On the democratization of art

Marius Watz, with permission from the Absolut Art Exchange

The current state of the art world – at least what passes as fine art by conventional measures* is almost always determined by a select few – the select few, I should say. There seem to follow two types of people: those who ‘get it’, or at least are willing to submit to the opinions of the few; then there are the other type, who tend to be more open to the artist and creator putting forward their views on what should be art. I’ve always made it very clear which camp I fall in; it can’t be art to you if you don’t ‘get it’ without having to be told.

*At this point I always ask whether anybody claims to have seen or create ‘coarse art’; the answer is inevitably in the negative.

Whether a work touches an individual or not at an emotional level – and this is probably the real litmus test of whether something qualifies as art or not – depends on a huge number of factors. Societal biases and influences are but one small portion of the picture: a lot of it is also down to the history of experiences of that person and the biases, preferences, likes and dislikes they have acquired as a result of those experiences. This is also the source of art: when an experience, emotion or place touches an individual so deeply they cannot avoid the need to create, or at least record their own interpretation and representation of the experience. Whether that experience translates adequately in a way that an external audience can also appreciate is a completely different matter, of course – and then becomes dependent on both the skill of the artist and the cultural and social commonalities between the creator and audience.

And herein lies the problem with the current art market: the people who decide what should be appreciated and lauded and celebrated are biased. This is a systemic problem, and no fault of their own – we are all biased, artists, curators and audience alike. Pick a non-famous individual work of art – photography, painting, sculpture – by any major artist and mix it in with a curated bunch of amateurs in a similar style, and I’m fairly certain your average audience would not be able to identify that one work was worth a fortune, and the others almost nothing. But I’m sure they’d be able to tell you what they liked and what they didn’t.

This of course results in a large number of works that simply don’t get seen and thus can never even be assessed by a wider audience simply due to lack of access and being curated out. The digital age has helped that, and also hindered it. Photography is perhaps the best example of this: in the pre-internet days, photographs were both treated as being inferior to painting (nothing has changed there) and usually of some significance simply because it was a lot of effort to actually make one. The digital era has made both capture and sharing exponentially easier, to the point that photographs are perceived as having little to no value outside of exceptional cases simply because of ease of production – and the resulting average poor quality compositionally, artistically and technically. Most hobby painters probably have some idea of the fundamentals of light and composition; looking at social media, forums and image sharing sites, I sadly can’t say the same of photographers.

For the love of citrus, by Loui-Loui, with permission from the Absolut Art Exchange

What should really be happening is a wider democratisation of art in general: never before have so many people had access to so much work, good and bad, both in person through the ease of travel and online through institutions increasingly digitising their collections. At very least, the average level of education should be increasing – and it might well be, if the desire from the public is there. Sensationalism still sells, unfortunately. People want to see a work or at least know about it because it was expensive, not necessarily because it was aesthetically beautiful or groundbreaking in technique. When was the last time you heard of a modern artist being lauded because of something along the latter lines rather than because of an auction record? Of late we’ve had another record breaking photograph – but all I hear is discussion around the price and if it’s ‘fake’ rather than whether the image is liked or not, let alone any thoughts on its artistic or compositional merit. I personally don’t see that much value in that particular image, but full respect to Lik for being able to command those prices.

I have little to no influence over what people like – specifically, what photography print buyers like – and the it’s much the same case with the vast majority of other photographers until they reach a point in their careers where their names are worth more than their images. It is, after all, an image game. All I – and the rest of my peers – can do is put our work out there, explain ourselves to the best of our ability, and hope that somebody sees it enough to keep us in business a bit longer. The more work is out there, the easier this becomes; the paradox is of course creating work of a consistently high quantity and quality isn’t easy.

I suspect this is the case with many of the other art disciplines, too. There have always been more artists than galleries, more work than wall space, and a challenge just to present one’s work in the manner and format in which it was intended to be seen. Yet at the same time, I suspect there are a lot of people out there who can and want to appreciate art, but aren’t sure where to start or simply don’t have access to the kinds of works they’d find interesting enough to buy and display. Art needs some sort of democratisation on a larger level for artists to survive and the overall craft to grow; think of it as Art Basel but on a level at which you don’t need a Swiss bank account just to get entry.

Abstract, by T3D with permission from the Absolut Art Exchange

This is why I think one of the most intriguing ideas in this field is the Absolut Art Exchange. In concept, it’s pretty simple: you exchange one of your works at random with another artist somewhere around the world, get a chance to win a Warhol. It starts with those who are most likely to appreciate somebody else’s work and ideas: a fellow artist. It removes the sticky problem of valuation and accessibility; you need to put in a work which you feel is representative of yourself, in order to receive something of similar ideological value in return. It’s democratisation of art beginning with the artist – unless we feel so strongly about a work (and by implication, the idea behind the work) so much that you can’t put a price on it – then it probably isn’t art, but rather a commercial creation to cater to a specific niche buyer. It’s both priceless and free at the same time.

With enough momentum, it’s something that could grow large enough to encompass a buying public, too: artists can exchange with each other, with their currency being their own skills; the public can keep the rest of us in business a little longer. And by not limiting subject, medium or location, accessibility is made as wide as possible. Personally, I’d be quite happy to get a nice sculpture or painting in return for a print – it’s something that I lack the skills to do myself, but can certainly appreciate to some level; the reverse is probably true. Hopefully it will also launch a few careers and give some emerging artists the platform they deserve. It looks like it’s working, too – so far, there are 3300+ artworks from 91 countries. No idea what level most of those submissions are at, but those are some pretty serious numbers.

You’ve probably guessed by now that I intend to participate, and would encourage all serious printing photographers to do so – the tough question that’s been bothering me is deciding precisely what to participate with; I still don’t have the answer to that. But the good news is that the current exchange program will until 31 December 2014, with presumably a follow up if successful. The creators and sponsors deserve commendation for the idea and having the stones to put it into action – if only there were more people like that, especially in Asia. There’s some nice work in there, too – the examples I selected really do appeal to me, as work that I’d consider buying – just a shame there’s no way to do a targeted exchange. But, for me…back to the curation. MT


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  1. Chris Searle says:

    For the real democratization of art we need to try and separate ‘art’ from ‘commerce’. So much of the debate above is about value, price, money, things that have absolutely no relationship to ‘art’.

    • Not true if a) the work is produced because the artist is compelled to, and b) if it’s an exchange with another artist. Of course it doesn’t satisfy fundamental problems like how the artist is going to make enough to survive to make more art, but that’s another problem entirely…

  2. Martin Fritter says:

    See also “A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste” by Pierre Bourdieu – issues of taste from the perspective of markers of status and power (not always the same thing). For pure pleasure: “Paintings in Proust” by Eric Karpels: reproductions of every real picture in the novel with the relevant passages. (There are many imaginary paintings, books and pieces of music made up by the narrator.) There is a very moving video of Robert Adams – everyone would agree that he’s a great artist I hope – about his difficulties earning a living.

  3. Obviously many of us read similar articles. I’ve exhibited for years now, often with a particular group. So on that group, this was my commentary on recent articles:

    “These ultra high prices in the art world are treated more like financial assets, to eventually be sold (traded) like bonds or stocks. As to how a value is placed on these things, part of it is indeed marketing, while another part is name recognition. As long as there is some story to go with the photographer, and the image, then the provenance has room to grow.

    None of this should imply that photos of slot canyons from lesser photographers should sell for more money. As an old saying goes, the way to make a small fortune in photography, is to start off with a large fortune. 😉

    P.S. – I bet no one asked what camera and lens Peter Lik used for that shot. 😉

  4. Ming, I hope you don’t mind some constructive criticism here. A suggestion.

    Obviously, you are a bright guy. I’m not saying that to butter you up or soften what’s to come. I really mean it. But these posts you make about the art world don’t reflect well on you. To be frank, you come across as being either naive or ignorant. You’re talking about the art world as if it is a country club and you don’t have the pedigree. That’s totally the wrong way to look at it.

    Why don’t you take some time to better educate yourself on the contemporary art world and art in general. It is amazing to me how few people who participate in photography and think of or wish to see their work in galleries or to sell it simply don’t understand the various strata of the art market. There are some good books out there.

    Peter Lik is a mass-market, commercial photographer. He is not part of the Art World, he will never be accepted into that world, his work will never be shown or bought by museums. There is a very clear reason for this that has nothing to do with “gatekeeping.”

    • You’re making several dangerous assumptions here, Paddy:
      1. I haven’t got any education or done any research into this market;
      2. I haven’t already made approaches or spoken to people outside the narrow confines of what I disclose online;
      3. You know the outcome of 1. and 2.

      I can assure you this isn’t the case. I was told point blank by several prominent galleries in London and elsewhere that the actual work doesn’t matter. They just need to be able to sell it, and nobody really wants to take risks. If that isn’t a blunt ‘you’re not part of the club’, I’m not sure what is.

      Frankly, there are a lot of commenters here who appear to be in defence of the art world – why? Have they been brainwashed into following and lost the ability to think for themselves? Do they have interests to protect? Are they just angry because this naivety has been pointed out? That alone is suggestive that it really is a country club which requires the right handshakes to enter. It’s certainly that way in my country.

      I doubt very much anybody would complain if they’re selling for millions. Would you really care at that point if you’re in the art world or not? Or maybe it’s indicative of the whole rotten thing: dupe rubes into paying over the top for things they are told to like. I’m not the only one who thought this way: Robert Hughes was noted for his criticism of the current state of affairs, too. I suppose he didn’t know anything either.

      • I find you are taking the entire high-art market and painting it with one big brush. Jeff Wall and Thomas Struth didn’t get to where they are today by producing work that “didn’t matter” but could be sold. Neither were instant sellers or darlings of the museum and art gallery world. Jeff Wall, in particular, is a very smart, deep thinker. His writings on his art practice, art in general, his place in it are enlightening. The work he has put in and his commitment to developing his line of inquiry are why he is where he is today. It didn’t just happen with a thumbs up or thumbs down from the art gatekeepers 40 years ago. It was built. And built because what he was doing was new and interesting.

        Yes there is a significant commodity aspect to the art world. There’s no denying that. But there are many, many artists beginning their careers or continuing with a modest career for whom money is not in the discussion. They aren’t making it. The majority of contemporary artists I’ve met with and whose work I’ve seen are not “in it” to sell, not “in it” to be famous and make millions. Fame and fortune come to a minuscule percent.

        I look at a lot of art every year. If you had mentioned to me that you wanted to show your work but wondered where you ought to go to I would have done the following:
        1. Told you to focus. Your work is all over the map.
        2. Develop a body of work from this focus, think a lot about it and think about why you are making it.
        3. Work on how you describe your work and your practice.
        4. Told you to aim for decent, but mid-level commercial gallery.
        5. Wished you luck and told you to stick at and keep refining, keep searching, keep developing.

        Most of the personal work I’ve seen on your site is not far removed (in many cases not at all) from what I can buy pre-framed at Ikea. You make pretty pictures. You make them awfully well but that’s all they are. It doesn’t surprise me one bit that galleries have turned you away.

        • And I find you’re making yet another insulting assumption – one that I showed an uncurated images with no focus to whatever gallery. Sorry, but shooting and only showing one thing is death for commercial work because it displays no versatility or flexibility. And I wouldn’t be stupid enough to show that to a gallery. And I can’t help it if I have more than one idea and can see more than one thing; just because a person can’t understand it or do it themselves doesn’t mean he should criticise it. You are even assuming that art should conform to a predefined form: it has to have one subject, one style, one everything. The same image, repeated.

          If I can sell every image to Ikea, I wouldn’t complain. Just multiply the licensing fees.

          • Ming, I realize, after thinking this over, that I may be misunderstanding your goals — what you wish to accomplish in the “art world” and how you see yourself being positioned in that world.

            What I see a lot with artists is a misunderstanding of where their work belongs. Art is a broad, and I would argue, naturally inclusive and democratic term. It applies equally to the elderly woman painting flowers for her own enjoyment as it does to Jeff Koons. Both are making art. I really believe that. But the “art world” is a stratified one. If the elderly woman is good she might get a show at a local library or coffee shop. A local gallery may even wish to represent her. But that’s where her section of the world stops. It has borders. You may not like or agree with the borders but I believe they are easily defensible. The elderly woman would be foolish to think MoMA is going to buy her paintings for its permanent collection.

            You believe that “it can’t be art to you if you don’t ‘get it’ without having to be told.” I dislike the inference that results from writing “having to be told.” What if that was changed to “having to do a little work”? Would you still agree with the sentence? There are many things in life that are more fully enjoyed and appreciated with learning. Things that have layers of meaning below the surface worth excavating. Living on the surface is fine and sometimes desirable. But I’ve found my life has been made better by trying to get below the surface.

        • If you can’t tell the difference between this:


          and this:

          _8B04380 copy

          then the art world is in a lot of trouble!

          • I would say that if you can’t see they are the same you don’t understand.

            Objectively, you can argue that Ming’s is much better. (that would be based on technical merits).
            Subjectively, it’s up to the individual viewer to determine a preference.
            Conceptually, they are the same. It’s the last part that is key when talking about the “high-art” world. The world of contemporary art, museums, art fairs, etc.

            What you need to understand is the difference between Ming’s photo and this one: (sorry if the image doesn’t show up)

            • The Jeff Wall and what Ming’s doing are in totally different worlds, like apples and oranges. I’m not sure why you’d even want to compare them.

              As for the Ikea cityscape vs. Ming’s photo, I don’t see how conceptually they are even similar. Can you explain?

              The Ikea is a poor aping of a technique Hockney did 20 years before that picture. It is poor because unlike Hockney (and the Cubists before him), the Ikea photo montage presents only 1 perspective and 1 moment in time (conceptually because it was obviously taken over some non-zero time period unless the montage effect was entirely synthetic). It does not try to illuminate its subject any more than 1 camera placed at 1 perspective taking 1 shot could have done so.

              In fact, the Cubist effect almost disappears in the bottom part of the picture, and only serves to add texture to the blank sky, so that’s a whole lot of effort for not much effect.

              And unlike Ming’s, the perspective doesn’t give you any unique information or insight into the city. Yes, there are a bunch of different buildings in New York. So what? Because of that, the Ikea picture is harmless and meaningless: it doesn’t try to say something or present an idea.

              They don’t even occupy the same medium. The Ikea happens to use photos as its medium, whereas Ming is working entirely within classic photography.

              • “The Jeff Wall and what Ming’s doing are in totally different worlds, like apples and oranges. I’m not sure why you’d even want to compare them.”

                I wrote above that I may be misunderstanding what Ming is looking for. To be honest, it’s become a confusing discussion as these tend to become with the limited means a blog offers. I pulled up the Jeff Wall in response to this to show that they are indeed apples and oranges (that’s the point I wanted to make). Ming is making broad statements about what art is and making derogatory statements about the art market, curators, gallerists, etc. He’s saying that it’s a ruse, that buyers are rubes, that the subject doesn’t matter, just the price in this world. I’m saying this isn’t so. That artists like Jeff Wall care deeply about what they are doing and have been doing so for decades and that many of those who buy his work care deeply about it. I know a collector who collects work on this level and he is not in it as an investment. He is beyond passionate about the work, the artists, what they are communicating and what it means to his life and understanding of the human condition. Ming is dismissing this out-of-hand because he couldn’t find a gallery that would represent him. His posts on this subject have been a surprise to me given the overall quality of his blog, his dedication to the craft of photography and his educational background.

                “As for the Ikea cityscape vs. Ming’s photo, I don’t see how conceptually they are even similar. Can you explain?”

                They aren’t. I took a shortcut due to limited time. When I go into Ikea I often see black and white cityscapes, nice pictures of the Brooklyn bridge, etc. These are what I was thinking of when I made the Ikea comment. And I would like to note that I love pretty/interesting pictures that run the usual course. I take them all the time when on trips. They are my art, but not stuff I would expect to have any chance of landing anywhere but an Ikea store if I was so lucky (i.e. to make that extra money involved). That’s what Ming’s photo of the Bean is. It is a really nice photo of the Bean. In Chicago. Period. It’s not much different from the 1,000s of photos of this nature I can find in a matter of moments on flickr or 500px.

                I’m sorry if I’ve muddied the waters but do read the post above (Dec 18 12:53 am) for some additional thoughts.

                • Paddy, I honestly appreciate your response and the time you took to write it. I can’t speak for Ming, but I sense a lot of frustration in his dealings with the art world, and perhaps he’s coming across more harshly than intended. Anyway, I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt, as perhaps others may not.

                  As for his picture of the Bean, I don’t see it as about the Bean. It’s about the contrast between the people, the Bean, and the buildings. I get that it’s trying to convey a sense of finding this odd object in the middle of a city, and it’s odd because of its texture, size, and shape in contrast to its surroundings. Because of that, it invites you to look at it more closely and make sense of it. In many ways, it’s a picture made for Ming’s Ultraprint process because it invites you to look deeper at the details.

                • “As for the Ikea cityscape vs. Ming’s photo, I don’t see how conceptually they are even similar. Can you explain?”
                  They aren’t. I took a shortcut due to limited time

                  Hang on, you just admitted to taking a shortcut to prove a point that you yourself admit is flawed, make yet another assumption (“Ming is dismissing this out-of-hand because he couldn’t find a gallery that would represent him.”) . To top it off, you’re judging an Ikea poster you say you’ve seen (or perhaps found on the web) against my web image, knowing full well the final medium matters and the final intended medium is not an 800px jpeg. Hmm indeed.

                  “He’s saying that it’s a ruse, that buyers are rubes, that the subject doesn’t matter, just the price in this world.”
                  I was told this by several galleries in London. Why would they lie with a ‘truth’ that is not exactly a positive representation?

                  And for your information, I have representation from a gallery in Chicago and another one in Hong Kong with two solo shows next year. Yet another (flawed) assumption on your part…

                  • knickerhawk says:

                    Paddy’s assumptions may be flawed, but your admission above in response to those assumptions raises questions about your own anti-gallery, anti-art world arguments. Or does your criticism only apply to the galleries that lack the vision to represent you? When the galleries that represent you sell one of your images, is the purchaser a rube or one of the enlightened few (apparently) capable of thinking for him/herself?

                    • It applies to the galleries who told me ‘the content doesn’t matter, we tell the buyer what to buy’. They select the safe and famous photographers and refuse to take risks. I am with galleries who may well kick me out for a new talent a month down the road – that’s the only way I got in in the first place, and fair enough, if my work isn’t popular – then it doesn’t make commercial sense to represent it; I don’t deserve to be there.

                      But saying ‘no’ outright and defining art as only the historical is rather short sighted, don’t you think?

                  • “Hang on, you just admitted to taking a shortcut to prove a point that you yourself admit is flawed”

                    I didn’t admit the original point is flawed—it isn’t. But I also didn’t want to go down a rabbit hole when Andre linked to that specific image. It should be obvious in this instance that I was NOT referencing a single, particular image being sold at Ikea but rather the images in general.

                    “make yet another assumption (“Ming is dismissing this out-of-hand because he couldn’t find a gallery that would represent him.”)”

                    How can I not make such an assumption based on what you have been writing about galleries and the art market (not just in this post but in the previous one as well)?

                    “And for your information, I have representation from a gallery in Chicago and another one in Hong Kong with two solo shows next year. Yet another (flawed) assumption on your part”

                    Good for you. I’m not sure how I was to know that. Again, in your previous post on this matter you seemed unable to find representation. I can’t find any indication on your site that you are represented by galleries. Usually, when represented by galleries artists do not sell work themselves (like you are doing through your site)—everything goes through the gallery.

                    Does this mean you are now a “player” in the game you seem to think is rigged? That you will be talking up your work and selling to “rubes” for as much as you can?

                    “I was told this by several galleries in London. Why would they lie with a ‘truth’ that is not exactly a positive representation?”

                    Well several galleries in London should be the acid test then shouldn’t they? Never mind the 100s of people I know directly connected to the art world you seem to find so contemptible who are living and working proof of the opposite. You are the one making assumptions and drawing conclusions about a wide range of people and institutions.

                    Your current and previous posts on the gallery world and art market have insulted my wife, who is a gallery director and shows the type of work you don’t think is art, many artists I know, gallerists I know and collectors I know. All of whom would completely refute what you have said about these issues. Yet you insist on cherry-picking individual sentences and arguing against them while ignoring the bigger points I’m trying to make.

                    • Cherry picking? You’re doing exactly the same thing. For every example you can find I can find an opposite and vice versa. This will never end. Frankly, I have better things to do than argue with you, so I’ll just agree. You’re right, you’re the expert, you have the wife who’s in the art world who’s easily insulted by somebody you believe doesn’t understand anything about art or the art world anyway (so why is my opinion valid enough for her to be insulted in the first place?) – I have nothing but a series of flawed assumptions. I’m going to spend time creating the mediocre Ikea poster images I like instead of arguing with you. End of story.

                    • Just for the record, my wife wasn’t actually insulted—she knows nothing about you. I was talking in general about the views you expressed in relation to the work, dedication and honesty that I see in the art world.

                      But it’s been good to know I’ve been arguing with a child all this time, not having a discussion with an adult.

            • Kristian Wannebo says:

              Paddy C,

              I’m afraid it looks to me as if you are comparing apples with oranges?
              Unless you really mean that the conceptual content is what art is, in which case apples and oranges both are fruit. But then, to my mind, you reduce “art”.

              We shouldn’t confuse art in the sense of intense communication from artist too viewer with art in the sense of what is successfull with (official) curators and in the marketplace.

              Let me take an analogous (but not parallel!) example from music, so as not to add too much firewood to this discussion.

              A great deal of the compositions by Haydn and Mozart are conceptually the same (or similar), but regarded as music, i.e. art, there is a huge difference. Much of Haydn’s music sounds dead, whereas most of Mozart’s music sounds very much alive – and is also more difficult to play, because it has to sound easy! (The last dozen words I’ve borrowed from Elizabeth Schwarzkopf.)

              • Martin Fritter says:

                Poor Haydn: il miglior fabbro.

                • Kristian Wannebo says:

                  Not having the language I resorted to google and found ” The better craftsman”. ?.
                  Well, I think I said their _crafts_ were comparable…


                  • Bach viewed himself as a craftsman, as did many other genius-level artists throughout history. As for Haydn sounding dead, try his last 6 piano sonatas, and see if you don’t change your mind: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mNS7iUIGNgs His cello concerto in C is also very lovely.

                    • Kristian Wannebo says:

                      I’ll certainly try them, thanks for the tip!
                      Most masters grow with age and experience…

                      I’m not convinced by your Glenn Gold link though,
                      he has a nice light lively touch but follows the beat too precisely to my liking (a little like a metronome), so I’ll have to seek out another pianist.
                      Perhaps Badura Skoda, I found the Variations in F minor with him, I think he finds what life there is in them, and he seems to have recorded these sonatas too.

                      – – –

                      My apologies to Ming for digressing too much!

                    • Not at all. The digressions are always intellectually interesting.

              • Don’t forget the continued reuse of the fundamental structure of Pachabel’s Canon 🙂

                • Kristian Wannebo says:

                  New to me! Thanks Ming!

                  It took me quite a few tries (on youtube) to find a recording that sings, most I tried were rather boring.

                  The Endymion String Quartet

                  I guess it is a piece which is rather difficult to play musically?

                  For continued reuse of the fundamental structure there is also Ravel’s Bolero, incidentially also with few “singing” records.
                  But Pachelbel seems to have found quality in simple design, which I find rare.

                  One of my favourites (with continued reuse of the fundamental structures) is Schubert’s second Piano Trio, D 929 (especially the 2nd movement). It adds repeated varied dialogue.

                  • Here’s one that’s over quickly: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MtZjROpBReM 😉

                    Do you know Monteverdi? Like most Baroque composers, he left few instructions behind on how to play his pieces, so there are many interesting interpretations of his work. One of my favorites: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zq49rymjvNg

                    • Kristian Wannebo says:

                      Re: Pachelbel.
                      Yes, a nice recording, I like it.
                      I imagine the tempo as that of a slow walk.
                      Here the walk seemed that of a solemn procession.
                      Now this is of course a matter of personal taste :
                      In the recording by the Endymion String Quartet I perceive a light lofty swing in the step of this walk, which I prefer. Also a string quartett can be more expressive which I think it is here.

                      Re: Monteverdi.
                      I liked the performance rather much.
                      But Monteverdi is not exactly my cup of tea.
                      I haven’t been able to find enough interest in older music, my taste goes from about Vivaldi and J. S. Bach to modern music.

                      Thanks Andre for the suggestions!

  5. Salganik, Dodds and Watts showed that, for hit music, there is a large random component governing which songs became hits, and that stronger social influence increased inequality and unpredictability of success. The results apply more broadly than music (Science, February 11, 2006, Vol 311). Work of higher quality is somewhat more likely to become a hit. I wish you best of luck in the lottery!

  6. Regarding “coarse art”. There was a series of books popular in the 1960’s UK by Michael Green called “The Coarse Art of…” beginning with “The Coarse Art of Rugby”. There is naive painting, and punk rock, both of which spring from coarse motivations. One could make a case that Gary Winogrand practiced coarse photography.

    • You’re probably right on the latter 🙂

    • Frank Murphy says:

      The opposite of “fine art” is “arts and crafts” really. Something made by an individual for use as opposed to primarily for inherent beauty or artistic statement. So the opposite of “artist” would be “craftsman.” Or maybe instead of opposites, a craftsman is a stage of becoming an artist. You have to know how to brush paint before you can paint a fence or a portrait. Of course, if being a “craftsman photographer” means that I can make better photo products (books, colanders and prints, plus digital), maybe that would be a better target for where I want to go with taking pictures.

  7. lots of interesting thoughts nicely phrased.
    i would only add this: you emphasized the idea that whether something is “art” or not is determined by a personal emotional response (which can obviously be extremely subjective, subject to personal bias etc).
    i might argue that most images that are sold as art usually have other elements at play…art history, large “societal/cultural/economic/sexual issues”, an obsession with the idea of narrative, etc and personal (or even “sentimental”) effects are almost frowned upon in “serious art”. much “art” seems to be posed as an oblique post modern riddle rather than an emotional appeal….a puzzle to be examined, pondered…a question with the answer just out of reach. In the end it is a commodity and what exactly it is is purposely elusive, mysterious, opaque, clever…and thus valuable. It would seem that personal emotion is much farther down this list than the ability to be sold….a dealer must be able to convince a buyer that this piece is “genius”….something “beyond”, “complex” “ambiguous” “unknowable” even cold and arrogant etc….something that scholars would have to write endless pages about just to begin to explain it. simple strong emotion would seem to be at odds with much of this….not always mind you….but a striking amount of the time. keep on….

    • But personal emotion is almost always the motivating factor for a purchase. You’re not going to spend your hard-earned money on something you don’t like at some level, no matter if it’s historically significant or just because somebody says it’s good.

      • In all honesty (and not to sound cynical) but yes….it think many if not most buyers of high value art do so on the say so of others, often financial advisors whose business it is to know what pieces will increase in value. the buyer may also actual like looking at the piece for whatever reason (it makes for a pleasant aesthetic backdrop for socializing and/or business, a conversation piece, etc)….but it is largely (maybe even primarily) a financial investment. like a large diamond ring (or other luxury item) another part of the value of the piece is bragging rights around other well off friends. none of this is to say that no people buy art because they feel an emotional connection to a given piece….I’m just saying that there are a lot of other factors and that the bigger the purchase price the more important these external factors are.
        keep up the great work!

        • It’s a circle, isn’t it? The advisors tell you what to buy because they set the market (and no doubt profit themselves)…and the exploration of personal preferences/ taste or proliferation of creative offerings gets stunted because of the reality of economics and having to have some income to live.

          • yes indeed….the art world is incestuous, self re-enforcing and brutal on the unconnected (but talented). naturally this kind of principal does not just exist in the world of visual art. i have NO doubt that similar situations exist in every business. it has been ever thus….and in a way i completely understand why….in fields to which many are drawn and only a very few chosen (see all art, music, entertainment, start up companies, etc) these kinds of tough dynamics are needed simply to reduce the amount of financially supported material to a comprehensible amount…culling it from the gigantic sea of “stuff”….and the digital age has taken this principal to truly absurd levels.

      • knickerhawk says:

        Ming, you’re missing the importance of historical and biographical context (and awareness thereof) and how it directly affects our emotional response to “art”. Take, for instance, Malevich’s Black Square. Would you (or anyone else) be willing to spend millions of dollars to purchase a painting of a plain black square? Would you have ANY emotional response to such a painting if you happened to stumble across it in an exhibition of school children’s art or even randomly hanging, unexplained, in an art gallery? I know I wouldn’t. However, seeing it for the first time in the Malevich exhibition at the Tate Modern and in the context of all his other work leading up to it and having been informed about how it fitted with the competing art movements of that time, I was blown away by its impact when I first saw it.

        The point I’m making is that, while careful to be non-judgmental in your assessment of the art elites, you are still not grasping how they (and other cultural forces) shape our EMOTIONAL response to art. The emotion I felt when seeing Black Square was no less real because the art elite had conditioned me than is the emotion some unsophisticated rube who sees a Peter Lik print feels. As for the “value” and price paid for a Malevich or a Lik, that is a market-driven (or manipulated, if you prefer) issue that has little to do with any intrinsic value in the object itself. You’ve got to get past that need to correlate aesthetic aspects of a work of art with its financial value. Those are separate issues even if emotion is a powerful motivator to compel someone to get out the checkbook.

        • Let’s see: they shape our emotional response by telling us how to think. Doesn’t that destroy the magic of discovery?

          Coincidentally, I saw that Malevich exhibition: and no, I didn’t ‘get it’, before or after the explanation. Perhaps I’m an idiot. Perhaps I’m not educated or sophisticated enough to appreciate it. Or perhaps I just don’t want to be told how I should be thinking. Art cannot be forced – either in creation or appreciation.

          I suppose I don’t understand photography too, since I can’t see the value in the Lik either.

          • knickerhawk says:

            Like the rest of civilization, artists build upon (and respond to) what came before them. It is naive to think their creativity springs wholesale from within themselves. Likewise, it is naive to think that art lovers bring nothing but an open – yet essentially empty – mind to the viewing experience. There’s no genuineness or “magic” here at either end of the process. Instead, there is a lot of training (much of which is tacit and not formal) and cultural conditioning and even neurobiological conditioning (which is why dogs don’t engage in the “magic of discovery” of a Malevich or a Lik or even the dogs-playing-poker painting). You’re being manipulated whether you acknowledge it or not. And by your resistance to “being told how [you] should be thinking,” you’re still being manipulated.

            It’s fine not to play the highbrow high-art, “insider” game and stick to the basic representational model like the Peter Liks of the decorative art world. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that endeavor, but just don’t expect much (if any) interest from the community that expects (and, yes, emotionally reacts to) something different from pretty pictures of dramatic nature scenes or well-composed but typical shots of social life, all done with technically refined processing. That’s craft. It may even be art, but it isn’t the kind of progress that gets rewarded with high-end gallery shows, museum collections and big auction prices…

  8. Kristian Wannebo says:

    Thanks for another interesting and relevant article!
    And for pointing out Absolut Art Exchange.

    – – –

    “.. the people who decide what should be appreciated and lauded and celebrated are biased. This is a systemic problem, and no fault of their own – we are all biased, artists, curators and audience alike.”

    If we are all biased, I think there are differences.

    This art gatekeeper class seems to work as if it hasn’t realized that to a great extent it lives in a contrived world created by itself and its employers.

    ( Jacques Barzun in “The House of Intellect” considers this class of gate keepers – in art, science, everywhere – to be one of the enemies of a living culture.)

    And we, the audience, or at least many of us, have helped letting them build this world by not having our own mind – or not articulating it loud enough. (I’ve met people who think it sacrilegious to laugh at a piece of art in an exhibition.)

    But who would have been listening?
    At least not the (more or less) official cultural debate.
    ( I hope it’s better in other countries than in in Sweden…
    The participants seldom dare to really question the gate keepers. And they are too busy arguing among themselves to allow any outsider to enter the stage, or they unite when one attempts to prick a balloon of theirs.)

    As if we are all waiting for a child to cry out that the emperor wears no clothes.

    As art hopefully gets more democratic (with internet help) we also need more (in both senses of the word) democratic platforms for art discussions, ideally on the internet – where it’s easier to enter the stage. But they won’t be easy to create and maintain…

    • Well, it’s certainly no better in malaysia. And it seems there are plenty of people who would like to keep it that way: after all, art is big business these days, more than it is creativity and philosophical pursuit. Nobody wants to give that away…

  9. I’m not sure I understand completely (the website is awful, with slow loading and a very low signal / noise ratio) but the competition appears to be entirely digital, so you’re not likely to get a sculpture in return. (Absolut also seem to be aiming to handle prints themselves – “If you really like your new artwork, you can order prints from our printing partner – at a discount price”.)
    And if you’re a legal resident of Malaysia, you’re not eligible to win the Warhol, either. But the idea seems cool, and I hope it catches on.

    Personally I much prefer Peter Lik’s photos to that dull river photo that was the previous record holder. When I browsed his website I felt like I’d seen most of the photos before – they remind me of endless postcard pictures. If I’d taken them myself (and they accurately reflected what I’d seen in reality) I’d be delighted and happy to put them on the wall as a reminder of a pleasant holiday scene, but if I had to characterize anything as “coarse” art, it would be this style, the photographic equivalent of generic tv contest pop music, or McDonald’s food. But that said, and post processing style aside, he still takes much better photos than me and makes more money doing it, so good luck to him 🙂

    • It isn’t a competition, and sadly I just noticed that too – no Warhol for me.

      Lik’s work is what I’d call ‘popular’ – it appeals to most because it’s instantly engaging but not intellectually demanding or highbrow. It’s pleasant to look at. Perhaps that’s the secret, though I doubt it because there are a huge number of other photographers doing the same thing – none of whom are anywhere near as successful.

      • Yes, wrong choice of word there, not sure why I called it a competition.

        What I fail to understand about Lik’s photo is what makes it so valuable. As you say, there are a huge number of other photographers doing the same type of shots, and Antelope Canyon is so heavily photographed that I can do a search on 500px (for example), and come up with 900 results available for sale at $250, many of them almost indistinguishable from Lik’s. I’m sure flickr even has creative commons photos too. I can understand why someone might pay $100 or so to have an engaging, colourful, pleasant scene on the wall, and that’s why there’s a mass market for cheap prints in this style – I think they’re even available in IKEA. But to pay several million dollars for it beggars belief. To me Lik’s photo is just another example of rich idiots with too much money paying for a name / brand.

        But to get back to the topic in hand I hope you are right and the future lies in initiatives such as the Absolut project, bringing popular exposure outside of the art critic echo chamber.

        • I think I have the answer. He used a really expensive camera! :p

        • What makes Lik’s photo so “valuable” is that it is a marketing scam. The photo must have been purchased to raise media attention. This is a practice he is known for. If put on the market tomorrow in an art auction I doubt the photo would even sell. It’s a completely ridiculous fabrication that has managed to get every photo forum worked up.

      • OK, I really should get back to work, but I can’t resist posting one last comment. Whilst looking on Lik’s website for prices, I noticed he has a “careers” section in which he (or his agent) is recruiting staff for his galleries. I read the job description, which starts:

        “The Art Consultant will have full understanding of who Peter Lik is and have complete product and gallery knowledge to successfully provide every visitor the “Lik Experience”. He or she will follow a strategic sales process with the intent to turn gallery visitors into Peter Lik collectors….”

        I’m curious, are you aiming to one day have your own galleries and provide every visitor the “Ming Thein” experience? Photos aside, Lik certainly knows how to manage his own brand as a photographer!

        • What an incredibly pretentious load of BS. They are salespeople, nothing more. If you’re buying a print at that price and the artist can’t even be bothered to give you the time of day, doesn’t that seem like a rather poor deal?

  10. david mantripp says:

    “I’ve always made it very clear which camp I fall in; it can’t be art to you if you don’t ‘get it’ without having to be told.” – sorry, I think that’s fundamentally mistaken. An appreciation of art generally if not always requires a degree of education or at least information. Otherwise it just boils down to superficiality. For example I like Piero della Francesca at a superficial level – the colour, the forms – but my appreciation of his work at a deeper artistic level could not work without some form of informed understanding of the context which he was painting. A reverse example is Rachel Whiteread’s “House”: superficially dull, ugly even, but deeply moving when I took time to understand it. “Having to be told” is a very emotiv, negative e way to put it. Needing, requiring, or wanting to be told is better.

    • So because you didn’t take a degree in art you don’t understand or cannot appreciate it? Sorry, but that’s just insulting to everybody else who likes art but didn’t study it, and at the same time perpetuating the highbrow arrogance that characterizes today’s art world.

      • david mantripp says:

        I didn’t study art, but I have sufficient humility and awareness to realise that to get the best out of art you need to invest something of yourself in it. This doesn’t necessarily require formal education, just reading some books. I don’t get your attitude – try applying your reasoning to photography – seems that following that train of thought nobody needs your self-described “masterclasses”. Or is all you do telling people which knob to twiddle?

        • Well, if I can tell you which knob to twiddle and have dozens of students come out producing images like they do in the workshop reports, then I think I’ve hit a magic formula 🙂

          Yes, self investment is required. I don’t disagree with that. But I disagree that you have to go to the Nth degree just to have any level of appreciation. No matter how much you’ve studied art, fundamentally, your own personal biases and experiences are still going to affect both appreciation and production. The same goes for photography.

          We all have a need to create, explore and experiment. It is being human. Some of us repress it, some of us do it outside our day jobs because of circumstance, and some become management and just criticise others because they lack the courage to try themselves.

          I’m not the only one who thought the current market is rotten: Robert Hughes was noted for his criticism of the current state of affairs. I suppose he’s an idiot, too.

          • Were you criticised by management for underperforming when you worked in audit, by any chance?

            The number and size of the chips on your shoulder is quite impressive. Ever thought that you can’t make a name selling prints because people simply don’t like your photographs as much as you do? You say that it’s wrong for people to be told what to like, yet you criticise and insult those you perceive to be slighting your own work because they don’t “get it”.

            • No, actually, I was promoted repeatedly because I was very good at what I did. You must be one of the jealous people who got left behind.

              I criticise those who make assumptions about what I have done and haven’t done and then insult me – oh wait a minute…

              If you’ve bothered to do any research, you’d see that I’ve never criticised somebody who simply says ‘I don’t like it’ because everybody is entitled to an opinion, and art is subjective. In fact, if you ask any of my students, you’ll find I actively encourage them to seek alternate opinions and stand by them.

  11. As a print buyer, it may not be in my best interest to say this but the Lik price is good for photographers who sell prints just like the original iPhone was good for phone makers. It gives photographers permission to sell their prints for much higher prices and the notoriety tells the public that yes, prints can be valuable. I still remember the howls of derision when the first iPhone was announced at $700. Who’d pay that much for a phone?! It turns out, almost everyone would if it’s good enough. Speaking of which, I doubt the Lik will be the iPhone of the photo world …

    Personally, if I had that kind of scratch, I’d get the Gursky (or a Burtynsky) over the Lik every day of the week. The Lik is empty: intellectually, culturally and artistically.

  12. A promotional website for Absolut Vodka? A company that wants me to share pictures with strangers? I can do without.

  13. Ron Scubadiver says:

    Without a doubt there is a gatekeeper class in art, I see it all the time in Houston. I see it all the time. Sometimes I think the demographic of the artist is seems as important to them as their work. Young women who do nude selfies and gay men get ahead of the crowd. Some manage to bypass the system and sell their work directly, but I see this more often with art other than photography. Ming, you are more fortunate than most because you have gallery representation and a large audience developed through your blog.

    Perhaps the desired model is more like anarchy than democracy, but what we have today is definitely an oligarchy.

    • Err…I don’t have gallery representation, and my audience are photographers – a lot of gearheads amongst them – and these are not typically the people who buy prints.

      • Ron Scubadiver says:

        I thought you had a show somewhere. I guess it was not in a gallery. I agree, gearheads don’t buy prints, but you must be reaching a collector base somewhere. I need to get off my butt and make a few prints and try to get some restaurant to hang them. Worst thing that could happen is they wind up hanging in my house.

        • I have, but having a show is not the same as having representation (i.e. an agent for continuous selling). Very different, in fact…

          • Ron Scubadiver says:

            I understand the difference, but it is a big step up from never having a show.

            • And another big step to representation, sadly.

              • Ron Scubadiver says:

                At least you have good commercial clients, and can do workshops. For a young guy, you have a lot going on.

                • I also work very, very hard. But all of this can change very quickly. Clients under increasing budget pressures mean either continually lowering prices against rising costs (obviously unsustainable economics notwithstanding) or losing to cheaper options. Quality often isn’t a priority because they can’t tell the difference themselves or don’t care. And workshops are only possible while you’re the flavour of the month (ie writing plenty of positive reviews that make people feel good about the equipment they’ve purchased – actually making decent images is irrelevant).

                  • Ron Scubadiver says:

                    It is obvious that you work hard. I see it in the descriptions of your commercial work. Life is a big casino. You can’t take a picture without a camera, but the whole gear thing gets overblown. Remember, cream always floats to the top.

  14. Kristian Wannebo says:

    This Lik sale seems to have caused some disturbance…

    The comment below adds a kind of Cheshire Cat grin.
    ( “All right,” said the Cat; and this time it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone. “Well! I’ve often seen a cat without a grin,” thought Alice; “but a grin without a cat! It’s the most curious thing I ever saw in my life!”)


  15. What an intriguing concept…will be fascinating to hear your experience with it. But why did you have to bring up Peter Lik??!! Garrrgh!! I don’t get it…google him and look at the images page and there is nothing there I haven’t seen, and ignored, thousands of times before…in many cases the same compositions of landscape features that every other trophy-image-shooting photographer has taken, but then with the saturation and contrast ramped to 21. How?? Why??? It hurts my head and my heart just thinking about it, let alone looking at it 😦

    Mind you, if I thought I could make that kind of money doing something similar, I wouldn’t turn down the opportunity 😀

    • Kristian Wannebo says:

      “.. How?? Why??? ..”

      I was just thinking that these properties of Lik’s images go hand in hand with the spread of the so called filters in point and shoot cameras and on instagram.

    • For what it’s worth, I’ve never been able to figure it out either. But that’s probably why I’m not selling prints for millions…

      • I may be able to shed some light on the appeal of Mr Lik’s photos. I first heard of him about 5 years ago, a good friend of mine loves his work. He has at the last count 6 or 7 of his photos ($2000-4000 each….). The appeal I find is simple – his photos are ‘pleasant’. The colours appeal to people and his subjects in the main also appeal. He also sells big sizes and people like big, plus he also ships framed. The print itself is not too shabby either. All in all he delivers a good package.

        Personally I find some of his work not too bad but compositionally i find Lik is a bit too boring. I don’t think he’s really a bad photographer though and as i said his prints are ok. Fair play to him and he is helping to raise the profile of art and photography which cannot be a bad thing for aspiring art photographers.

        Be interesting to hear how you get along Ming (gotta try and catch up with the site over the next few days)!

        • How do you get from $4000 to millions? Even at $4000 it’s pretty difficult, size immaterial. ‘Pleasant’ is one thing, but it’s also one-dimensional and liable to be boring after not very long…

          • Ming, for each photo he has a series of around 950. 950 at 4000 average gives you $380k on his regular series. On top of that he has a limited edition of the same photo (not quite sure what makes it limited edition…) which i think is a series of 20-50 at around $20-30k. Assume $20k per photo and you get another $40k. So per photo he has an earning potential of $420k. And make no mistake he does sell mostly out.

            I agree its mainly one-dimensional and it’s not something I would buy, but he does have a consistent style that people like. On top of that he has some very good marketing and galleries in all the right places. Regardless, my friend still likes his photos hanging on his walls, so boring is entirely subjective in that regard!

            I think he got his mega exposure from getting a tv show if i remember correctly…

  16. Very interesting thoughts. I like the idea of the art exchange, not that I’m good enough to participate in it yet! It would be interesting to see what artists define as “good” and “worthy”, as opposed to collectors, curators and the wannabe social elite.

    As for the Peter Lik, I think most people are going to be happy about it breaking the record “just because it’s not Rhein II” rather than for any particular quality. Were I a rich collector, I’d certainly feel less embarrassed about having paid that much for the Lik than the Gursky, put it that way.

    Maybe some of your ultraprints would work well in the exchange program?

    • I suppose it’s a good sign that ‘straight’ photography has this amount of potential though 🙂

    • knickerhawk says:

      If I were a rich collector and I paid $6.5 million for that print, I’d start feeling real embarrassed as soon as it becomes obvious that such a price is absurdly too high and unsupported by the resale market for Lik’s work. That’s assuming that it was a “legit” sale in the first place, which is being questioned in a number of commentaries. Sherman, Gursky, and other contemporary high end art photographers whose work trades hands in the millions of dollars have well established support from top museums, top galleries and top auction houses. Their work has been assessed by countless critical reviews in the art press. In other words, the foundation of “legitimacy” in the highbrow art “club” has been established for that work. NONE of that legitimacy has been established for Lik and his work, and without it there will simply be no way that this one-off price paid (again, assuming its even legit) will be sustained. One wealthy fool with money to burn does not make a market…

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