Swipe Life: wydr, COINs + Art in the Attention Economy
There's an old art-world story about Agnes Martin: Allegedly, a critic once asked her how long someone should spend looking at one of her endlessly subtle, quietly beguiling works in order to fully grasp it. Martin's answer: a minute. Shocked at the brevity, the incredulous critic supposedly spat back, "A minute?!" To which Martin replied: "A minute is quite a long time."
For art enthusiasts who want to take Martin's message to its logical endpoint, Switzerland just produced the ultimate online marketplace. It's (inexplicably) called wydr, and it applies Tinder's unavoidable "swipe left or right" format to emerging artworks. If you're a young or early-stage collector, this setup probably sounds easy, clean, and appealing. If you're an older connoisseur, it probably sounds like madness. If you're me, though, the most intriguing––and troubling––aspect of wydr is a counterintuitive one: namely, that buyers using this quick-trigger platform are not nearly the extremists many of us might like to believe.
First, let's tour through wydr's interface and business model. The app is free to download, and it welcomes art lovers (see: potential buyers) and artists from anywhere in the world. Once a member of the former group logs on, wydr presents her with a steady stream of available works "curated" by an algorithm that takes into account her (and other users') "likes" and "dislikes." Right-swiped pieces appear in the user's private "virtual gallery," along with additional details and a handy "buy" button. Left-swiped pieces careen into the digital netherworld, never to be seen by that user again (unless she takes mercy and undoes the left swipe).
As for sales, when a user clicks the "buy" button on a work in her virtual gallery, the artist in question receives 70 percent of the proceeds. wydr keeps the other 30 percent for its services (which include subsidizing all shipping costs). And with the price of its available works reportedly averaging just $430 each, the platform definitely hopes to thrive on both unrepresented artists and a volume sales strategy.
Does this drag-race approach to collecting seem preposterous to you? If so, strap yourself down before you read on. Because it's essentially the same one now driving the high end of the art market, where COINs (Collector Only in Name) regularly mash the pedal to the floor to try to outpace their socioeconomic rivals for big-name prizes. (In fairness, some institutions have joined the derby, too.) Between the impersonal trade-show format of the prestigious international art fairs where they tend to compete, the superficial selfie-bait aesthetic they gravitate toward in the artworks themselves, their embrace of art as arbitrage opportunity in boom times, and the aggressive global marketing campaigns designed to lure them in by transforming key artists, galleries, and auction houses into instantly recognizable luxury brands, much of the 21st-century art market has been engineered to make these nascent collectors' decisions instantaneous: See it. Know it. Buy it. Done.
So how much behavioral difference is there between, on one hand, hundreds of entry-level collectors swiping right and clicking-to-buy emerging artworks on wydr... and, on the other, dozens of status-seeking elites lunging for blue-chip works at Art Basel's VIP preview like a pack of starving dogs all trying to suck the marrow out of the same hambone? Not much. The only real chasm is the one separating the price totals on the two groups' acquisitions.
As close observers of the industry know, the losers in this contest are the artists and galleries in the market's middle (which, for clarity, I usually define as the $5,000-70,000 per-piece range). Think of this category as contemporary art's reverse Goldilocks zone: too expensive and pedigreed to be "starter" works, yet still too inexpensive and consensus-free to be brands. With wages largely stagnant since the 1970s, the economy has been quietly burning up the middle's ideal income bracket for decades. And now, with global income inequality red-lining like never before in the post-2008 era, it feels like the entire center of the engine block could burst into flames.
But here's the thing: Midlevel artworks aren't just suffering from the standpoint of the traditional economy. They're also suffering from the standpoint of the ATTENTION economy. By definition, these pieces require more time, consideration, and independent thinking than our era of #HotTakes, instant gratification, and hive-minding supports. To analogize to the movie industry, they are well-crafted, grown-up dramas released to an audience only interested in superheroes and Snapchat.
And here's the third-act plot twist: As easy and comforting as it would be to blame art neophytes at both income extremities, an array of past studies suggest that midlevel art's problem is much wider. It turns out that most rank-and-file viewers think Agnes Martin was right about a minute being "quite a long time" to consider a single artwork––even in person, and even when it's one of the acknowledged masterworks of art history.
Research conducted by the Met allegedly found that the average museum-goer looks at a piece for just 32.5 seconds. Yet other time trials make this estimate look positively excessive. A paper published in the journal Empirical Studies of the Arts reduced the median viewing duration to just 17 seconds, with "around 50 percent of the looks last[ing] less than 10 seconds, one quarter to one third of the looks last[ing] around half a minute, and only 10 percent of the looks last[ing] longer than a minute." The Louvre claimed in 2004 that visitors pause in front of the "Mona Lisa" for only 15 seconds on average. And according to James Elkins, the most sobering study of all concluded that the magic number was 12 seconds, with an asterisk the size of the Death Star hovering above those digits. Why? Because "12 seconds" consisted of two seconds actually looking at the piece... and ten seconds reading the accompanying wall text.
Given those findings, a "Tinder for art" starts to sound less like a marketplace for philistines than a frank response to human nature––especially once you factor in wydr's inventory and our era. If people only eyeballed the "Mona Lisa" for an average of 15 seconds in 2004, how much time do they REALLY need to decide if they MIGHT want to spend a couple hundred bucks on a piece by an emerging and/or completely unrepresented artist in 2016? And "might" is the operative word here, since, again, swiping right on wydr just gives users the option to consider the artwork at length before deciding whether to actually buy it.
In a way, the same can be said about COINs, as well as the strategies that gallerists and dealers have developed to entice them. They all feel borderline-dismissive of art, as if closely considering the work is irrelevant to determining its value (or lack thereof). And yet, is it possible that they're just being more honest about our species than self-described connoisseurs? Who's really the exception in this conversation?
In theory, there's a simple fix to this solution––or at least, to one side of it. All the middle of the art market needs to prove its worth is a minute of our time. Is that too much to ask?
For most of us, though, the answer is "yes"––whether we're swiping right on wydr, swiping our black card for a Modigliani at Christie's, or just swiping our eyes through a museum or gallery. After all, a minute is quite a long time... And it's getting longer every day.