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Art, Research and Periodicals

Tiina-Mall Kreem (2/2018)

A discussion panel on art publications: Tiina-Mall Kreem, chair of the Estonian Society of Art Historians and Curators, talks to Virve Sarapik (Studies on Art and Architecture) and Andreas Trossek (KUNST.EE).

 


Tiina-Mall Kreem (TMK): To begin with, I'd like to look back to the 2016 annual conference of the Estonian Society of Art Historians and Curators, where, together with Juhan Maiste, we debated the nature and problems faced by the four art periodicals published in Estonia – Studies on Art and Architecture, the Baltic Journal of Art History, the Proceedings of the Art Museum of Estonia and KUNST.EE.1 We talked about the success story – the great increase in the number of our art historians and scholars over the last decades, how vastly their education and research diversified, how many new approaches and opportunities for publication have arisen, how researchers publish articles to earn "chips" in the ranking of the Estonian Research Information System (Eesti Teadusinfosüsteem, ETIS), designed to tell apart good scholars from bad ones, as it were.

But let's also talk about some points of concern and, more importantly, facing up to the problems. It's true, after all, that while the ranks of writers and commentators on art in the broadest sense of the word keep growing, the readership of scholarly texts is dwindling and the reading process itself is becoming increasingly superficial and discontinuous or diagonal. To say that we therefore have no need for texts that are methodically elaborated, systematic, theoretically framed and terminologically precise, I think, is short-sighted and dangerous. Or what do you think about this, as the editors-in-chief for Studies on Art and Architecture and KUNST.EE, respectively? In other words – why do we need written scholarship on art? Why isn't it enough just to have reviews of exhibitions and books in newspapers?

 

Andreas Trossek (AT): Well, it's the specialist periodicals that pick up the baton where the daily and weekly newspapers inevitably leave off. To be honest, I can't even imagine an art enthusiast getting all their information solely from the daily news media or social networks. What would they be left with? Only the press releases of exhibitions and a few lone voices in the wilderness?

At the same time, studies in media sociology show that the principle of communicating vessels is at work here. That is to say, the Estonian cultural publications more or less share their readership.2 At the top of the consumption pyramid, as expected, we find the publications that have something for everyone, but we must accept that the word "art" in itself implies a value judgement that narrows down the focus of interest. Any further competition for the attention of readers largely depends on what is chosen as the focus: be it the present day or the legacy of the past, theoretical backgrounds in the history of ideas or today's tremendously diverse actual practices, etc.

Often, of course, all these topics and issues can be so tightly interwoven as to make it difficult even to delineate the habitual playgrounds of this or that publication. Russians apparently have this figure of speech, "white envy", a mixture of admiration and envy. As an editor, I'm not a stranger to this feeling and expect that neither are the readers of specialist publications.

Though, to avoid feeling like a cuckoo in the nest, I want to point out that, in contrast to the other publications mentioned above, KUNST.EE is not strictly speaking a scholarly journal: we currently fall somewhere towards the end of the ETIS categorisation, close to "popular science", where the wind howls and the ground is frozen stiff, so that no academic who's out to win "chips" is likely to venture there. In principle, we could apply for the ETIS category 1.3, as a "journal important for Estonian culture", but to be honest, I don't see what great good this bureaucratic move would do for our authors and readers. Moreover, Studies on Art and Architecture, the Baltic Journal of Art History and the Proceedings of the Art Museum of Estonia are already doing such a fantastic job in our academic field that there would be little point in creating additional competition.

 

 

 

 

Virve Sarapik (VS): I agree with Andreas that it's great when the scope of thinking, taking a stand and writing about art is as broad as possible: from not only daily newspaper reports but also the radio, TV, social media and reading groups through to extensive art histories, monographs and catalogues. And why not also drama, film and literature addressing the problems of art. To my mind, art periodicals, whether scholarly or not, fall somewhere in the centre of this field.

I must point out, though, that this whole way of setting up the topic is troublingly bureaucratic. Is it really that this man-made science information system – though it has to do with funding, of course – has already shaped our thinking so much? It must be admitted that that is in fact how it is. Naturally, the funding model affects the behaviour of the publisher, author and reader alike. This is an old story, first brought to the public's attention by Tiina Ann Kirss' newspaper article "Eesti humaniora häirekellad" (The alarm bells of the humanities in Estonia) in 2007.3 Estonian humanities journals have put in quite a bit of effort to prove their worth and have done well too, despite the fact that the channels of research funding keep drying up for various reasons.

Still, "ETISism", as we might call it, makes academics in the arts and humanities parsimoniously weigh their every written word, thinking not about their author's fee and readers or what topic they feel strongly about, but instead mostly about publishing what and where will earn them the needed points for indexed publication. This model is obviously also one of the reasons for "journalisation"; that is, why many publications that used to be collections now re-invent themselves as periodicals.

Let me continue on a more optimistic note, however. I believe that even the texts in the publications represented here function very differently. There are probably those who read the articles that concern them in each new issue very carefully. On the other hand, how many readers today go through any newspaper or magazine from cover to cover? And why should they, at a time when the volume of available texts is increasing constantly and the most important thing is to find what really matters?

Besides dreaming of the ideal reader who manages everything, humanities journals function as a kind of textual archive preserving certain knowledge. This knowledge is there; it is available and does not disappear with the person who holds it. The knowledge can be accessed by an interested reader, sometimes decades later. I would, therefore, place scholarly art publications somewhere between high art history and cultural magazines. Art history presents a more or less cohesive body of knowledge about the art of a certain era and the conditions for its functioning. It is this cohesive image that journal articles begin to undermine, identifying inconsistencies, presenting new knowledge and alternative interpretations – until at some point a new history can be written on that basis.

 

TMK: We must also ask why we need more than one scholarly art journal. Why isn't one enough? How do the four mentioned above differ from each other: who are the authors and ideal readers of these publications, who are they aimed at?

 

AT: As a thought experiment, we might envisage One Great Journal of Art History, of course, but I can't quite imagine how large a single issue would need to be so that it could say everything. For example, KUNST.EE is a quarterly magazine published in Estonian and English, amounting to almost 400 pages a year. This alone would take up the space of a big fat monograph on the bookcase.

So, what circulation could we be talking about if we were to imagine combining the four or five Estonian art periodicals (there is also Estonian Art, an English-language "promotional brochure" published by the Estonian Institute and mainly distributed free). It would be absurd. You just can't do everything; choices must be made and restrictions imposed, by the editor, art writer and reader.

 

VS: There was, of course, a time when only one publication existed, but I don't think we really miss it. A single periodical implies a homogenous, state-controlled artistic practice and a state-defined research practice, which inevitably leads to a unified state-imposed ideology. The emergence and disappearance of periodicals occurs as a natural process all around the world. Most periodicals are associated with institutions and not just publishers. Sometimes a new journal manifests a whole new direction of research or becomes a means of self-expression for a group or association.

Studies on Art and Architecture is published by the Estonian Society of Art Historians and Curators, which could, in principle, bring together all Estonian art scholars. On the other hand, once a year we bring out a thematic issue with writings by art historians from not only Estonia but also other countries mainly from the Baltic Sea region. Most recently, we published a special issue on the relationship between art and ideology, preceded by one on the visual culture of Livonia in 2016, and a new issue on the art histories of the Baltic states is currently being edited. The Baltic Journal of Art History is published by the Department of Art History of the University of Tartu, which already connects it to a pre-World War II tradition. The authors, again, are not limited to Estonia. I suppose we are lucky in that there are not so many similar periodicals in neighbouring countries.

I also see certain differences in objectives. Studies on Art and Architecture seeks to establish broader ties with other fields; we've had aestheticians, semioticians, film and literary critics writing for us. In recent years, we have tried to develop a certain pedagogical dimension with our translations. Despite the productive efforts of the Open Estonia book series or Tallinn University Press, we still have a shortage of foundational texts on art. Studies on Art and Architecture, then, is perhaps mostly involved in the study of the development of visual culture. The Baltic Journal of Art History, on the other hand, represents substantial art historical research in the best sense of the term. And the Proceedings of the Art Museum of Estonia, being tied to the museum's research and conference traditions, tends to publish issues focused on a specific topic.

 

 

 

 

TMK: All four publications also have foreign authors, with international reputations. Their contributions selected for publication help understand Estonian art, contemporary or historical. Sooner or later, we find the published articles cited in new publications by Estonian authors and encounter new views influenced by them. Of course, the same goes for articles by "our own" authors, especially those that make it to student reading lists in academia.

As editors-in-chief of Studies on Art and Architecture and KUNST.EE, both with established traditions, which authors and articles would you highlight? Which are the first that come to mind? I know this is an arbitrary question.

 

AT: As an editor, I can't really go along with this provocation to highlight this or that author. Each issue is a whole; every volume increases appreciation of the entire field. If I'm forced to openly highlight someone to promote the publication, as if in a race or beauty contest, I'll do it, but very reluctantly. I realise, of course, that the editors are actually among the very few people who work their way through every new issue from cover to cover. Still, it's all or nothing. I don't tend to have long conversations with those grateful incidental readers who have read just one article in the latest issue and then cheerily promise to get the magazine again "whenever you have something interesting", which – come to think of it – involves considerable potential for insult.

In fact, I want to talk about the reader who's interested not only in the latest issues but all volumes, that is, the broader context. The Estonian Artists' Association has so far been the only third-sector sponsor for KUNST.EE, one of the manifestations of which is the fact that almost all published issues have been available for purchase at the association's Hobusepea Gallery. Readers often come to art periodicals thanks to one artist or theorist or some specific ism, but after having raked up a few issues in antiquarian bookshops, they're actually already "hooked".

 

VS: It's really more comfortable to talk about the past. For a chapter on Soviet art history in the second volume of part 4 of the "History of Estonian Art" (1940–1991), which came out two years ago, I had to read just about every article published in the periodicals. In the Kunst almanac, indirectly a predecessor of both KUNST.EE and Studies on Art and Architecture, I very much enjoyed the articles by Mai Lumiste. In fact, it seems that the art historical writing from that period is much more timeless than the overviews of art life, which are of particular interest to someone studying the art and visual culture of the period.

But I suppose every editor has an ideal author, one who constructs their lines of reasoning enjoyably, introduces a really novel point of view or simply has a delightful way with words. On the other hand, sometimes a text that is a rough read at first and difficult for the editor may only later start to shine.

 

TMK: By the way, how old are your publications? In the imprint of KUNST.EE, it says that the magazine has been published "since 1958". Really?

 

AT: Yes, Estonian culture is one of interruptions and leaps, translation and adaptation. KUNST.EE has been published in the quarterly format since 2000, with full parallel translation into English since 2012 to adapt to the continuing processes of sectoral internationalisation and commodification; we also have an online archive at ajakirikunst.ee from 2009, where all previous issues can be downloaded for free. As a quarterly magazine, KUNST.EE carries on the tradition of the Kunst almanac, which appeared from 1958 to 1996. The continuity is reflected not only in the name but also the make-up of the editorial board. That way, we celebrate Estonia's 100th anniversary along with our own 18th and 60th anniversary.

In fact, between 1928 and 1929, five issues of Taie, an "Estonian art journal" according to the header of the publication, appeared, so that in a sense, if we were to show exceptional hubris, we could be celebrating our 90th anniversary this year, ignoring the 30-year gap between 1929 and 1958. Clearly, the idea has always been the same; it is just that the historical, political and economic opportunities and obstacles – the currents of history – have shifted from one period to the next in Estonia. In order to explain all these interruptions and leaps at any length, we should go deeper into Estonia's political history; in other words, art has never been a domain of ideological innocence.

 

VS: Indeed, the Kunst almanac came out as part of this larger wave during the Khrushchev Thaw, which saw the emergence of numerous periodicals across the Soviet Union, with other examples in Estonia including Kunst ja Kodu (Art and Home), Keel ja Kirjandus (Language and Literature), Kultuur ja Elu (Culture and Life), Loomingu Raamatukogu, Eesti Loodus (Estonian Nature) and Täheke (Little Star). All of them have a prehistory.

An art almanac had actually been planned since the end of the war. Despite being included in the publication plans every year, it got stuck because there were simply not enough art writers remaining in Estonia. High Stalinism put the plans on ice, as it did for all publishing activity, for several years. At first, the Kunst almanac offered fairly generous space for publishing texts in art history, which, as already mentioned, were also important and valuable. In the 1970s, however, the space of the almanac just wasn't enough anymore. The almanac itself received a facelift in terms of both content and form: from 1971, with Jaan Klõšeiko, it enjoyed a period at the absolute pinnacle of Estonian graphic design.

Studies on Art and Architecture started in 1976 as a collection, Töid kunstiteaduse ja -kriitika alalt (Works in art history and criticism), published by the art history section of the Artists' Association of the Estonian SSR. It was directly modelled on the Russian Sovetskoye iskusstvoznaniye (Soviet Art History, established in 1974, currently Iskusstvoznaniye), which published, for example, the most important late-Soviet articles by Boris Bernstein. Their narrow focus allowed them to remain neutral on matters of dominant ideology, and extremely so for that time.

It was 15 years ago, in 2013, that Studies on Art and Architecture was transformed into a journal. The reason is that the collections still came out too sporadically, while the Institute of Art History at the Estonian Academy of Arts and the Department of Art History at the University of Tartu had both raised an active new generation of art historians. Underlying this was the welcome pressure from the reformed research system to publish more research results. On the other hand, research bureaucracy began to show a more favourable attitude towards the journal format, though the ETIS system in its current form was yet to be created.

 

 

 

 

TMK: The Baltic Journal of Art History began to appear in 2009; the first issue of the Proceedings of the Art Museum of Estonia came out in 2011. Given that the Proceedings of the Art Museum of Estonia grew out of a collection of articles for the Kadriorg Art Museum spring conference, first held in 2007, this publication, too, has had a rather long-standing impact on our research in art history, and not only that.

To me, the fact that we have such a strong tradition in art history also affects our everyday visual culture, our environment and everyone who inhabits it, without them necessarily knowing it themselves. How is the expansion of the concept of art to include visual culture reflected in the magazines and journals?

 

 

 

 

AT: I don't know but as KUNST.EE has always presented itself as a "magazine of art and visual culture in Estonia", it is obvious that, alongside the "traditional" art world centred around exhibitions in galleries and museums, it has addressed the perennial problem of the limits of art: over the years, we have had special issues on cinematography and architecture, for example, articles on the aesthetics of video art, comics, experiments in information and biotechnology and whatnot. The world around us changes all the time, at each moment; so does art and the theory of art.

Then again, it's possible that I'll quit my job the very day that a restaurant owner marches into my office, declaring that "cooking is also art" because he has read something about, say, Rirkrit Tiravanija or relational aesthetics and now demands that I visit his restaurant as an art critic because he has already got all these food bloggers eating out of his hand.

 

TMK: In his polemical article "Konnad ja seks 'kaasaja' serval" (Frogs and sex on the fringes of "today"), Johannes Saar pointed out a new, funding-based, if not stigmatising, division in Estonia's institutional art scene: "institutions and activities must go through different doors from now on. The former to the Ministry [of Culture], the latter to the [Cultural] Endowment. A comparison with wage labour and the Unemployment Insurance Fund, or whites and coloureds is not so far-fetched."4 How does this division look to an editor?

 

AT: This is really a question of national cultural policy and its degree of regulation. Must all artistic initiatives be funded by rotating committees of specialists at the Estonian Cultural Endowment on a project basis under free competition until the end of time, or should some of the most important of these be put on permanent funding by the Ministry of Culture, that is, formulated as budgetary items, in the interest of fairness? And if so, how deep are the Ministry's coffers?

 

VS: I would add that each door has its advantages. Most Estonian humanities journals are largely project-based; cultural publications are administered by the Kultuurileht foundation. Permanent funding does guarantee jobs and a sense of security; project-based models, on the other hand, give more freedom and dynamism. The Cultural Endowment to a large extent and other sources to a lesser extent have in fact been very good partners for Studies on Art and Architecture.

 

TMK: Finally, the so-called million-dollar question: what to do with cultural periodicals post-digital revolution where people are increasingly getting used to reading on screen rather than paper, the texts and "tweets" that they read are becoming shorter and there is an expectation that everything is available free on the internet?

 

VS: I suspect that there are no paper-only scholarly journals left today. They just can't compete for clicks in the digital world, nothing to be done about that. With reservations, the number or citations, or the infamous h-index,5 could be compared to clicks, but it is not so directly related to the digital revolution. The focus now lies elsewhere: the problems related to digital databases and open-access publications are much more important.

The democratic utopia of the early internet age has crumbled in every direction, but Estonia, in my opinion, is in a very good position in this area. Although finding material from digital databases, which are differently organised and often incompatible, has come to require a whole new set of skills, these materials are available in gratifying quantities, already meeting the best expectations – and are really available free of charge to anyone. Looking at it more broadly, though, both subscription-based and open-access publications are increasingly linked to comprehensive databases and efficient search environments.

Databases contribute immensely to facilitating the acquisition and dissemination of information, at least in universities and libraries; on the other hand, journals are increasingly dependent on being part of a database. Libraries no longer subscribe to individual journals as much as they do to whole collections of e-publications. For various lesser-known publications, this leads to the emancipation of the article as such. Search engines give results for keywords and topics, rather than journals. Articles begin to circulate and live a life of their own, depending not so much on where they're published as on the databases where they are available.

 

AT: All over the world, it is not just art magazines that are having to face this million-dollar question but all publishers, print media and the traditional media as a whole, including radio and television. Clearly, there is a struggle for attention and the battlefield has expanded on account of the internet and social media, but no one really has a universal answer or good recipe for attracting more potential audiences. Traditional cultural journalism usually just sticks to some cross-media solution, which, however, tips the scales from content production to marketing in a worrying way.

Naturally, the easiest solution would be to declare the already established infrastructure outdated and dismantle it as economically unsustainable; whether this would actually bring any financial savings at all is another matter. The fact that there is a link to an article on the internet does not mean that it cost nothing to put it up. And the fact that a magazine's digital archive can be accessed with a smartphone from a bus stop does not mean that all the libraries can be closed down just like that. Moreover, at the archetype level, we know that paper as an information carrier will remain even when electricity is gone or servers become scrap. What also complicates any analysis of the situation is that, figuratively speaking, we are in the eye of an expanding storm – the whole background in the digital world may have changed considerably in just, say, five years, so why talk about the demise of the Gutenberg galaxy with such conviction? The price of printing has been dropping consistently; the number of books and other print publications is increasing. These are all facts. And in respect to the printed and circulated word on art, there's never been a better or more exciting time in Estonia.

The art world, too, is so accustomed to printed and circulated art journals that the functioning of the system is unimaginable without them. The audiences must have something to read and explore; it is a question of viability and prestige for the field. They also look so appetisingly "instagrammable" on the shelf. While artists may privately curse the art journals because the latest issue didn't have their new picture, and curators or dealers may lament that contemporary critics have failed to fully understand or appreciate them, history shows that when a periodical suddenly disappears people instantly start to plan for its resurrection; there's just no other way. And everything begins again.

 

 

1 Karin Nugis (Vicente), Magus nostalgia n-ö tõsiteaduse järele. – Sirp 10 II 2017.

2 Peeter Vihalemm, Kultuurikanalite kasutajaskond [2016].

3 Tiina Kirss, Eesti humaniora häirekellad. – Sirp 6. IV 2007.

4 Johannes Saar, Konnad ja seks "kaasaja" serval. – Sirp 22. XII 2017.

5 The Hirsch index suggested in 2005 by Jorge E. Hirsch for measuring the impact of publications by scientists. In essence, it's a simple formula: a scholar with an index of n has published n papers each of which has been cited at least n times. For those in the humanities, however, there is a catch; the number of citations and publications is mainly measured based on the journals in certain databases and not on monographs and collections, which are important in this field.

 

 

Tiina-Mall Kreem (PhD), a curator with the Art Museum of Estonia and chair of the Estonian Society of Art Historians and Curators, was the editor-in-chief of the Proceedings of the Art Museum of Estonia from 2011 to 2012.

Virve Sarapik (PhD) has been the editor-in-chief of Studies on Art and Architecture since 2003.

Andreas Trossek (MA) has been the editor-in-chief of KUNST.EE since 2009.

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