Democratic art

By Felix Salmon
April 16, 2013

Maud Newton has a good introduction to the art of Molly Crabapple, whose new paintings are being raucously exhibited at a storefront gallery on the Lower East Side. The new work was born of Occupy, and shares much of its ethos:

“Occupy favored art that was populist,” she told me last month… Theirs was art, Crabapple says, “that was passionate, accessible, unironic—art that bled and took sides. It was art out of the gallery and into the streets, into life. I hope it presented an alternative, a good strong alternative to detached, ironic uber-expensive art whose primary purpose is to fill up an oligarch’s loft.”

Newton places Crabapple in what she calls a “vanguard” of “artists are dedicated to a more democratic art world”, and quotes Jerry Saltz’s important essay on how the “art world” is fragmenting into multiple “art worlds”. Saltz’s piece, interestingly enough, is illustrated with a photograph of Keith Haring’s 1982 opening at another downtown storefront art gallery. For all that Crabapple wasn’t even born in 1982, the similarities are obvious: a flat, populist, all-over aesthetic with a real propensity to go viral; the gallery merely one part of a much broader cultural attack.

It’s not that such things are entirely absent from the higher-end art world these days: indeed, you can see them in any number of artists from Duke Riley to Takashi Murakami. Rather, what’s interesting to me is the way that a new economics of art is emerging — one which has much less emphasis on the Priceless And Transcendent Unique Object, and which relaxes much more easily into simple enjoyment of the art itself, whatever form it takes.

Crabapple, for instance, in her Kickstarter campaign for the current show, promised to give 538 backers art objects ranging from a signed Molly Crabapple million dollar bill, all the way up to one of the 9 big paintings which anchor the show. Those hundreds of backers are excited to be supporting the project; they’re not, in general, worried about things like edition sizes, or certificates of authenticity, or all the other trappings of art-world seriousness which mainly exist to give potential buyers the illusion that they’re purchasing something which has some kind of secondary-market resale value.

There are many successful artists these days, from Shepard Fairey to Damien Hirst, who are taking this path — who are selling art to consumers who enjoy it, without making a big deal about how unique it is or how much it might rise in value. These artists tend to want to disintermediate galleries, who are generally wedded to the art-as-investment narrative, or at least to the idea that there’s a certain amount of money that any given artwork is “worth”. That’s very different from the practice of, say, Roberto Dutesco, whose Soho storefront sells his photographs of horses in much the same way that the shop next door might sell sofas. The photos are expensive, but not because they have any particular resale value: the major auction houses won’t even accept them. (The last time one of them came up for auction, in Berlin, it sold for the same price as Dutesco’s book.)

Dutesco’s photographs have decorative value, and they look expensive, and they’re actually extremely good at filling up an oligarch’s loft, if the oligarch isn’t particularly interested in detached, ironic uber-expensive art. In fact, they are just as much at home in Soho as limited-edition Fairey posters are in Los Feliz. And just like Fairey, Dutesco can make a very good living selling his art, as a decorative consumption good, directly to the people who put it straight up on their walls.

This kind of thing is not entirely new, but I think it’s becoming more common, thanks to the way in which the internet allows artists to reach a niche audience much more easily than they ever could before. I’m a big fan of Etsy, in this regard; I’ve used it myself to buy the work of the brilliant Stephanie Tillman, who sells her wonderful, darkly hilarious embroideries online at ridiculously low prices. Much like Dutesco, every piece is unique, but anybody else can come along subsequently and buy their own virtually-identical version. Originality and scarcity are not what matters; it’s the art that matters.

The high-end art world naturally mistrusts all these artists, as it mistrusts just about anybody who tries to sell their own work rather than going through a gallery. If an art lover buys art directly from an artist without a gallery, you’re not going to have any third party reassuring yourself that you’re making a good decision, or that the piece will be worth much more in the future. The art world lives on third-party validation, and galleries really do earn their money, in that without them, the art they sell would be worth much, much less.

But as that world shrinks down to a hard and shiny plutocratic core, alternative models are bound to present themselves — and with them, a whole new idea of what art is and should be. When you procure art via Etsy or Kickstarter, you’re basically going back to the old patronage model, trusting your instincts, going with what you love. It’s incredibly easy to be very snobbish about a lot of this art, but in many ways its very attraction is the way in which it has no particular interest in ending up on the walls of MoMA.

We no longer live in a world where a small group of the self-appointed elite can simply tell the rest of us what is good and what isn’t. We’re going to make our own determinations of what we love, and we’re going to be happy transgressing boundaries in doing so: many of the comments on my post about technologists buying art, for instance, were from techies who said that they do buy art; it’s just that the art they buy is likely to be a piece of hardware, like the iPhone, or maybe a Telsa car. Their point is well taken: people pay a premium for such things just because they love their aesthetics, and want to own them and interact with them. They’re quite art-like, in that way.

I hope this world expands, and that many more artists will be able to carve out a niche for themselves selling pieces directly to the people who love what they do. Museums and curators will always exist, searching for narratives and art-historical importance. But if the internet is going to democratize art, and I think it probably will, then those tastemakers are going to have to be marginalized in the process. Instead, in places like Etsy and Kickstarter, a thousand flowers will bloom.

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