July 20, 2009

Art History as Added Value

Last month Joseph Del Pesco and I wrote about the new initiative by Artforum and e-flux (under their collaborative Art & Education site) which aims to serve as a database of scholarly essay on the history of art. Titled “Call for Art Historical Knowledge,” that post put forward speculations about the new archive, and mentioned that Joseph had sent to Art & Education a request for further clarifications about the editorial structure and economic model of the project.

In late June we received a response from Dawn Chan, an assistant editor at Artforum, who replied that the Papers archive is “an added service to the community,”  and “simply a venue whereby scholars can share their work.” It “yields no income.” She informed us that the goal of the project was to make worthwhile papers more easily available – which would supplement, rather than compete with, the venues where these articles might often appear. The few papers currently available seem to confirm this: they’re essays from gallery exhibitions whose catalogs are years old or relatively hard to access; translations, or studies which don’t seem to have been published before. The purview of the papers is wide, and the standards of writing are variable; the submissions are “given a cursory review by an editorial staff member, but are not edited. “All rights and permissions remain with the author.


I wonder if there is a large backlog of papers yet unscreened; or if the takeup in the first few months has been as surprisingly low as it appears, considering the potential reach of the archive.

Her letter also confirms the “hybridity” of the project in the sense discussed in our earlier post: the blurring together of commercial and sharing economies. While this may be “simply a venue” for scholars, the banners that appear on the page represent (somewhat less simply) “added value to some of A&E’s clients and supporters.” We find an interesting twist here,  for “added value” is recognizable as a phrase used in service economies – much like a “free gift” or a “complimentary breakfast,” something abstracted from the real service provided (and, need I say, contingent upon the variable efforts and will of the provider). It can also be used to describe resources expended by management to encourage satisfaction and good will amongst producers of value.

It is breathtaking to see the exchange of art historical knowledge positioned so deftly as “added value” on the margins of publicity and advertisement. Should we historians nod cheerfully, now, thankful that someone somewhere has accorded us any sliver of space at all? Use it if you will. Take it if you must. A token of our mutual interest. A bright smile with your transaction.

Comments (6)

  • Fortunately we can always find something to disagree about, to keep the conversation going. I really have much less of an issue with the “added value” concept provided that those adding said value are treated as the value creators that they are, i.e. compensated. These days, news is “added value” to newspapers that are more or less conduits for advertising. It’s not the best scenario, but it’s better than not having news outlets at all. If this project seemed more like a necessary strategy to underwrite pro-bono distribution of information, rather than to profit off of materials that scholars have made public for the greater good, I would be less skeptical.

  • Julian Myers says:

    Hi Anu,

    I do think we agree. (Though as a good friend once said, “We agree! It’s too bad. Now we have nothing to talk about.”)

    There’s an argument I suppose for using the site as a public repository for studies that are otherwise unavailable – which seems to be in tune with A&E’s intention and (from what I can tell from the papers currently available) those of their contributors. But then it becomes a junk drawer rather than a database.

    Despite my critical tone above, I would like something like this to exist, and appreciate aspects of the project A&E has set in motion. Few contexts for writing come without some ambiguity – indeed I wondered as I was writing if Open Space did not represent such an “added value” for SFMOMA (inconclusive…) But I would not send forward my writing unless the the conditions were different.

  • Hi Julian,

    I think we’re largely in agreement here. For me the key issue remains one of compensation because I am, in general, distressed by the expectation that corporations can aggregate my data for marketing purposes without consulting or compensating me. If my information is so valuable to them, they ought to pay me for it. So I see this debate through a similar lens. In my mind it still comes down to the fact that we are learning to expect less and less support for our work while corporate interests profit from our efforts, free of obligation to us. So that’s where I’m coming from. This seems to me like yet another example of “give us your work for free, and we’ll profit, and you should be happy that we acknowledge your existence.” I am firmly on the side of not participating, unless a more compelling counter-argument surfaces.

  • Julian Myers says:

    Hi Anu,

    Our argument in June reversed this arrangement. We wrote, “…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”).”

    That is, the people who receive the mailings and browse the site, represent, as an aggregate, value to clients and advertisers. It is to them (clients and advertisers) that A&E presents added value in the sense discussed above. If the database appeals to historians, it would be on some balance of collegial openness, and desire for publicity.

  • The question remains, does the A&E archive present any “added value” to art historians? Or are we to allow ourselves to be co-opted for free in order to “add value” to their clientele and advertisers?

    It seems the fact that you can’t put a price on history means historians don’t get paid.

  • As an art historian, I join in a collective sigh.

See all responses (6)
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