In 1847, Karl Marx wrote that working for wages would be superseded by what he called “self-activity.” With the economy humming along, surplus time would free people to study, privately create and generally improve themselves. He suggested they might also hunt, fish, or even become critics in their spare time. This, of course, was to happen under the Communist system. It didn’t. But Marx’s prophetic vision continues to prove him right.
What Marx did not foresee was the remarkable variety of interests that folks would pursue. Only a few years ago a person who painted on the heads of pins would be considered an eccentric oddball. Today’s Internet can bring a world of pinhead painters together to share techniques, one-hair brushes, magnifying devices, exhibition ploys, pinhead history and pinhead lore. A pinhead society is formed and a pinhead president is elected.
Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail, while essentially a book on economics, talks about these sorts of esoteric pursuits and issues that will affect the lives and livelihoods of artists. The long tail is a graph that describes the vast variety of niches now available beyond the more standard fare. Amazon, for example, by offering more than 800,000 CD titles as compared with the average Wal-Mart at 4500, is an example of the retail long tail in action. Without “the tyranny of the shelf,” and with its ability to tolerate a great deal of what they call “noise,” Amazon offers stuff that is otherwise hard to find. Niches rule.
With the remarkable democratization of human activity, older attitudes of scarcity may be waning. The bonanza of choice is affecting the ways people buy art. The “Star system” may be on its way out. Not only will people make art for their own consumption and those of their friends, but they will buy locally and value individuality and connectivity rather than name. “Young people today,” says media mogul Rupert Murdoch, “don’t want to be told what’s good and bad, they want control over their media, instead of being controlled by it.” The growing presence of large Internet art sites where art is arranged by genre and niche is part of this phenomenon. “Are you looking for a pinhead landscape or a pinhead portrait?”
PS: “Noise can also be a huge problem in the long tail market. Indeed, if left unchecked, noise–random content or products of poor quality — can kill a market. Too much noise and people don’t buy.” (Chris Anderson)
Esoterica: Not everyone sees the long tail as a good thing. “Sturgeon’s Law,” named after science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon, states, “Ninety percent of everything is crud.” Galleries, museums and even websites are in the business of filtering out what they consider to be crud. Part of our job as professional creators is to filter our own efforts. By the way, are standards rising? Maybe the democratization of art can only go so far.
Online print-art portals
by Vivian Kuhn, Kelowna, BC, Canada
I wondered if you had any information about Fine Art America. I was approached from them asking me to give them pictures to reproduce and sell by order online. Are they and others like them trustworthy?
(RG note) Thanks, Vivian, and others who asked about various venues. There may be outfits that are really trying to do a job for artists and those that are outright exploitive. Few are able to push artists’ sites into higher positions than our own Painter’s Keys links pages. Fine Art America is a “print on demand” site where artists are requested to submit their own high-resolution files — generally taken with the artists’ own digital cameras. As digital is inferior to high-end scanners, this alone eats into the quality of the final giclee product. On the other hand, some sites charge artists significant prices for scanning and then sit back and see if anything happens. I’m asking readers to comment on their experience with Fine Art America, Art America, Art.com, Artnet, VMOCA, Art International, Creative Suite, Saatchi online, Pictopia, Artseek, Artmesh, Myartclub, MyArtSpace, Casacollections, Everythigart, the long arm of eBay, and any others they might care to. Right now I’m particularly interested in sites that offer the option of producing and selling giclee prints. Do these sites begin to wag the long tail, or do they, for the time being, only wank the artist?
Search engine optimization
by Raenette Franklin, Bloomfield Hills, MI, USA
Concepts in The Long Tail are right on. I created my own website specializing in sailboat paintings. If one Googles “sailboat paintings” my site comes up on the first page of search results. I am starting to sell paintings and prints of my work from my web site. Much of this has to do SEO, or search engine optimization, which is another lengthy subject, but it is also exactly what Robert is talking about. Not only do I have a niche, I have specialized within that. My sailboat paintings don’t look like any others. My customers have mentioned this. I am also beginning to learn why they are attracted to some paintings and not others. Some of this may sound rather commercial. I don’t mind. I just like painting sailboats. If they have stormy skies or beautiful sunsets, doesn’t make much difference to me.
Sturgeon’s Law a personal matter
by Wes Giesbrecht, Mission, BC, Canada
While I’ve never heard of Sturgeon’s Law, I’ve had my own version for many years. I came to realize a long time ago that only about 5% of any given art form appeals to me personally. That is to say, appeals really strongly. For instance, I like blues music but only about 5% of it really speaks to me, same for other kinds of music from pop to classical. Likewise in the graphic arts, there’s only a very small percentage of work that ‘sings my song.’ I don’t think it’s so much a case that 90 or 95% of what I see or hear is crud as much as it simply doesn’t speak to me personally. I’ve come to see this in large part as a result of experiences selling my own art. So often a piece that I feel is really not that exciting, turns out to be the first to sell. Someone sees it and falls in love with it. Another piece that I consider to be my best work hangs on the gallery wall and waits to be noticed. We’re all so very different. One man’s crud is another man’s treasure and vice versa. That some young people don’t want to be told what’s good or bad, I see as a giant step forward. And that idea too, is no doubt crud to many others.
Democracy dumbs down
by Norman Ridenour, Prague, Czech Republic
As a historian, I’ve determined that democracy is a great political step forward but not a step forward in anything concerning quality. Democracy requires “dumbing down.” It accentuates the trite, banal and vacuous. It stresses glitter, marketing and celebrity name identification. In art — visual, literature, film, theater, whatever — it requires products which do not require audience intelligence or thought. Most people do not want to have to know enough to make an aesthetic judgment (most people do not want to believe that there is any knowledge over and above their own banality) and most people certainly do not wish to be challenged into thinking. Democracy is about appealing to “most people.” Thus art is reduced to entertainment and decoration. Most galleries do not weed out the crud, they put it on the walls and charge through the nose for it. I remember going through galleries in Carmel and Laguna Beach, California and Scottsdale, Arizona and finishing the tour with a huge desire to vomit.
Art in restless times
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
The Internet is a modern version of the flea market and old book store of times past. It is a reaction against Wal-Mart and their big-box store buddies who have systematically destroyed small businesses that catered to the niche pursuits you speak of. Mass marketing is fall-on-your-face boring. The Internet brings back the pleasure of discovery some devotees find in shopping in antique stores. I clicked on Russian art the other day and visited a gallery with thousands of images arranged according to subject matter and style. Consumers are getting lazier and lazier. They want to be in charge. Sitting at their computer desk with their mouse and PayPal account, they rule. If something irritates them, in a second they are on to another site. Computer commerce is bound to become boring and ubiquitous as well. A counter culture will emerge to offer some other alternative. We are a restless society that is easily bored and distracted. For the artist, this means that flexibility and versatility are going to be the key to survival. Like the big retailers, artists are going to have to follow marketing trends. Art is becoming a “service’ based business and artists are going to have to provide a service of some sort to make a living. It might be teaching. It might be providing decor for the living room. Artists have always had to adjust to their market and this ability is more necessary now than ever before.
New wave of classic art
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada
Surprisingly, the avant-garde art of yesterday has made it onto the giclees, while we living artists are having a new wave of classical art training. As they are being accessible to more artists, we can already see an increase of quality classical art. I don’t think that the elite and masses will ever disappear drowned by the democratization that you described. We now have more and cheaper copies of celebrity apparel and behaviors than at any time before. There will always be characters whose mission in life is to lead and line up those who will follow. The democratization should provide more visibility to choose good leaders… one can hope for that.
by Bobbo Goldberg, Orlando, FL, USA
How wonderful to see a quote from Theodore Sturgeon. Cleverly disguised as a science fiction writer, Sturgeon explored the subject of love from every conceivable angle, no matter how risky. His subject matter included civil condemnation of homosexuality, a surprisingly cogent view of incest (which was more for the purposes of challenging any assumptions than about the apparent subject) and the withdrawal from love. He wrote stories about our obsession with sexuality and, in A Touch of Strange, wrote the most lyrically beautiful and tough-minded view of human romantic love I’ve encountered before or since. I began reading Sturgeon when I was a teenager and I read him still, with ever greater respect for his depth of understanding, and for insistence on “asking the next question.” While he is indeed best known outside speculative fiction circles for “Sturgeon’s Law,” it is the least part of him, and I recommend that any of your readers who lives precariously between a good brain and a good heart check out this luminous author.
The long tail and flat tax
by Adan Lerma, New York, NY, USA
The democratization of more and more human activity will probably give rise to quite a bit more noise as we lengthen the tail of human endeavor. Almost by definition, those points on the tail not immediately to our taste, and that we’re not usually exposed to, may seem like noise; possibly a good thing re expanding one’s horizons, but still a challenge and probably unreasonable to expect to accept all the variety. Imagine the psychological democratizing a flat tax would have on the working population; each person rewarded and taxed equally to that person’s abilities and desires to earn. Ironically, the largest loudest noise I tire of hearing is the volume pumped mass commercials of the media beast glancing more and more back at its long trailing tail, wondering, “Why is it twitching so much?”
No support for Amazon
by Susan Sontag, St. Louis, MO, USA
It makes me sick to think that you are an advocate of Amazon, a vendor of dog-fighting videos. One would hope that creative individuals would have a bit more sensitivity than the average moron consumer and perhaps even have some true discretion when choosing whom they ally themselves with and which way they vote their dollars. Either you are uninformed about an institution that you have endorsed by association in your letter, or you have no regard for illegal abuse of animals, or you simply respect cold hard capitalism above all else.
(RG note) Thanks, Susan. One of the downsides of the Long Tail is that all sorts of scum can get onto the tail. Look at the exploitation of women and children prevalent on the Net. Responsible web-based enterprises that thrive on openness and variety are beginning to pay attention and filter. It’s our job as sensitive people to bring these issues to the perpetrators.
oil painting, 32 x 32 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Anonymous, who wrote, “Mr. Genn, when you wrote the term ‘pinhead president,’ did you have any other thought in mind?”
(RG note) Thanks, Anonymous — and several others who asked the same question. While I’m always looking for metaphors that will make something clearer or more colourful, in the case of ‘pinhead president’ there was nothing in particular on my mind.
And also Valerie Kentwho wrote, “Whether painting on the head of a pin, or painting huge murals for a subway station, consciously or unconsciously, without the elements and principles of art, what understanding would we have of the two dimensional surface? We need to know the way a mark behaves on it, how our minds perceive it, and in what ways we can alter it to make it do what we want it to. There is great comfort in breaking these rules in the solitude of ourselves or on the Internet in numbers unfathomed.”
And also Alan Soffer of Philadelphia, PA, USA who wrote, “So, yes, it seems that the bar has been lowered in the US in many ways. I love the fact that many people are indulging in artwork. These Sunday painters, etc, don’t have to place themselves in the category of professional artists. I love playing tennis, and I’m quite decent as a club player. I don’t describe myself as a professional tennis player. When meeting people I don’t say my vocation is that of tennis player. Art is for the masses, but not all are called to be pros.”
And also Vita of Sutton, QC, Canada who wrote, “Too much noise can kill people.”
And also Carole Pigott who wrote, “We can only hope that the star system is on the way out. But, regarding standards rising, in my view they are dropping.”
And also Laurel Johnson who wrote, “Internet sites are invaluable as a resource. They are the new ‘Universal Brain.’ ”
And also John Klaskin of the USA who wrote, “Interesting that you would quote two men of atheist bent, Marx and Niche. I am interested to know if this is the mindset from which you come?”
(RG note) Thanks, John. Niche was over the other day. Nice guy. I like him a lot better than the Marx brothers, Groucho and Karl.
Enjoy the past comments below for The Long Tail…