“Call for Art Historical Knowledge”

June 8, 2009  |  By
Filed under: Field Notes

This post was co-written with curator Joseph Del Pesco.

On May 22, Artforum and e-flux announced to their Art & Education mailing list the launch of the Art & Education Papers archive,  “a free online platform for the publication and exchange of texts on modern and contemporary art.” They continue, “At a time when the distribution of many forms of knowledge remains confined to small conferences, private seminars, or specialized academic journals, we believe that the broad distribution and exchange of ideas is key to increasing dialogue in all aspects of art production, criticism, and history.” The notice concludes with a call for papers: “either new or already existing (published or unpublished, recent or older) scholarly articles from around the world…Texts may be culled from conference papers, seminar papers, dissertation chapters, etc… All submissions will be considered for publication on the website.”

To say this is an interesting development would be an understatement. Yet the import of this move is still unclear – and indeed the call has been sitting in our inboxes, provoking no definitive action and yet impossible to file away. On the positive side, this archive promises to be one antidote for the cloistered nature of academic publishing, and a healthy rearrangement of existing hierarchies. Existing databases of this kind, such as JSTOR, have clunky interfaces and search engines, and are available only to those at participating institutions. They could use some competition. This archive also proposes to be far more open, and to make available research that is now out of print or difficult to access. Yet it is hard to imagine sending off our work at the behest of a mass email. And there are troublesome questions (familiar enough from the debate on file sharing of music and movies) about what effect such an archive might have on existing publication strategies.

In his book Remix, Lawrence Lessig argues that commercial economies and sharing economies rarely mix. You can’t buy a friendship and you can’t ask customers to voluntarily help-out by sweeping the floors at McDonalds. Academic institutions are, however, hybrid of the two: While they charge often exorbitant fees for admission much of what is produced there is made freely available for the intellectual benefit of academia and culture in general. As a result of this mixing they have been afforded privileges like being exempt from some intellectual property laws (photocopying for educational purposes for example). E-flux, which works “in cooperation” with an international array of education related programs and publications, is similarly hybrid. They charge hundreds of dollars for sending out email announcements to a targeted audience, but offer a discounted fee for academia. But so too do they “cooperate” with institutions who advertise on their website, capitalizing on the rather large international audience they’ve assembled.

While this is not the first time e-flux has branched out beyond mailing lists to provide content – see the Projects section of their website or more recently e-flux Journal – its partnership with Artforum signals a radical shift in ambition and scale. In an effort to sort out just what we think, we’ve attempted to set out arguments for and against the papers archive (with apologies to John Dickerson and Slate, whose “Debate-o-matic” format we’ve borrowed).

Send in your papers! In many fields outside the arts, academic research has specific trade routes; peer reviewed journals are carefully vetted by a group of proven experts who are assembled to review a particular piece. Only then are papers deemed ready for serious consideration and sent to print. By comparison review panels at arts journals have small and unchanging editorial boards. This sometimes promotes nepotism and insider trading over academic rigor. Decisions are made behind the scenes and the board’s qualifications for review are rarely contested. While the review process has not been made transparent, the Papers archive may provide a needed second-tier review, and through collaboration with two primary organizations, a better (or at least larger) review board.

E-flux boasts distribution to “more than 50,000 visual art professionals” internationally. This network may be one of the most viable means for inexpensively distributing important ideas and critical methodologies. It may also bring the most up-to-date research straight to students through the “cooperative” network of Arts & Education. It’s too early in the life of the initiative to report, but perhaps, as with the e-flux journal, when new papers are published they’ll be announced directly to the audience that cares most. So too will these articles be accessible more broadly, to anyone with internet access, and for longer than the  cycles determined by the publishing industry. This kind of openness will foster an expanded readership, and more conversation; in a best case, broader distribution  might also work against the common impression that “visual art professionals” are a hyper-specialized, jargon-loving cabal, out of touch with the mainstream of culture and seeking jealously to guard their own authority.

It’s not what it seems to be. “The broad distribution and exchange of ideas” is a pleasant euphemism for the monetization of knowledge and education, in this case through the mechanism of advertisement. Who profits from this situation? The archive, we must assume, will be compensated by the institutions whose advertisements grace its sidebar; the institutions themselves are compensated through the tuition of their students. Contributing scholars, on the other hand, provide their labor to the site for free. For all their expertise, they have the same status as reviewers on Amazon, as content-providers who must make their living by other means (academic journals do provide writer’s fees, token though they may be). Content has no value in this arrangement – mediation is everything.

The territorialization of art historical knowledge is detrimental in all sorts of ways. But this is no solution at all. Insofar as it depends on a more or less opaque editorial framework, it is no better or worse than existing journals. The real distinction seems to be the mode of distribution. In this light what purports to be a neutral gathering up of disciplinary knowledge comes to seem more like the consolidation of another audience Artforum and e-flux can sell to advertisers (updating for the 21st century Richard Serra and Carlota Fay Schoolman’s assertion that “television delivers people”). Furthermore, they do so at the particular expense of academic journals and publishers – on which they paradoxically depend for content – and their editorial boards, on whose efforts and expertise they capitalize, and but whose authority they assume for themselves. Other, better models are out there (aaaarg.org being one we both like – though it works on a much smaller scale than Art & Ed.).

We sent on May 25 an email asking Art & Education for some clarifications on these matters, but haven’t yet received a reply. Hopefully we can hear from other perspectives in the comments boxes in the meantime.

3 Comments

  1. Anuradha Says:

    This conundrum is endemic to the academy. Scholars are expected to answer to a higher calling than base compensation, and that standard is strategically employed to deny us an adequate living. A for-profit entity engaged in an academic review process needs to be 100% transparent to avoid exploiting the content providers.

  2. Lucas Says:

    As you point out above, the obscurity of the systems of evaluation and selection going on behind the scenes is a concern. In practice, this top-down approach is in opposition to the very nature of the web. It’s a shame, because the web presents the opportunity for a more distributed and open system for evaluation and accreditation.

    Further, I had a look at the “papers” page on the site – http://www.artandeducation.net/papers/view/1

    There is an essay by William Kaizen which might well be fascinating, but it’s visual layout makes it unreadable on the screen.

    Further, there is no box at the bottom of the essay for comments and discussion. This is something of an oversight in this new publishing environment, don’t you think?

    What I would suggest is the addition of some contextualising remarks from the art and education committee, before and/or after the long essays being published. These would help us to decide whether the essays are worth reading, why they were chosen for publication and through what process. It might help to shape discussion which could take place in the comments section – further adding layers of meaning to the original published paper.

  3. Julian Myers Says:

    Hi Lucas, I agree, its design isn’t reader-friendly. Comments boxes, contextualizing remarks or summary, allowing users to tag articles they see as worth reading – all great ideas.

    JSTOR enables its users to download PDFs which reproduce their original publication layout and pictures, which helps a lot when navigating the essays in class. Not least do they include (somewhat) better and more numerous images – utterly necessary for the forms of visual analysis that are fundamental to the history of art.

    Of course, it’s early days still and everything may change and develop.

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