Once upon a time, like in July, I met a Republican. It was an accident: Most nights in Manhattan I'd be likelier to meet a unicorn wearing an "I (Heart) Tourists" T-shirt. We argued over health care and his right to call me "sweetheart" until the conversation got so rude that someone changed the subject – to money.
The Republican was an investor in something called Art.sy, which he described as a network of online art. He meant, rather, art that's viewable online. Like Google Art Project? I asked. He didn't know what Google Art Project was, and I couldn't not tell him how well that boded for his investment. But actually, I was mad curious. Whether physical art will or will not, or should or should not, be sold more widely on the Web: It's a multi-part question. I just wasn't going to take answers from a Jeff Koons fan.
The Art.sy site, to which I received a beta invitation from a non-Republican friend last month (it's now open to the public), only raises more questions. Conceived by Carter Cleveland, son of art historian David Cleveland, the site was created with help from art-world impresarios Larry Gagosian and Dasha Zhukova. Other investors include Peter Thiel (founder of PayPal), Jack Dorsey (Twitter founder) and Joe Kennedy (Pandora CEO). Surely, all stakeholders invest in physical art and have those artists' reputations – and prices – to maintain. Is this another hegemony-maker in democracy-tinted sunglasses? The site's design, and some of its ideas, feel new. But the just-hidden point of view is purely traditional.
Last year, Cleveland told the New York Observer his site is a "Pandora for art," and yep, it uses algorithms modelled on Pandora's Music Genome Project to create its "Art Genome Project." You can search mostly modern and contemporary artists by style, medium, region and more. Just don't bother looking for artists who are less than major, at least until more art is added (and it is, daily). I found works by Cecily Brown, but not by Hernan Bas; Kiki Smith, not Kara Walker; Tracey Emin, not Aurel Schmidt.
Everything is categorized, but you won't find performance or digital art, only relational aesthetics and "computer art," that is to say, physical art made with technology. There is, however, a category for tonalism. I've never heard anybody express an undying appreciation of it, but Carter Cleveland's dad wrote the book on it, literally, so here we are.
Once you've found a work you like, click, then scroll to see suggestions based on a set of 800 "genes." For Christian Marclay's The Clock, the first "related artwork" is a James Rosenquist painting. The painting is hideous and has zero conceptual or even aesthetic relation to Marclay's work. I'll grant Art.sy this: It has a clock in it.
The missing "gene" is what art means. Clicking through the site, I found myself only "saving" to my "collection" the artists whose work I had already seen/felt/cried about in person. I have nothing against digital art, and many things for it. But the experience of physical art must also be physical, if we're to grasp at its meaning.
Art.sy-ing feels more like shopping for designer clothes online than walking through an art gallery in real life. For fashion, e-commerce has been a boon with no signs of bust. But it hasn't revolutionized the industry by making unknown designers suddenly famous, as MySpace did bands. Rather, it's forced the establishment to design with an eye to how clothes look online, perhaps sacrificing how they feel on the body.
On Net-a-Porter, or La Garçonne, or eBay, I search for designers I already know from runways and changing rooms. I pick things that photograph well: wool, not satin; prints, not intricate textures.
Imagine buying paintings the same way? Or don't imagine, but don't think it is not already happening.
Just after I joined Art.sy, e-commerce behemoth Yoox.com announced it will be selling not just last season's designer goods, not just "curated vintage," but also – as of now – fine art. I knew visual art was becoming as cyclical, as commercial, as fashion. Still, this seems a sign of bad ends.
My unease isn't elitist: I want people to see art however they can see art. In the United States, a 2010 National Endowment of the Arts study showed more lower-income and racial-minority Americans view the arts only through electronic media, vis-a-vis live participation, than do higher-income and white Americans.
No, I'm conflicted because I want to see physical art online, but I can't see physical art become as surface-detail-oriented, as depth-eliding, as fashion is in the age of e-commerce.
Google Art Project is like a virtual museum.The newer Paddle8.com is like a gallery, with many of its works viewable by all, but others only to site-approved, high-net-worth members (and you can only see how much each work costs if, really, you don't have to ask). Art.sy is the public art fair, and like the fairs I've visited in Miami, Toronto and New York, it's free to see but serves overtly a certain type of rich collector. Like the Armory Show, Art.sy favours work that is hieratic, decorative, gorgeous, flat.
Seeing physical art on the Web is easier than ever, but who decides what we see? When seeing is too close to buying, it's a little too far from believing.