How Paddy Johnson Built a One-Person Blog into a Mainstay of the New York Art Scene
We talked to the critic about the etiquette and economics of blogging, and why she doesn't care about street art.
The images below are from the blog Art F City's racy new calendar, Artists as Pandas in the Nude. It features photographer Rachel Stern's neoclassical scenes of New York artists, art dealers, and critics in the buck, often wearing nothing but a panda-shaped hat. Paddy Johnson, the blog's founder and editorial director, came up with the idea after last year's federal government shutdown. When the National Zoo's panda cam went off the air, Paddy saw a need that needed to be filled, so the site's staff live-blogged via webcam dressed as pandas, offering 24/7 panda coverage. It mostly looked like people in panda costumes sending emails, but sometimes there were workout videos, too.
This particular brand of of nerdery draws artists to Art F City (AFC) because humor is a scarce commodity in the New York art world. But apart from being funny, the blog tends to focus on the political side of the art market. The nonprofit questions labor practices and covers exhibitions other media outlets might overlook while employing and supporting talented young art writers.
Disclaimer time: Before I was photo editor of VICE, I was on staff at AFC. Like most people in their early 20s I was timid, and didn't think I had the authority to say much of anything at all. But they took a chance on me, and I may have written some good stuff. So I asked Paddy Johnson how she went from being a terrified kid to becoming a nonprofit organization that isn't afraid to say, "We Didn't Like It."
VICE: Your background is in art history, right?
Paddy Johnson: No.
What is it then? You went to Rutgers.
I was making paintings and sound art. When I went to grad school I suffered from a lot of culture shock. I didn't think there'd be that much coming from Canada, but there was for me. New Brunswick is not a friendly town, let's say. I was living in an area where my neighbor shot and killed his family and then himself. I guess where I'm going with this is that I had dreams of people being killed every night, and I was not making very good art.
Sounds like difficult conditions.
Honestly I was very self-conscious. I got there and I thought, Oh fuck what the hell am I doing here, everybody seems really good, which is ridiculous. And I started making these narrative sound pieces, and they sometimes related to the art world. Those were the things my teachers wanted me to do more of, but I think I was just too self-conscious at that time. I thought, What business do I have doing this? I haven't been trained in writing. This could suck and I wouldn't even know it. So I just didn't do much writing for maybe four years after that. Instead, I did a whole bunch of gallery jobs, and I was fired from a lot of those.
You told me once you were good at getting jobs, but not very good at keeping them.
I was excellent at getting jobs! I don't know why I got so many jobs. I once got a job managing a stock portfolio for an arts-based high school in New York, and that was really frightening. But I was desperate for a job, and when the woman asked me if I was good at math, I said, "No, but I can add." Which was true! But I guess I didn't say that I can't add very well [laughs].
So it didn't work out.
I lasted about two weeks there. I was always willing to work really hard, but for things like that I didn't know enough to do a good job. And I was working with someone who was a yeller. Every skill I have just shuts down when that happens; I can't work in those environments. And there's a lot of those in the gallery world. So, I was applying for these gallery positions, but doing it half-heartedly. And then I started AFC.
That was 2005.
It was a time when the media narrative was like, This is the democratization of the web. I'd spent the last five years thinking I couldn't do it. I thought I couldn't make these sound art pieces and write these narratives because I never went to school for it. And then here comes this other narrative that's like, Yes you can, anybody can do this. And I believed it. I don't even know if it was true necessarily, but it was true enough for me. That was really important, because I was able to break through that crippling self-consciousness I think a lot of people in their 20s suffer from. Certainly I did.
How did you get people to start reading it? You just started writing? At that point was it called "Art Fag City"?
It was called Art Fag City right from the start. I wrote it anonymously for three months, but I didn't really like being anonymous. Like, you couldn't just call and ask somebody something. It felt kind of duplicitous, and if you wanted to have an interview with anybody, you had to reveal your identity. I quickly realized it wasn't practical at all.
I was very aggressive in terms of how I "marketed" things. I sent a link to anybody I wrote about, like Here you go, I thought you would be interested in this. I stopped doing that so aggressively when I sent somebody a very negative review and I got a lambasting back about what a terrible a person I was and how conservative my tastes were. It was about a show that I still think was really terrible, but I decided sending someone a really negative review because you think they'll want to read it was a little troll-y.
Despite feeling like you were not qualified, and you hadn't been trained in writing, you were never pulling punches.
This is very naive, but at the time I really thought I was doing people a favor. I thought everybody deserved negative criticism if that's what needed to be said. And I actually still debate over this with my boyfriend, but I still believe there is some good done by negative criticism.
I agree. Somebody had to call bullshit every once in a while.
Yeah, and I usually like being that person.
Is it harder to write a negative review than a positive one?
Yes and no. Sometimes it's like shooting fish in a barrel. The show is so bad that you could aim blindly and still hit something because everything is terrible. But when a show is that bad, there really has to be a very good reason for writing about it because frankly there's a lot of stuff out there that meets that criteria of being that bad, but most people just don't think it's worth writing about, and they're right. There has to be some sort of larger public discussion about it. Otherwise you're just being a shithead.
You'd like reviews serve the work in some way.
That's definitely something we struggle with and try and maintain on the site—there actually has to be a reason for publishing something. In truth, that leaves us with a lot less to publish than most people. You really have to choose what things need to be discussed versus what things are already being discussed. And I think sometimes what needs to be discussed doesn't always line up with what's going to get you traffic.
From a business standpoint, how does that work out?
It doesn't always work out. But sometimes I think that has more to do with the fact that I'm a writer. I'm sometimes a curator and a fundraiser, but it doesn't always work out from a business standpoint because... people don't come to me to find out how to better monetize the web [laughs].
You've turned what started out as a one-person blog into a profitable entity, or rather a nonprofit entity. It supports two staff writers, Whitney Kimball and Corinna Kirsch.
These are writers who I think are exceptionally talented. Also, they're really good people. I don't want to be hanging around with people who don't care about the health of the art world, who are just swimming around looking for opportunities.
What can you do as an art critic working on a digital platform as opposed to print? What are the advantages?
I complain about how much we have to update a blog every day, but actually, we don't have time for writer's block. It's something that is really good for me, too—the pressure to post as much and as often as you can. Sometimes that creates shit, but just as often it keeps you from being too much of a burden on yourself. You're still terribly self-conscious, but you can't afford to let it get in the way.
What are some other reasons people come to the blog?
Hopefully they expect to find a certain level of nerdishness. People come to us because we do call bullshit, and people recognize that we're socially and politically aware.
Net art is something AFC takes more seriously than other blogs, too.
That's something that will become more prevalent in the next year. Net art is kind a curious thing because there's a certain bracket of net artists that are now making money off their work, which I think it great. But then there's another bracket of net artists who make work that really does just live online, and there's no real way for them to step forward in the marketplace. And that presents a problem, in an art world where the press circulates around what sells. It's very often that critics will say talking about money instead of the art is boring. But I actually don't think that's true.
I've heard you say you're not interested in street art.
Yes, I maintain that. I'm not interested in street art.
Can you talk more about that?
Well I can, but it comes from a kind of uninformed position. I'm just not interested in walking around Williamsburg and being able to identify the people who are tagging the sides of buildings. It's just not my thing. And then when the stuff goes into the gallery, it always ends up being some stupid conversation about "selling out" or "commodification" blah blah blah, like street art belongs on the street. I just feel like a lot of those conversations are really infantile. So yeah, I'm not interested in it. I'm not interested in the business of it, or the exhibition of it. I'm not interested in it as public art. The only thing I like about it is that it's impermanent. [laughs]
It sounds nasty. I don't mean to say that I like it because it will disappear eventually. I mean it will disappear and someone else will take its place, so there's a life cycle.
It also doesn't really function in the marketplace much of the time.
It's one of the few things that isn't more interesting for not participating in the marketplace. Except it does participate in the marketplace—but it doesn't participate in the art marketplace. It's actually kind of in the real estate market, because it's on the side of buildings. If you look at what happened to Five Pointz: An owner decided to paint over things and that was the end of that. It's the same thing that happened to subway cars, when they had to be repainted, before they came up with a graffiti-resistant lacquer.
I remember hearing that one of the things that nobody really talks about when they talk about all the graffiti on subway cars in the 80s is that a lot of it was terrible. Which of course makes a lot of sense! Because 90 percent of art is bad. You have all this great creativity, but no ability to curate it.
I remember you telling British TV that Banksy's work is toilet reading. Are there other things you're not interested in writing about?
I can't write about film too much because I fall asleep during most movies.
When you started covering art fairs, did you start with Miami Basel? I know that started as fairs in hotel rooms.
Yeah, actually I did.
You like covering art fairs?
You go there and everybody you know is there. Whatever the complaint is of the day, you've both got the same one. Whatever the joyous thing is, you can talk about that. For better or for worse, it's a very efficient way of talking to people.
A big part of the job in blogging is talking to people, and I never get tired of it. There's nothing better than talking to someone who knows so much more than you about a particular subject and is very articulate, and can talk about something in a way that's illuminating.
That's the whole reason you go and see art, too—because someone has some way of visually expressing something in a way that you never would have thought of, or expressed that way yourself. Expression is the most powerful and interesting thing you can do with your life, I think.
For more photos by Rachel Stern, check out her website.
Follow Matthew Leifheit on Twitter.