In his upcoming book Question, uber-collector Charles Saatchi complains about being scammed on buying a sculpture — when he thought he was buying an original, in reality the piece was actually only one of a run of six identical pieces. Is the uniqueness of the object, the singularity of its existence, is what makes Art great? Does the existence of copies mean that a piece of art is worthless?
Commenter Jamie Maguire picked up on Saatchi’s elitism:
I know how furious this can make you as the same thing has happened to me. When I found it wasn’t an original I marched straight back into Ikea and demanded my money back.
The comment is telling in a few ways. First, Jamie recognizes the fact that what Saatchi is valuing here is originality in the sense of singularity, not necessarily originality in the quality of the work. Second, of course, there’s the joke: Ikea is known as a clearinghouse for design that’s nice, non-threatening, and affordable, something for the plebes that can’t afford Eames chairs.
A new generation of websites selling prints by contemporary artists are kind of like the Ikeas of the art world — they sell editions, from large to small runs, of different kinds of work, from traditional prints to paintings and drawings. At high volume and low prices, these sites make the most of their populist position: buying art need not be hard!
But back to Saatchi’s quandary. Is the Art these websites shill actually good? Or are the prints’ “originality” compromised by the fact that they are merely replicas? I thought I’d take a look around at a few of these sites and find out where Cheap Art can take us, whether it’s the democratization of the art world or the dumbing down of art production.
20×200, a print website run by the inestimable Jen Bekman, is the hands down mothership of today’s affordable art scene. The site releases at least two editions in at least three sizes a week through its mass email newsletter, a grueling pace that ensures that if customers don’t like Tuesday’s print, they’ll probably dig Thursday’s. The twice-weekly prints are often interspersed with bonus additions — some fundraisers for non-profits, others just simply for fun. Along with a constant stream of pretty interesting emerging artists, the site has featured prints by the Starn brothers, photography from William Wegman, and original drawings from New York City-documentin’ Jason Polan.
What I find most interesting about 20×200 is that Jen and her team take the ‘print’ medium as a genre to be bent, broken and reinterpreted. Some of the site’s print editions take on the realm of conceptual art, exploring issues of repeatability and originality through their medium. Jason Polan’s The Hand Project is particularly cool: for the print’s small-size edition, the artist photocopied his hand in a different position for each of 200 prints, ensuring that buyers would get a unique piece even within the edition. To me, this flouts Saatchi’s pretensions — each print is both a copy and an original.
One thing that’s important to remember about 20×200 is that as an outlet for art, it’s more like a department store than a blue chip gallery, aiming for breadth (albeit for a limited audience) than a narrowly focused curatorial program. The site’s strength is that any visitor can find something that appeals to them. There’s even an option to sort prints by their dominant color (isn’t this nice Purple Art?) — useful for when you’re trying to match some Art with your couch, not so much when browsing for the next interesting conceptualist.
Paper Monster is at a different point on the spectrum of print-dealing websites than 20×200. Focusing mainly on “street artists,” though many of their contributors have full-fledged gallery careers, the website intermittently releases original drawings, collages and paintings as well as small-run prints. Paper Monster is actually a legit printing press in Williamsburg — every edition is hand printed and closely overseen by the shop. Contrast that with 20×200’s partnership with a press in Minneapolis for some of their large runs, and you’ve got a jump, I would say, in the personality of the product. Prices in the hundreds (and thousands) of dollars are a far cry from 20×200’s populist $20 and $50 prices, but to my mind the work has far more bite, and if you’re with Saatchi, they’re more unique.
Street artist, sailor, and Venice Biennale phenom Swoon has contributed large screen prints that run in the vein of her wheatpaste linoleum prints and are quite similar to those collected by MoMA. Artist collective Faile, featured in the Tate Modern’s street art mural project, has a few screen prints in the Paper Monster shop as well, and with knock-outs like “My Confessions,” could you really go back to 8 1/2 by 11 inch prints?
Living Room Prints
The Working Proof joins art to charity. Each print is paired with a charity chosen by the print’s artist to receive part of the edition’s profits. The pieces are printed on high-quality paper through varying techniques, including linocut, letterpress, digital prints and giclee. Still, curatorial taste runs more towards illustration than “fine” art, but I appreciate their commitment to unique prints and giving back through art. We Heart Prints curates submissions and aggregates prints for sale in the $50 range, but the work seems more engaged with decoration than innovation. Fine for your living room, but maybe not if you’re looking for something more challenging.
Eye Buy Art makes me perk up a little more. Devoted to fine art photography, the site’s editions are nice, dramatic chromogenic prints that have real substance to them. Often showcasing more than one photograph from the same series, it’s easy to see that Eye Buy Art’s curatorial efforts emphasize artists producing thoughtful work, investigating traditional landscapes, architecture and the process of aging. Amy Stevens’ Confections series is something I can really sink my teeth into.
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Through a discussion hosted by Edward Winkleman Gallery’s #class exhibition, artist and co-curator Jen Dalton commented that sites like 20×200 are a “model for selling work in volume at prices that are affordable to moderate-income people.” This is good for an art world that intimidates many away from taking part, whether it’s buying or making, especially at a time when artists struggle more than ever to make a living purely from their personal art. Ikea didn’t just democratize the price point for designer furniture, it also popularized the modernist aesthetic to the point of omnipresence. If print sites can work the same miracle and turn a mass culture of small collectors onto the idea of quality contemporary art, it would start a revolution.
Yet I would argue that we also need to be aware of the potential dangers of this model. The best pieces of art don’t need to become collectible print-replicas. I doubt a large run edition of 1912 cubist etchings would sell so well in 1913, but in no way does that diminish them in vital relevance for their time or significance in ours. Collective taste will never completely catch up to avant-garde art. I tend to agree with Saatchi in a way — originality, the unique singularity of an object made by an artist and chosen by a collector for its magnetism, has a special charisma and a particular importance when talking about the cutting edge of contemporary art.
The prints sold by 20×200 and Paper Monster and Eye Buy Art aren’t necessarily “originals” but just because a print is only one of a group of replicas doesn’t mean it is diminished in artistic impact. Prints can be done right, in interesting and innovative ways. For art world Ikeas, the sites don’t do so badly. After all, my 20×200 Sarah McKenzie print goes perfectly with my GALANT desk!