Why The Elitist Fine Art World Should Lose Power

I know practically nothing about the fine art World, which means that I write about it with little authority but complete impartiality. For those of you who will bite my head off for these thoughts: I invite you to explain to me why I’m wrong. Nothing excites me more than changing my mind, so I look forward to your disabusing or confirmation with equal excitement.

Here’s my experience:

I decided several years ago that I wanted to start refining my visual knowledge and taste. Having gone through a massive transformation as a listener of music since I began making it, I knew how learning felt. What used to sound like one unified “thing” to me — a song — crystallized into multiple parallel streams of information as I studied recordings. I came to hear an arrangement as a geometric dance between separate voices, a patchwork of distinctive feels of time and pitch. The bass might pluck slightly behind the tempo, the piano urgently pulling things forward in opposition. In short, I came to hear the music in far greater detail as my brain learned to identify and perceive the individual elements of it.

Anyways, I wanted to go through a comparable education in visual thinking. I wanted to develop a more granular ability to see colors and interpret shapes, and I wanted to start building a reference library in my mind of artists and their work, not for commercial or academic purposes, but in order to contextualize things as I discovered them.

Adding to this interest was my provisional conclusion, after reading a number of neuroscience books, that the human neocortex likely has a consistent approach to processing and storing information across the senses. After coming in through the sensory organs, in other words, I suspect that visual, acoustic, haptic, olfactory, and other information gets encoded in similar or identical formats.

This lends credibility to thinking about art and beauty across mediums by metaphor. We describe music frequently in terms of the other senses, for example. Sound engineers talk about the tambor of an instrument as “bright” or “dark,” pitches as “high” and “low,” and so forth. Personally, I felt like there could be great value in exploring new visual ideas and then interpreting them musically. I wanted to try writing a song that “sounded” like a particular painting, for example. Not that there is any right answer to such an attempt, but I viewed this as a promising creative experiment.

I began by following several diverse art and design blogs, and I have faithfully done so now for a couple of years. Whenever I find the time each day, I flip through several hundred photos of paintings, sculptures, videos, industrial designs, and architecture. When I like things, I click on them and learn more. I know far less than any freshman art history student, but I’ve gradually been figuring out what I like and why, and I am deepening my perspective.

Of course it’s a bit unconventional that my education here has occurred almost entirely on the internet. I do go to museums every once in a while, but I have not been hanging around galleries or meeting many people from the art world. I’ve had this weird, but awesome, experience of encountering something entirely on my own terms, and in a relatively new manner. I’ve been able to view tens of thousands of images with no context at all…just the work. It’s been like listening through the catalogue of recorded music without anyone pointing out to me who The Beatles are. I’ve had so much fun doing it, and on occasion I’ve emailed an artist and bought something that has caught my eye.

Recently, however, I emailed a couple of people whose work I liked and had my first encounter with the mainstream art establishment. Upon asking them to buy some of their pieces, they explained to me that they only sell through their galleries. Now, I don’t fault these artists one bit for the arrangement. In many cases, their galleries financially support the creation of their work and then provide a whole suite of services that make life easier and more creative. And by the way: you can only buy my band’s first album through our old record label too. They paid for it, they own it, and that’s the deal WE chose to accept.

But these art galleries take 50%!!!

Are you kidding me?!

Think about this: I find someone who makes cool stuff over the internet. I email them and tell them I’d like to send them money if they send me their cool stuff, and then they refer me to someone who will do nothing but process my credit card, mail me the thing, and take 50%. Now I get that this middleman also owns a white room somewhere and that if I lived in the city where this white room exists I could go take a look in person.

But if my experience of discovering and buying a piece of art is more typical of what more people will do in the future — and I think it is — then isn’t the artist leaving a lot of money on the table and overpaying his or her gallerist for lead-gen (when it comes to a purchaser like me)?

Of course, I’m leaving out the actual most important function of the galleries and dealers: “curation.”

Since art is expensive, and rich people who buy art usually know nothing about it, they need middlemen to tell them what’s good and what’s not. And so with art you have the most robust critical and curatorial apparatus of any medium (credit for this idea to my friend Lukas). In music, by contrast, many critics are sad failed musicians who typically can barely even write a grammatically-correct review. And this is just fine, because the worst thing that happens with or without them is that someone wastes 99 cents on a bad song. But in fine art, a wrong turn can cost millions! So it’s important that buyers be able to mitigate risk.

Being represented by a good gallery, then, is most importantly a market signal that an artist is worth watching. The gallery can generate momentum and, eventually, cross the artist over into the canonical wonderland where, for the rest of that artist’s life, money will flow and creativity will go unpunished. I know this is wildly oversimplifying, but that’s the gist of it as far as I can tell.

And since most people who deal with art in any medium don’t actually understand it in a super deep, technical way, non-visual information seems to predominate in the career-making of artists. An artist’s educational credentials provide them entry to the establishment, and then, over time, galleries and other middlemen nurture them into trusted brands. The higher the brand value, the less the individual work actually matters, and the easier life becomes for the middlemen and the artist.

And who are these middlemen? Well, I assume many of them are really nice people, just like folks who work at record labels. I imagine many got into the art world because they loved art. They just wanted to be around it, whatever that meant. And of course some of them are exceptionally knowledgable and perceptive.

But yesterday, I decided to go check out a bunch of galleries here in L.A. It was my first time ever visiting them, a whole strip of them on South La Cienega. And what I found were a bunch of arrogant jerks.

I went into uncreative white room after uncreative white room. They all smelled like crap. And there were so few pieces of work there for every square foot that it seemed like a practical joke on the visitor. A monastic silence permeated the air. The gallerists sat at their desks like judges, appraising me as I entered, then either murmuring a “hello” or simply ignoring me.

I walked around and looked at stuff, and on a couple of occasions asked a question, only to be met with condescending, empty replies. This was at all of them but one, where the gallerist was clearly just getting his business up and running, and attacked me like a carnival barker desperate to push his artists. And that made him, in this context, seem amateur. Not enough confidence. Not enough silent satisfaction that all of this art, his gallery, his buyers, etc. were all better than me.

In short, I — as a potential buyer — had the worst customer experience possible.

I’m sure it’s different if you’re Warren Buffett, but that doesn’t excuse it.

And I don’t think this had anything to do with me, in particular. I just think it’s how this subculture operates culturally. Something that should be fun, magical, and for everyone is deflated, alienating, and classist.

And…I submit that it is also FAILING. What i mean by that is that it’s failing the same way our Democracy is failing: systemically. The government cannot do legislation anymore, and the art world is not giving us a rich visual culture.

Compare visual art and music. Almost everyone has a music player, buys mp3s or uses a streaming service, goes to a couple concerts a year, and views music as a constitutive part of who they are. But what percentage of the population do you figure participates at a comparable level in visual art?

Almost no one!!!

This is a system that primarily functions for a small subset of the population. We talk a lot these days about income distribution. But how about cultural distribution? I would argue that there’s inordinate inequality right now when it comes to visual art. Notwithstanding public art museums and open galleries, etc. almost no one is suuuuuper into art. If you are….chances are it is a defining aspect of your life. In this way visual art is like theatre now: if you’re into it, you’re a niche consumer. The average person does now know anything about big new artists. Banksy and Shephard Fairey are the only ones who have any sort of currency in the public imagination.

This is puzzling to me since our brains are (as I understand it) so disproportionately visual. And yet music is huge and populist while visual art is niche and elitist.

And that sounds like an opportunity to me. The white space is the entire population that currently spends no time or mental energy on visual art.

I bet they would if it were accessibly packaged!

If my Mom in Wisconsin wants to explore visual art today, she can go to the Milwaukee Art Museum and see plenty of classic, quality works. But should she want to actually purchase something she has vanishingly few options to see great current work because she’s not in one of the major metropolitan markets.

The art market basically serves her a dead-end unless she wants to visit L.A., New York, or a major fair. By contrast, if she wants to get into music, she can hop on Spotify or All Music Guide and go down the rabbit hole discovering thousands of musicians, organized in a great variety of ways. And this allows artists living in L.A. to make enough fans in cities like Milwaukee that they can then visit Milwaukee and play to a sold-out room of listeners. Isn’t there an opportunity for the demand for visual artists to be similarly expanded geographically? Isn’t that what the internet has done to every other marketable product?

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One objection to this comparison between visual art and music goes as follows: “art” simply IS a more intellectual form of entertainment than music, just like art house cinema. It’s not fair to compare it to “music” at large, but only to something like avant-garde symphonic composition, which has a comparably tiny audience. Most people simply WON’T ever take an interest in visual art because it asks too much of them. They don’t want to put in the work needed to appreciate the cutting edge of visual work. They just aren’t sophisticated enough.

But art house film has a popular compliment: mainstream movie theaters. Avant-garde music has a popular compliment: pop music. Visual art’s popular analogue is basically: design. And my claim is that the public hunger for design is standing in for a vibrant pop visual art culture. Tumblr thrives, Instagram thrives, people are obsessed with the design stories behind Apple’s and others’ products. They are hungry for visual beauty, I submit. But the visual beauty that everyday people encounter exists largely in the service of selling things other than visual beauty. This is what the art World does: it finances and distributes the work of people who are good at making visual art for its own sake. But most people in the society don’t frequently encounter such work.

My hypothesis is that art is on the verge of going “mainstream,” sort of as “high fashion” has in the past several years. High school kids hadn’t heard of Margiela and Alexander Wang until they started popping up in songs and online. And now young people post Givenchy’s new pieces on their Tumblr’s as a proxy for actually buying the things. It’s a way of saying: “this is who I am,” “this is what I think is beautiful.” And I think the same thing might very well happen with visual art, even if that doesn’t mean that dramatically more people buy fine art.

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So here are a few guesses about where things might be heading:

1) The functions of galleries should be unbundled. Right now these functions include: financing, distribution, gallery showing, marketing, transaction management, and, importantly, curation!

These services should be fragmented and artists should be able to purchase or otherwise contract them a la carte.

Of course artists might choose to stick with the establishment. I am putting out my next album through Capitol Records because, on balance, I think I get a lot of value from partnering with them. But they also worked with me to craft an unconventional record deal that suited the changing economics of the business. I am simply saying that galleries will likely need to find new models or else die out. The simple 50% thing feels arbitrary and excessive to me.

2) Curation should become free. I get that curators wish they could be highly paid to share their taste, but I think the future will better monetize creation than curation. This is not to say curation should end. It should just be made more efficient. By efficient, I mean that the people with the taste that others most value should have the power in the system, and in real-time. This is sort of how it is on Spotify. If a kid in Akron, OH has awesome playlists, people can follow that kid. If he starts picking whack songs, they’ll stop following him. The power is shifting from the radio DJ’s and record label A&R’s to the people. The people will get what they like, always.

Now of course professional curators help the World see things that aren’t obvious to the great unwashed masses. The Velvet Underground gets cultural capital even though nobody buys the album. And then later we all thank the genius curators for insisting that we needed to pay attention. But such curators will still exist, and the audience will determine over time whether their opinions should be valued. It’s possible that this will make populist work more popular. But if that is a bad thing, then the place to address it is at the population level, through better aesthetic and creative education. It’s like government again: Democracy only works with an educated populace.

This is the same shift in power, by the way, that is underway in journalism, music, and moving picture (through YouTube, for instance).

3) Something like Artsy.net, 1st dibs, or Paddle8 should become a mainstream product that connects anyone anywhere in the World with all of the art that people are making in the World in real-time. This would realize a familiar technological trajectory whereby software replaces a human intermediary and brings creators and consumers into more direct, financially reasonable exchanges.

4) There will be way more people browsing and buying art, and the pricing of works will distribute more towards the long tail. It won’t be so binary: bad/folk art or fine art. There will be a wider spectrum of work along a different price curve. The class of artists able to sell $5-15k works will probably expand quite a bit. I imagine that the elite secondary markets, while potentially losing some middlemen, will remain astronomically priced and dominated by establishment incumbents. This is equivalent in music to the fact that the biggest artists still largely work through major labels, with the big talent agencies, etc.

5) Editions might become ridiculous. Artificial scarcity is stupid. Originals should be as expensive as they can be and marginally inexpensive reproductions should be priced as such, tending towards their true cost.

6) Your credentials won’t matter as much in the lower primary markets. The broader World of everyday art enthusiasts will impute way less value to your fine art degree or your job title or how much your last piece sold for or anything else that’s not immediately relevant to how much a human should love a piece of art. Things will be valued more democratically, on terms that are sensible to sensible everyday people. Art will end up belonging to everyone more than it does today. And that will make some things harder for artists and intermediaries, and it will also make many things easier, better, and more profitable.

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I’m not sure when these changes will occur — or if they’ll all occur. Maybe they are already in progress. But what’s clear to me is that the incumbent fine art establishment deserves to lose ground. It is currently failing to inject visual art and its creators into our mass culture. Its economics cater to a fragile system of financial inequality and tax evasion by super rich people in the society. And, from my extremely limited experience, it is full of arrogant gatekeepers who think they know — and are — better than the rest of us.

-D.A. | 3-15-2014