The LiveJournal to Sotheby’s Pipeline

By February 15, 2021

I began meaningfully making art at the age of thirteen because I needed content for my DeviantArt profile. Cause and effect may be a little off here, but in 2002, I began what has become nearly two decades of making art and putting it online, along with other places which have included drab public school classrooms, friends’ DIY spaces, independent magazines, art school, galleries, art fairs, and museums. From the early aughts onward, there has always been a chorus line of people primed to question and criticize the practice of posting work online. Many believe that the rapid social media-ization of contemporary art has fundamentally broken its rigor and gauchely revealed the superficiality of “the market”—and, for the most part, I probably agree. It’s with a bit of shame that I continue to upload jpegs of deeply tactile sculptures onto my instagram—occasionally with journal-esque captions and self-promotional notes about upcoming exhibitions.

Seeds, a juried show. applications open through August 5 at Westobou Gallery, Augusta

TL;DR, I know that it’s gross and silly. This practice does not constitute meaningful relationship-building with other artists, but has nonetheless been part of finding and maintaining community and gaining access to the art world as someone living outside of the New York-Los Angeles paradigm.

And there is something about the GameStop Short Squeeze of 2021 that has me meditating on how proto and current web communities have created similar hacks against the ivory tower art world of New York for dozens of young artists over the last decade. Just as the internet has gamified most sectors of the economy, it has also inserted its trollish fingers into the pie of art world pedigree. At its worst, this takes the form of speculation based on Instagram likes and getting tagged at the right Dinners1, but I think it’s a longer con than that. I can name at least half a dozen younger artists with impressive auction records or gobs of museum shows who I became friends with in high school on LiveJournal or Flickr art communities. Many of them, like me, came from unsexy suburban hell holes without any meaningful access to art in their day to day lives. It’s a tale as old as time: the suburban “alt” kid finds solace and radicalization on the internet. For me this started with DeviantArt—which I found too clogged with hentai2—and moved quickly over to LiveJournal. 

A scan of my face at fifteen for a LiveJournal post.

At first, it was the emo gossip rag of any tween, but one day my friend Monica sent me a link to an “invite-only” group where people posted art, creative writing, and poetry. For those not blessed with LiveJournals during the most emotionally tumultuous years of your life, Groups often functioned as highly curated forums with limited, often coveted access—they became a primary space to present my “artwork” to others, creating small kabals of fellow wannabes. As I moved into high school and began to approach the age of applying to college, I stumbled on a Group dedicated to people applying for admission to Cooper Union, the golden ticket of art academies for those of us who wanted to be so-called Real Artists. Cooper gave out its highly competitive, free tuition seats in its freshman class based on a Home Test, a twenty-day gauntlet to complete six new works of art based on their vague prompts and mail the resulting works along with a sketchbook back to their offices in New York. 

I have to imagine the Home Test prompted many kids’ first experiences with uppers, or, at least, that’s how I spent my winter holiday in 2006, chugging Diet Coke and sneaking my sister’s Adderall out of the medicine cabinet at night. No one in my town had ever applied to Cooper, so there was no one I could turn to. But I had been training for this for a year, obsessively researching posts on LiveJournal cataloguing successful and unsuccessful Home Tests. I’ll spare any more details and just leave it at: I got in. So, as a seventeen-year-old whose understanding of art and culture came primarily from LiveJournal and the arts section of Barnes and Noble, I was headed to a premier art academy in New York City.  Using the internet to game art school admissions isn’t a guarantee of success in the field, but being in New York and graduating without a mountain of student debt certainly helps. For example, Cooper Union alumni typically make up about one third of the admitted students to Yale’s MFA program year on year. This traditional linear momentum is predicated on assimilating to the prescribed Ways of Being in the art world and discarding the vestiges of a populous internet-bred approach to making. I had a terrible and incredible time at Cooper Union and still feel warmly nostalgic when I reminisce about those traumatic years—most alumni feel the same way. Although I hear it’s different now, when I attended, the atmosphere was deeply heteronormative and sexist, overwhelmingly taught by older white professors, and brazenly hierarchical along outdated medium-specific valuation (with, predictably, painting/sculpture at the top). The idea that the internet could provide any meaningful sense of community, any insights into an art practice, or any path to success in the field seemed far from the realm of possibility to my professors.

My undergrad years were also the years of the art blog and the rise of image farms: collectors and curators started to seriously consider who was featured on visually driven sites such as Contemporary Art Daily. The forces of the old New York Academy and the new reality of the accelerationist art internet were butting heads all around me. One day Lucien Smith came and sat next to me in the computer lab and started printing out hundreds of pages of jpegs ripped off art blogs. I liked Lucien; he was in my year and always sweet. I share this story not as a condemnation of him, but more as an example of how much more influence the internet began to have on us than the professors at this most famous of art schools. I asked Lucien what he was doing and he explained that he used the free printers to create these tomes of reference images: art he saw on the internet and liked, art that was getting attention from gallerists and museums, art that was selling and moving. He would flip through these print outs while working in his studio at school. A year later, paintings at his senior thesis show were rumored to have sold for five figures. Three years later, a painting from the same series sold for $372,00 at auction. The egghead theory bros who lionized the old school professors turned up their noses and gawked at the depravity of it, but Lucien graduated able to feed and sustain himself. This is more than most art school alums are able to make happen for years without rich parents. Am I condoning making art from a place of studying flipper bait? No. But certainly this hunger for any meaningful way to make a living in the field was exacerbated by an institution completely at odds with the reality of living and working in the world outside of its brownstone walls. In 2011, Cooper Union did not have a single “professional practices” class and the ecosystem of galleries, grad school, and day jobs were rarely discussed.

A professor I loved smoking during sculpture class, Spring 2010.

Although I didn’t “meet” Lucien on LiveJournal, I certainly met dozens of former online friends IRL for the first time within the halls of Cooper and at parties in New York. Without outing anyone, some have gone on to have solo shows at the Whitney, while others have gone onto have wildly successful traditional art world stories with Yale MFAs and multiple-gallery representation, and others have had similar paths to Lucien, with eye-popping auction sales and market stardom. Many of my friends from the online photography community have similarly become serious power brokers—photo editors at the New York Times, staff photographer at New York magazine, and so on. Not all roads of earnest teen art internet have led to that kind of success, however—some have moved back to their hometowns to become librarians or pursue non-art careers, many are still grinding it out in New York and Los Angeles, making incredibly smart, meaningful work that hasn’t yet gotten its due. 

Once out of undergrad, it became clear to me that students at other art schools had maintained their reliance on the internet for intel on the art world far more than those of us in New York. Particularly kids in Chicago, Philadelphia, Portland, and Baltimore had remained Very Much Online and were ready to “short squeeze” their way in. Between 2008 and 2015 there seemed to be an abundance of artist-run galleries designed for the internet and well-oiled to propel their savvy peers into art world fame. It would take another essay to fully lay out the history and spheres of influence that made this moment possible, but in short, a decentralized art world in a post-recession economy when most art school grads had six figure debt is more or less the recipe. Without a clear pathway into the high money big institution art world, a bunch of twenty-somethings started building their own mechanisms of visibility propped up by DSLR cameras, fluorescent lights, and an internet connection. These were almost proto -TikTok HypeHouses for horny BFA grads in secondary cities. If we can’t afford to live in New York, then we will make a place online with just as much influence.

The problem was that it worked. Many of the small artist-run spaces that mimicked the polish of New York Galleries started getting invited to participate in the same art fairs as those galleries, the artists they showed became market darlings as much as they were internet darlings, and bloggers started being treated as curators and tastemakers. The emerging art speculation craze escalated, and the same people who had resisted the empire uprooted and moved to New York and Los Angeles to cash in. Just as with the GameStop Short Squeeze, this was always about getting money and power as much as it was about hacking a closed, insider knowledge base. This move of people from internet-fortified mini-art worlds in secondary cities also came from the reality that places like Chicago, Portland, and San Francisco can only offer so much in the way of jobs in the arts, access to exciting conversations, proximity to artists you identify with. As all cities in America become unaffordable, why not live in the ones with the most artists? 

Installation view of Bailey Hikawa’s exhibition Emperor, Emperor, Emperor at Important Projects in Oakland, California (a gallery in a craftsman house run by Joel Dean, and my now husband Jason Benson).

Many of those folks who were Very Online have become very much less so. A pen-pal from high school who mailed zines to me and came from a similar middle/working class suburb in the South has since become a well-respected artist in New York. They moved deftly from market-friendly painting to high conceptual, installation-oriented work and now show with the “Smartest Gallery.” Recently they posted an image of their work on Instagram with a lengthy disclaimer about how icky and weird they felt about posting art online. Sometimes when I see comments like this I roll my eyes at the self righteousness of it, but this one made me sad. This artist cut their teeth on the internet, got out of the South thanks to hacking Cooper Union, and still posts constantly on social media. Did the algorithms of big tech break our ability to build meaningful support networks online? Has it been entirely replaced so quickly by local scenes and IRL experience? Hasn’t COVID-19 resuscitated the internet’s use value as not only a market tool but a social and intellectual one?

As a deeply reclusive person who left New York as quickly as I could after graduation and now lives back in the South, I want to believe in the ability of the internet to create meaningful pathways into the art world that aren’t just about like-endorphins, collector-baiting, feedback loops, and the means of finding other people’s work to copy. I don’t have the mental health, the wealth, or the personality to live in New York or LA, and I wasn’t prepared to turn my internet-afforded access to those scenes into meaningful real life friendships and professional connections to the same degree as many. But I understand that my ability to participate in a broader art community from Atlanta is predicated on being Very Online and creating visibility for myself in a way that honors the limits of my body while not infecting my practice with a need to make work because and for the internet.

Riddled with shame after teasing about my love of Art Internet and out of the desire to integrate into the culture of Serious Art School, I deleted my LiveJournal during my freshman year of college. I backed up nothing before hitting delete. While the analog pieces that were scanned and fashioned into elaborately designed posts still exist in boxes in my basement, the first four years of my artistic practice as it unfolded online are now gone. LiveJournal continues to exist, a deadened relic barely alive on a server farm in Russia. All that I have left are the broken contents of about four posts in my Gmail archives. Perhaps it’s because of the freezing rain here in Atlanta today, and the pandemic, and having not gotten to meaningfully spend time with my artist friends in nearly a year, but those little shards from my younger internet self feel less tragically embarrassing than usual. Along with a black and white photograph of a friend, in winter of 2006 I wrote:

Today was good… The wind was nice and the sun was better. I wish I was better at writing, but then again I’m good at other things so it’s okay. Exactly how I feel right now: bleak, detached, thoughtful, not negative; just vacant…everything has been pretty okay though, just feeling the weight of winter.

[1] Dinners refers here broadly to the phenomenon of large group dinners that typically follow an opening or art fair. They are stated as celebrations of the artists/curators involved but often are actually just designed to fête collectors/donors by making the artists sit next to them.
[2] A pornographic style of Japanese anime, please don’t google.

This essay is part of Burnaway’s yearlong series on Nodes and Networks.

Find out more about the three themes guiding the magazine’s publishing activities for the remainder of 2021 here.

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