Art You Can Understand

Amazon now offers art, and has “partnered up with over 150 galleries and art dealers across the US… The site offers over 40,000 original works of fine art, showcasing 4,500 artists. That, perhaps unsurprisingly, makes it the largest online collection of art directly available from galleries and dealers.”

Creatives and critics don’t have high hopes.

“Is Amazon Art a doomed venture? Let’s hope so,” said economist Tyler Cowen. “One enduring feature of the art world is that a given piece will sell for much more in one context rather than another… What makes Amazon work for me is simply that they sell better stuff and a wider variety at cheaper prices. Why give that formula up by treading into a market where such an approach won’t make any money? Why compete in a market where an awesomely speedy physical delivery network means next to nothing?”

Well, because art and its pricing have largely been hidden and mysterious. Any time you disintermediate the secretive layers of a market, there’s value there. Despite a slew of art startups, fine art has remained out of reach both economically and emotionally for most people. The gallery experience is less than welcoming, and its traditions are largely foreign to mainstream consumers. Buying a couch, a new TV or appliance, getting a loan from a bank, or moving across the country seem easier than buying a piece to hang on your wall.

Amazon’s art initiative makes art more accessible, the pricing more transparent and straightforward, and yes, art more mainstream. Not sure Amazon’s goal is to immediately offer consumers the best price, but rather to commoditize art in a way the everyperson can understand.

But that still leaves the question of taste. Like fashion on Amazon, Wired Opinion Editor Sonal Chokshi said the art initiative won’t work for pandering to the lowest common denominator. “If you buy that the key to doing real fashion online is more merchandizing savvy than algorithms, Amazon hasn’t nailed this… Fashion — with a capital F — is inherently exclusive. You can’t be everything to everyone. It’s as much about what you cut out as what you include,” argues Pando Daily’s Sarah Lacy. Without a strong curatorial point of view, Chokshi says, art too will fail on Amazon.

Merchandising has solely existed on Amazon in the form of bestseller lists, recommendations and reviews. Amazon isn’t the expert, the algorithimic consumer is. That could be disturbing to those with a proclivity to self-ascribe taste, but it hasn’t hurt the sale of novels and books, a similar market where curation and word-of-mouth drive our current conciousness. And as far as fashion, I may discover a great shoe on a blog, but will search for the best price on Google. Consumers have evolved enough where discovery and point-of-purchase can be several clicks apart (see: the rise of showrooming). 

Worst case, however, Amazon Art adds several more chapters to the site’s catalgoue of everything, ensuring that you start and/or end every purchase on Amazon. 

the notebook is a bunch of short items on my current obsessions.