Market Monday: Tech-Tac-Toe
This week, a trio of stories lining up technological innovation with cultural economics...
Shop Til You Drop: On Friday, Brian Boucher surveyed a cross-section of artists and industry professionals about the potential impact of a new feature soon to debut on Instagram, the art world's most essential social-media outlet. The platform announced this week that it is developing what Boucher calls "shoppable tags," which essentially embed posts with a means to explore and buy pictured products within the app itself rather than forcing users to follow the infamous "link in bio" to an external website. Instagram will begin testing the feature in December with a slate of 20 mainstream retailers, including J. Crew, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Warby Parker. Since Boucher mostly avoids the nitty-gritty, you can find more details on the feature and the larger context of monetized social media here.
While click-to-buy 'Grams may still be six degrees of Kate Spade away from the art market, Boucher's piece is a valuable thought experiment nevertheless. The app has become a pillar of conversation in this industry since the mid-2000s. Yet, given most gallerists' and dealers' long history of resistance to tech, it should come as no surprise that Boucher's interviewees mostly meet his queries about in-app art sales with skepticism. The dominant theme in their responses seems to be that shoppable tags might work for lower-priced and more volume-oriented formats––think prints and posters––but not for higher-priced and more limited ones. And although it isn't actually as out of character as he wants the world to believe, this conservative opinion is even echoed by Stefan Simchowitz, who has basically spent the past five years touting Instagram as an art historical inflection point on the order of the Lascaux cave paintings.
Yet I also think this new feature's impact on the art industry will be muted by something more than just high versus low prices. It's also likely to be muted by inside versus outside users. Based on the evidence to date, members of the traditional art establishment tend to rely on Instagram primarily for information––e.g. which artists, galleries, and aesthetics are attracting attention among their peers and targets––while unrepresented artists tend to focus more on actually using the platform to sell work. If that trend continues, then shoppable tags may act as a scarlet letter for anyone hoping to break into the industry's rarefied air, precisely because of the ease and accessibility they provide. After all, in the 21st century, nothing defines the art world's upper echelons as surely as the idea that the easier you are to get to, the less you must matter. [artnet News]
The Social Is Political: Expanding beyond just Instagram, Kerry Hannon toured readers through the rapidly developing landscape of museum-sector social media as a whole. Her reporting shows that many venerated museums have finally woken up to the idea that there may be more innovative ways to engage the public than mass-mailing pamphlets and hanging exhibition banners on streetlights. Notable examples include LACMA's pop culture-referencing, Webby Award-winning Snapchat account; the Art Institute of Chicago's multi-platform promotional effort for a Van Gogh-themed collaboration with AirBnB; and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston's weekly emoji art history lessons. What's more, the outsized success of these early efforts insures that we'll see plenty more digital experimentation by museums in the years ahead.
But while it's never actually asked, the question bubbling beneath the surface of Hannon's piece from the jump is this: Do museum-affiliated Snap stories, Instagram takeovers, and other forms of social-media cuteness subtly degrade the great collections they're meant to promote? Many respected members of the art industry would undoubtedly answer with a resounding "yes." After all, art is meant to be a pathway to transcendence, not a vehicle for #DadBod jokes, right? Yet I think this mentality misses the point somewhat. While arts institutions have not always lived up to the task, their mission is to serve the public good, specifically by enriching the average citizen's life through brushes with high culture that she might not encounter otherwise. This, in turn, means that museums have a permanent mandate to connect with the general populace by any means necessary.
Now compare that operating principle to the one driving the for-profit side of the industry. The most successful gallerists, dealers, and auction houses now primarily exist to serve a niche audience of high and ultra-high net worth buyers, many of whom spend much of their lives wrapped in a cocoon of privilege that seldom opens onto the world at large. So, at least on paper, even the most influential nonprofits have much more incentive to meet everyday people halfway than their for-profit counterparts do. In that sense, I would ask the following of anyone who cringes at the notion of LACMA's social-media manager turning Old Masters into memes: If a little Snapchat mischief degrades the collection, then who exactly are we trying to keep it pure for––and what does that mean for the future of art? [The New York Times]
Can't Buy Me Love: Finally this week, on Thursday Michael Connor checked in from the New Museum's launch event for Rhizome's Net Art Anthology, which the organization describes as "a two-year online exhibition [that] will present 100 artworks from net art history, restaging and contextualizing one project each week." The initiative doubles as the coming-out party for Rhizome's Webrecorder, a tool that essentially archives net art pieces exactly as they existed on their chosen platform at the historical moment of their debut, thereby protecting them from later aesthetic or existential changes made to the exhibition "venue" itself. So when Webrecorder preserved Amalia Ulman's "Excellences & Perfections," for example, it preserved the piece within the digital architecture of Instagram circa 2014––meaning that subsequent modifications to how the app looks and/or works, let alone its possible complete disappearance, cannot corrupt Ulman's original intent. (For a thorough unpacking of Webrecorder and net art overall, I highly recommend Maximilíano Durón's comprehensive history of Rhizome on its 20th anniversary.)
In my eyes, what rises to the top of Connor's reporting is net art's status as the latest manifestation of an inherent, endlessly recycled paradox of art history: The most innovative works are almost always the most difficult to monetize when they first appear. It's usually only in hindsight that the cultural gatekeepers recognize their importance, add them to the canon, and determine how to profit off them accordingly. So although net art's diffuse and object-less nature saddles it with a distinct revenue-generating problem, we should also keep in mind that the genre and its practitioners are only facing a 21st-century version of the same difficulty once encountered by video artists, fine-art photographers, Cubists, and so many other aesthetic innovators before them. Not everyone fears the new in art. But it can be damn hard to convince most people to pay for it right away. [ARTnews]
That's all for this edition. Til next time, may no opponent block your preferred next move.