An Introduction to "Average Is Over" + The Future of Art Sales
Yesterday I finished celebrated economist Tyler Cowen’s most recent book, Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation. It’s bursting with big claims and thought-provoking ideas, but the core thesis is that we’ve entered an era in which the increasing power and prominence of computers in every industry will fundamentally change which skills are highly valued (and thus richly rewarded) in comparison to past generations.
To succeed in any field, Cowen argues, you must learn to think of yourself as a complement to what machines do well rather than trying to beat the machines at a function where man’s intellect used to reign supreme. And if you don’t feel compelled to follow that advice, best of luck, because the data shows that, since the 1970s, the American middle class has been eroding into the abyss while the wealthy continue galloping toward the summit like golden-horned mountain goats. We’ve entered a world in which there is the lavish top of the hierarchy… and then there’s everyone else, and symbiosis with technology is what will determine which group each of us gets to claim as our own.
Synopsized, I’ll admit that the argument sounds a little like it could be the opening crawl used to set up Robocop or Terminator, but I found it well researched and smart as hell. And as you probably guessed, I found myself thinking about what implications Cowen’s hypotheses may have for the art world.
I was originally planning to write a single post to that effect, but in the course of it, my mental dam split open like it was built by the Army Corps of Engineers. So instead, I’ll be unleashing my thoughts in shorter waves throughout the coming week or so. Hopefully, this approach will be friendlier to you and me both.
The most direct parallel I saw between Average Is Over and the art world appears during a chapter on the future of education. There, Cowen projects that computers will (and in many cases, already do) have the ability to teach students just as effectively as other people, as long as we define “teaching” strictly as communicating the content of a lesson plan. A student no longer needs a human physically present to walk her through, say, how to calculate the volume of a sphere; she can get that same information from a credible piece of software or an online video from Khan Academy. Yet even the most genius software and cloud-based tutorials only work if the students actually: A) open them, B) pay attention to them, and C) do what they ask. Cowen suggests that the most desirable human teachers will thus be less like knowledge transmitters and “more like motivational coaches and missionaries.” Their real job will be to work with students on a personal level: to keep them energized, on task, and in tune with the machines doling out the actual knowledge. The teachers who thrive in this role will be handsomely rewarded for it, as we're already seeing in other parts of the world. Those who don’t will need to find work elsewhere.
Instead of focusing on what Cowen’s projections mean for art professors, I want to delve into their impact on the future of gallerists. Like today’s flesh-and-blood teachers, good gallerists fulfill a wide range of functions for the artists they represent. Selling art is only the “lesson plan” portion of their responsibilities; they also act as sounding boards for their artists’ ideas, editors of their new work, therapists (and sometimes material benefactors) during hard times, liaisons to other helpful figures in the industry… basically, as problem-solvers in crises large and small, many of which the average art enthusiast never thinks about. The point is that a well-respected gallerist is as much a talent manager and life coach to her artists as a salesman. Yes, she must be effective at selling. But she also must be effective in a holistic sense. Otherwise it’s just decent sex in the midst of a dysfunctional relationship, and it’s only a matter of time before one side starts whipping plates at the other.
While I remain wary of the specific estimates being tossed around, both for reasons I’ve touched on before (albeit somewhat clumsily) and better ones I’ll outline in a forthcoming post, I have no doubt that online and remote art sales are on the rise. Even before dedicated sites like Artsy and Saatchi Art materialized, some collectors were buying pieces through password-protected pages on blue chip gallery’s sites. And before that, an even smaller group was acquiring on the strength of no more than a few jpegs and some specs emailed to them by a trusted gallerist. All of these developments have begun to reduce the importance of the physical gallery, the physical sales presentation, and therefore the physical salesman herself. As the trend continues (and it will), then it follows that the most valued gallerists would be the ones most dedicated to doing what the machines can’t, i.e. working with artists in a talent management/support system role rather than concentrating on Glengarry Glen Ross-style deal-closing.
All kinds of serious industry consequences could flow out of that origin point. I’ll begin wading through them in the next installment.