Move over Twitter, my new favorite online work avoidance tactic/time-sucking vortex is Amazon Art, Amazon.com’s new fine art portal. All of those Warhols! In one place! And Koons. And Hirst. And Schnabel. (Yes, Schnabel. Indulge me.) It’s online porn for the art aficionado. And it’s set to revolutionize the way the deep-pocketed public buys and sells art. Or not. If you’ve followed what dealers, assessors, consultants, and market analysts have had to say since the beta site first launched in early August, then you know there’s a whole lotta harrumphing echoing around the hallowed halls of the art world these days. And many establishment art-world wonks are far from convinced of Amazon Art’s long-term prospects.
And I will admit, Amazon Art has a lot of work ahead to meet its potential. But that very potential – of a vast and accessible global art marketplace – is exciting. Very exciting. So why the furrowed brows, art world?
In pondering this question I keep coming back to the German Dadaists. Always a rowdy and boundary-challenged bunch, in April of 1920 they reached new heights of envelope-pushing when artist Max Ernst and his merry-band of proto-punk contemporaries staged an exhibition in the courtyard of a Cologne brauhaus. I should mention that the courtyard could only be accessed from the street via a traipse through a public toilet, where a young girl in her communion dress stood reciting lewd poetry. The exhibition, today often referred to as the Dada Spring Awakening, seized the culturatti and taste makers of the day in the kind of collective pearl-clutch rarely seen outside of the tidy little circles of the art world and, of course, was shut down rather quickly by the local constabulary on charges of obscenity.
That exhibition, as you might (or maybe not) have heard, was a pivotal event in the evolution of modern art, and is frequently held up as an example of a moment in the history of art when something started to change. The Dada movement was many things – lighthearted and nonsensical, serious and political. But its rebellious ideas about art, including the insistence that art be accessible and everywhere – even in a beer garden (after a trip through the loo, natch) – was enough to lead one writer, from American Art News, to declare Dada philosophy, “the sickest, most paralyzing and most destructive thing that has ever originated from the brain of man.”
I bring this up not to ruin your day with an impromptu art history lesson, but to underscore how hilariously insular and protectionist – not to mention hyperbolic – the art world can be, and has always been, especially when it comes to exclusivity, access, and maintaining the status quo. Which brings us back to Amazon Art.
As I mentioned, Amazon’s move to bring unprecedented access to fine art has, perhaps unsurprisingly, been met with a mostly tepid, and often skeptical response from art world insiders. From Forbes to the Guardian to social media and blogs abounding – everyone has questions. Questions! From the possibly relevant: How will it work? Who can put five or six or seven figures on a credit card? Why aren’t there more women in the “Artists You Know” section? To the insidery: But what about the noobs who don’t know what they are doing? How will this affect market valuation? To the flat out snobbish (but, ok, it’s a good question): Who designed this aesthetically awful site?
And maybe this kind of intense scrutiny is exactly what is called for when considering a beta site that could turn the business of buying and selling art on its head. What’s missing, however, and what ultimately leads me to the conclusion that the art world – for the time being – is having a “don’t make me walk through the toilet” moment, is the simple absence of excitement this potentially game changing development should engender.
Where is the excitement about the boost to emerging artists and boon to the small and medium galleries Amazon Art could be? Where is the excitement about the access people around the world now have to a vast and varied inventory of art they otherwise might never have seen? With one or two notable exceptions, industry insider discourse regarding Amazon Art seems steadfastly focused on the possible pitfalls of bringing fine art to such a massive platform. And that needs to change.
It’s almost as if we are having one of those moments in the history of art when something started to change – and the culturatti and tastemakers of the day – caught in a loop of criticism about everything that is wrong with this new idea – failed, again, to notice.
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