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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.

Charles Saatchi is an edition of 1.

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

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

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.

Faile, “My Confessions” (2008) (via Papermonster.net)

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.

Photography

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.

*   *   *

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!

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Kyle Chayka

Kyle Chayka was senior editor at Hyperallergic. He is a cultural critic based in Brooklyn and has contributed to publications including ARTINFO, ARTnews, Modern Painters, LA Weekly,...

18 replies on “Art World Ikeas”

  1. Cool article Kyle and a good intro for me to your writing. I tweeted this to Hrag and he thought I should post it here: it blew my mind to learn that some respectable contemporary art shown in Chelsea turns out to be quite affordable. Example: Olaf Breuning drawings at Protech, 12×9, black ink on paper – $1,000. William Pope L. at Mitchell Inness & Nash, a cluster of small painting/drawing pieces, $2,000 each. fwiw – cheers – Bill

    1. Hey Bill, thanks for the comments. It’s totally true that a lot of Chelsea art is affordable, but I think the image of overly expensive art and the intimidation factor of asking for a price list is too much for a lot of buyers who would be perfectly willing to order online, as they can with 20×200 and the other sites.

      I was at a ‘Young Collectors’ presentation at the Boston ICA once and a gallerist remarked that you could pick up some nice Fort Thunder drawings for $50 from the gallery. An audience member piped up that they had no idea about the gallery’s flat files. The gallerist said to just come in to the gallery and chat, learn, and figure things like that out, and the door will open up.

      I’m hoping that print websites like these make that collecting culture a massive phenomenon, and lower the intimidation/misunderstanding factor. Plus make people more willing to spend even $1000! (long comment sorry)

  2. To bring in a Twitter comment, artist @allisonmalinsky says “I want to sell. I want to sell a 1 of a kinds. I want the buyers to pay for them.”

    I think that’s totally legit, and that kind of singularity in art (making and sales) should be preserved. These sites are great, but not /everything/ needs to turn into a photocopy print.

  3. as a 20×200 artist i can honestly say that working w/jen bekman and her crew is fantastic! i’ve been working w/them from the get go since 2007. right around the time jen contacted me i was thinking, “what can i do to make my work more affordable and accessible?” it’s a nice, little, monthly revenue stream that allows me paint more. her site has exposed my work to many new collectors and it’s made buying art less scary or intimidating. i’ve received many emails from collectors telling me how excited they are to buy their first piece of art. and emails from others who might not have been able to afford an original but were pleased as punch they could get a print for $20! the site really is a gateway for beginning collectors and a boon to artists. yeah jen bekman & peeps!

  4. While this is a really interesting read (personally I generally love the idea of 20×200 and other similar sites), I think the Saatchi quote has been misinterpreted. Most likely, the reason Saatchi was upset was that a sculpture that he may have paid tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for might only have a market of a few collectors worldwide. If there’s only one of those sculptures, it just takes two interested collectors to start a bidding war at an auction or privately when the work is resold. If there are 6 of those sculptures, it would require many more buyers to be interested in the work for the value monetary to increase. Let’s face it, Saatchi is a collector, but he’s not one to hang on to his artworks for life.

    1. I agree, I think the fact remains that Saatchi is judging his collected works based on their monetary value. But what I find interesting is that this is not judging works for their inherent quality, just their ‘rarity’. If Saatchi was only concerned about quality, I don’t think he’d be as upset that his work was part of an edition. But as you point out, an editioned work makes it harder to turn a big profit.

  5. Great article. The larger point made is that both collectors and the average person are beginning to buy art online. There are large aggregated audiences on these sites, willing to purchase originals and prints, but who may not be comfortable in a gallery setting. Possibly future collectors, or they may just buy once.

    When 5 million visitors per month are perusing a site, the chances for an artist to make a living with their work is real. With or without gallery assistance. Etsy is another site worth mentioning and their model attracts a demographic interested in handmade, not necessarily one of a kind. Not all the art is credible, but that’s not really the point.
    The audience is becoming accustomed to buying sight unseen.

  6. Hi Bill,

    I really like the conversation you’ve started here, and enjoyed reading your article!
    I’m biased of course, but I think the availability issue you talk about is a good thing, in that it helps
    to push art by artists out into a larger mainstream consciousness.

    I started EYE BUY ART in part, because I would often have really interesting artists calling me for advice
    on how to get a dealer or how to get a show, and the answer was – it’s really not that simple. On the other hand,
    I would have friends asking how to start buying artwork, or whose work they should buy. This, coupled with
    my increasing frustration over all that goofy posturing and the big egos that exist in the art industry encouraged
    me to find a way to bridge the gap between the artists trying to get exposure for their work – and
    people who were buying factory produced posters from IKEA because they had no idea where
    else to start.

    Essentially, I think what you’re talking about here, regarding scarcity and the value of art is interesting. This article opens up
    a lot of room for debate – and you could probably write another 5 just based on all the ideas you’ve presented here!
    I certainly don’t claim to have all the solutions, and anyone who does is lying. The internet is a potential
    game changer for the democratization of art – empowering more people to find work they like in an affordable, and
    non-intimidating atmosphere. But the rules are being broken as they’re being invented, and you can only predict
    and innovate around what happens next. Pretty exciting stuff. I’m just happy to be part of the conversation.

    Thanks for the great article!
    Emily
    Director, EYE BUY ART

    p.s. I saw Amy Stevens last night at our opening of Flash Forward BOSTON – she was really thankful for the great
    mention 🙂

  7. These online art photograhy sites are still only reaching a few grains of sand on the beach, so if these posts strike a chord with you, pass them on to your like minded friends.

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