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Pros and Cons of Micromanaging Your Online Profile
Pretty much all artists search their online profiles from time to time to see what kinds of results come up and how they're presented. The large majority of artists do this out of curiosity and are satisfied with what they find-- and the more they find, the better-- but a small percentage are not, and as a result, decide they would like to revise, edit, alter or remove certain information or images of themselves or their art from third-party website articles or entries in blogs, gallery show reviews, interviews, or features about them done earlier in their careers. In other words, they decide to rewrite their own histories. To repeat, we're talking mainly about content on third-party websites here-- websites maintained by people other than the artists-- and not artists' personal profiles that they maintain themselves and regularly update on their own, like their own websites, social networking websites (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.), photo pages (Instagram, Flickr, Pinterest, etc), and so on. Even so, what you are about to read holds true for pretty much any information about you or your art that exists online, whether you maintain it or not.
Almost all third-party online information that artists find when they search their names-- pages relating to their exhibitions and art were originally posted not only with their knowledge, but also often with their blessings or the blessings of the galleries or venues that showed their art, and range in flavor from supportive to complimentary. Even so, a small percentage of artists still want certain content stricken from the record. How positive or accurate or truthful it may be makes no difference, but rather these artists now decide that they're in a different place, they don't like they way they looked that day, they no longer like that older art, they don't like the look of an image, and in general, feel that certain aspects of their pasts are no longer relevant (to them, that is) and should in fact, be expunged from art history altogether. So let's look at the consequences of this revisionist approach a little closer-- this redacting of information in a society where freedom of speech and freedom of the press are among our most precious liberties.
To begin with, the idea that certain images or information from the past are no longer relevant to the present could not be further from the truth. The fact is that not only are they relevant now, but they'll become increasingly more relevant with the passage of time as artists progress in their careers. Look back on the history of any famous artist and you'll see that it is their early history, their early work, their formative years that ultimately become the most significant, fascinating and revealing, not only in an anecdotal sense, but also in terms of documenting and understanding the course and evolution of their art and their careers. No matter how good or bad an artist thinks they looked at any given point in time or how successful or disastrous any style of their art or any event they participated in might have been, these facts are essential to history and understanding. Why? Because they happened... and because they shed light on the totality of an artist's existence. Plus this-- you might think you or your art looks less than spectacular in certain images, but someone else might think those exact same images make you and your art look fabulous (more about that later).
Read any artist monograph; go to any museum show. Do you think they'd be anywhere near as informative if the artists had censored the content available to authors or curators during the course of their art careers? Furthermore, informed critical and scholarly assessments, writings, bloggings and photographic documentation are overwhelmingly more objective and illuminating than artists' subjective attempts to alter their legacies based solely on egocentric concerns. The more information that everyone has access to, the better. In other words, respect, honor and cherish your history, and all those who contribute to it; don't deny it.
The greater the quantity and the more detailed any artist's documentation is, the better we can understand that artist's process, influences and art. This holds true even for the artists themselves. Don't believe it? You may not think so now, but ask any older or more established artist whether they would rather have more or less in the way of history and documentation of their life and work, and see what they say (hint: they'll almost always say yes, even if that documentation has to do with their fuck-ups). Plus this-- without their art looking the way it did years ago, or themselves looking the way they did years ago, who they are now and what their art looks like today would never have happened. Artists may think they know what's best for them in terms of either limiting or eliminating certain content from their online profiles, younger artists in particular, but at times, may be so self-absorbed that they lose the objectivity and perspective necessary to make good judgments, and while they may momentarily satisfy themselves, censoring facts has never ever served the greater good... including the good of the artists themselves.
Younger artists especially should understand that in art history, everything is essential, the early history even more so because it's generally scarcer and more difficult to come by. When artists are unknown, hardly anybody cares or pays attention to their art, not that many people follow them, and few people bother to document either them or their work. Once artists become well known or famous, there's no shortage of information or images to be had or people willing to chase them around and record their every move, online or anywhere else-- but early on, it's exactly the opposite. That's what makes early formative documentations of their lives and art so valuable and so worth preserving-- not deleting.
Would you rather see photographs of famous artists when they were young and unknown or when they were old and established? And how about their art? Would you rather see what their early work looked like before they got famous-- even their worst most awful mistakes-- or what their later work looked like after they became known and had settled into predictable patterns in their careers? And how about what people said or wrote about their work? Would you rather see only the wonderful things they say about it today or what they said about it years or even decades ago, both positive and negative? Think of all the uproar at the onset of famous art movements like Impressionism or Modernism. Suppose the artists who were skewered by conventional critics at the time had an Internet where they could request that certain content or images be deleted because they portrayed them in negative ways, or maybe because they just didn't like the way they looked? What kind of art history would we have then? The Internet is by far the greatest advance ever in terms of documenting the evolvement of culture because every event can now be recorded in greater depth, from more perspectives, in greater detail and with greater accuracy than ever before. And that's something worth embracing, not limiting.
Now let's consider what's necessary for revisionist art history to take place. In order for artists to reconfigure their online profiles they way they feel those profiles should be configured, rather than leave things the way they actually happened, they have to contact third-party websites or individuals and ask for certain information or images to be altered, revised or removed. Whether or not they initially approved or gave permission or were thrilled to have that content posted online in the first place, or whether their galleries or dealers were, the irony is that these artists have now decided to reconfigure their histories on the backs of the very people who documented them in the first place.
This is not generally a wise way to advance an art career because every time an artist asks someone to alter what they've already posted, especially when it was posted months or years ago, even though it's entirely accurate and well-intended, even though that person spent time and labor posting it, the artist is virtually guaranteed to lose that individual's support. Furthermore, the art world is a pretty small place, word travels fast, and if an artist gets a reputation for trying to micromanage their persona or press, rest assured that fewer and fewer people will risk covering their activities in the future for fear of being asked to either revise or delete portions of their content later. There's simply no upside to artists inconveniencing and imposing upon those who believed in them enough to give them exposure. After devoting their time, labor and website space to these artists, now they're being asked to spend even more time altering or removing or revising that content. Makes no sense.
What also happens when artists alter or remove information or images from the Internet is that, contrary to the belief that they're doing themselves favors, they actually reduce the number of search results that come up when people search them by name, thereby reducing the number of options for searchers to click on because certain keywords or images that previously would have appeared in search results have now either been altered or removed altogether. Simply put, their profiles are more difficult to access. The worst possible outcome is when someone searching an artist decides not to click on any link at all because the only images or content that might have interested them enough to click on were deleted at the request of the artist.
For example, let's say an artist doesn't like an older image of himself or an image of his older art. That doesn't automatically mean that no one else will like them either. Someone searching their name might love them so much that they'll click on them before they click on anything else. In fact, those very images may become the basis for that person forming a positive opinion about the artist. So why eliminate the possibility of that happening? Remember the old saying that all publicity is good publicity? Well, news flash: It's true... and it's truer online than almost anywhere else because every shred of content relating to either you or your art means one more opportunity for someone to find you!
Artists may think that manipulating their online profiles is a good idea now, but this is an exceptionally shortsighted approach, especially considering that their careers will likely last for quite some time to come, and that the longer those careers last and the more successful those careers are, the more important the early art (both masterworks and mistakes), images (both flattering and not so flattering), critical reviews (both positive and negative), writings, blog posts, articles, interviews and features become. Controlling what the public sees or does not see does a huge disservice not only to their personal histories, but also to our overall knowledge of art history as well.
Revisionist approaches to history are censorship, pure and simple, and if there is one thing that art and the art world are not about, it's restricting freedom of expression, not only of artists, but also of the critics, scholars, historians, writers, bloggers and photographers who publish art content online. We want access to the most educational, informative, compelling and inspiring art history available-- history as it happened-- not revised, edited or expurgated versions. So think twice before altering your online art profile or asking others to do it for you because in the end, you'll be doing neither yourself, your fans nor the art world any favors at all.