Galleries On and Off
The basic problem of earning a living by making art lies in the fact that the general spending capacity of people interested in the visual arts doesn't keep up with the academies' output of artists. A surplus of saleable art being the result. Since artists have started to outnumber dealers and customers in the second half of the 19th century they've always been inventing alternative ways of distribution, thereby sidestepping dealers, auctioneers and institutions.
Nonetheless representation by a gallery is still the most established business model so far, which covers roughly only about a third of all working artists (1). As a consequence artists with no or too little gallery representation have been presenting their work on individual websites since the early 90s. During the last couple of years so called online-galleries have become heavily trafficked spaces, which raises the question which of the two formats proves more successful in establishing contacts between artists and customers.
It's the Economy, Stupid
Given that finding and being found are the primary purpose of artists' forums, participants better not get confused by the term ‘artists network'. Because those who confound a marketing tool with social exchange will share the fate of a frustrated artist, complaining on ‘Saatchi online': "After months of sending ‘friend requests' and commenting on people's work, I've received not one return message", whereupon a senior member explains that "friend requests usually mean they want you to vote for them in ‘Showdown' (2). The comments usually are ‘Hi, like your work, please vote for me in ‘Showdown' as I have voted for you.' Then you don't hear from them again."
And another commentator gets to the heart of the matter by asking the disappointed one: "Are you an artist or a collector?" (3) Which is to say: when you're an artist like everyone else, don't bother us. Whereas in case you're the man with the money, just say so and you'll find tons of friends in the blink of an eye!
Disguised as a question, this dry answer puts the common problem of all artists' forums in a nutshell: in fact nobody cares about their peer's portfolios. Artists aren't necessarily the ones artists like to get in touch with - at least not in a selling-space where colleagues turn into competitors by default. Hence even in forums in which people are invited to discuss various issues, replies frequently start with a polite nod towards the conversation's official topic, followed by an in-depth introduction to the own work. All networking rhetoric aside - when it comes down to it, the main purpose is to attract people who are willing to buy art.
Is there Anybody Out there?
To what extent people are prone to look for art on a screen is difficult to tell. Mere numbers of site views don't yield any information as to the visitors' intention, and direct investigations regarding monetary efficiency don't go down particularly well with the operators. ‘Saatchi online' has a forum where things can be ‘discussed' with the company's representatives. Questions about the factual volume of sales are answered with generalities like "things have been going fairly well. Many pieces have been sold on our site." (4) Surprise, surprise.
According to a survey I've conducted in December 2011, people wishing to buy contemporary art still favour physical galleries and fairs. Although online-galleries are appreciated as a means to receive first visual impressions along with basic information, purchase decisions are preferably made offline. This leaves virtual galleries with the task to support potential customers in structuring the occasionally confusing area of contemporary art by means of categorizations and keywords that fit the client's priorities. Hence a collector's affiliation to a particular network depends greatly on the categories deployed - be it genre, technique, content or price-range. (The ‘female nudes'-section being obligatory among all of them.)
Other unique characteristics compared to bricks and mortar galleries are access unimpeded by time or space along with usually lower prices. For a fee individual advise is available, although the credentials of the mysterious ‘art consultants' are not exactly specified. Also information on the site's operators is rarely exposed at great length. The clients' wish to be presented with a range of items matching their particular requirements is frequently accommodated by a proposal of related products - a choice which tends to follow pretty elusive criteria.
Speaking of elusiveness, the transparency of criteria is a general trouble spot (not only) of online galleries. For despite almost infinite storage room, they too have to pick in order to ensure a certain level of quality. Thus certain methods of selection are required. The fact that the persons in charge reserve the right to delete works which don't fit the gallery's profile is self-evident since each forum is free to mark their territory by in- or excluding crafts - design or fashion for instance. But even focusing on ‘genuine' arts leaves a huge amount of work to be sorted. And since viewers testify to feeling overwhelmed by unstructured bulks of images, most portals conduct pre-selections in order to narrow down the choice. Criteria according to which persons and works are highlighted usually remain unspoken. While at Saatchi's director Wilson makes no pretence of being the one and only in command, in the majority of cases the juries remain obscure.
In addition to being judged by a jury, there's also the model of having artists and galleries pay a fee to become premium members, which includes entering more material and to do so in prominent positions. Still another way to control growth without curatorial intervention is to allow only those new members who are invited by current ones.
Asked about the average number of images people use to process at a stretch, it turned out that the recipients' endurance doesn't depend so much on whether the pictures are displayed on- or offline as rather on individual habits of consumption in general. Whoever is able to cope with the solid mass of art accumulated at biennials or fairs will also be prepared to watch an equal amount transformed into terabytes.
What's the Point?
But what exactly makes artists flock to online portals? An obvious reason is the opportunity of an ancillary way of promotion in addition to individual homepages. For those can only be looked up as long as the host's name is known to the person searching, whereas indexes installed by online-galleries list works irrespective of the artist's name, hence enabling clients to look for certain kinds of art without being confined to artists they're already familiar with.
Large networks like ‘ArtSlant' invite gallery owners to be indexed in terms of artistic focal points or location. While they are free to enter existing web-addresses, they are also invited to present their business in a special format. Like all services apart from the very basic membership this new homepage is either charged directly or indirectly via commissions charged by the operators. The main advantage to adjust to the homogeneous layout of a common platform consists in the possibility to benefit from the online-gallery's large audience by simultaneously presenting one's own artists within a protected area as it were - off the colourful jungle out there. Further functions include more or less comprehensive calendars, venues, readers' reviews on books and shows along with press releases as well as how-to pages on photographing, packaging, pricing and taxing of art.
The Image and the Damage Done
Among all kinds of art shown online, two-dimensional works make up the majority, probably because they're easier to reproduce than three-dimensional pieces. However most artists agree that even high res images don't do justice to the original. While ‘alla prima' painting can be transferred onto the screen quite authentically, techniques involving the slow application of different layers of paint cannot be captured by photography. The massive implications caused by slight shifts of colour are known to everyone who ever compared several versions of the ‘same' picture on different sites.
Despite these disadvantages inherent in reproductions, technical capabilities of scrutinizing paintings have clearly improved. In the case of Google's ‘Art Project' the screen allows for an even far more detailed view than one would get in front of the original.
However regardless of reproductions' high quality, there remains the loss of corporeality. Strictly speaking whenever colour is applied to a surface the result isn't flat any more. Even when liquid paint is completely absorbed by an unprimed canvas, it still is a three-dimensional object. Traditionally this ‘objecthood' of the allegedly immaterial surface has already been stressed by shaped canvases. Yet as soon as the tangible being is made into an image, its materiality vanishes and the physical being becomes an abstract apparition. This shift from analogue to digital reality is the reason for a number of photographers and film makers to return to analogue photography and films on celluloid. Ultimately jpgs are just spectres of something which in fact is definitely not a file.
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(1) "It is estimated that 2,500 - 5,000 artists actually have gallery representation, and another 800,000 - 1 million talented artists across the globe do not. So we decided to skip the formalities of the traditional gallery structure and connect the people around the globe who create art with the people who want to collect it. Today Saatchi Online is a place where collectors, art lovers and everyone in between can discover and buy work from artists in over 100 countries from South of the Equator to Europe, India, China, Russia and the US." http://www.saatchionline.com/about
(2) Under the title ‘Showdown' Saatchi organizes a competition set up of three rounds. During the first one all ‘valid' submissions are voted upon by all members of the network. The top 300 are then presented to a jury who selects 30 favourites of which an appointed judge (currently Wangechi Mutu) chooses the first (1000 US dollar) and second (500 US dollar) best.
(5) Shortly after writing this I was informed about the demise of Helen Frankenthaler who's an excellent example of this ‘superflat' way of painting.