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FineArtViews Interview: Jimmy Wales, Jay Walsh, and Liam Wyatt -- of the Wikimedia Foundation concerning Visual Art articles on Wikipedia

by Brian Sherwin on 7/10/2011 7:03:06 PM

This article is by Brian Sherwin, regular contributing writer for FineArtViews. Brian Sherwin is an art critic, blogger, curator, artist and writer based near Chicago, Illinois. He has been published in Hi Fructose Magazine, Illinois Times, and other publications, and linked to by publications such as The Huffington Post, The Boston Globe, Juxtapoz Magazine, Deutsche Bank ArtMag, ARTLURKER, Myartspace, Blabbermouth, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Modern Art Obsession, Citizen LA, Shark Forum, Two Coats of Paint and Art Fag City. You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here.


I recently contacted the Wikimedia Foundation in order to ask questions concerning visual art coverage on Wikipedia. Wikipedia has had its share of controversies and criticism over the years -- specifically in regards to coverage of the arts. That said, few can deny the influence that Wikipedia has had on informing people about specific works of art, artists, and other topics.


For many Wikipedia serves as a starting point when doing art-related research -- and other research for that matter. Thus, I felt it was important to ask a few question concerning the art-related efforts of the Wikipedia community and how the notability of an artist is established on Wikipedia -- as well as discuss the impact Wikipedia has had concerning information about art on a global scale.


Brian Sherwin: I've noticed over the years that there are a lot of people who want to know exactly what makes an artist notable on Wikipedia. What makes an artist a "notable" artist based on Wikipedia's policy?


Liam Wyatt: The notability of an artist is something that is really tricky to nail down. Even more so in non-western countries. I've recently visited India to talk to the local Wikipedia community and some interested cultural institutions there and they were discussing how to demonstrate/decide when an artist, artwork or cultural element (e.g. type of dance/song) is "notable" for Wikipedia's purposes. You may recall the phrase "everyone will have 15 minutes of fame", well, in the contemporary internet culture I prefer to think of it as "everyone will be famous for 15 people" - this creates difficulties for Wikipedia's notability!


Jimmy Wales: You have to understand that Wikipedia and Wikipedians can be quite conservative about notability in some ways, and quite liberal, I'd even say progressive, in other ways. It helps if the artist has had exhibits at prestigious art galleries or has been mentioned in influential art magazines. However, deciding the notability of an artist does not always have to do with how many exhibits the artist has had or how many times they have been published in art magazines. Wikipedians are able to find "notability" in lots of different places and for lots of different reasons.


Liam Wyatt: I would argue that, more than any other subject area, Art is so diverse there is no way that we could have hard/fast rules about what makes an artist notable.


Brian Sherwin: I can see how it might be difficult to find reliable sources depending on where the artist is from. Can you comment on that?


Liam Wyatt: Our notability guidelines often rely heavily on the existence of third-party reliable sources (e.g. newspaper or academic journal) but for many cultures these kinds of sources just don't exist. This is not really a "Wikipedia problem" so much as it is a problem of the internet not forgetting societies that are largely on the wrong side of the "digital divide".


Wikipedia is doing better at this than most - given that we exist in so many languages for starters - but it is difficult to find a one-size-fits-all solution, nor should there be. The important thing is that we are debating what constitutes inclusion for an encyclopedia at all and that we recognise that there are different standards for "notability" for different cultures and different fields of human endeavour. No other encyclopedia has such a global worldview.


Brian Sherwin: Another problem facing visual arts on Wikipedia comes in the form of copyright law. The majority of the images of famous works of art that we see online have been taken-- and are owned-- by various institutions or specific art galleries. Care to discuss that?


Liam Wyatt: Copyright is something that has caused some tension on Wikipedia. Many cultural institutions are aware that the works in their building are in the public domain (copyright has expired) but still claim copyright over the digital version of that work. That is, they claim copyright in the scan as they believe it is a new work that deserves new copyright. Wikipedians recognise that the cultural institutions care greatly about the works (and want to ensure they are given respect) and in the vast majority of cases the institution shares their digital works cheaply/freely under relatively liberal terms.


However, it is a very important principle that we hold that creating a "faithful reproduction in a new medium" (i.e. a good quality digitisation) does not create a new artwork but is merely "format shifting". That is, the cultural institution through the use of technology, expertise, time... are deliberately trying to recreate as close as possible the original work - to remove themselves from the end product and show the original work as best as possible. Because of this they are deliberately NOT creating a new piece of culture but creating a (digital) recreation of existing culture. As such, we do not believe that such digitisations garner a new copyright.


The legal case that specifically refers to this is Bridgeman v. Corel (there's quite an extensive Wikipedia article about it!).


Jimmy Wales: Art museums and art galleries need to remember that the best way to promote art is to join and support the global conversation about art. Attempts to control the distribution of information about art does little for the public or the global art community.


Brian Sherwin: As you know, there have been a few art critics and art professors who are skeptical about the use of Wikipedia to research art and artists for various reasons. If you could say something to those skeptics what would it be?


Jimmy Wales: The art community should welcome the Wikipedia community and the efforts of Wikipedians. Wikipedia serves a major role in bringing art to the public. We do it in a way that drives interest in protecting and sustaining visual art in the long run.


Brian Sherwin: London based art Critic Jonathan Jones has been one of the harshest critics of Wikipedia in regards to articles related to visual art. He has stated that the information on Wikipedia concerning visual art lacks passion and a basic understanding of art. He has described specific articles as "dull"-- and has insisted that Wikipedia articles about art fail to inject a real sense of meaning because the content is subjected to strict standards in regards to third party sources and so on. What are your thoughts on this?


Jimmy Wales: Our rules do not prohibit nor inhibit interesting and lively writing about visual artists. We may not always accomplish this, but I think everyone who contributes to Wikipedia in a serious manner strives to create articles that are interesting to the reader. The openness of the community allows article to improve over time.


The raw facts that are included in an artist bio on Wikipedia may be "dull" at times compared to what you might find in an art magazine. But Wikipedia is not an art magazine. It is a place for encyclopedic writing. The point is that we have a responsibility to be factual. That is why citing good sources is so important. We can't substitute hard facts backed by quality sources with random opinions no matter how interesting those opinions may be.


Brian Sherwin: Have there been efforts to attract the attention of influential art critics in order to help improve visual art content overall on Wikipedia?


Liam Wyatt: There has not been a specific program to focus on art-critics but more about working with institutions as a whole and especially curators. Of course, all people - especially those with subject-area expertise - are invited to contribute to Wikipedia. For example, it would be great if art-critics would go to the discussion-page of articles about artists/galleries/works that they are familar with and provide a list of sources/footnotes that we can use to improve the article.


Brian Sherwin: Speaking of writing articles for Wikipedia -- does the Wikimedia Foundation itself take part in creating articles -- specifically articles that focus on visual art?


Jay Walsh: The Foundation itself is not engaged in the creation of new articles, nor partnerships with art galleries. Typically these are initiatives undertaken by volunteers or chapters of volunteers directly.


Liam Wyatt: In all cases, not just visual arts, editorial decisions are made by the community. Editorial policy and actions, just like writing the articles themselves, is undertaken by the volunteer community without there being "an editor" in the traditional media sense.


Brian Sherwin: Based on deletion debates I've observed on Wikipedia in the Deletion sorting/Visual arts section of the site I assume there is a problem with artists and their fans trying to use Wikipedia as a form of promotion. Is this a common problem in the realm of visual arts on Wikipedia?


Jimmy Wales: There are people who would like to use Wikipedia as a self-promotional platform. On top of that we have to contend with false or inflated bios as well as potential hoaxes. Obviously the problem is not just with artist bios. In fact, I doubt that it is a huge problem with artists compared to individuals working in other professions. Wikipedia does not exist for self-promotion. When these problems occur it is handled by the community. The primary way these problems are handled is through reference to quality third-party sources.


Liam Wyatt: The main reason that Wikipedians are generally quite stringent on notability is that a lot of non-notable content gets added by the people directly involved - people writing about themselves, their company, their product, their boss... They are using Wikipedia as a vanity publisher and that's not it's purpose. If that is what they want they should get a Facebook fan page instead. Unfortunately that means that a lot of innocent people get caught up when it's not easy to prove that they are independently "notable".


Brian Sherwin: In closing, is there anything else that you would like to add concerning Wikipedia and art in general?


Jimmy Wales: My hope is that Wikipedia can help to get the public interested in art appreciation and education. When someone reads an entry on Wikipedia about a famous artist, Picasso for example, it is my hope that they will be inspired to explore other artists who are not so famous, or to educate themselves about art criticism, or to read about painting techniques and other methods of artistic creation. My hope is that Wikipedia is a place that promotes exploration.


Take care, Stay true,


Brian Sherwin


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Topics: art appreciation | art criticism | Brian Sherwin | FineArtViews 

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The clashes that happen over deletion debates on Wikipedia are prime entertainment in my book. People get very passionate during those debates. Notability in art is hard to define because if you go by the books there are only like 200 artists that are really, really, really famous. If you compare all artists to the greats like Picasso very few artists creating today would stack up to his legacy.

Brian Sherwin
Good points Chuck.

I found this article fascinating, particularly because I am the author of an entry about a living artist on Wikipedia.
Undertaking such a project is not for the faint of heart; just reading the instructions, endless caveats and links to yet even more tutorials would cause most people to abandon the submission before starting.
Despite a factual, heavily referenced entry, I was endlessly red flagged. Any adjective that wasn't completely neutral (read: boring) was challenged as being promotional and an "advertisement". I had to assure them several times that I was not in fact the artist I was writing about. Progress was slow as volunteers staff Wikipedia (bless them) and it took over six months to have my submission approved, with the life taken out of it by edits.
Still, I believe that Messrs. Wyatt and Wales have excellent points about stringency and the need to keep Wikipedia clean of self-promotion and garbage. Perhaps the end result being less than exciting is necessary to protect the integrity of Wikipedia.

It is the same with musician bios on Wikipedia. Editors on Wikipedia assume that a lesser known musician has direct involvement with the article creation. Few acknowledge good faith with bios about lesser known creatives. The rules make it clear that you have to be certain that a conflict of interest exists before calling anyone out but people get called out when there is nothing to call out all the time. LOL
Then you have the people who have to win no matter. I observed this editor who tried to challenge if Art in America was notable or not because he was trying to "prove" that the artist was not notable enough for inclusion by picking away at the reliable sources that existed. LOL If Wikipedia wants to be taken serious it needs to do more to remove people who blindly criticize bios. Wikipedia has also been slow to acknowledge that some blogs today are just as reliable as published magazines. There is a anti-blog attitude on Wikipedia that is laughable if you think about the times we live in and how successful some blogs have been over the years.

It is the same with musician bios on Wikipedia. Editors on Wikipedia assume that a lesser known musician has direct involvement with the article creation. Few acknowledge good faith with bios about lesser known creatives. The rules make it clear that you have to be certain that a conflict of interest exists before calling anyone out but people get called out when there is nothing to call out all the time. LOL
Then you have the people who have to win no matter. I observed this editor who tried to challenge if Art in America was notable or not because he was trying to "prove" that the artist was not notable enough for inclusion by picking away at the reliable sources that existed. LOL If Wikipedia wants to be taken serious it needs to do more to remove people who blindly criticize bios. Wikipedia has also been slow to acknowledge that some blogs today are just as reliable as published magazines. There is a anti-blog attitude on Wikipedia that is laughable if you think about the times we live in and how successful some blogs have been over the years.

Forgot to say that there is also a "if I have not heard of it it is not notable" attitude among the majority of Wikipedia editors. Since most people don't study art beyond the basics it can really make adding art content difficult to do. If the editor does not know about something the editor should research and become informed instead of challenging the bio. A lot of deletion debates are started for what should have been a question on the article discussion page. Being ignorant is not a good excuse for trying to undo what other editors have worked hard on.

Donald Fox
It is good to see that there is such a stringent editorial policy with Wikipedia articles. Among academics, Wikipedia does not have a strong reputation for reliability. Many teachers and librarians often tell students to not use Wikipedia as a research source. If consulted at all, it should only be used for general background information, and even then that information should be verified elsewhere. For convenience and accessibility, however, Wikipedia is hard to beat; thus its popularity among students. Thanks, Brian, for raising these art related questions.

Sharon Weaver
Interesting how the rules of notoriety are practiced at Wikipedia. It is a juggernaut of influence and information so it is somewhat reassuring that they do have lots of rules. Opinion writing has its place but should never be the basis for an encyclopedia. If I am looking for entertainment or opinions there are lots of other sources for that.

I still don't understand how notability works. Is the artist notable if she has a bunch of coverage in one town but not outside of that area? What about if the artist is "famous" in one state but not known much outside of it? If the artist has been written about in a handful of small town newspapers does that mean the artist is notable?

Geri deGruy
I'm thinking they should definitely include me in Wikipedia. I'm cute, have a good sense of humor, my whole family loves my work, and I'm sure my art is destined to become notable.

Esther J. Williams
Very interesting article. There is so much to learn about the digital age and it`s impact on the global art consciousness.

Jo Allebach
Really! I had no idea. I never thought about how things get on Wikipedia but this was very interesting as are the comments.

I wonder what the benefit of having a bio on Wikipedia is. Does it boost traffic to the artist website? Why would artists risk promoting themselves knowing that goes against the rules?

Brian Sherwin
Glena -- From what I've gathered I would say that an artist who has had regional success... mentions in local papers and so on... he or she could very well be considered notable by Wikipedia standards. Obviously it would depend on how the artist is mentioned -- was he or she interviewed or was the only mention a placed ad? Ads won't suffice.

I think artists-- just like everyone else-- want to be on Wikipedia because it does help with exposure. In fact, I've known fellow writers and curators who assume an artist is not worth the time if he or she has not had enough press to be mentioned on Wikipedia.

Brian Sherwin
Donald -- I agree... Wikipedia is a goog jumping point for research. That said, if you really want to research a topic your best bet is to find a good library. I really don't think Wikipedia claims to be the end all be all of research -- it just offers a point of contact for those interested in a person, topic, or other subject.

For a fast, general overview of a subject, it does the trick as an encyclopedia. For scholarly writing, which is subject to peer review, the library is the place to go. There are art journals with the kind of writing that some people may mistakenly believe Wikipedia does.


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