Fall of the Art World

October 13th, 2006

Looking back at this piece (first posted 4 May) I can laugh at the melodramatic style. But I confess that I am still under its spell. Fall of the Art world continues to influence my world view, how I look at things like the Painting a Day movement. Which is to say, I could use some serious criticism of this piece. Tear it down, if you can.

Fall of the Art World
The art world as we know it is the product of the historical era between the invention of photography and the development of the internet.

Photography took away the artist’s monopoly on creating images of reality. Art survived this challenge because, as Cennino Cennini wrote several hundred years ago, art is about more than merely depicting that which exists.

But the challenge of photography led to a crisis: it became difficult to answer the question, “What is art?” In this context, control of public exhibition space became key. The answer to the question “What is art?” became by default, “That which is in museums and galleries.”

In this context, art is created not in the studio, but in the gallery or museum itself. Art is created not with the paintbrush, but with the wire that attaches the work to the museum or gallery wall. The curator and dealer become the creators of art; the artist’s productions are merely their raw materials.

The internet changes the equation; it allows for the juxtaposition of all art, removed from the bounds of physical space. The museum or gallery art-object, stripped of its mystic surroundings and exposed in the harsh light of the computer monitor, must compete on the basis of its own merit with every other artwork.

By diminishing the importance of the physical exhibition space, the internet strikes at the core of the dealer’s and curator’s power. The answer to the question, “What is art?” will no longer be “That which is in museums and galleries”, but, “That which looks good on the internet.”

This will be the end of the art world as we know it. Decision-making about art will be widely distributed. The art world, as a closed and controlled system, will cease to exist. The creative power unleashed in the new era might astonish us.


P.S. Thanks to Candy, David, Kris, Lisa and Tracy for valuable comments on the previous post. I will take your views into consideration when I do the rewrite.

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21 Responses to “Fall of the Art World”

  1. Jordan Says:


    If your statements are correct I would argue that art will not be “That which looks good on the internet.” but more likely that which is easily searchable and findable on the internet! There is a whole science behind SEO (search engine optimization) that you haven’t addressed. The most viewed art on the internet is not necessarily what is empirically best but moreover what is readily available.

  2. Karl Zipser Says:

    Jordan, you are developing an interesting line of reasoning here and in your previous comments. If the internet becomes the dominant forum for the arts, will it be a fair one, one that promotes excellence? Or will sheer numbers and manipulation swamp what is good?

    Impossible to know, of course. I take a more optimistic view than you do. But your comments suggest that the artist had better become knowledgeable about the workings of internet promotion, and not rely on the quality of their artwork alone. It seems that there are some pretty savvy artists selling on-line already.

    I should mention some of the inspirations for this post: an anonymous commenter here, Bill, Art News Blog, and Edward Winkleman and his readers — which is not to imply they agree with the views expressed.

  3. Jordan Says:

    Yes….Exactly. But I will say that I am not as pessimistic as I sound

  4. Karl Zipser Says:

    7 Oct
    Sometimes this post seems completely nutty to me; other times I feel like I am on target. This is one of my early blog posts, written before I heard of the Painting a Day movement.

    Uncertainty about my own blog post might seem odd, but it is not. Writing is a way to develop and study ideas. After the process of writing the idea, it takes time to fully evaluate it. By posting the idea on the web, I get input from others which I find valuable.

  5. Bob Says:

    Karl, I think you are on target about the new democracy of the art world. One of the challenges for the artist is the creation of the myth, the story about him/herself and why their painting exist. Sometimes I am involved as a judge of juried show and having to read artist statements one after an others becomes a nightmare. I am drained after ready about all that suffering.
    So we have write better and this is where blogs play a big role. I’ve noticed since starting my blog, that I want to write more and to improve on my communications. This will help in writing my own press releases, interviews with publications, lectures and all of the other things that our Galleries and Agents did for us.

  6. birgit Says:

    Bob hits the nail on the head.

  7. Jon Conkey Says:

    Jordan is right about savvy accessing of the internet, with SEO’s etc. However, he does not mention a “built in” fail-safe feature, “The Artists”. Artists who blog regulary are very aware of other artists and their works (they will actively discover any “blog talent” out there), Blogging also allows everyone to witness the process of becoming an accomplished artist (by looking back through an individual’s archives, one may see the improvements); it also allows accomplished artists to learn bits of information here and there at a mere glance. Furthermore, with so many styles and approaches to art in the blogosphere, artists can learn, not from just one professor in an art school for $20,000+ a year, but from hundreds of other talented artists, while actually seeing examples of their work, having access to comment, and dialogue. I have found art-blogging a fine schooling in art, and a great lesson in marketing; all of which is priceless to an artist.

    The art world now has a “governor”,(art blogs), ensuring all are on equal turf when it comes to acceptance in the art world. Ones talent will be hard to deny when all may see for themselves who has it, and who does not. One may also see where their talents truly are, ie: portraits, landscapes, stills, etc., by the responses from the blogging community.

    I will not feel sorry for those who have had long established careers in art by the “cronyism approach” ie: (closed invitationals w/the same names over and over),(closed clubs and organizations that do not have fair acceptance guidelines),(big dollar marketing of poor talent)etc. For those who have engaged in this type of success, it must be scary for them to watch “unknowns” garner international attention based solely on their individual skills and works, not by denial, control, and corruption. Ah yes! The World turneth!

  8. David Says:

    There has always been a huge market for “everyday” art. Go to any frame store, or a gallery in a tourist location. Go to the mall. The issue is not only about having access to images, it’s about filtering out all the junk. Part of what art galleries and museums are supposed to do (how well they do it is another story) is act as filters.

    I don’t really think the internet changes that. It may create another marketing tool for “everyday” art, but that’s very different from what would be considered the serious art world. The internet has changed the way the serious art world does business too, but in other ways. They’re not worried about competition from the Painting A Day movement. The people who consider themselves serious collectors have always known about the glut of plein air painters, they’ve just been ignoring them. The internet doesn’t change that.

    Also, do you really think how something looks on a computer monitor is the basis for deciding the merit of artwork? If that’s the case, all great new work is going to be horizontal, and the proportions are going to be 640 x 480. Artists will save a fortune on art materials and studio rent, and just work directly in Photoshop. The best ones might even have the elements jiggle around a little.

  9. David Says:

    a few more notes:

    art is created not in the studio, but in the gallery or museum itself. Art is created not with the paintbrush, but with the wire that attaches the work to the museum or gallery wall.

    Duchamp of course played with this notion when he hung that urinal in the French Academy exhibition. He was saying that art is a result of context. Depending on how you look at it, you could say it’s been all downhill from there :)

    The curator and dealer become the creators of art; the artist’s productions are merely their raw materials.

    This is an ongoing point of contention within the art world. It’s a power struggle, for sure.

  10. Steve Says:

    Regarding the effect of the Internet, I agree with Karl and previous commenters. It’s useful to understand that this is not especially about visual art, but is a general phenomenon well described in Chris Anderson’s “The Long Tail”. In the same way that galleries defined art, music stores and radio stations (tied in with studios) defined pop music, and even your local supermarket defined available cuisine. With the Internet and search engines, it’s easy to go beyond the “hits” (however defined) that monopolized all the physical wall or shelf space. Now there’s a way for the many less known of us to find an audience and maybe make a living.

  11. David Says:

    In addition to Chris Anderson’s excellent book, he has an ongoing blog on the subject:

    In both he explores the viability of previously unprofitable niche markets opened up by unlimited (online) shelf space, and he discusses the role of filters in sorting through the choices.

  12. Angela Ferreira Says:

    I agree with all that Karl Zipser. I also think that the modern commodities nowadays make everything effortless, including art…the easy contemporary lifestyle that is taken for granted also affects the way artists produce art and its demands.

  13. Rex Crockett Says:

    Dear Karl,

    Once again you really zap with an idea. As an artist who uses the internet, I’ve had factually little interest in trying to rank well in search engines; rather, I’ve used my website as a solution to a problem: You meet someone at a party, a gallery, in a coffee house, (wherever), and you ask each other, “So what do you do?”

    “Oh you’re an artist? I’d like to see some of your work.”

    Before, I’d either have to refer him or her to a gallery that took a 40 percent commission and never sold my work as well as I could while hitting me with extra promotional expenses all the time and insisting on contractual rights to my production *or* I’d have to get the person to come to my studio, often difficult due to my penchant for wild places down dirt roads in the mountains.

    Now though I just say “Sure,” handing him or her my card, “Check out my website.”

    Sometimes I can bring up the site right on some handy nearby computer and then talk some more about the pieces since my site is rather spare and terse.

    If they are interested, I hear back, if not, then not. Often I get into a long series of email exchanges and phone calls before the person comes to my studio.

    I have never once sold a thing from someone discovering my website on their own. While I would *like* that to change (and blogging looks like a way cool thing to get into) so far, it has always been through personal contact. The website bypasses having to have gallery representation or getting the person to come to my studio. The sales are always closed when the person sees the work in real life though, so I see the website rather like a resume. You use a resume to get an interview; you get the job (or not) at the interview.

    So it is not true that one has to worry about having to have high profile site as was suggested. People *like* the personal touch. People *like* to have personal relationships with artists. God help us if that ever changes. Rather to the main point though, the internet certainly enables one to bypass the established venues. The consequences of that are equally certain to be revolutionary.



  14. karl zipser Says:

    When I see the words Artist Statement, I stop reading right away. Your story reminds me of grading psychology 101 papers at MIT written by the engineering undergrads. Ugh. I explained to my students that writing is the most powerful technology ever invented. Once the students focused on writing as technology, they took it more seriously and improved rapidly.

  15. karl zipser Says:

    I think you are correct about the importance of bloggers in directing web traffic. I’ve learned a lot about this since Jordan’s comments in May, and he has also. Google searches used to be the primary source of visitors to my site, but now direct links and bookmarks are far more important. I assume it is the same for others as well. I like this. I always felt that the importance of Google and obsession with SEO was troubling.

  16. karl zipser Says:


    I asked for critical comments and I appreciate yours. What you say reminds me of a conversation I had with a scientist who works for NASA. This was in 1997. He said, “The internet, it’s no big deal, just a computerized Yellow Pages.”

    As for this “glut of plein air painters” which the serious collectors ignore, all I know is that I have two interviews in the works with plein air painters who do very well with collectors. I’ll ask them about this.

    Regarding the internet as a viewing medium, I agree with you completely. I addressed this in a piece called “What gets lost on the internet?” which perhaps I should repost one of these days.

    14 Oct.

  17. karl zipser Says:


    Finding a way to break through is a big part of what I want to study in our discussions. I think this is why I have this irrational enthusiasm for Fall of the Art World, and related writing by others. It is not so much that we have found the answer, but we seem to have found a belief that there is one to find.

  18. karl zipser Says:


    I think you make a key point — people often think of what they buy as being effortlessly created by machine. The mode of production used by the artist is unusual today. This presents a challenge for us, to convey why people should appreciate the hand-made, as opposed to the mass-produced.

  19. karl zipser Says:


    I love where you write “I know my front page is boring. . . I’m too busy with my art to work on the internet.” Well, I see on your sitethat that text is gone. Don’t spend too much time on those computers!

    Your comment above reminds me, I have got to get business cards printed with my website URL. And of course, to put more of my own work online.

    So we agree about the revolutionary potential of the internet for the art world. I don’t think we have seen the real effects yet, but we may not have to wait long.

    I first got the idea for this post when reading about “The artist of the week” on Ed Winkleman’s blog.Winkleman was presenting work in a New York gallery, hot stuff. One of his readers gave a link to work he had sold on eBay. Looking at the images side-by-side, I thought, this is the end of the gallery system. Just a wild idea, of course, but galleries have not always been so important; there is no reason to think they always will be.

    But I do hope some more critical comments come in. We don’t want to get into some silly artist group-think here, do we?

    Well, it’s a Saturdaz night and I’m sitting in an internet cafe in Germanz puyylnig with the unfamiliar kezboard lazout. I think I’d better go do some art…

  20. Jon Conkey Says:

    As if this thread wasn’t already too long, here’s more for those who just can’t get enough of my drivel.

    Selling art and becoming famous is nothing more than reaching as many people as you can,(they do not even have to like you or your work). Albeit, galleries and museums are important in building the names of individual artists; by lending some “crediblity” to their works. They all use the internet as well (their pictures are just as flat and photoshoped as any of the best out there). But today, we have become somewhat leary of powerful organizations trying to faust their ideas, or sell us on their own “cache”. However, times have changed, nowadays individuals can gainer attention in many other personal ways; blogging, websites, magazine ads, National competitions; and of course, blowing up the Moon! That is what this is all about, gaining attention, some may well get tired of waiting and get day jobs, some will actually make it, and some “bad” artists may actually get very good;(something that occasionally happens through daily practice).

    Most collectors do not paint. Most gallery owners do not paint. Most museum curators do not paint. Most have gained their knowledge from schooling, books and history. Interestingly, I do not know any artists,(or musicians for that matter), in which schooling, history, or books lead them to greatness; all had to practice their craft (dirty hands), and work hard at it, and many (most)never make it. So, why do we put so much faith in those who actually cannot “do” the very thing they are in charge of? If you want something done for you, do it yourself, or die waiting for the bus.

    A recent Smithsonian magazine article was still trying to push the “greatness” and “genius” of Hockney; how mediocre is that!(as if any skilled painter could not see right through that veil, someone got sold an inflated bill of EGO, and the “machines” to prove it). If Hockney were an unknown name, and he had a “painting a day” blog, his work would be considered junk (like many of my own)!

    And for those who do paint well, why should they have to put up with being ignored because they are not pretty, young, trendy, or yelling “MMmmeee” at the top of their lungs. They should not! In many ways, we are seeing an artist revolution, led by artists making sure they have a chance to be seen.

    Ironically, the artists that paint steadily, and improve daily, are doing the right thing. Advice from this heretic: let the non-artists try to figure out what is going on, by deciphering the non-existent “blogospehric internetic code”; and to all real practicing artists, stay true to your craft, and weather this storm,(otherwise, one must never forget what awaits you, Walmart is paying $6.40 an hour for your skills, and the Government wants 25%+ of that).


  21. David Says:

    …in 1997. He said, “The internet, it’s no big deal, just a computerized Yellow Pages.”

    I’m certainly not trying to downplay the huge effect of the internet on every aspect of our lives. My comment was related to the title of the post, Fall of the Art World. My point was that people who choose to go to NYC galleries to buy artwork are not doing so because they are unaware of all the other artists out there. They see the gallery as a filter, an arbiter of quality, (for better or worse) and I don’t see the internet changing that.

    What has changed is that every art gallery is expected to have a web site, and it’s becoming part of their marketing plan. Also, since so many artists have websites, some collectors try to go around the galleries to get better prices directly from the artists. If an artist has a good relationship with their gallery, they generally find it’s a mistake to jeopardize it and undercut the gallery (Tracy mentioned her experience w/ this in an earlier post). But these collectors are still looking to the galleries to decide what artists are of interest – they’re just trying to save money by buying direct. The internet didn’t create this phenomenon, but it does exacerbate it.

    …plein air painters who do very well with collectors

    Again, my comment was related to the theme of the post. The market for plein air painting is large, always has been, and I’m sure the internet helps people who collect it find more work. But I don’t think this is going to cause the Fall of the Art World, by which I assume you mean the NYC-centered contemporary art world. That art world is very aware that plein air painting exists, and it’s not interested. The internet won’t change that.

    Also, please don’t think that I’m knocking plein air painting. Some of it is very good, some of it I like very much, and I have great respect for artists who do it well. It’s concerns are just very different from what’s going on in the contemporary art world.