie was in the air and that it was inevitable someone would use the moniker. At a later date Raphael Rubinstein in an article in “Art in America” mentioned me as the first to use the term. I heard from a blogger who is closer to the NY art scene that Robinson and Rubinstein are friends and that Robinson at the time was furious at the unwillingness of his friend to give him credit for first inventing the term. I must admit that if someone with the notoriety of Robinson had not written about the New York abstraction that I referred to, then my article would have remained insignificant. Such is the case with my article on “shake and bake” abstraction. I think the label is a clever one and the points I made are valuable but it will never achieve the same notoriety. As for ZF I did make the tour of online art writers who wrote about ZF. If they had a comment section or email I tried to convince them to include my name as the inventor of the moniker. Most agreed seeing the evidence from Hyperallergic to make the change. Saltz who was a major disseminator of the term with his “Zombies on the Walls” that appeared on the online version of New York Magazine noticeably did not. Noah Dillon of did make the change. My blog comes up on the first page of a google search for Zombie Formalism.

There is a pleasurable sense of isolation of being alone on the mountain top associated with blogging that can get one into trouble at times. It is probably a pleasure in getting things right in so far as you are not a gun for hire and write for yourself. Something as well about the facility of word processing that allows for one to get carried away by precision to such a degree one becomes oblivious to one’s audience. I write on my computer in solitude. One paints that way. It is the nature of the profession. I have had a knack for reinventing myself or at least respecting the issues that my painting represents to me and following their lead. In retrospect a lot of issues that I struggled with were not shared by collectors. I find critics have always been ready to chime in on the ideas that motivated my work. But that only reinforced my solitude and willingness to follow my intuition. Recently, this introspection backfired when I wrote about a hurtful experience I had with a New Yok coop gallery that with one hand accepted my work for a Summer group show and with the other upon the delivery of the work asked me to remove it from the show. No one ever gave me a reason for it. There was a smugness from the people I talked with on the phone that such a work would not be allowed to hang in the show. I could understand how it got in the show. The curator was a color field painter. In a desperate attempt to find some logic to it I made the farfetched claim that it was due to the gallery members who based on my research were fairly traditional artists sharing the views of a conservative(not politically) art critic whose work I actually admire. When the critic and his friends failed to show any interest in my drawing and painting book it dawned on me at the height of obtuseness I had probably rubbed him the wrong way. And even more appalling it took me a whole year to delete the presumably offending blog post. I was most likely so in love with my own words alone there at the computer at 6am when I do most of my writing that I let it stand published on my blog for this long.  To use an oft used expression: I cut off my nose to spite my face.

Casting a net into the net does bring in some interesting catches from well-known artists and critics who stumble across my writing, that would only happen off the web if I were published in respected journals. They have enjoyed my invective and in the case of one artist/critic shared some choice gossip about a contemporary artist that I had written about and I went on to repeat it on blog and then was asked by the source to delete as being too personal. What do I hope to achieve by all this blogging and interacting with the denizens of the web? On the one hand one creates a narcissistic self-referential bubble that only serves to reinforce a kind of clarity about one’s inner life but adds only to further isolation. On the other hand, there is a clear sense of chumming for fish. Throw something out on the water to attract some activity in the hope of catching a bigger fish. Meantime the ground of all this ranting and raving (there is some cogent thinking I hope) is my painting. It is still premised on being in the “white cube” the stage where the viewer and the work can interact and where both can be transformed. It is still primitive and is reminiscent of a believer in a church(a religious metaphor I used once on twitter that brought out the ire in an atheistic art critic with lots of followers) yet  miles away from the tumult on the net where everybody and their uncle pretends to know the status quo of the art world and the future. We all pretend to be omniscient. It was an early thinker of the internet Clay Shirky, who referred to this mass internet phenomena in his book “Here Comes Everybody”. But as I have pointed out (and my son Gabriel wrote his PhD thesis on this topic) there is still a power structure that those who have achieved notoriety outside the internet can enforce via a hierarchy of power built into websites on the internet. Trying to break into that hierarchy probably is the goal of my blogging. But as I have pointed out above there are always those who will with pleasure remind you of your irrelevance, where exactly you are situated in the pecking order.

I just got (Feb 20, 2021)blocked on twitter by the above mentioned Hraj of Hyperallergic for grousing about the newly imposed cost of commenting on his site. I used the word paywall that he said was the wrong word to use for paying for comments. It was the use of the wrong word that upset him. This obsession with language usage bespeaks a sort of priestly class that loves to control the meaning of words and penalizes misuse. He did not comment on my complaint about paying for commenting but using "paywall"  that he insisted only applies to content. So much gratitude for following his site for 8 years. But it did get a lot of hits, although due to his blockage I cannot any longer access his comments.  I thought of Freud's statement about the narcissism of minor distinctions but realize that if you play with it a bit you come up with a narcissist of minor distinction that describes Mr Vartanian. In regards to the distinction between the homespun folkiness of FB v.s. Twitter, Vartanian belied his understanding of the power-laden nature of Twitter when in his final au revoir he told me to go back to FB.

This mean spirited type seems to thrive on the internet. I recently posted one of my older blogs on the above mentioned, that many readers had enjoyed over the years. Not a great philosophical text but at heart a tender reminiscence of friends and conversation. It brought out a "scholar" who dismissed it as unworthy of comment. No dialog. What could have been a nice exchange was stopped in its tracks. He has continued to accuse me of trying to get the de Kooning I wrote about to submit to labels. It made me reread what I wrote and I am reassured that is was not an easy task and that I kept the concepts  grounded in the painting I chose to write about. 

I will never forget the anecdote Addison Parks told me about the day he introduced his wife to his mentor Leon Polk Smith. Throughout the meeting, Leon ignored her. As the meeting came to an end, Addison pointed out his rudeness. He told him "if you are not nice you are nothing".  It seems that everyone would rather be the lawyer pouncing on  your slipups in word usage. My demeanor is just show appreciation for what comes your way and spread the word. 

Recently, Jerry Saltz commented on a comment I made on a tweet where he posted a photo of himself kneeling in awe in front of a Rembrandt self-portrait at the Madison/Frick. It was a mixed "???!!!" but seemed to concur with what I said as did numerous followers. Here is what I said: "He does not lose the veneer of infinite detail as you move closer. It never becomes just paint." It had more than 5000 impressions. Now that is when Twitter works.

Now my access to a larger audience has been excised by Saltz when he blocked me after I complained about being blocked by Vartanian. I thought he would see himself as inclusive and less petty.But it is all the same club. It is the pleasure of excluding. The exclusion principle. So I limp back to FB.