Photo: Andy Warhol’s Campell soup can available for sale on Amazon.com
Amazon.com has just grown the reach of their e-commerce empire a bit further. One is now able to buy original artwork with the click of a button. Where in the past Amazon has sidestepped and starved small business to compete for sales, in this venture they are actually working with galleries to supply the merchandise—at least for the time being. One hundred and fifty galleries are participating in this experiment to begin with. The partnership theoretically benefits both parties by giving Amazon some credibility and direction in the vast murky waters of the art market, and giving galleries access to Amazon’s vast murky waters of clientele.
While art and artists are widely represented and connected in the digital realm there is always a tension. Like a grandmother who insists on taking off her glasses for photographs, artwork looks compromised on the web. The backlit screen suggests something different about the nature of the image.
I tend to see art on the web as an IOU, a wink to something real that ought to be seen in person if possible. There is a great service in disseminating knowledge about artwork but it becomes problematic when the internet becomes the source for artwork. I’ve seen attempts at exhibitions curated entirely for the web, and virtual museums crafted for cyber visiting. None really replace the experience of being in person in front of artwork and don’t give credit to the sensitivity of our perceptual experience. Apart from the way art looks in person, I enjoy the other sensations surrounding experience of being around art. The social contact, sounds and smells of a museum or gallery are specific and memorable (FYI the Philadelphia Museum of Art smells a good deal like a urinal cake). It is good to be reminded of the invaluable role one has as an audience member amongst others—an awareness that lessens when surfing the web.
The commerce of art is generally an aspect that is unpleasant though necessary. I am overjoyed when I sell paintings and frustrated when I am not, but find that aspect of the profession an awkward burden. On the low end and high end of the art market, money has shaped the arguments and the hierarchy. The market sways in the direction of the buyers’ whim that is rarely as interesting as the artists’. Left to a market economy the bestsellers are inevitably the easiest or hardest to understand—barns on one hand, glittered excrement on the other. The institution of the gallery traditionally has been an interface to give context and thoughtful valuation to the artwork, connecting the gap between artist and audience and making sales as a result. A good gallery is actively communicating its artwork to the public, networking and connecting to buyers and enthusiasts. A good gallery is proud of its artwork and loves representing it.
Amazon has taken that interface away and replaced it with the familiarity and ease of shopping for discount socks. One argument for this new venture is that it would welcome people into the art market who feel intimidated by galleries and the pomp of exhibitions. Galleries can indeed feel intimidating, but this game of bringing art down to the lowest common denominator to be as accessible as possible neuters it. It undercuts the intellect, innovation, and emotional adventuring of which art has been a bastion. Anyone is welcome to experience it, but everyone cannot set the terms. It isn’t easy to look at art, it is expensive to buy art and it is hard to make. The rarity is an asset though because it gives pause to consider uncommon emotions.
I was asked to be a participating artist in this new Amazon venture and chose to decline. The potential for more sales is always tantalizing but I sense many unseen pitfalls surrounding opportunity. There is a level of faith one must have in a customer who is buying something you’ve put your heart into. Having to do a deal in the sunlight ensures at least a modicum of good faith, but deals made anonymously through the internet leave all sorts of doubt to rise. The arrangement with Amazon smacks of cynicism, laziness, and most of all desperation.
It’s no secret that the economy has taken a huge toll on artists and galleries. There is a lot of desperation out there making artists and galleries take risks and make compromises. The shuffle to stay relevant and stay afloat is shifting the landscape. This can be a source of revisiting the essential questions of why we make and love art, or it can be a process of self-strangulation. Perhaps in the short term this will give galleries and artists some much needed sales, but in the long run it seems like one more concession to scrub away are culture for the sake of digital ease.