Essays

Our Reblogs, Ourselves

by Jillian Steinhauer on March 7, 2013

Richard Prince, "Untitled (cowboy)" (1987), Ektacolor photograph, 20 x 24 in (image via Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago)

Richard Prince, “Untitled (cowboy)” (1987), Ektacolor photograph, 20 x 24 in (image via Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago)

Editor’s note: This is the ninth in a series of commissioned essays for The World’s First Tumblr Art Symposium on Saturday, March 9, 2013.

For centuries, images were a fairly quantifiable, classifiable thing. One could, if one wanted, generally divide them into two categories: those made by artists and those not; artworks and everything else. There were always complications, of course — where did photojournalism fall, or works made by bad artists, or family photos — but the lines were pretty distinctly drawn: No matter the content or method, art images were those created by artists toiling away in studios or monasteries or workshops; they were shown in galleries and museums and sometimes books, framed very clearly as capital-A art. Plenty of artists have worked to undermine or discredit this system, like Richard Prince, who upset a lot of people when he started rephotographing Marlboro cigarette ads in 1980. Theoretically, the question with Prince went: was this art or copied advertising? The work, however, was shown in specifically designated art spaces, with Prince’s name clearly attached to it. It was undoubtedly art, even if people at first didn’t agree on its qualifications.

Then the internet came along — more specifically, the phase known as web 2.0, with all of its social media and sharing and blogging and reblogging — and it quickly demonstrated that those neat, categorical lines, which had seemed to be drawn in permanent marker, were actually laid down in pencil. Which meant they could be erased.

There are a number of reasons for this. I’m not interested in enumerating all of them (check out G.H. Hovagimyan’s essay in this series for a broader history of the web and net art). The one I am interested in, however, is the way the internet has created an entirely new context for images in the form of social media networks like Instagram, Pinterest, and Tumblr. The three tools function very differently, so it’s not entirely fair (or necessarily useful) to group them together. But they do share a single quality: all are platforms that offer people a chance to control the flow of images around them.

Times Square, the epitome of overwhelming advertising images (image via Flickr/wonggawei)

Times Square, ground zero for overwhelming advertising images (image via Flickr/wonggawei)

While it may be a cliché to say that we are inundated by countless images from our computer screens, our TV screens, our mobile phones, in our subway cars, and on the sides of our buildings, it’s one grounded in truth. What’s more, so many of these images are served to us in the form of advertising, with big, glossy pictures of attractive people trying to sell us things. So it makes sense that the rest of us, down on the ground, would want to wrest a bit of control of our visual world. We want a say in what pictures pass before our eyes, as their semiotic codes and hidden messages seep into our brains.

Sites like Instagram, Pinterest, and Tumblr offer the promise of that control, a chance for authorship and self-assertion in the face of unrelenting images and advertising. They do so in different ways: Instagram encourages you to be a photographer and make your own images; Pinterest tells you to use advertised ones to represent yourself; Tumblr falls somewhere in between, combining aspects of original creation and curation.

Tumblr is a curious thing. It’s a social networking tool, which means it’s a public forum for personal expression, as so much of the web is these days, and it is primarily visual. It’s got a layout and a format, but it’s also more flexible than something like Facebook. (An Xiao’s essay in this series, about bounded versus unbounded social media, elucidates this distinction well.) Because of its rules and templates, it’s not quite a blank slate, not a true void waiting to be filled in creative ways. But in terms of social media, it’s the closest thing we’ve got.

Naturally, then, artists and visually minded people have been drawn to it. Some artists use it as a portfolio and repository for their own, more traditional work in painting, illustration, or drawing. Others create photo diaries. But a good many of the artists on Tumblr, as well as of the network’s users in general, create collections of sorts, amalgamations of all kinds of images that inspire them — or, as film critic Carina Chocano wrote quite hilariously and accurately last summer in the New York Times, “cryptically named Tumblr blogs devoted to the wordless and explanation-free juxtaposition of, say, cupcakes and teapots and shoes with shots of starched shirts and J.F.K.”

Chocano, in her piece, compares these tumblelogs to mood boards; Hovagimyan, meanwhile, sees them in the tradition of artists’ morgues; Ben Valentine, in his essay in this Tumblr series, looks at some of these projects as digital collages; and Ellen Gruber Garvey, who recently wrote a book on the history of American scrapbooks, no doubt views Tumblr blogs as an outgrowth of that age-old practice. “Garvey argues that scrapbooks — which everyone seems to have kept during the nineteenth century — ‘are the direct ancestors of our digital information management,’” writes Christopher Benfey in a recent New York Review of Books review.

However you view their output, the users who create these kinds of tumblelogs — Brad Troemel calls them “image aggregators” in a 2010 essay, “The Many Faces of Tumblr” — are democratizing images in a previously impossible way. But not because of the skateboards and fur coats, sunsets and portraits they’re juxtaposing; artists have been using newspaper and commercial images as fodder for a long time. What’s revolutionary is the nebulous space in which they’re doing it.

If you look at the four ways listed above that people have tried to categorize tumblelogs, what stands out is that three of them are generally private practices. Scrapbooks, mood boards, and morgues are personal endeavors, the compilations we create for ourselves as a means of inspiration and self-expression. They’re only seen by other people if we choose to show them (or if we become famous and everything we’ve ever made gets published posthumously).

Seen on Tumblr: arresting pictures without captions or credit info. (screen shot of topplingmoleskine.tumblr.com)

Seen on Tumblr: arresting arrays of images without any captions or credit info. (Screen shot of topplingmoleskine.tumblr.com)

But Tumblr isn’t a private space. Like so much of the internet, it can often feel like one, a place where you dream up your own cozy little world, but it’s not. And this is where things get complicated, because when you’re scrapbooking, you’re not obligated to note who made that picture you just tore out of that magazine. Credit isn’t due, because it’s just a private collection. When you use Tumblr, and you reblog someone’s photograph, should you credit that person? Some, including myself, would say yes. But many people don’t do so, and don’t feel the need. The images are meant to speak for and among themselves. Tumblr is a public space governed by private-space rules.

If, on the other hand, you view these kinds of image-aggregation tumblelogs, or at least the ones made by artists, as artworks, digital collages of a sort, then another set of questions arises. Collage has blossomed for a long time under the protective shade of transformative use. People like Richard Prince and Sherrie Levine have pushed this concept to its limits, but the accepted version of appropriation requires that you do something to alter or transform a work in order to make it your own.

Does reblogging an image whole qualify as transformation? The only change being made is the context: from someone else’s blog to yours. If you see your entire blog as a unified artwork, that may be enough for you. Is it enough for the original author? Does s/he still deserve credit? Would adding a source line ruin the aesthetic of the tumblelog/artwork (probably)?

Tumblr: where art meets the everyday. Justin Kelly's "pocky and monster energy drink will coalesce in the presense of flame" (2013), from the tumblelog The Jogging. (Image via thejogging.tumblr.com)

Tumblr: where art meets the everyday. Justin Kelly’s “pocky and monster energy drink will coalesce in the presense of flame” (2013), from the tumblelog The Jogging. (Image via thejogging.tumblr.com)

This is what makes Tumblr such a fascinating space: it doesn’t fit into any of our previous models. A tumblelog isn’t quite a scrapbook, nor is it quite a collage; it straddles the line between private and public. And Tumblr itself isn’t necessarily an art space, but neither is it a mundane and quotidian one. “In the tradition of the avant-garde’s desire to collapse boundaries between art and everyday life, I see Tumblr as a remarkable tool,” Troemel writes in his aforementioned essay.

More importantly than collapsing distinctions, IAs [image aggregators] are a way to create unforeseen connections between disparate cultural poles. With IAs we have a chance to gain a greater art-informed appreciation for worthy cultural relics long deemed non-art and perhaps a chance to forget about the endless garbage heaps of forgettable art only present in our discourse because it has been contextualized as such.

In other words, whereas most image-based artworks have previously brought everyday life into the realm of art, we finally have an image-based field that brings art into the realm of the everyday.

The outstanding issue, of course, is authorship. Artists’ paintings and photographers’ pictures are easily reblogged on Tumblr without attribution, leaving the creators with little to no control over their images, let alone a way to enforce copyright. “The idea of ownership is antithetical to the internet,” Hovagimyan writes. And yet, ironically, while many artists watch their creations get reblogged away on Tumblr, the network thrives on the promise and premise of authorship. It’s just a very different kind.

For years now, the art world and the world at large have been looking unceasingly for a way to identify what creators of artful, aesthetically pleasing tumblelogs (and other blogs) actually do. The word of choice tends to be “curation,” much to the dismay of people who’ve actually curated. (See: Choire Sicha’s mini rant.) But it’s not clear to me why we so strenuously avoid calling it authorship, creation in and of itself, when the makers of collage and the writers of pieced-together conceptual poetry are deemed artists and writers.

Kenneth Goldsmith, in a 2011 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that drew a lot of attention, called for a new kind of writing, which he labels “uncreative.” He cites the theories of literary critic Marjorie Perloff, who “has recently begun using the term ‘unoriginal genius’ to describe this tendency emerging in literature.” Goldsmith goes on:

Her idea is that, because of changes brought on by technology and the Internet, our notion of genius — a romantic, isolated figure — is outdated. An updated notion of genius would have to center around one’s mastery of information and its dissemination.

Art without an author: a Moshambwooy mask from the Kuba people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. (Image via brooklynmuseum.org)

Art without a known author: a Moshambwooy mask from the Kuba people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. (Image via brooklynmuseum.org)

(I would add that our notion of genius, and by extension, creation, is also cloyingly modern and Western. In place with stronger histories of artisanship and art with a use rather than a market value — historic, ritual masks from Africa or traditional East Asian Buddha sculptures, for instance — there’s less emphasis on the artist’s name. Then again, a large part of that branding, at least at this point in time, is tied to making money, which I would like artists to do.)

Goldsmith’s basic argument is that writing needs to catch up with the other art forms (visual among them) and embrace appropriation and collage. He writes:

Mimesis and replication don’t eradicate authorship; rather, they simply place new demands on authors, who must take these new conditions into account as part of the landscape when conceiving of a work of art: If you don’t want it copied, don’t put it online.

Then again, one might argue that there’s a big difference between, say, Jonathan Lethem, who published a pro-copying essay that was actually comprised entirely of quotes pulled from other sources in Harper’s in 2007, and a teenage girl with an image-aggregation tumblelog. And there is, most clearly in terms of concept and purpose: Lethem knew exactly what he wanted to create; our teen doesn’t, necessarily — and in fact, that’s probably the point. (Not all art need be conceptual.) This brings up another unique aspect of Tumblr: the artworks-as-tumblelogs don’t end. They just … continue. What the hell do you do with that?

This is hardly the first time our notions of art and authorship have been challenged, and it won’t be the last. But it does seem as though we’ve reached a point of no return: reappropriation, remixing, and reblogging are more prevalent than ever before, and it’s hard to imagine them going away. While many of us (including me) still cling to old notions of fame and recognition, concept, and creation, the media we use are pointing us in a different direction. It’s time to consider what that means — and maybe move with them.

Hyperallergic would like to thank Pernod Absinthe for their support of the World’s First Tumblr Art Symposium essay series.

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  • Daniel Larkin

    What a great essay Jillian – I love the scrapbook comparison – not because these sites are like a scrapbook – but because it gets to the heart of the public shareable flexible nature of it all – images are just becoming so promiscuous these days… going viral…

    • Jillian Steinhauer

      Oh, Daniel. Only you could say this—”images are just becoming so promiscuous these days… going viral…” and get away with it. =)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1166481806 Ellen Gruber Garvey

    Really interesting work — and thanks for the mention. The issue of whether works are stripped of their attributions as they are passed along was very present in the 19th century too, and in contention. As I discuss in Writing with Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance, scrapbooks were also a node on the exchange system, whereby newspapers reprinted one another’s work, often without crediting the author (though they usually credited the other paper). They were far ahead of Franzen et al. in embracing reappropriation. In fact they were more interested in information that had been around the block than originality. They valued what had stood the test of time over the new.

    But the geographic boundaries mattered a great deal, so when a newspaper reprinted an item from a distant paper, it was not just placing it into a new context, but passing it along to a completely different readership — not so on the web of course, except in the sense of introducing the item or Tumblog to a new social cluster.

    • Jillian Steinhauer

      Hi Ellen—I’m so glad you found us/the essay! Thanks for pointing that out about scrapbooks; since I haven’t read your book yet (although it’s officially on my to-read list), I didn’t realize they had a more public purpose, too. And your point about geographic boundaries is well taken.

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