In her article for the New York Times, ”Web Sites Illuminate Unknown Artists,” Melena Ryzik describes how startups like ArtistsWanted.org, Behance.net, and EveryArt.com “talk not only about making money but also about democratizing culture.”These sites help discover new and unheard of artists and then sell their work. The business model seems sound, so art market startups have attracted sizable investments. Can a startup really democratize culture and turn a profit at the same time?
I will not attempt to answer that question in a blog post. I do not think that I am adequately prepared, academically or otherwise, to provide a satisfactory response. I will however, point out that what appears to be simultaneity is anything but. That is, the claim of profitability and of democracy are not synchronized. Rather, the claim of democracy is, in my opinion, usually mobilized as an advertising tool to increase profitability. “We are democratizing X”—whether it be information, news, art, music, etc.—when coupled with a profit motive, is an indication of brand strategy. A company has identified “democracy” or “radicality” as a central value and purposefully maneuvered their brand into that value-space.
The assertion of democracy is almost always terminally confused with an assertion of free market capitalism. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that strategy, insofar as democracy and free markets are constantly confused, at least as far back as Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom. One criticism of Friedman’s argument, that Friedman conflates economic and political freedom, applies in the art world, too. Just add a third term. These startups assume exchangeability between economic, political, and social or cultural freedoms. If we have the ability to vote on and select unknown artists for widespread sales distribution, then we must be democratizing art. If we set up a “free art market,” we must be freeing art. Unfortunately, the correspondence between economic and cultural freedom is not one to one. I am even unsure about the direction of correlation. Could it be that greater economic freedom—freer art markets—shuts down and locks up cultural freedom?
We (some nebulous academic bodies) can gather from the Frankfurt School on that art is already a commodity fetish. Art market startups are not exactly doing anything novel—they are just redirecting old energies into new organs. The Internet and crowdsharing technologies neither open nor close markets—they are not inherently liberating or oppressive. The choices we make about how we implement those technologies and about how we incorporate a profit motive into their structures will determine their true degree of democratization.