Arts blogs blur the distinction between knowledgeable writers and loudmouths

How are artists adapting to a changing critical media landscape?

Collage and installation artist Dayna Thacker apologizes repeatedly for the mess in her Means Street studio. Although the moderately sized space bears the traces of an active artist, the state of the studio is similar to the artwork viewable on her website: precise, media-rich and imbued with a sense of highly controlled chaos.

Like many artists, Thacker's livelihood depends on managing her image both in real space and in cyberspace. And while the former probably hasn't changed in a generation, Thacker and others in the visual art world have to think more deeply than ever about how they function in the new media landscape, where chaos still seems to outpace control.

"When I Google my name," says Thacker, "I've experienced just bizarre things popping up." She looks both amused and worried as she recounts the disconcerting experience of witnessing a search engine create an impromptu biographical sketch over which she has no control.

"I do think about it because something will come up that's some blog ... I've never heard of and I've never seen, and it's someone's personal thing. And they've found my work God knows how, and they've posted an image of it."

So far, Thacker has yet to come across anything other than praise for her work, but the artist worries that won't always be the case. "I guess people don't normally post things that they don't like," she says, "but it does make me think that the commentary could just as easily be in the other direction."

Fears like Thacker's may become more common as arts blogging becomes more ubiquitous and the distinction between a knowledgeable writer and a loudmouth becomes hazier. As newspapers everywhere slough off the experienced art writers on whom artists have traditionally relied, many artists wonder how they should rethink their practice when all the rules about art writing are changing.

The whole thing makes Constance Lewis, owner of Opal Gallery in Little Five Points, nervous. "There's a lot of information without anyone to bear any accountability," she says. "There is a lot of stuff that I think personally is just a lot of stuff. I don't think that it has any importance in my opinion in the art world."

Lewis acknowledges art criticism as a "specialized pursuit," and says that much of what is considered criticism online is no such thing.

Thacker views this as a shift in the balance of power between artists and what's written about them. "If somebody wrote something bad about you," she says referring to print reviews, "you just didn't show it to anyone. ... No one would ever know.

"With the Internet, stuff sticks around forever. When people are being irresponsible as far as their comments go, or inflammatory – or maybe they just really dislike that work – well, the artist under discussion ends up with those comments attached to their name for God knows how long."

But if the Internet poses the threat of a sticky bad rep, it also holds more opportunities than ever for a good reputation. And artists are happy to engage with bloggers when it works to their advantage.

"People have no compunction now about listing online citations," says Thacker, referring to artists' resumes. "If local critic Jerry Cullum mentioned me on his blog [[http://counterforces.blogspot.com/|Counterforces and Other Little Jokes]], I would cite that."

For members of the art community, the key is who's doing the writing. Many use the offline world as a guide to navigate unfamiliar territory. "There are some bloggers whose names I know," says Lewis. "I value their criticism. So I will definitely look at what they have to say online." Photographer Steve Aishman follows suit, naming Cathy Fox of ArtsCriticATL.com among the names he follows regardless of where their writing appears.

Online publications produced by groups are the most frequently mentioned as meaningful venues in which an artist's name might appear. Lewis cites BurnAway.org as a credible source of critical information, and Thacker adds Art Relish to her list of sites she calls "important" in Atlanta's online art world.

"Because there's more than one person involved," says Thacker, "it seems like there's more of a focus and a control. And it's a peer group control. ... I think of them as having a little bit more credibility than individual bloggers."

Artists and galleries are not only being written about, however. Increasingly, artists are doing the writing previously reserved for critics and a few unusually articulate artist/writers.

Aishman views his Steve Aishman Photography blog as a way to listen to his own artistic voice. "For me, it's another creative outlet that allows me to ... focus and codify what I'm thinking about." He adds that like many artists, he's already thinking about art world issues, but "rather than writing in a diary or a journal I simply place it in a blog. That forces me to be more focused in my thoughts about any given subject."

Aishman joins other artists such as Kendrick Daye, Karen Tauches and Michael David Murphy, who have carved out significant online personas through writing as much as imagery.

Thacker likewise acknowledges that artists often have unique insight into the work of other artists. She names Jonathan Bouknight's now-defunct blog Local Ephemera as among the best examples of an artist writing about fellow artists.

In a media environment whose rules are being written on the fly, artists are reorienting themselves to the writing done about them. According to Thacker, however, artists still need the feedback that comes from writers in whatever medium. "There's a vacuum that has been created by print publications folding and being less apt to cover art," she says. "And something will fill its place. There's no doubt."

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