Amazon.com, best known for its ruthless price-cutting, enormous volume of merchandise, and bullying of competitors and suppliers alike, may not make the daintiest gallerina. But with the August 7 launch of a new “Fine Arts” section, Amazon ventures into the rarefied art world, offering up million-dollar Warhols and Monets alongside scores of little-known works from galleries across the country. Browse. Marvel at Amazon’s dauntless ambition. But think twice before you fill your cart.
Some claim that Amazon will be allowing people who have never bought art before to do so because of their trust in the Amazon brand: that in the future, people will buy art because it lies on their axis of corporate familiarity. If this gloomy prediction is realized, will it matter what quality the art is, or will the making of art be reduced to games of pricing, status, and acquisition? This may be where art is headed regardless. Buying from Amazon may be the most efficient way to hurry it along.
In the last couple years, several online art platforms have made the attempt to disrupt the insularity of the art world. The much-hyped Art.sy, launched last year, fashioned itself as a force of curatorial guidance, declaring its mission to “make the world’s art available to all with an internet connection.” Art.sy dreamed up the sophisticated (if at times opaque) “Art Genome Project,” hiring a troupe of hyper-educated young grads to unpack the various critical, thematic, intellectual, and historical threads in a work to contextualize it for the idle browser.
Opening up the art world requires distribution of cultural and intellectual currency. Nowadays, many huge sales at auctions take place remotely and anonymously. Physical distance no longer stops those who can afford art — and what, aside from distance, does Amazon offer by way of “democratizing”? Amazon isn’t offering lower prices and it isn’t offering more information. Rather than giving knowledge to empower viewers, it is disempowering the art and the artist. The democratizing that Amazon would bring has nothing do to with contributing anything, but only to mulishly refuse to play along with elitist sensibilities.
Amazon’s “Fine Arts Beta” homepage makes little concession to style: A selection of iconic canvases float underneath the equally-iconic Amazon orange smile. Its homepage points viewers either to “Artists You Know” or to advanced search options — “content,” “price,” and “color,” all of which use exactly the same interface, sliders, and color swatches as the website's “Accessories and Apparel” section. The juxtaposition of masterpieces with the groceries and paperbacks and beauty products that make up the bulk of Amazon’s profit completes the perfect image of the commodification of contemporary art.
Of course, it’s idealistic to suggest that all who buy art should be starry-eyed and infatuated with it. Even those who buy art without passion should be leery of Amazon’s offerings. Social capital and demand has always been embedded in the purchase, collecting, and exchange of art. Traditional negotiations with galleries or auction houses allows for social context — who wants it, who sells it, who loves it. If social capital, cachet, and credentials are part and parcel of buying art, Amazon’s works must be considered damaged goods.
At the moment, rather than directly crowd out, Amazon has partnered with physical galleries across the country. If its model succeeds, however, Amazon may be ready to inflict the same wounds on the art gallery that it did on the bookstore. The independent bookstore is a more charismatic victim than the art gallery. Some might even relish the extinction of art galleries, filled with an unsavory blend of inherited money and namedropping and populated by women who seem to eat even less than they smile.
But the gallery and the auction house, weighty with ritual and self-importance, make art exciting, important, and urgent. Galleries have a financial incentive to reinforce the idea that art has the power to shape and contribute to public space, maintaining support for the existence of museums, public art projects, and investment in the material value of art.
Amazon’s success, on the other hand, came in part due to its disembodiment — its ability to exist without material stores (and thereby avoid paying local taxes). If art galleries become obsolete, every part of the world will have access to the same works of art, or at least their pixellated representations.
The silver lining to all this may come from viewers who sense the absurdity of the move. Amazon has occasionally become a site of droll cultural critique issued, guerrilla-style, through Amazon.com’s “customer review” section (see Bic For Her). So leave the shopping cart empty and leave a review. Consider it your chance for a little Kidult/Marc Jacobs roleplay.