The Economics of Art 2013 - Part 1 - by Ben Schuman-Stoler
Here is a smattering of the mediums on which art is available today online: canvases, skins, covers, iPad backgrounds, web designs, shirts (etc.), shower curtains, tote bags, chairs, duvet covers, blankets, steel, lockets, watches, tattoos, lamp shades, toys, windows, flags, books, and, of course, the daddy of them all: the art print.
The art world has exploded. Never in the history of human expression has this much art been available, for sale. And not just 2-D art on a flat surface to hang on a wall, but living art in all it’s glory on portable and changeable mediums. Tattoos alone! Where’s Walter Benjamin when you need him?
Quickly following the democratizing folk art and outsider art movements (which said, “Hey, you there, you’re an artist. You have a story. You’re wonderful AND marketable.”), we’re now living in the middle of a technologically catalyzed economic renaissance of visual expression. In a few minutes you can upload your own work to any one of a number of places who’ll produce your work, host images of it, fulfill orders, ship across the globe, and send you Paypal payments. All you need is some high quality images and a Facebook page (category: artist) and you’re in business.
Like with any business model it’s touched in the 21st century, from music to publishing to healthcare and so on, the internet and e-commerce have changed the way business is done with art. It’s led to a fair amount of confusion from galleries and collectors as well as artists, and to some revolutionary economic changes in the way art is bought, sold, and therefore created. In The Economics of Art 2013 at Vertical Gallery this month (which I co-curated with Patrick Hull, the gallery owner) we tried to tie it all together while keeping art the focus. We didn’t want an intellectual show, but we wanted to mark this moment in time, a time in which so many questions and changes are orbiting art - they seem almost to overwhelm the artists. This essay is meant to go a bit further into the developments and consequences of this new e-art world paradigm, a paradigm we may not all love, but that we should start to embrace as the new reality.
Let’s start with the world of art prints, which are everywhere including, of course, online. You find them not just in the big Art.com, Ikea, Walmart iterations. Prints come in almost as much variety as the 3-D art objects listed in the first paragraph: giclee, digital, silk screened, hand painted, matted, framed with basically anything that can make a right angle, with customizable anvas wraps, glossy or matte finishes, etc.
The internet art print buzzwords can make you dizzy. “Giclee,” “archival paper,” “high quality ink” – it’s all a fancy way to say what an art print is. An art print is one of two things: First, it can be a physically printed piece, all hand, paper, ink, block, stone, and template, made by pressing ink onto paper. See: printmakers.
An ancient art form, printmaking is done via lithographs, woodcuts, screen prints, etchings and so on. The value of these prints derives in part from the physical, hand-touched, personalized, crafted, and highly skilled process of pressing paper and ink literally onto the template. In this way, the first print is often more valuable than the last one (as the template wears), and there are actually a limited feasible number of prints before the template degrades. Despite some schools shutting their programs, printmaking still very much alive and we’ve seen newer programs like the Center for Book and Paper Arts at Columbia grow into the space and embrace the tangible, human-touch of printmaking.
As Andrea Knarr (more from her in another piece in this space soon) says, “An etching, for example, cannot be made other than by hand wiping each etched plate every time the print is made. Then, if a digital reproduction is made, it is not considered original art but is called a reproduction.”
So here’s the second definition: An art print is a reproduction of a piece of art. It’s a “print” of it. Thanks to technological advancements in digital scanning and printing, though, we can create an infinite number of high quality reproductions (don’t say “copies”) of art. Now printers can print in almost any size, on the heaviest papers, with inks that won't fade or wear away for decades.
That second application of “print” is what you find for sale these days at nearly every art print, craft shop, gallery, gift shop, and general e-commerce site. Most sites devoted to selling art prints online have sprung up only in the past half-decade or so, and there are so many of them they’re impossible to count, all across the world, making millions and millions of dollars altogether. This proliferation of art, available online, produced for less, and for sale at a price college kids can afford, has turned the art economy on its head.
In 2007, Jen Bekman (of the eponymous gallery in New York) founded a website with the goal of making art affordable to all. Her site, 20x200, called on anyone with a $20 bill to become an art collector. She offered limited edition, high quality, giclee art prints (and the option to frame). She often relied on Certificates of Authenticity instead of hand signatures, which didn’t anger too many people, and was a huge success. 20x200 raised a bunch of money (somewhere between $2-5 million), and many people bought art. Bekman raised more money, and, from what information that reached the public, apparently got caught up in a classic start-up boardroom battle. The company stretched too far, bills and artists went unpaid for a while, and 20x200 went down.
Then there’s Society6.com, a bland and uninspiring site, which lets artists upload images directly to the site and choose their prices above the production cost. S6 then prints, on demand, the work on paper, canvas, tote bags, shirts, phone cases, and so on. There’s almost no interaction with other humans, and despite a reputation for low quality printing, S6 sold for over $90mil this summer. It’s the technology, S6’s hands-off approach, that makes them so valuable. It’s an incredibly 21st century model, and extra impressive how it has worked so well with art, which often likes to consider itself immune from contemporary economic trends.
In short, then, the 21st century internet start-up boom, the cash flow and the libidinous venture funding we’ve seen with our own eyes here in Chicago, has fused technological and e-commerce developments to reach (and perhaps swallow) the way art is bought and sold, and, therefore, how it’s made. To re-flip around Dave Hickey’s paraphrase of Andy Warhol: It’s not that commerce is becoming more artistic, but that art is becoming commercialized again.
Hickey was also talking about a quickly morphing art economy. When he wrote “The Birth of the Big, Beautiful Art Market,” he saw the gigantism of post-modernism and pop art’s effects on the mainstream commercial market then, saying, “Today, of course, it is all an art market, the whole of American commerce.”
Hickey saw the 1960s as another Mediterranean Moment, where a giant art market, democratized, was born. But if, in his words, the “new” art market was a fusion of the Eucharist and the stock exchange, all you have to do is add Twitter and giclee printing to make up the 50 years since.
Hickey shows how the art market’s dynamics diffused into the commercial economy at large:
First, companies introduced a hierarchy of “lines.” As an artist might produce prints, drawings, and paintings, American manufacturers began introducing “economy” and “luxury” lines to bracket their mid-range product – thus creating the possibility of the consumer “moving up” without moving out.
That’s still the same, but the new development is the ways in which the paradigm seemingly flipped: Either art has appropriated the approaches of 21st century e-commerce, or 21st century e-commerce has set the standards of the economy at large and art can’t escape it. Either way, like most other business models now, there’s a dash of 21st century technology, a hint of internet, a splash of speed.
[Part 2 to be published later this week.]
by Ben Schuman-Stoler