If I ruled the internet – and why not, if someone had to do the job – I might have a law requiring all artists to post prices for the paintings they exhibited online. I say this because it has been like torture inflicted on Tantalus not to know whether I can afford to buy a picture I fell in love with last week, checking surmises about the web site of Harold Francis Bell in my last post. I was wrong to suggest that HFB might have given up painting to concentrate on sculpture. There were two superb new portraits on his site, apparently of the same subject: a striking young woman in her late teens or perhaps early twenties, in a different mood in each picture. It’s the second one I specially covet, the portrait in white.
Most artists are as poor as most writers, which makes enquiries related to lucre uncomfortable in the extreme for people who, like me, detest monetary negotiations of every kind – well short of haggling. But except for the annoyance of the missing price tag – and PayPal button – not just on the Bell site, but hundreds of others, I find that I much prefer shopping for art online. No smarmy, oleaginous gallery owner or attendant stands slyly estimating my net worth as I walk around. No other prospective buyers wait for a turn at close inspection, ruffling my hair with impatient breathing. No inane comments distract me from being borne away to wherever a picture or sculpture takes me.
A discussion in the comments section among artist comrades on this very site last year taught me that many of them resent being dictated to by art galleries. So the question that interests me is, could search engines liberate both artists and art buyers from middlemen that both groups would rather do without?
The most innovative business mind sympathetic to artists’ struggles to make a living, and keen on helping, does not seem all that optimistic about the net as the solution to the problem – even though its owner has for several years had an outstanding online showcase for contemporary art. Answering questions at the Daily Beast last week, Charles Saatchi said:
The great majority of artists around the world don’t have dealers to represent or show their work. It makes it pretty well impossible to get your efforts seen, with most dealers too busy or too lazy to visit studios—[…] In reality, most dealers find new artists to show through recommendations from their existing stable—artists often urge their dealers to look favourably upon the work of their friends; furthermore, dealers usually believe artists are good judges of other artists’ work. All in all then, if you’re not in the right artistic social circles, didn’t go to a hip art school, don’t quite fit in, it can be hell to extract much interest from dealers and collectors.
Not once did he mention the internet as a meeting place for buyers and sellers. I wonder whether he has become disenchanted with the web’s potential as a marketplace cutting out dealers since The New York Times reported, three years ago, that
… he and his Internet team spend their days pondering ways of attracting more artists to [Saatchi Online]. In addition to Stuart, for art students, and Your Gallery, a separate area where artists of all ages can post their work and sell it directly without relying on a dealer or other middleman, the site offers links to museums around the world and a magazine with art world news and feature articles.
Much as I admire the Saatchi experiments, visiting sites showing works by more than one artist is, in my experience, much less enjoyable than time spent at single-artist platforms that catch my eye.
An individual showcase feels more intimate even than being a guest in a painter’s home; more like climbing into that painter’s head. It’s a chance to revel in various facets of the same sensibility; or of the same work – if, as on the Bell site, the software permits views that flicker pleasingly between a full-length picture and selected, magnified details. Whereas I clicked out of the multi-artist exhibition on the Imagekind site almost as fast as I clicked in, nauseated by the clashing colours and styles and too many images that shrieked ‘Hallmark,’ or ‘tea towel’, I lingered over the two new Bells, marvelling at how human beings learnt to depict sensitivity in a human face with thick and heavy oil paint – for instance, the tremulous uncertainty in the expression of the girl in white. Was it that same girl I was looking at in ‘Cheongsam,’ radiating self-confidence – or her sister? If the pictures were indeed two views of the same person, which expression was habitual for her? … and so on.
But how would I go about finding the Bell pictures on the net if chance didn’t put them in my way? At Empty Easel, someone advising artists about how to sell work online implies that the most important of seven tips for drawing buyers to their pictures is that these should ‘be optimized for search engines like Google and Yahoo. “Optimizing for search” just means using the same keywords in your descriptions and titles that art buyers use when searching for artwork online.’ The writer offers this example:
“Untitled Fragments is the seventh painting in my series of geometric abstract artworks. I used bold colors and powerful brush strokes, as I do in all my paintings, in order to create a lasting visual impression. Art buyers (and art lovers) will see symbolic references to prominent 20th century abstract painters like Piet Mondrian and Georges Braque as I offer homage to their artistic vision through my own art. This artwork is still for sale, so if you’d like to purchase the painting just click on the buy artwork button below.”
Yes I can see the sense in that reasoning. Enabling steering by key words is probably as much as today’s search technology can help. It leaves a lot to be desired, though. Where Empty Easel’s sample of search bait mentions Mondrian and Braque, I might say Modigliani about the girl-in-white picture on the Bell site, and perhaps Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt. But those names may not mean anything to someone who was never steeped as deeply in art history as I once was, or had time or the inclination to visit museums – so could be useless as both lures and guides.
What we want is a search engine you could direct by giving it the link to a particular picture, or uploading it. Starting with the image itself (rather than a description of it in words) and a simple instruction such as, ‘drawings like this,’ a searcher would receive a stream of offerings, with chances to narrow selections by, for example, dominant colours or classes of colour. I have gathered, though, that the software for image-based searching is still primitive – even if it is something of a holy grail for researchers because of the shift from text to pictorial (or video) communications that seems to be underway.
It makes me sad to say that I think it unlikely that artists linked chiefly by philosophy, or opposition to common enemies – for instance, crass art marketing and bullying dealers – could sell much serious art. In addition to the off-putting stylistic jungle I’ve mentioned in relation to Imagekind, I cannot see people as individualistic as most good artists agreeing on points as small but vital as, say, the price tags I want for works put up for sale. One collaborative, Art.net – also known as Art on the Net – specifically forbids any mention of money:
Our site is a non-commercial site and we request that artists not post prices or create commercial-like spaces here. We ask artists to not have things in their spaces such as order forms for art or commercial banners. Instead we hope artists will treat their spaces as if they were actual studios and gallery rooms.
The unseemly hawking must be done off-site:
Artists are encouraged to provide contact information for themselves in their spaces so that people interested in their work can contact them directly.
Though I find the reasons for that policy deeply sympathetic, I can’t help wondering why, since we are used to publishers and authors setting a price for books, painters should not be equally frank in stating what they consider their work to be worth.
So, to summarise conclusions from my woolgathering about the net as a virtual art gallery: in addition to price lists and swift payment tools like PayPal, I would prefer to see not collective displays but individual sites controlled by individual artists. And I want search companies to hurry up and improve their technology faster. Perhaps an ingenious startup will leapfrog over Google, inventing robust, efficient, picture-based sorting software before it gets there. . . Perhaps Charles Saatchi will finance this essential invention. Like Theo van Gogh, the art dealer whose faith in the genius of his desperate brother never wavered, even if almost no one else shared it, in Vincent’s lifetime – Saatchi does grasp what art means to artists. Baffled as I am by his enthusiasm for the stunts of Damien Hirst, I am impressed by his understanding what people good at making money seldom do, in my experience:
I hate to sound like a romantic adolescent, but I believe artists don’t generally see art as a career choice, they simply can’t overcome their desire to make art …