Reading all the “2018 art year in review” articles over the last few days has really helped hammer home for me that the three most talked-about stories in art in 2018 were:
While I don’t think of Artnome as a traditional art news site, we had some of the earliest stories on all three topics. We also ended up among the top of Google’s search results for all three stories. How did this happen?
Well, it was mostly dumb luck. But I always enjoy and appreciate it when blog authors and entrepreneurs candidly share the stories and the data from behind the curtain. So this post will blend our 2018 year in review with a back stage look at Artnome, warts and all.
Part One: Blockchain, Art, and “Being There”
Someone really needs to remake the movie Being There because it is a great cultural touchstone, but most people are too young to get the reference these days. In this rags-to-riches movie, a simple-minded, sheltered gardener named Chance, who knows only about gardening and what he’s learned from daytime TV, is forced to leave his home and enter the great big world after his employer passes away. Through a series of hilarious twists, Chance the gardener becomes “Chauncey Gardner” after he is mistaken as an upper-class gentleman. The story culminates with Chance giving the president of the United States basic gardening advice, which the president reads into as sage wisdom on the nation’s economy.
In 2018, I felt like the Chauncey Gardner of the art world, only instead of learning all I know from television, I had the internet. It started at the very end of 2017 when I spent half a day researching and writing about blockchain and art. I published a short blog post called The Blockchain Art Market Is Here and went to bed thinking nobody would ever read it. The next day I searched “blockchain art” on Google, only to discover my article had somehow stumbled to the top of the search results (where it stayed for most of the year). Within days I was getting dozens of emails with detailed questions about art and blockchain.
Then came interview requests and invitations to speak on panels at conferences all around the world as an expert in blockchain and art. I had somehow become an accidental expert despite knowing very little. To fix this, I went to a lot of conferences and spoke with a lot of folks that were much smarter than I am. I wrote a few more articles, started a podcast, and I learned enough to be able to moderate two panels in London at Christie’s Art + Tech event. It helped that my panels were loaded with brilliant, dynamic, cutting-edge thinkers. All I really had to do was get out of their way.
Blockchain had exploded in the art world, and I had just written the right article at the right time. Whether you cared about blockchain or not, you were forced to express your opinion or risk being left out of the conversation.
Then the cryptocurrency market started to tank, and the only people left talking about blockchain and art either truly believed in it and were building really cool stuff or were late to the party and did not realize the hype train had left the station.
With no more requests for speaking engagements, I went back to doing what I enjoy most: writing about the crazy stuff at the intersection of art and tech that I find fascinating.
Part Two: AI Art Gets Awesome
Early in 2018, I became obsessed with the Twitter feed of @DrBeef_ , a hyper-creative teenage artist named Robbie Barrat from West Virginia. Back in April, we became friends after I interviewed him and purchased some of his AI Nudes. I was a huge fan, and Robbie was (and still is) really generous in helping me better understand how artists are using GANs (generative adversarial networks) to make really cool new art.
However, almost nobody read my interview with Robbie (AI Art Just Got Awesome) in the first week, so I didn’t really think much of it. Then two months after I initially published the article, I noticed a spike in the number of people reading the interview.
Two things had happened. First, a bunch of other media outlets had picked up on Robbie’s work. Second, Christie’s was heavily promoting that it was going to be the first to sell an AI artwork at auction. The work they were selling was by a French art collective called Obvious, whom I’d also been friendly with on Twitter.
Unfortunately, Obvious had made some poorly thought out public claims about the AI being responsible for making the art, implying no real human involvement. The media ate that up and ran like crazy with it, undercutting the brilliant work that many AI artists had been doing for years by further suggesting humans had no role in creating AI art. Additionally, Obvious had borrowed heavily from the work of Robbie Barrat and they did not do a great job of crediting him. This made them a pariah among the AI art community.
Still, I sympathized with Obvious. There was no way they could have predicted that they would end up on the world stage having their every word and action scrutinized. So when Hugo Caselles-Dupré, the tech lead from Obvious, confided in me that the media’s version of the story was out of control and he wanted to come clean with the real story to smooth things over with the AI art community, I obliged. The interview, initially published under the title The AI Art At Christie’s Is Not What You Think, went for well over an hour and was the first article where Obvious acknowledged that they borrowed heavily from Robbie Barrat.
In less than a year, I had stumbled from becoming an accidental expert in blockchain at the exact right time to becoming an accidental expert in AI art at the exact right time. When I had first started writing about AI art and GANs in April, I had no reason to believe anyone in the mainstream would care. Now I am headed to Bahrain this March to moderate two panels on AI and creativity with a bunch of the artists I really admire, including Robbie Barrat. Life is strange and unpredictable.
Part Three: Myth Busting Banksy
The self-shredding Banksy was the perfect “art” story for the mainstream media. If you only know one or two living artists, chances are Banksy is one of them. And sadly, the most popular stories surrounding art typically focus on two areas: first, works that are either intentionally or accidentally destroyed; and second, works that sell for far more or far less than expected. So when the Banksy painting that was at auction at Sotheby’s went up in value by shredding itself during an auction, we had the perfect storm.
I felt a bit like an ambulance chaser writing about the Banksy shredding, but as a blogger interested in art and tech, it felt natural for me to write about the device and how I thought it worked (or didn’t work). This was a quick article - I polled my father and brothers (who are all engineers) on their thoughts and pumped an article out in an hour or two, and it became the most popular Artnome article of the year with over 43K page views.
You’ll notice this article did not have the SEO staying power of the others. Seemingly everyone weighed in on it for about a week and then forgot about it. In this case, the enormous spike in traffic was largely due to other better-known outlets picking up our story and linking back to it, most notably, Boing Boing and the AV Club (for which we are always grateful).
Part 4: To The Moon! …Maybe
Around early October, I started thinking I was on my way to 100K visitors a month, which felt mind blowing for a blog that averaged one post a month and mostly focused on data and art history (the above-mentioned stories notwithstanding). I fantasized about the traffic growth I might get if I wrote with more frequency. To find out, I stayed up later on weeknights and wrote on both weekend days instead of just one. Aaaaand… my traffic came crashing back to earth.
I had made two mistakes: A) I misread three good months of increasing traffic as a solid trend, and B) I assumed more content would automatically mean more traffic. This is a pretty bad mistake for a guy who has spent almost two decades in digital marketing for his day job. It’s much easier to see what happened if you look at it from a weekly or even daily view instead of monthly.
As becomes obvious on the daily pageviews chart, the bulk of my record-breaking months for traffic came from one or two days - not a sign of smooth and steady growth, just a few outliers. But I fell victim to seeing what I wanted to see rather than what was there.
Part 5: Onward… The Good News
So buried under the outliers, there is actually some really solid growth for Artnome in 2018. And it is built not on the huge number of people chasing stories about shredded Banksy paintings, but instead by really intelligent and creative people looking to learn more about art, tech, and data.
In fact, six of the top seven Artnome posts this year really had nothing to do with news at all. In particular, two articles I wrote on generative art, Why Love Generative Art and Generative Art Finds Its Prodigy, performed extremely well and continue to drive traffic.
In many ways this is a relief. If the secret sauce to growing Artnome was to race against thousands of other news outlets to write a high volume of short articles about artworks getting damaged, I couldn’t compete (and wouldn’t want to).
Instead, I think there is a large audience of folks who want articles that go a bit deeper into tech and art, whether it is:
Using data to highlight new discoveries like our recent post on Van Gogh’s shift in color palette
Providing an in-depth look at the arms race for compute power in AI art
Showing how forgery and misattribution flourish in the absence of good data
As for growing Artnome, I think I will listen to the sage wisdom that Chauncey Gardner gave to the president of the United states on growing the economy in the movie Being There.
Thanks for reading. If you have thoughts or questions, you are always welcome to hit me up at firstname.lastname@example.org. Here’s to wishing you and your family a happy and productive 2019!