Taking Stock of Amazon Art

by Jillian Steinhauer on August 7, 2013


Behold: Amazon Art

In May, we broke the story that Amazon was planning to add art to their online offerings, and yesterday the deed was done: the company’s Fine Art store (beta) was born.

Back then, we couldn’t get much in the way of details beyond the fact that Amazon was teaming up with galleries for the project, and dealers have generally stayed anonymous and/or mum up until the launch. But at the end of June, the Wall Street Journal was able to flesh out some of the particulars (in a story that’s behind a paywall, unfortunately), including this:

Gallery owners who were briefed on the plans said Amazon will charge a tiered commission based on an art piece’s price, generally from 5% to 20%, with higher-priced works subject to lower commissions. It is charging wine sellers about a 15% commission, according to wineries involved in that program. Shipping logistics will fall to the galleries, and the art section won’t be a part of Amazon’s Prime two-day delivery program, said these gallery owners.

Blogs and social media were giddy with the launch yesterday. A number of sites offered brief, preliminary tours, and Gawker this morning compiled the hilarious reviews that have popped up for a Monet on offer for $1.4 million — which is currently down to only three stars but is also currently unavailable, which means it may have sold?! But anyway, actual opinions have been somewhat lacking. The most vocal one yet comes from economist Tyler Cowen, who dismissed the entirety of Amazon Art on his blog Marginal Revolution.

“I do not think it will revolutionize the art world,” he begins, before going on to critique the lack of context on and for the site and the quality of the work — everything above $10k looks, he writes, “a) aesthetically absymal and b) drastically overpriced.” Cowen’s argument hangs on his understanding of both Amazon, which seems quite astute, and the art world, which seems much less so. Case in point: his concluding assertion that he doesn’t see the “intermediate niche” that Amazon is trying to fill. Well, online art buying has been picking up; 20×200 suspended operations; and middle-market galleries are struggling. There’s definitely a niche to be filled somewhere.

The smartest reactions I’ve seen thus far have been on Twitter, predictably from art people who know how to look at and shop for art. Museum Nerd offered this comment:

While blogger and filmmaker Greg Allen had this series of tweets:

In addition to pointing out the latent sexism of Amazon’s take on art (I checked all seven pages of the “Artists You Know” section — there’s one woman, Helen Frankenthaler), these comments point to what’s probably the biggest takeaway from Amazon Art so far, IMO: it looks like it was made by people with zero knowledge of art. They pretty much just slapped the Amazon template on there, thinking one size fits all. But it doesn’t. Pages like this one, for a work by Mary Cassatt, bring up multiple issues, including the lack of biographical info for some artists (maybe we don’t need to know every artist’s biography, but I think Mary Cassatt deserves better) and the question of who — if anyone — is handling quality control. Is that piece actually a lithograph, or is a it an aquatint? Will someone ever respond to the user who asked about the medium, or will the comment (and the artwork) just sit there forever?

More questions arise: Why is “Emotions” a subject? Why is none of the art in Medieval and Gothic Art medieval or Gothic? Will they ever feature artists we haven’t heard of? And how on earth will Amazon Art deal with returns?

Good thing they’re still in beta.

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  • Megan Southwood

    A Mary Cassatt on sale through Amazon? An actual Mary Cassatt, not a print. Next, we’ll be attending art exhibitions at IKEA & “curating” displays at Walmart. #whendidweloseperspective?

  • Jillian Steinhauer

    It is a print, but it’s listed as a lithograph and someone commented that that seems improbably, if not impossible. The point being: Amazon Art feels hard to trust. I actually wouldn’t mind something like an art exhibition at IKEA, if it was well done. =)

  • Art Historian

    The funny thing is, your comment is exactly what Dadaism, and to a certain extent Pop Art, was all about. Your notion of art having to be sold and exhibited through galleries is an elitist one – as is much of high art. Max Ernst caused controversy because he held an exhibition of artists in a bathroom – but does that mean Dadaism was less important of an art form? Yea, just like your hashtag: #whendidweloseperspective

    • Dain Q. Gore

      I’m not sure I read Megan’s comment as one of elitism as much as one of branding, and, as Jillian added, overall trustworthiness. I’m certain that any of the Pop Artists would like to have gotten paid for the work that was produced by their studio and not given Amazon some free revenue for knockoffs. In addition, I wonder if one would trust their work to be handled by Amazon in the same way that a gallery would for that 30-50% commission, all the while getting lost in the already huge list of random thumbnails.

  • Cory Huff

    I love that so many art world folks are up in arms about this. Amazon’s just the latest big name to jump on the online art bandwagon. There are over 300 sites selling art online – with varying degrees of success. Amazon will learn and iterate quickly. They are very rigorous about testing.

    My guess is that Amazon becomes a major player in the art world within five years.

  • Trund

    Well huge deal – they just launched something imperfect and will keep iterating on it just like with their all other products to get it where the market needs it.

    Looks like everyone who’s dissing them should read Clayton Christensen’s articles about disruptive innovation.

    Everyone dismissed Amazon video when it first launched, same for Amazon Web Services, Kindle and ton of their other products. Seems to me that people have short memory and underestimate Amazon/Bezos, give them some credit & time.

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