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Art in the Tumblr age
March 9, 2013 4:04 AM   Subscribe

"Artists often cling to control of their work and the context of its display, but to interact with Tumblr, they must give up that control. Art on Tumblr might get seen by many people, but 1,000 reblogs doesn’t mean anyone will be looking at your art next week, know that you made it, or be having a critical discussion. Given these reasons, it would make sense for artists to be wary of putting their work on Tumblr. But this isn’t always the case; a younger, more internet-savvy generation has embraced the web 2.0, feeling that the costs outweigh the benefits." -- Ben Valentine looks at Tumblr as art, in the opening essay of the world's first Tumblr art symposium, which can be followed on livestream.

Of particular interest might be Jörg Colberg's essay on the problem with Tumblr's use of photography:
In a nutshell, Tumblr does away with the more complex ways in which photographs operate by reducing them all to single entities. Even if someone were to use a sequence of images on a Tumblr, unless a viewer only followed that specific blog (and who does that anymore?), the sequence would be broken up in the dashboard. Add to that selective reblogging, and you’re in trouble.
posted by MartinWisse (30 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
Ha! Just as I found this tumblr right now on "tumblr art" and began wondering what that was... excellent timing, Martin!
posted by infini at 5:19 AM on March 9, 2013


"...feeling that the costs outweigh the benefits."

Wouldn't this be the other way around?
posted by cjorgensen at 6:10 AM on March 9, 2013


You know what's awesome about art on Tumblr? The interface is functional. You can see the images and browse them without having to take twenty minutes to work out how any particular artist's particular vision of a Java-diseased interface is supposed to work. I follow quite a few painters and other visual artists on Tumblr that I wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole through their websites.

Treating a tumblog as one would a show is really silly. It allows for real time dissemination of your work, broadening your audience, and establishing a log of your activities. It doesn't allow for the creation of curated, whole-cloth shows, even when you do use a multiple image post. Incidentally, Colberg loses a lot of credibility with me with that pull quote up there. Of course you can use a sequence of images. People do it all the time. People curate careful sequences of mac and cheese shots, arranged by colour, so they form a tidy rainbow of cheesy goodness.

Anyway, what he seems to be complaining about is how one cannot control people's interpretation of the artwork, and rendering an artist's statement and careful framing of a work slightly useless. To my mind, this is not entirely a bad thing. How many of us have responded poorly to artist's websites that control everything down to how your mouse presents, the size of your browser window, and the way you scroll, with sound, and video in the background? Is it possible to produce high concept artworks that survive, indeed thrive on the format, the quickly digestible and infinitely repostable? A good example of high concept art making a big splash on Tumblr is Marina Abramovic's The Artist is Present. It's been tearing up the place since it started, and people contributing have been using the full range of options discussing the work. I've seen video as well as stills, and in particular the interaction between her and fellow artist Ulay have been doing the rounds, particularly the gifset of the two of them taken from a video, taken from a performance...it's iterative. It does't disappear into the chaos. Each tumblog is linked to the others, and every time someone reblogs something you've posted you see it again, in a new light. I've seen that gifset an easy dozen times. I reblogged it myself, and then saw it again at least another three times as people who followed me reblogged it as well.

It changes the nature of the work. You wonder why each person reblogging from you is interested in it. I have people following me who have a diverse range of interests, and each is going to have a differing response to the artwork. Sometimes they articulate this in their reblogging, other times not. I don't think it lessens the impact of a work at all. Instead, it makes it more unpredictable, more uncontrollable. The message has the potential to become lost, but ultimately, if that message can't be carried in the body of the work itself, without a thousand word statement, then the message is worthless to begin with.

I find it amusing that the author decided to use Lacan Cat as his test case. It's like a lot of artists not familiar with the culture on Tumblr may have hard time viewing their work from without, much like a toddler learning to recognize their reflection as a solid object that can also be viewed from without. Even in the fully curated shows he speaks of, there is still an element of subjectivity, where the artist cannot control how the viewer interprets their artwork, regardless of how careful a show is curated or how pointedly a piece is framed. That subjective element is a big part of Tumblr. Each user is a curator in their own right, reblogging to create another entity entirely, removed from the original context of the artist.

Tumblr is fairly egalitarian. From the dash it's really easy to control how you consume your media, especially once you factor in things like Savior and Missing E. If anything, it takes away a lot of the pretensions of high art. The place is rife with "pop", "outsider" and "lowbrow" artworks - it's the go to these days for fandom, and there's a lot of illustrators and the like publishing their work there. There are a lot of really interesting stuff being disseminated on the site, but it's constantly being re-interpreted and reworked, and frankly I think that's the hallmark of a good piece of art. Something that retains meaning regardless of context, and that can be viewed and understood outside of the rarefied environment of a gallery or an overwrought website.
posted by Jilder at 6:18 AM on March 9, 2013 [20 favorites]


Art on Tumblr might get seen by many people, but 1,000 reblogs doesn’t mean anyone will be looking at your art next week, know that you made it, or be having a critical discussion.

Is Tumblr actively allergic to attribution or something?
posted by Artw at 6:56 AM on March 9, 2013


By coincidence, I was just reading John Allison's thoughts on Tumblr. He doesn't like it much:

Tumblr is the "that's funny" archetype writ large. A million bells and whistles going off at once. To attempt to "win" on Tumblr, you have to drive your work down to the lowest common denominator, collect your "that's funny", and then, that's it! It's the equivalent of pasting your work up on bus shelter glass in a rainstorm. The sun comes out, your work is gone, no matter how many people laughed at it.

The arguments for loss of "ownership" of intellectual property when people reblog your work are something else altogether. In the end, once you put something where you can get it, someone will have their fun with it if they want to. My great fear is that, in throwing work up into the air with a thousand other things, rather than nailing it down, what makes something special is gone.


On the other hand, Allison has a Tumblr blog and it's rather good.
posted by verstegan at 6:58 AM on March 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah, not really getting Tumblr culture beyond it being a place to host image-heavy might be a sign I'm getting old. Facebook I can happily look down on from my lofty height of Twitter because I pretty much understand it, Tumblr leaves me scratching my head - unless it really is just like that imgur thing that Redditors put every fucking thing into whether it's an image or not.

(They hate attribution too.)
posted by Artw at 7:14 AM on March 9, 2013


Is Tumblr actively allergic to attribution or something?

Not really. It's easy to set a click-through link to your sources, but it's harder to keep a caption or a tag. No worse than say, Pinterest. You've got to actively want to strip out the attribution to lose it if it's a click-through.
posted by Jilder at 7:56 AM on March 9, 2013


I've discovered lots of great illustrators and artists via Tumbler and Pinterest, but more often I find a great illustration and don't know who did it. Even when I click through what can occasionally be an endless series of via links there's often not an attribution at the end of the trail. I report a lot of things on my Pinterest page so I can refer to it later, but I feel guilty when I can't connect a name and/or artist's page to the image. many of the ones I do have took a lot of extra legwork. I'm wish giving the artist proper credit was hipper.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 8:10 AM on March 9, 2013


a younger, more internet-savvy generation has embraced the web 2.0,

I have my art on Tumblr, I'm glad to know I'm younger and more internet savvy, I woke up feeling 49 and clueless. This just brightens my whole day.
posted by doctor_negative at 8:25 AM on March 9, 2013 [8 favorites]


but more often I find a great illustration and don't know who did it.

Many of the common image formats (e.g. JPEG) have the ability to add comments to the file: do people ever use that to provide information on ownership?
posted by alasdair at 8:36 AM on March 9, 2013


I think what you're actually looking for is Tineye. But come on! I should not have to resort to reverse image search!
posted by Artw at 8:45 AM on March 9, 2013


I really enjoyed this series of essays - they're worth reading just for the links to interesting art tumblogs. I've just started to use Tumblr as a way of working through a project I'm working on that combines photos and writing. I've always found Tumblr interesting, but now that I'm using it myself it's a little easier to understand the culture.

The lack of attribution when reblogging does bother me a little bit, but I think it's a problem with the platform more than the users. I think the internet is still figuring this stuff out, and that someday a platform will appear that gets this right, or eventually the problem will be solved automatically by technology like TinEye. I suspect most Tumblr users would be happy to provide proper attribution if it was an automatic thing. People are excited to share stuff, and not everyone can be expected to care about proper curatorial practices. Tumblr's ease of use creates an energy and chaos that is really what makes the platform interesting.

One thing I don't really understand is how to get new followers. Am I just supposed to tell people about my Tumblr on other sites, like Facebook and Twitter? Does tagging stuff help make it discoverable? Should I be reblogging other people's stuff as a way for them to find me?
posted by oulipian at 9:44 AM on March 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


(I haven't done a comprehensive comparison, but I seem to get better results from Google reverse image search than form Tineye).
posted by jjwiseman at 9:47 AM on March 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


99% of my Tumblr visits are Twitter derived, FWIW.
posted by Artw at 10:04 AM on March 9, 2013


oulipian, I just jumped over to your Tumblr to look, and sometimes layouts don't make it clear, but are you tagging anything? A while back I made a comic, which ended up helping grow my follower base, and tagging my posts seemed to help in a way that word of mouth, or reblogging, didn't.

As for this, "but 1,000 reblogs doesn’t mean anyone will be looking at your art next week", what Tumblr has taught me is that popularity via reblogging is fleeting unless you consistently put out new things. If I want followers, I have to earn them by working for them. A hundred people have already told me this, of course, but I didn't actually learn it until I experienced it myself on Tumblr.
posted by gc at 10:05 AM on March 9, 2013


Does tagging stuff help make it discoverable?

I think it does make a big difference. However, unlike say a year or so ago when I would have categorically pointed to tags as the difference maker, today I am not as certain that that's the only reason for a particular tumblog's success in attracting followers.

I started playing around on tumblr after a thread on MetaTalk introduced tumblr and mefite tumblogs to me sometime in late 2010. No tags, just random stuff that was mostly personal. That original tumblog has few followers (80) mostly cross following with all the others who shared on that MeTa thread.

But another tumblog I began in Jan 2011 as a means to capture information for a series of articles I was preparing (delicious having imploded) was not only carefully curated but also accurately tagged. Its become a monster that's listed in Spotlight.

Oho! its the tags you'd think, like I did... but another experiment last year has never really garnered much attention (14 followers) - similar topic but different georaphy. Again curated and tagged.

So, was it the topic + timing (in the life of tumblr, my 2011 blog was one of the earliest in "business") + subject matter in addition to the tags? Is it more popular among certain geographies? There's little information about audience or even what percentage of followers are spam.

Recently I opened a pwd protected group tumblog for a project - its a useful grasp/capture tool for a team to use to share snippets on a topic.

I'm finding Tumblr fascinating as a world - I found myself describing it as a mixture of Myspace and FB replacement for young people - my experience with the popular tumblog shows a youthful, diverse audience, many of whom are not in the first world.

I'd love to see some decent information on what Tumblr's audience is, what their spam blog rates are like (do I really have 30,373 humans following or are 95% spambots?) and what is it all about.

In meantime, I'm stuck feeding the monster that's out of control in my backyard.
posted by infini at 10:38 AM on March 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


I don't have a Tumblog of my own, but I have a couple stashed in my RSS feeds. I just yesterday purchased two pieces from an artist that had been reblogged enough to find his way into one of them.
I liked them so much I followed the chain back to the source. It was pretty easy.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:44 AM on March 9, 2013


National Geographic celebrates 125 years of remarkable photography with new Tumblr
posted by homunculus at 11:17 AM on March 9, 2013


You know what's awesome about art on Tumblr? The interface is functional.

You must be visiting a different Tumblr than I've been visiting. While some layouts do seem to work fine, I find the vast majority to be real CSS nightmares, where images overlap other images, and scrolling becomes a stuttering, barely-scrolling mess as the number of images on a page increases.
posted by Thorzdad at 11:20 AM on March 9, 2013


Indeed, it sounds like a different Tumblr from where I visit. Perhaps because we see it from the dashboard side while the "myspace" side is what shows up to nonmembers?
posted by infini at 11:27 AM on March 9, 2013


In a nutshell, Tumblr does away with the more complex ways in which photographs operate by reducing them all to single entities. Even if someone were to use a sequence of images on a Tumblr, unless a viewer only followed that specific blog (and who does that anymore?), the sequence would be broken up in the dashboard.

Worth noting: you can order up to ten images into an album, and it is that album that will be reblogged and bounced around tumblr.

Indeed, it sounds like a different Tumblr from where I visit. Perhaps because we see it from the dashboard side while the "myspace" side is what shows up to nonmembers?

That's pretty much how it works. If you have a tumblr account you can "follow" a tumblr blog and see their posts mixed in with everyone else's in a dashboard that orders things by when they were posted, a lot like twitter's timeline. The big difference is that reblogs don't act like retweets. It shows up as a post on the reblogger's blog, with the person who they reblogged it from listed second. Very often that isn't the person who originally posted it, and you can enter this big long string of basically the same post by clicking the "reblogged from: x" link on people's tumblrs.

The good news is that Tumblr did add a source attribute to posts, so if you look for it you can find "source: x" and get who originally posted it to tumblr (not always the person who actually made the image, however). That source link is hard to find, however, and it's a little confusing the difference between "reblogged from: x" and "source: x".

Side note: if you are an original creator add a description to your images, as that will be transferred when reblogged and that quote will be attributed to you.

I see Tumblr's attribution problem as mostly a result of apathy than anything else. As long as tumblr users get this stream of what they want on tumblr, they don't really care who gave it to them, but if someone goes out of their way to say "HAY I MADE THIS" they don't really care. It's a little different in some other communities, such as Reddit and 9Gag, where that is called spamming.
posted by The Devil Tesla at 2:32 PM on March 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


Heh.
posted by Artw at 4:17 PM on March 9, 2013


why does everything have to run on electricity and be on the internet
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 4:48 PM on March 9, 2013


One thing I don't really understand is how to get new followers. Am I just supposed to tell people about my Tumblr on other sites, like Facebook and Twitter? Does tagging stuff help make it discoverable? Should I be reblogging other people's stuff as a way for them to find me?

Tagging plus reblogging = followers. That's it. I have a few tumblrs, but the two worth comparing are my personal one and my art history one. My private one is frankly a bit of a mess - it's just images and whatnot I find interesting, without much by way of tags. I wouldn't call it well curated at all. I'm reblogging about twenty to thirty posts, mostly images, a day. Followers: 71

FYLalique is much more thoroughly curated, very carefully tagged, and very carefully attributed. I won't post anything there that I can't verify, and I always attribute my sources. For 200 or so odd posts, all images, posted twice daily at irregular intervals, I have 300 followers. I've been spotlit twice.

Now these are not big numbers, and realistically I don't care. My personal one is for my own pleasure, and FYLalique is one of those odd little obsessive byways I developed because I kept talking to arty crafty people and finding a distressing amount of jewelers had no idea who he was. But it does show how useful the tags are, especially if you're using high traffic tags - for FYLalique, that tag is "art nouveau".

I also have a porn tumblr. It attracts followers like a turd attracts flies, and I haven't reblogged anything there since I fell pregnant, so call it six months. I still pick up three or four new followers a day. Make of that what you will.

You must be visiting a different Tumblr than I've been visiting. While some layouts do seem to work fine, I find the vast majority to be real CSS nightmares, where images overlap other images, and scrolling becomes a stuttering, barely-scrolling mess as the number of images on a page increases.

Yes, yes I am. I'm using the dash. It looks like this, and is piss easy to get around. You follow a tumblr, their posts appear newest-to-oldest, scroll down to view. This is why he's bitching about the loss of curatorial control. You'll note a lack of any sort of contextualising information for the images, just each post left to its own devices, competing with other posts. I didn't plan it thus, but the post second down is from his art tumblr, which I decided to follow last night.

This is how most people on the site itself - not casual viewers from outside the community - are viewing art tumblrs, by and large. My dash is typically 50 to 60 pages worth of content a day (harder to gauge since some recent tinkering with the interface - it takes about two or three hours to get through) and your carefully thought out, provocative painting is pretty likely to be sandwiched on my dash between a Foul Bachelorette Frog macro and an amateur shot of some goths in a tree. Users propagating your material will be seeing it there, not on whatever "CSS nightmare" of a layout any given user is availing themselves of.

The difference between how a logged in user and a casual viewer interact with the site is pretty massive. I can't really think of anything equivalent, with the possible exception of Twitter. An understanding of that difference is important to any critique of how it works as a platform for art. It's from the dash that most of your sharing occurs. Understanding that mechanic is important to understanding how Tumblr works as a platform.
posted by Jilder at 10:56 PM on March 9, 2013 [3 favorites]


An understanding of that difference is important to any critique of how it works as a platform for art. It's from the dash that most of your sharing occurs. Understanding that mechanic is important to understanding how Tumblr works as a platform.

Is there any user research {ethnographic/anthrodesign/all that qual stuff} material out there on this topic?
posted by infini at 4:11 AM on March 10, 2013


I report a lot of things on my Pinterest page so I can refer to it later, but I feel guilty when I can't connect a name and/or artist's page to the image. many of the ones I do have took a lot of extra legwork.

I only follow on Tumblr, mostly using it to get a feed of art, fannish stuff, and some fashion. I don't think I have anything new to contribute to Tumblr.

I do keep boards Pinterest, though, with the most important one being art I find inspiring. And I follow my own little rule which is I don't repin on that board - I always track the image down to the most original source I can find, and add the artist's name. If I can't find an original source, or artist's name, it goes unpinned.
posted by Squeak Attack at 8:34 AM on March 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Art schmart. It's disposable pop, or in today's lingo, content. Art as a career still requires, for the most part, a real world artefact or experience. If it's online, it's advertising.
posted by Ardiril at 10:35 AM on March 10, 2013


Heh. Did you, like, miss the 20th century?
posted by Artw at 10:40 AM on March 10, 2013


If it's online, it's advertising.

$20?
posted by infini at 11:09 AM on March 10, 2013


I kept talking to arty crafty people and finding a distressing amount of jewelers had no idea who he was

Has Antique Roadshow laboured in vain?
posted by MartinWisse at 3:16 PM on March 10, 2013


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