“Thank you guys for coming,” Alexis Clements said last Thursday night to a small crowd at the Brooklyn Museum largely comprised of women. “Actually, I shouldn’t say ‘guys,’” she interrupted herself, “Thank you all for coming.”
That introduction set the tone for a panel that the playwright, performer, and Hyperallergic contributor moderated, called “The Art of Feeling: Contemporary Arts Writing and the Internet.” The talk was hosted by the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum and promised to examine “how feminism and feelings intersect with internet-based writing about the arts.” Discussing the meeting point of both feminism and feelings proved a little broad, as panelists struggled to stay within the bounds of a discussion that began with Clements explaining her inspiration for it.
“Feelings are the seed from which so much grows,” she said. “That’s why feelings are, for me, a really important thing to talk about and why it’s really interesting to pay attention when someone is asking you to put away your feelings.”
The internet, as we all know, is a great transmitter of capital-F Feelings, and Clements said that has shaken up how many online critics approach discussing a work of art.
“You’re almost always speaking, ‘I felt this way. I reacted this way to this work of art,’” Clements said. “Which goes against the old mode of art criticism, which is, ‘The audiences comes to see this work and I pass judgement without saying I.”
Kareem Estefan, associate editor at Creative Time Reports, noted that while most art blogs started from a single, first-person perspective, they have evolved over the years to resemble online magazines, where a host of diverse, first-person voices join together in conversation.
But if the internet has opened up space for a multitude of reactions to art, it has also broadened the scope of what art and arts writing can be, according to panelist An Xiao, a Hyperallergic consulting editor. Xiao recalled wanting to write an article about how the Chinese communist party used design as a form of propaganda. It was a hard sell for a print arts publication, but Design Observer published it online. That experience led her to start looking into internet memes surrounding Trayvon Martin and Chen Guangcheng, which she explored in posts on Hyperallergic before being invited to write about the subject online for The Atlantic.
“[The internet is] a way for me to explore these topics in a less structured space than print. It opens up the space for what can be discussed,” Xiao said. “It was hard to imagine that might have been possible before the internet — to just jump into print with this crazy idea that memes could be meaningful.”
By widening the possibility of what can be discussed, digital arts writing can give voice to marginalized or ignored communities — which brings us back to the feminist angle of the talk. Panelist Gabby Bess started the journal Illuminati Girl Gang as a way to legitimize “overflowing girlish emotions” that are typically ignored or dismissed by society. The journal curates writing by teenage girls on blogs and seeks to elevate it as art. “They’re writing from a place of feelings, and that’s where most literature and art comes from, at least in my view,” she said.
“It’s essential to have words around what you’ve done — doubly essential, then, for women who have largely been dropped out of history,” said the painter Mira Schor, who has published extensively in print and online and who now blogs at A Year of Positive Thinking.
When Schor began working in the 1970s, she realized that if she wanted to read arts criticism about her work, she had to write it herself. Then, in the late 1980s, when feminism was experiencing a cultural backlash, she wrote a critique of a male art star’s work, but no one wanted to publish it. That led her, together with painter Susan Bee, to found the magazine M/E/A/N/I/N/G in 1986. “If it were now we would probably do it online,” she said.
But does creating a space online for marginalized communities ensure their voices will be heard in the real world? Does it lead to actual political change? Estefan was hesitant to go that far.
“New media can, potentially, usher in social upheaval, provide outlets for feminist thinking and amplify voices that have been oppressed, but this is always contingent on more important factors,” he said. “The impetus for social change is never purely technological. It’s always historical, political, and economic. It’s a simple point, but it bears repeating — especially when social media is continually hailed for its role in revolutions — technology has no agency. No agenda.”
Estefan also cautioned that web-based platforms aren’t any more likely to foster feminist approaches to arts writing than print publications. “The key on- or off-line is the editorial team, the presence of feminists on that team, their decisions on how to run the publication,” he said.
Bess offered an anecdote that seemed to put the power of digital arts writing in perspective. She remembered attending a talk by Leymah Gbowee, who led the women’s peace movement in Liberia that helped end the country’s second civil war in 2003.
“I asked her ‘How has the internet influenced your politics and activism?’ And she’s like, ‘I literally don’t have time to think about the internet. The internet is not my concern at all.’ She’s involved in bringing peace to African countries and not the Internet at all, and I’m blogging every day and not really accomplishing that much,” Bess said.
But the internet and digital arts writing have certainly opened the door for change a little wider. Bess added that the web provides a place for burgeoning communities to gather and know they’re not alone, getting them to realize that “someone else is thinking the same thing, and you’re not an idiot.” That has to count for something.
As the event stretched into the two-hour mark, audience members began dropping out one-by-one. I couldn’t help but wish there was a little more of the same fresh exuberance and playfulness in the discussion that makes reading these same writers so much more enjoyable than cracking open an dry print journal. It may be that the talk’s format — an academic-feeling panel — and institutional setting just wasn’t as conducive to Feelings, my own being: wouldn’t it be more fun to talk about this all online?
“The Art of Feeling: Contemporary Arts Writing and the Internet” took place at the Brooklyn Museum (200 Eastern Parkway, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn) on May 1, 7pm.