Hrag Vartanian Interview

This interview with Hrag Vartanian, editor-in-chief and cofounder of Hyperallergic, is part of “Intimacy, Distance, and Disavowal in Art Publishing: Conversation with Dushko Petrovich,” a series of conversations led by Dushko Petrovich about the tensions and processes of art publication, speaking to the parties involved with, and implicated by, Steven Nelson’s two-part Hyperallergic essay of June 2018.

Dushko Petrovich: Steven Nelson’s piece in Hyperallergic is such an interesting piece that brings up a few really important issues for art journalism and art history more generally, so I am looking forward to discussing with you. Why don’t you start us off by narrating the overall arc of the situation for readers who might not be familiar with Steven Nelson’s piece? We’ll go from there into your particular role as editor.

Hrag Vartanian: Steven Nelson approached me with this piece that he had been having trouble publishing for various publications. He thought that Hyperallergic might be interested because of the fact that it was also laying bare some of the conventions of art history and the art field where often image rights get in the way of scholarship, conversation, and critical articles—criticism in general. He had presented this article to us, and said, “Look, this has been the dilemma—” I found it incredibly interesting because, of course, this is a serious artist that is well respected, and after having read the article, the situation seemed really counterproductive. Why would an artist not want to give permissions to use these images with the piece? I thought it was a unique piece that way; often those decisions are made with pieces that someone might perceive as negative, or overly critical, or a take-down or something. But in this case, it was nothing like that. So it seemed like a perfect example to figure out: OK, what’s going on in this field, where these conversations are being stopped by the inability to have images to accompany work?

Petrovich: Steven’s piece is pretty neutral, so it makes a kind of immaculate test case. Also, because of his reputation, and Deana Lawson’s—I think they both have very good reputations. How did you decide on the structure of the piece in Hyperallergic? The piece opens with a brief introductory note, then presents the original essay, followed by a kind of coda in a second essay in which Steven narrates what happened and offers a few reflections on the issue.

Vartanian: Steven was very adamant about having the two parts of the initial essay and then the follow up, the postscript, together. At first we wondered whether they should be separate, but he was very adamant about that, and he was right. At the end of the day, when you read the piece, you really do get to thinking, why would this be the case? Why would there be a problem here? And the only problem you can possibly think of is this conflation of commercial versus “fine art” work that some artists are very adamant about separating. But when you look at the history of photography, some of the best photographers’ work is often their commercial work, or there’s no differentiation between those, at least in the way it’s discussed critically. So it seemed really important to have a postscript. I mean, how many academics do I know who have had to show artists their texts before they even agree to provide an image? That’s a problem, in my opinion, if we are going to really foster conversation around art.

Petrovich: I also found the idea that that journalistic photography for Time was considered more commercial that work that you sell in a gallery very interesting. I mean, it was hardly fashion photography where Lawson was working with a pseudonym to make a buck, or anything commercial in that kind of crass sense. We both work in journalism—on a personal level, I was surprised that journalistic photographic work would be considered more commercial than work that you sell for money in a gallery, you know? I mean, both of those seem to me like fully commercial enterprises, right?

Vartanian: The reason we wanted to publish this specifically is because we are seeing this happen more and more. Last year, when we had an article that reflected on blackness and abstraction by one of our writers, Seph Rodney, the artist Adam Pendleton didn’t want a specific image used. We had to approach the museum that it was exhibited in to give us an image, and that worked out fine. And we actually we don’t know why he didn’t provide it to us; maybe he didn’t have the image? There were a lot of factors that could have gone into that, but we were curious: why was that? And the text itself, again, was nothing super critical about the work itself. If anything, it was using Pendleton’s work as an example of a bigger argument.

We are seeing this happen a lot, particularly with work that is hard to photograph, or that you’re not allowed to document at all. Artists are being allowed to control the conversation because a lot of publications will not have images themselves, so they rely on these images provided by other sources such as the artist or gallery.

That’s actually one of the weaknesses in the art field. When we started Hyperallergic, we were adamant that writers should take their own photographs if they can, because I didn’t want to cede what is essentially a PR image to the gallery or artist. The critic or the writer should have their own subjectivity or their own perspective exerted, just like in their writing.

Petrovich: Your solution in this particular piece was to run blank squares with a bold dash-dash-dash border around them, along with the titles of the pieces that you couldn’t reproduce. Could you tell me a little bit about how you came up with that approach?

Vartanian: Well, I think the absence speaks volumes.

In the reading experience, we often take for granted that the image is going to illustrate part of the argument, and is going to supplement it. In this way, we pointed out who has the permission to reproduce these images. Now, you have to link to the Guggenheim, you have to link to these other institutions that own these images, but even they are not the ones that give the images to us. So we wanted people to be aware, because I think there’s a lot of this sort of misunderstanding around these types of things. There is this idea that images circulate magically, and everyone owns them, and there’s no copyright—that’s simply not true.

Petrovich: That is such an interesting paradox—especially for Hyperallergic, as a digital publication—to be kind of nestled in between those two conflicting approaches to images. One being that information wants to be free, and the other being this tightly, and, as you say, often clandestinely controlled circuit of images where permission is really leveraged to control the discourse. I thought that the solution you guys came up with was really a perfect “illustration” of the problem.

Vartanian: With the GIF that I created, there’s a specific reference I’m making. A few years ago, Slate tried to get permission for a Richard Prince image that they were never able to get. So the artist and blogger Greg Allen ended up appropriating the Richard Prince image and offering it to Slate as an artwork with credit to Greg Allen. He appropriated the appropriator, and I thought that was such a brilliant solution. I still don’t know if Richard Prince or his gallery ever gave permission for that image, but it was also a reference to the history of having to go around artist’s permissions in the field, and it’s also very much part of the history of contemporary art too, such as Marcel Duchamp appropriating the Mona Lisa for the L.H.O.O.Q. I just thought that our GIF was particularly an apt decision for the internet, particularly because of the different image rights, and the magazine as a context, to claim that as an original artwork rather than just screenshotting the images themselves. The pages flip casually, just how most people would actually be interacting with the magazine—they’re not going to probably sit there and look at each one.

Petrovich: One of the questions that Steven brought up in the end of his essay was, “Do artists understand the clear benefits of myriad views of their work?” What have your experiences been of this as an editor?

Vartanian: You know, it’s becoming an interesting dilemma for some artists. Artists often say they enjoy critical dialogue, but they often don’t mean critical dialogue. They mean writing about their work in a way that puts forth their worldview and writes critically about their work in a positive way. But the reality is that serious work has to be challenged, you know? Real criticism comes from a place of saying, “this work is important and needs to exist in the world, and I will contribute by looking at it and taking it seriously.”

What I am seeing in the rise of this celebrity art culture is that criticality isn’t being nurtured. Instagram, for instance, is one of the main currencies of the art world now in terms of image sharing. There is no criticality. I mean, it’s almost impossible to create critical dialogue with these forms of media unless you’re really concerted. And it’s not a coincidence, I think. It’s a way of projecting and broadcasting to an audience without necessarily having a conversation with them, and I think that’s why celebrities love it. And unfortunately, some artists are starting to enter that world, where Kehinde Wiley is doing Obama’s portrait and probably getting more media coverage than any art event we’ve seen. He’s sort of starting to take on a celebrity status. And he’s certainly not the only one; there are a lot of artists, like Murakami, who’s worked with Kanye and Hermès. That’s an interesting development. I don’t want to go into the fashion industry either, where it becomes a showcase of the newest product, the new thing. I have access, you don’t have access, and I’m going to give you a little exclusive interview. That is slowly what some of the art media is morphing into, more and more. And that is of a lot of concern for me.

And there is another somewhat related phenomenon that relates particularly to artists of color. There have been a lot of conversations about how artists of color will often have a lot of writing about their work, but not a lot of critical writing about their work. There are questions as to why that is, whether it’s because people don’t want to be perceived as saying the wrong thing and being perceived as racist or sexist. If by supporting an artist you are just sort of propping up their work and saying “this is great,” is that the kind of critical community we want to create around these works? It certainly isn’t for me. I want to be able to have those conversations, and, if anything, this situation with Steven Nelson just shows the complexity of reception and the complexity of how works live in our culture.


For Dushko Petrovich’s interview with Steven Nelson, author of “Intimacy, Distance, and Disavowal in Writing about Deana Lawson’s Work,” click here; to return to the main page of “Intimacy, Distance, and Disavowal in Art Publishing: Conversations with Dushko Petrovich,” click here.

Hrag Vartanian is the editor-in-chief and cofounder of Hyperallergic.

A founding editor of Paper MonumentDushko Petrovich is Chair of the New Arts Journalism Program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.