This is a sequel to my prior article about being censored and banned on the art-history subreddit on reddit. If you missed that post, here it is:
But it is even worse than I thought: more personal, more disingenuous, more shallow, and more sinister.
I’ll give a brief re-cap to get people up to speed if they didn’t read the last article. If you read the article, you can scroll down to the section header: An Ugly Business.
You need to know that I did a digital recreation of the Salvator Mundi. By the way, I finally finished it, and will share the results in the next week, after I finish my documentary-length video thoroughly exploring the issues of the painting. A couple months ago I shared my version, in progress, after I’d cleaned up the painting and removed all the cracks and abrasions using Photoshop.
As you can see, this post had 138 up-votes, was 97% up-voted, and there were 57 comments. There was a lively and civil discussion of all manner of issues to do with the Salvator Mundi, and my re-creation in progress. Curiously, while I’ve been banned, and my most recent post of this image in progress was censored, this earlier post has not been removed. You can see it here: Digital restoration of the Salvator Mundi, part 01. Possibly they didn’t remove it because two or three of the people who engaged meaningfully in the dialogue are respected authorities within the reddit group, and it wouldn’t do to delete their carefully considered commentary. Objectively speaking, this sort of post and discussion are exemplary and should be part of the raison d’être of a forum devoted to art.
Then, about a month ago, I posted my nearly completed version, in B&W, in order to get feedback and a second pair or eyes, or two or three.
Within a few hours, the post had already garnered over 100 up-votes, 40 comments, and it was 96% up-voted. For the art_history subreddit, this post was going viral out of the starting gate, and the response was overwhelmingly positive.
Here are some of the positive comments received:
Not only were people enjoying my original content, they were giving me the kind of feedback I was looking for. All was running smoothly and very positively, until a couple moderators put their heads together and came up with a justification for pulling the plug.
They created a new rule — Rule 7 — and censored my post for retroactively violating the subsequent rule.
I received a notification:
Suddenly, after the forum had been around for about a decade or more, there was a new rule out of the blue in the right sidebar:
Why a sudden blanket rejection of digital restorations “of any kind”, and within a few hours of my post? How many “digital restorations” had been submitted to the art_history subreddit, and why was it a problem?
I’ve analyzed the smorgasbord of logical fallacies they employed in order to justify the new rule in my prior post. It is not surprising that such a draconian rule forbidding the artistic input of creative individuals, in relation to art history, should be the product of shoddy thinking. Note that a few people stuck their necks out to defend my deleted post. The mod’s decision and new rule did not reflect the will of the community. Au contraire.
Next, I was permanently banned from the forum, which insured I couldn’t tackle their arguments directly, and as it would have happened, thoroughly deconstruct them:
Note that no reason was given.
As this point, while I felt it was personal, and they were deliberately targeting my post, I at least believed, or rather gave the benefit of the doubt, that there were a lot of other people submitting “digital restorations”, and my contribution was particularly grievous for them. And while I thought their reasoning lacked depth and missed the big picture of what art is about, I didn’t think it was entirely disingenuous.
As it turns out, I was giving them far too much credit.
An Ugly Business
I was going to include a segment in the “Backlash” section of my video about the censorship and banning on reddit, and looked back to investigate how this rule had played out, etc. And I took a closer look at some of the arguments the mods had made. My discoveries were very unpleasant. [Note that it’s a sufficiently nasty business that I’ve decided not to include it in my video, but rather just to mention that I was censored and banned, and that there’s a link-in-the-description to my blog post(s) about it.]
The rule had stipulated “No more digital restorations”:
And deputygus had stated that the rule was in response to multiple offenders:
Well, how many “digital restorations” had been posted in the art_history subreddit? How many of us were being silenced? How bad were the digital restorations?
I did a search within the art-history subreddit for the term “digital restoration”. Here’s what came up:
There are only two of them, they are both by me, and refer to the same Salvator Mundi recreation. The third post is their rule. If you click on “see more posts”, there aren’t any. If there had been more, at least a few would have fit on this same page.
So, prior to the rule, the only “digital restorations” that exist within the forum, or which contain the phrase “digital restoration” are my own. Could it be that they’d routinely deleted them previously, and then just made a new rule to formalize it? That would make some sense, except that my own posts prior to the rule were still there, and the more recent version one was so “heinous” they were obligated to censor it . Notice that the search is for “all time”.
OK, well, there’s more than one way to research this. What about after the rule was made? How many posts were eliminated for violating the rule? I could easily discover this by searching the moderators’ history of posts and comments.
Kingsocarso has only removed one post using this rule, and it was mine:
What about deputygus?
He’s only removed one post, from the same day, and it’s a one-minute time-lapse of someone’s attempt to make a Nefertiti sculpture more realistic. I tracked it down:
It only had 2 up-votes, 0 comments other than the original post, and was merely 67% up-voted. It’s not even in English, while the forum is. Further, if you take a gander at what passes for legitimate posts on the art-history subreddit — it tends to beginner questions — this required quite a bit more effort. Was the problem that propelled the moderators to act so decisively, and aggressively, this video, or my Salvator Mundi post with more than a hundred up-votes and 40 comments within hours of being published?
It’s hard not to take the rule and the arguments and insults contained within the thread about it personally, when I am at least 50% of the ostensible problem, and probably 100%.
Consider these blanket condemnations and insults from the head moderator, kingsocarso:
- Labeling these as “restorations” is simply bad art history.
- “digital restorations” are not done by professional conservators; they are the personal interpretation, by some random person on the internet, of how an artwork ought to look.
- Some of the particularly heinous examples of “digital restoration” posted here completely re-imagine artwork, sometimes changing the entire style of the work.
- Leonardo scholar Martin Kemp distinguishes that “this is not just Photoshopping it and messing around with the colors, which you and I could do and get tolerable results. But this based on pigment analysis.”
- “Digital restoration” is not analysis.
- We reviewed all the restoration videos recently posted to this subreddit and they’re just not sound work (sometimes being plain misinformation), mostly consisting of how someone feels a work should be based on their interpretation of the artist’s style rather than revealing what is actually underneath layers of deterioration and overpainting.
Those comments are about my recreation of the Salvator Mundi, and my videos. They seem plausibly professional, and just a bit of a stickler for tradition, until you pull them into the deeper water of more rigorous thinking. Here the moderator is using his power over the forum as a bully pulpit to attack me personally; censor me; ban me; and then award himself the last word; presumed intellectual superiority; and a superior grasp of art history. I’ll come back to a couple of his arguments I haven’t dealt with before — because they miss the point of art — but first there’s something even nastier, courtesy of deputygus.
See if you can detect what is sinister in this comment.
It’s not the lie about “recent posts (plural)”, and you have to be able to read between the lines of trying to appear oh-so-professional and concerned about the sanctity of art restoration. First, he’s done a sleight of hand. The phrase “digital restoration” has been replaced with “altered images”. Once we get to “altered images” then they have “inherent problems”. Mind you that this is being applied directly to me. The inherent problems of the “process” I use include “racial bias” and “editing photos of Khmer rouge victims [to make them] smiling” and altering images of “Auschwitz”. Why, I’ve just been categorized as in league with implied racists, genocide trivializers, and anti-Semites. We can just generalize that they are all symptoms of the most vile sin imaginable in contemporary Western culture: racism!
This is what happens when people’s art education contains really quite a lot of instilling sociopolitical belief systems in lieu of art proper. I’ve been subjected to years of such instruction myself, and know the symptoms. The graft never took with me, but people who subscribe to this view of art will generally maintain that art is in the service of political change, and is thus subordinate to politics: they will say that “all art is political”. And then it’s not a big leap to use politics against art and artists within the art world, especially if the artists in question are percieved as not with the cause. And then it’s a very short leap to insinuating artists are not with the cause, or are in league with enemy, in order to shut them down for other reasons, including spite. I’m annoyed and disturbed, but not surprised to see this sort of tactic rear its ugly head in this situation.
We need to look at the word “inherent” here for a second:
Racism is an essential element of Photoshopping!? Absolutely not!
The head moderator substantiated this same outrageous claim:
There are major concerns with the digital medium itself?! How utterly asinine and insidious! Obviously it would be the user and not the medium. But let me explain why in more detail so it’s crystal clear.
The argument is that because digital mediums can be used to alter images in a way that is racist, it is inherently racist, or suspect of being so. That second part just doesn’t follow. We could say the same thing about cartoons. Surely everyone knows there have been racist and anti-Semitic cartoons. Do we say there is an “inherent problem” with the medium of cartooning “itself”?! Could someone remove a cartoon that had nothing to do with race, and then then connect cartoons as intrinsically imbued with racism as part of their justification, and be taken at all seriously?
No, because people are familiar enough with cartoons to see right through such a claim. And isn’t photo-editing used to attack conservatives, most notably Donald Trump? A Google search for “Donald Trump photoshopped” gets over 600,000 results.
Here’s the first page of results from a duckduckgo image search:
He’s probably the most photoshopped person in history, and this includes as a pig on the cover of New York Magazine.
Digital mediums are as flexible as writing in terms of what material they can address, and how they can present it.
Why cherry-pick that digital imaging can be used for racist purposes, and then connect that to “digital restoration” by way of “altered images”, and apply it to a digital painting of an old master painting, and do so in a thread that is directly attacking me, and justifying censoring my content? That’s not only grasping at straws, but being devious about it — even if unwittingly so, which is nothing to be proud of — and with a touch of malice.
This is an underhanded way of suggesting they are on the right side of history, and the content they are removing is bad because inherently and indelibly stained with racism. Thus, not only am I guilty of “bad art history” ; “particularly heinous” restoration; doing work that “is not analysis”; work that is “not sound” and is “plain misinformation”; work that is merely “messing around with the colors, which you and I could do and get tolerable results”; it is insinuated that my methods are tinged with the vile sin of racism!
By the way, I’d love to see Martin Kemp’s digital recreation of the Salvator Mundi, if it’s just “messing around with colors”. And why are they quoting the most outspoken advocate for the Salvator Mundi being a 100% autograph Leonardo, on the question of digital restoration, if they aren’t targeting me in particular?
Fusing the digital medium, and by logical extension artists who use it, with racism in all its ugliest manifestations has no place in legitimate art discourse, and it is a vicious and sinister ploy. Sorry, art history gatekeepers, but connecting a tool for art with egregious moral behavior and attitudes is absolute anathema to artistic freedom, especially as the argument is completely bogus, relying entirely on yet another logical fallacy: cherry-picking. It reminds me of the anti-rock campaign coming out of the religious right a couple decades ago that tired to portray rock as “satanic”, and went after Judas Priest, among others. Only this is even worse, because at least some rock groups used satanic imagery in their music, though I for one only considered that entertainment, along the lines of horror movies.
It’s one thing to be anti-digital art and artist because you are just a bit behind the times, and you have no real understanding of the skills involved. A lot of people fall into that camp, and I’ve had to deal with some prime examples. But it’s another thing altogether to attack the medium as intrinsically morally vile. I would be shocked to see such an ugly accusation arise within the art community itself, if the art world hadn’t been eating it’s own for generations.
And the personal kicker is they are using that argument against me, trying to make me the bad guy, when they are the ones in a position of authority, and abusing that power to censor a contemporary artist for sharing a carefully crafted image — as a visual aid in a larger argument — in a post which the community overwhelmingly welcomed.
Most the personal attacks in the thread are merely assertions, like “bad art history” and don’t warrant much of a response. You can just counter that sort of thing with “great art history” and get in schoolyard shouting match. I catalogued a sampling of their rampant logical fallacies — such as the ad-hominem attack, false-equivalency, appeal to authority, and straw-man arguments — in my prior post, but there’s one more here I’d like to address.
Kindsocarso boldly stated “Digital restoration” is not analysis.” I’m shocked that someone who presumes to know about art would articulate such a shallow, even concave, understanding of visual art. This kind of view presumes that analysis takes place in linguistics: as in concretely formulated arguments in sentence structure. There’s such a thing as visual communication, and visual language, visual intelligence, and visual literacy. Aesthetics aren’t merely subjective and relative. There’s a bit of a science to representing anatomy, perspective, modeling, foreshortening, lighting and shading. When an artist makes an image, they make value judgments. They decipher, delineate, differentiate, measure, compare, interpret, imagine, construct, and convey information. This is all analysis, and paramount to any genuine understanding of visual art.
There’s so much more to disentangle here of their embarrassingly sloppy thinking. I’ll just address one more prime concern. The overarching argument is that a “digital restoration” is not a “physical restoration” and is not performed by professional restorers. They belabor this point in some detail, as if it weren’t another straw-man analogy. When an artist attaches the word “digital” before “restoration” it should make it abundantly clear that, short of magical powers, the artist is not working on the actual physical piece of art, and is not pretending to do an actual restoration.
If an architect creates a 3D model of what a renaissance cathedral might have looked like if it hadn’t toppled, this isn’t the same thing as the physical labor of rebuilding it. Derp! And while the architect may not be able to physically build the building, neither can the workers who do so design it.
If the original art was severely damaged, as in the case of the Salvator Mundi, than the artist is going to have to cross over beyond visual “restoration” into the much more treacherous and challenging arena of reconstruction and interpretation. To do this, you need to be an artist.
They only look at how a digital recreation of an old master painting is inferior to a physical restoration, and do this comparison entirely on the achingly obvious terms of the physical restoration. It’s comparing bananas and oranges in terms of which is a nicer shade or orange. The physical restoration uses chemicals! It’s (sometimes) based on forensics! There’s a lot of research involved.
The restorer is not an artist, though he or she is most certainly an artisan or perhaps a craftsperson. They don’t need to be able to draw and paint worth a damn. Sometimes, antique restorers even try to palm themselves off as art restorers using a somewhat similar skill-set. This is not to denigrate their trade, but merely to highlight the critical difference here between someone who fixes a physical object of art, and someone who makes images.
The artist can offer something completely different, which is outside of the restorer’s purview, and which they are incapable of doing. ONLY an artist can attempt to imagine what the image, and the art, would have originally looked like.
Let me give a more obvious analogy. For some reason, ideas which are confusing or impenetrable become glaringly obvious when they are applied to music rather than “art”. Imagine a very old musical score is discovered, and though it’s tattered and soiled, and missing whole passages, we believe it is a Beethoven symphony. A music historian/restorer preserves the ink and paper using various means, and cleans it up, adding perhaps a few notes here and there. Where there are whole bars missing, an overzealous restorer who is tasked with creating a mint, completed symphony, might simply lengthen the notes, or add in crescendos or decrescendos to fill the missing places. Sure, the restorer is a music historian, but not a composer or a competent musician. Along comes a contemporary composer with a Master’s in music, and he, among many other musicians and composers, find the resulting performance unlistenable. So, he uses a synthesizer and his computer to re-imagine what the symphony would more likely have sounded like, and he records the result. He shares it along with detailed arguments in video form. His version is censored on an internet forum; he is banned; a rule is made prohibiting composers from making digital audio recordings; the mods create a thread insulting him which he can’t respond to; and the moderators argue that “racism” is inherent to the medium of synthesizers and computerized music.
Why aren’t artist’s contributions using the medium of visual art acceptable in a forum dedicated to art?
I don’t really know if the issue is really “digital restoration”, the fact that my recreation of the Salvator Mundi exposes how awkward and cringy the physical restoration is (hence questions if it really is by Leonardo}, or if they two mods just have a problem with me. I do know they are being disingenuous, mean, petty, and grasping at straws to justify their actions.
The mods aren’t protecting art from bad art history, prejudice, and subpar thought. They are protecting bad art history, prejudice, and subpar thought from art.
Would that art history and its gate-keepers were a little less anti-art, and anti-artist. These guys would have censored and banned Leonardo in his own time, while patting themselves on the back for doing so. They certainly would have censored Giampietrino’s recreation of Leonardo’s “Last Supper”, because it wasn’t a restoration done by artisans, and under the instruction of academics, but was another artist’s interpretation instead.
In 2021 people are more backwards about art than in the renaissance, privileging dusty scholars with bookish, second-hand and second-rate comprehension of art above artists. Incidentally, I really like what Giampietrino did with the feet, the floor, table legs, and their shadows here.
And then I figured out a huge part of the problem. Online forums are ideal breeding grounds for confirmation bias echo chambers, especially if they are patrolled by “moderators” that have a vested interest in certain perspectives, beliefs, conclusions, etc. Just imagine a political forum, but in the case of art forums it’s not even an analogy because they are often rabidly political (this “art history” forum, for example, shows a very strong tendency towards a far left political agenda that would like to think of itself as “radical”]. And then when “moderators” are overlords rather than mediators, they function to control the narrative, establish and maintain a hierarchy of authority within an in-group, in which case independent thought and individual authority are a threat that can’t be tolerated for long. Whatever else anyone wants to say about me, I don’t defer to authority, I have my own views and opinions, and I can express and defend them effectively. In this particular case, I don’t subscribe to the dominant art narrative, and these guys are true believers,.