The Gray Market: Why Art Will Never Be as Popular as Music (and Other Insights)

Every Monday morning, artnet News brings you The Gray Market. The column decodes three important stories from the previous week—and offers unparalleled insight into the inner workings of the art industry in the process. 

This week, we’re reviewing three dubious solutions around the industry…

POPULARITY CONTEST: On Wednesday, Margaret Rhodes investigated Artsy’s quest to raise humanity’s visual taste level en route to establishing “a world in which art is as popular as music”—a mission that, to me, raises more questions than a cryptic late-night text from a dead relative’s phone. The main reason? Like the socially awkward teen bookworm I once was, Artsy seems to be utterly confused about the mechanics of popularity in their current environment.

For the sake of argument, let’s set aside the basic reality that people consume so much music partially because it’s a great complement to doing other stuff at the same time. (Try scrolling through JPGs of a museum collection during your drive to work tomorrow, or replacing the stereo at your next party with a painting, and let me know how it works out.) Even then, Artsy still has to crack a vexing—and, I think, insoluble—puzzle to reach its preferred destination.

The issue is that taste and popularity often, if not usually, clash with each other. A few examples are useful here. First, to stick with Artsy’s pop-music comparison, last November saw “Closer,” the cliché-mainlining single from music-snob ridicule-magnets the Chainsmokers, became the longest-running #1 song of 2016, per Billboard—and the twelfth-most enduring chart-topper of all time

Despite the orthodox opinion that we now live in the “golden age of TV,” total viewer numbers tell us that the biggest hit on the American small screen last year was the retrograde two-camera CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory. And to drive home the point like an armed Van Helsing over an incapacitated vampire, consider this headline from Quartz about the current cinema landscape: “Netflix’s most popular original films are awful Adam Sandler comedies.”  

As I’ve written before, unlike music, movies, TV, video games, or books, art is not a mass medium. It is a cultural niche, largely because its appreciation and market have long been powered by the aggressive cultivation of exclusivity. For many, if not most, artists and enthusiasts, the goal is to engage with works that speak to a small group of like minds fluent in a unique language. For sellers, the goal is to strategically restrict access to already-scarce goods in the hope of spiking their value to maximum height. Although the pharmaceutical industry and a quick browse through your spam folder will try to tell you otherwise, there’s still no aphrodisiac stronger than competition.

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Chris Alexakisart