…is a digital smack in the head.
By Yehudit Mam
The New York Times is organizing a conference called Art Leaders Network in Berlin later this year. A look at the roster of speakers tells you pretty much all you need to know about the mainstream art world today.
Apparently, artists cannot even consider themselves “art leaders” at this point. Out of 29 speakers, only two are artists: Ai Wei Wei and Olafur Eliasson, basically the two most famous artists in the world right now. The rest are bigwigs like important museum directors, prominent gallery owners, curators, and art dealers. The website promises more speakers to be announced. We hope they sneak in a couple more artists. Hopefully not all guys. Hopefully of different colors.
Out of 31 speakers, only 8 are women. At least the art world shares something in common with the rest of the world: a lack of equal gender representation. Of all human endeavors in which women are underrepresented, one of the most perplexing is the creative sector. One could understand such things in professions that require brute strength, but keeping women down in art? What possible excuse is there? Perhaps in order to balance the disparity in the speakers, out of five moderators at the conference, three are women. Hurray.
This conference has a naming problem. A more accurate name would be “The Business of Art Network”, or “The Big Machers in Art Network.” However, the unfortunate name is indicative of what is wrong with the art world today. An art leaders’ network should be a network of artists. The people who champion artists, collect them, anoint them or ignore them, inflate their prices, and market them are certainly essential to this particular ecosystem, but only artists can be art leaders. We have reached a stage in which the art business has successfully made art an intimidating fortress of wealth and connections that alienates the vast majority of people, and of artists. How can this possibly be good for art?
The consumption of art has always been elitist. It is only in the modern era that art has been available to the masses. Before, art could mainly be seen by regular people at church. Then, the invention of the printing press and the introduction of public art museums made it happen and today, the internet is the biggest repository of images of art. Yet art, whether it is created or purchased, is still not part of the vast majority of people’s lives. The participants in this event bear much of the blame. Museums charge high entrance fees. Art fairs also charge fees and discourage the general public from attending by their sheer obnoxiousness (try inquiring about the price of something you like at an art fair). Art galleries are free and open to the public, but no one has really made a concerted effort to encourage people to visit them or to enlighten people about the importance of art for society. In the US, schools are closing their arts programs. These “art leaders” should be funding, or at least urging the government to fund art programs in schools, and they should be making art more easily available and affordable for people, if not to own, to enjoy.
Meanwhile, first panel out of the gate in the conference is “Art in A Populist Age”. I am genuinely curious to know whether this will be a discussion along the lines of “Everybody hates us ’cause we are the 1% but who cares as long as prices go up”, or “What can we do to make art relevant, essential and affordable for the great unwashed”? In the agenda there is talk of auction houses, mega-dealers vs. galleries, and humble little interstitials with artist presentations. At least there is also a panel on Art in the Age of Technology, and one on Virtual Reality. And there is, of course, a Gala Dinner.
An article by Scott Reyburn in The New York Times discusses how digital auctions, apps and digital sales of art are beginning to slowly disrupt this unassailable domain. The title of the article? Can Digital Technology Open Up The Art World? This is sad. For an industry that profits from the work of artists, the very people who are supposed to be at the forefront of human freedom, the art world is stubbornly opaque, unreachable, and resistant to change. It is not in the interest of the status quo, truly well represented by the powerful speakers of the Art Leaders Network, to change things. As long as they can make millions of dollars off a few selected artists, why bother? The art world is notoriously unfriendly to anyone without connections or vast amounts of money. Now that apps exist which allow collectors to know the prices in art fairs, some people are not having it.
As one typical collector quoted in the article puts it:
“Why would I use Artsy or Magnus? I have access to the prices,” said… a Brussels-based collector who attends at least 20 contemporary art fairs per year. “If you bring too much transparency to the market, you risk harming the mythmaking machine that makes the prices so high… You are not longer part of a clique. Art becomes a common thing.”
What do we know? We think that art should be more of a common thing.
There is an inescapable paradox in the commerce of art: collectors crave art that is unique. Demand thrives on rarity. This is true in the analog as well as in the budding digital art world (someone will pay six figures for a one-of-a-kind Cryptokitty). But art does not have to be a luxury. Rarity does not necessarily mean exclusivity — anyone can collect a Cryptokitty — and it does not need to mean stratospheric prices. In the rare digital world more people can have access to the experience of art collecting than ever before. More artists can finally reach an audience and generate some wealth. This is a reality.
Digital networks are emerging where the leaders are the artists, and anybody can be a collector. Anybody can participate at an art auction. Anybody can champion an artist. Anybody can find out what the price is for an artwork, because it is there for all the world to see. Cryptoart is exciting because it provides a viable, more democratic, more equitable alternative to the status quo both for artists and collectors. As Reyburn states, “Myths and mystique might be keeping prices high at the moment. But sooner or later, the art business is going to have to find a way of engaging the next generation of buyers. And that generation is digital, not analog.”