Not every plucky startup gets a fawning profile in The New York Times on launch day, but still fewer get a shout-out from Rupert Murdoch on his erratic Twitter feed. Art.sy, the long-time-coming digital art outpost, got both. The hugely hyped website promises to introduce users to art they’ll enjoy via a sophisticated recommendation engine; the Times placed Art.sy alongside Netflix and Pandora as a means for serendipitous artistic encounters. But what has excited Wendi Murdoch and the site’s many other starry investors (Eric Schmidt of Google, Jack Dorsey of Twitter) is Art.sy’s real business, mentioned only in passing in paragraph 18 of the Times piece: brokering sales between galleries and collectors. Will it work? Perhaps, though if they do succeed Art.sy will be the exception, as company after company has failed to drag the art world into the digital age.
At the core of Art.sy is an algorithm that assesses art via a series of properties. The fancy name for these properties is “genes,” but really they’re just tags, hand-affixed by a team of art historians. (Who said we were unemployable?) There are movements, nationalities, political and social orientations, and more subjective critical categories, such as “Artist as Ethnographer” or “Fact v. Fiction.”
In one way, this is refreshing: unlike its predecessors, and in marked contrast with the naive Silicon Valley consensus, Art.sy doesn’t make the mistake of believing that contemporary art can be boiled down to formal elements. A computer just can’t discern why an Yves Klein monochrome and a Blinky Palermo monochrome have nothing in common, or distinguish between an Andy Warhol flower painting and a Sturtevant appropriation of it. At the same time, the warren of art history grads hand-coding this thing gives the game away. What poses as machine intelligence is in fact a distinctly unglamorous form of curatorial labor—the Mechanical Turk of the art world.
Once you’ve logged in and begun to explore, the connections Art.sy draws can be mildly illuminating. But more often they’re frivolous if not downright insulting; upon viewing a Joel Meyerowitz photograph of a swimming pool, I was shown other images of pools. Things also get trickier when moving from artworks to artists. Jeff Wall, among the most significant artists of the last 30 years, has been given the labels “Manipulated Photography” and “Cinematic”—and thus his closest equivalent is Gregory Crewdson, a far less subtle and indeed less important photographer. I bow to no one in my adoration of Tacita Dean, a virtuoso of analog film—so apparently I should have a look at some unknown third-rate illustrator who also carries the genes of “Woman” and “Isolation/Alienation.”
The tenuousness of these connections won’t ultimately matter, of course, if Art.sy finds a way of exploiting them to sell art to collectors. After all, the standards of art history have little bearing on the current commercial art world; connoisseurship has been superseded by asset management, and no misapplied “Isolation/Alienation” tag is going to force anyone to rethink his portfolio.
But people have been trying to sell art online for more than a decade, with little success. Art.sy is the most sophisticated attempt yet, and its team of art world veterans (including John Elderfield, former head of MoMA’s painting and sculpture department) has a better chance than its predecessors of cracking open the cottage industry that the art market remains. But it’s worth recalling that while outside the art world Art.sy may look fresh, it’s already old hat to dealers, art consultants, and collectors, who’ve been fiddling with the beta for years. Thus far it has failed to catch on. Maybe that’ll change—or Art.sy may find that art startups just can’t hack it.
This has certainly been the pattern thus far: while a few digital resources for brick-and-mortar galleries, such as the iPad app Artbinder, have found modest success, attempts to bring art itself into the digital realm keep foundering. Paddle8, another site aiming to link collectors and dealers, is now hosting a rotating exhibition of wacky GIFs. Artspace, promising access to “the world’s best art,” flogs photos and prints by unknowns for under $100—hardly an ignoble endeavor, but not the sort of business plan that puts you in competition with Christie’s and Sotheby’s. A dozen sites listing exhibitions and events compete against one another, but none has broken through. And while there are many excellent art blogs, no critical voice has arisen online with a fraction of the importance of Artforum, Frieze, or other print magazines.
Consider, too, the fate of the all-digital VIP Art Fair, which like Art.sy promised to expand the audience and market for contemporary art—in their case, by bringing the buying frenzies of Basel or Miami into the digital sphere. That many collectors now first view artworks as JPGs, and all too often buy art based on JPGs alone, seemed to strengthen the argument for their model. When it began in 2010, VIP Art Fair was able to enlist some of the world’s weightiest dealers, from David Zwirner to Marian Goodman, to sign up for “viewing rooms”—which featured a shadowy gray humanoid standing next to reproduced art, for scale’s sake. A massive PR campaign brought in over 100,000 users. And … the fair bombed, with most dealers making no sales or even connecting with new clients. VIP Art, having dumped the word “Fair” from its name, is now trying to shift from periodic events to year-round art sales, but collectors remain elusive. The monopoly of the offline market endures.
So why does art remain resistant to the Web, when almost every other cultural medium has been subsumed by it? As Art.sy and its cohorts have struggled, many people in tech have asked that question—but it isn’t the right question, or, rather, it’s an imprecise one. Whether art makes sense online isn’t a matter of aesthetics, but of sociology and economics. A work of art gains meaning and importance not from intrinsic qualities, but from its position within a network of institutions—museums, galleries, art schools, magazines, etc. We live in a time of image explosion, but without that network images are just content. There’s simply no possibility of a viral digital success—a “Call Me Maybe” of painting or photography—because a work only becomes successful upon its art world approbation. And that can’t be dismantled, not unless you also feel like dismantling the entire critical apparatus of contemporary art and, while you’re at it, destroying billions of dollars stored in chemicals on stretched pieces of canvas.
Such elitism may anger the technolibertarians of Silicon Valley, but everybody in the art world knows this, from Larry Gagosian down to the freshest kids in art school. Disdaining the digital is, at its core, a survival strategy. Indeed, as the art historian Claire Bishop has argued, the most consequential shift in art since 1990 has been away from technology, not toward it. The creation of social situations in real space, as organized by the French artist Pierre Huyghe or the Thai-born, New York-based Rirkrit Tiravanija; the investigations of obsolescent media, such as Rodney Graham’s photographs or William Kentridge’s animations; the stunning rise of performance, now with the imprimatur of New York’s Performa biennial and the Tanks at London’s Tate Modern; and the turn to precarious, haphazard, or incomplete forms of assemblage, as seen in the New Museum show Unmonumental: these are the styles of the time, and all of them in their way react to the upheavals of digital life by renouncing it. Artists, no less than dealers and museums, seem to have learned a lesson from other fields of cultural production, one to which the art startups remain curiously deaf: if digitalization threatens your mastery, the best thing to do is shut it out.
Jason Farago is a writer and art critic based in New York.