I like to think my most recent Amazon wish list is pretty standard: one Jonathan Franzen novel, a pair of Ray Ban aviators, a one of a kind etching by Rembrandt van Rijn

Okay, maybe not so standard. That’s because recently, Amazon.com released a “Collectables & Fine Art” category on their website, and I could not resist picking through it. The section, which can be found between “Clothing & Accessories” and “Computers,” offers a wide selection of drawings, prints, paintings, and more. Prices range from $10 (Ryan Humphrey’s “Untitled (dollar bill)” to $99,750 (“Tom Seaver” by Andy Warhol), and works can be grouped under a number of different categories including subject, style, size, and color. As fun as it was to play pretend art collector online, something about this new section did not sit right with me.

Amazon Art: The Problem With Art Consumption Online

The idea of buying art online is nothing new. Popular companies such as Paddle8, an online auction house, and Artsicle, a web-based art rental business, rely on buy-at-home models. Even mega-store Costco has jumped on the bandwagon by creating a “Fine Art” section on their website, which allows shoppers to purchase Basquiat lithographs alongside lawnmowers and containers of mixed nuts

This commercialization of art is not what bothers me though. For those of you who read my recent article about rap and the art world, you know that I’ve already accepted that, in many ways, art has become a status object, a product not unlike cars or fine watches. In fact, I find it exciting that there are new platforms working to open the once exclusive art market and welcome new art collectors and enthusiasts.

 Amazon Art: The Problem With Art Consumption Online

What gets me is a factor that several critics of the site have already taken issue with: buyers cannot see the art in real life. While Amazon offers detailed dimensions and gallery information for each work, there is no way to see the art in person. The matter of whether art needs to be seen in real life has divided the art world, with web-viewing supporters citing ventures like the Google Art Project, program that provides virtual tours of museums and allows visitors to zoom incredibly close in on specific works of art.

While these tools provide a unique perspective, I still firmly believe that the experience is not the same as physically standing in front of a piece of art. Call me old school, but I still like to believe in the “aura” of art, a theory that was championed by art historian Walter Benjamin. Benjamin considered art to have a unique quality, an indefinable air about it that could not be replicated. It may sound a bit goofy, but anyone who’s stood in front of a great work of art and felt something knows what I’m talking about. I felt it at 11, the first time I saw “Monogram” by Robert Rauschenberg. I can’t explain it, but seeing the work in real life affected me in a way that no reproduction could. It’s also one of the reasons I love working here at Artsnapper, a company that continues to push people to get out there and experience art in real-world the galleries, museums, and even streets around them.   

 Amazon Art: The Problem With Art Consumption Online

Let’s say you don’t buy into the whole aura business. Don’t worry, a lot of people don’t. There are still practical issues with art consumption online. For one, most sites don’t have the ultra detailed zooming capabilities of the Google Art Project, which means that buyers are provided only with a flat, frontal image. This becomes an even bigger issue when we consider works that incorporate texture, such as paintings and mixed media compositions. Not to mention the obvious problem of presenting sculpture, a category of art that by definition is not meant to exist in 2D. These pieces change and shift depending on light and the position of the viewer, meaning that a static photograph on a computer screen could appear completely different in person. This is a major point of consideration for anyone who is ready to drop thousands of dollars for art online.

Ultimately, only time will tell if purchasing art online will take off. A few weeks ago I attended a panel of art professionals who discussed the downsides and merits to buying art off the Internet. One of the panel members, an employee of the online auction house Artspace, pointed out that in the early days of online shopping, retailers doubted consumers’ willingness to buy clothes off a website. Why would someone buy a coat if they couldn’t try it on? Yet today clothing and accessories are the most profitable items sold on the Internet. If people’s attitudes towards buying clothing – a very physically specific item – online where able to change, who’s to say their views on art wont follow suit? In the end, if the shoe fits, why worry?

Have you ever bought art online? What do you think about art consumption online? Think my babbling about “aura” is a crock of dookie? Or do you see where I’m coming from? Speak up! Share your thoughts in the comments below.




5 Responses

  1. Cindy Wider

    You know what that special thing is? The thing you describe when standing in the room and actually viewing the real artwork in the flesh (so to speak)…it’s called the ‘soul.’ You can actually feel the artist’s energy from deep within those brush marks or those pencil strokes on the canvas or paper. It’s a haunting and mystical experience…a very eerie feeling. Not only do you experience the Artist’s energy when you view the real artwork, you can also imagine that there would be tiny particles of their physical body in the artwork; maybe a hair or two, a few skin cells, little bit of sweat, there will be a tiny piece of them in that original hand-crafted piece of art. That’s what makes original art so special and important to view and experience in the flesh.

    So what about Amazon selling art on the internet? Great idea…and to me that’s fine so long as there is someone (preferably an experienced gallery Director to fill you in on more details about the piece)and on hand behind the scenes ready to allow you to view the painting in the ‘flesh’ prior to your purchase (if you wisely choose to do that.)

    I think Amazon could make this work if they are well supported by respected and note-worthy galleries and its a brilliant idea when the two work together properly.

  2. Cristian Valbuena

    I love the way that you describe the experiencing art in person. Very well said. I felt as if I were staring at a piece of artwork. :)

    Selling art online is definitely a good way for more people to discover great artists.

    But do you think that most people will spend lots of money on a product if the don’t know what the final product is?

  3. Cindy Wider

    Hi Cristian, thankyou for giving me the opportunity to discuss this further. Selling art online is all about trust. This is why its so important for artists to be represented by the best possibly gallery they can find and be accepted into. The role of the Gallery Director shouldn’t be underestimated. I think that Directors and Agents are more important now than ever.

    If the art is going to sell online at a really high price ie: tens and hundreds of thousands plus, there should be someone there behind the artwork (the person selling the piece) who is easily accessible; to discuss the work,to explain the provenance. Most people selling a piece that’s really expensive would either already know all about the provenance of the piece or be wise enough to enlist an agent to sell it for them. The main reason to view the artwork would be to check the condition but a great gallery director could give an excellent condition report anyway.

    This is such an interesting topic. The main thing for us to all remember is that selling a piece of art is not a simple process. It involves alot of hard work and research, understanding, patience and knowledge from the Director. I admire great art Agents/Directors and in fact I am looking for one right now. I recently moved from Australia to the UK (to be closer to my husband’s aging parents) and to explore the world more; but as a result I have to build my reputation all over again. I had developed my status as emerging artist in Australia and sold quite well at that level through several galleries.

    Anyway, its all very interesting and thanks for chatting about it. It’s really exciting times for artists and Directors to collaborate. Its all about developing those deep lasting and genuine relationships between the agent and the artist. Loyalty and knowledge is King on the internet today and it should be nurtured, developed and maintained at all costs.


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