The genius of Tinder, the hugely popular dating/hookup smartphone app, is in its simplicity. Forget about mutual interests with potential partners (walks on the beach, Rachmaninoff piano concertos, sour cherry ice cream), forget about life goals (kids vs no kids, city vs country living), forget about your occupation. It’s just this: I am near where you are now, here’s a photo, do you like the look of me or not? If not, swipe left. If so, swipe right. If two people both swiped right when they saw each other’s picture, the app tells them so. Then they can go make out in a car parked in the woods, or get married and have five children, or whatever they decide to do next. So simple and addictive, it’s led to around 50 million users per month, 1 billion “swipes” per day, and 12 million matches per day (which adds up to a lot of people making out in cars parked in the woods). Now a new venture is trying to do for fine art what Tinder has done for dating.
As first reported in English by the hip art website, Sartle, ArtOpen is a forthcoming project funded in part by the Slovenian Ministry of Culture. It is a website that allows any artist to create a profile and upload images of their work, free of charge. Other users of the site can browse the artwork on it and decide whether or not they like it. If you like the work, based only on its appearance and title, then your evaluation is recorded and added to all the evaluations of that work over the past month. Awards are given for the works in each category (painting, drawing, graphic design, and more) each month. The “liking” is all positive—there’s no record of “dislikes.” It is a chance to discover new art and new artists, because this is geared towards amateur, up-and-coming or student artists—those you’ve not yet heard of, but who may be, or may become, great. General users who rate lots of works can become “power users,” in the vein of particularly enthusiastic reviewers on Amazon, and thereby raise their own profiles within the app. There are also professional jurors—art historians, gallerists, critics and such, who will bring their expertise to the evaluation process and help determine the artworks of the month (and who wins the planned annual awards—full disclosure: I’m among the professional jurors, but in an entirely voluntary capacity). The system is open to anyone, free of charge, and is seen as a democratic stimulus for helping artists and encouraging an art-loving public—hence the support from a government ministry.
Then there’s the added bonus: artists can sell their work through the site, if they so choose. If they do, they pick the total price (say, 1000 EUR), and the site adds 20% to it to make for the total price paid by the buyer (1200 EUR), which is how ArtOpen will eventually fund itself. This is a particularly good deal, since most artists are indentured to galleries. First of all, galleries are notoriously difficult to get into, highly selective of who they represent. And when they do accept you, it’s common for galleries to take a 50% cut of the price of works they sell, leaving the artist without much to show for their hard work. If ArtOpen gets going, it can become a gallery that is open to all, with democratic voting to determine which works are highest-rated and get the most attention, and with artists selling their creations and getting 100% of their asking price.
But this format is not just clever and artist-friendly. It also has some scholarly backbone to it.
First, there is the “blink” effect. Borrowing the catchphrase from Malcolm Gladwell’s huge best-seller, Blink, there is good scientific data suggesting that our first impressions are usually correct, and further thought can often cloud our judgment and convince us to like something we otherwise wouldn’t, or that we shouldn’t like something we do. Decisions made within a few seconds of seeing a person or an artwork, to determine if we “click” with them, find them beautiful and intriguing, are more visceral and probably more accurate. In a gallery, we might get the “hard sell” from a gallerist, throwing around “isms” and influences and weaving a story about a work of art that compels us to want to buy it, even if our initial instinct might not have been a “yes.” Buying art online, there is no external pressure—it’s just you and the object, and up to you to decide if you like it. If you spot a potential romantic partner across a crowded room, and your eyes lock, and you feel that chemical spark, you don’t need to know whether he or she likes Rachmaninoff or wants 2 kids of 7. And so it should be when buying art. You are also buying as close to directly from the artist as you can get without buying directly from the artist. ArtOpen even allows you to contact the artist, combining social media with art purchases, and is a vehicle to let the artist sell easily and safely, rather than a gallery, which sometimes feels like an intrusive or pretentious middle man, both to buyer and creator.
ArtOpen is designed to avoid the artist’s explanation/interpretation of the art, so we get the work, its title and the name of the artist (who we are unlikely to have heard of), and that’s all. But artistic exegeses are often forced and untrustworthy, anyway (and since Roland Barthes’ 1967 “The Death of the Author” essay suggested that it is not the place of the artist to interpret their work—it is up to whoever views it—the opinion of the artist has no longer been considered particularly important).
What don’t we get, through such a platform? There’s a visceral reaction that we get when seeing a work of art in person that is simply not reproducible when looking at a digital photograph of it. There’s no sense of scale, for one. A 3-meter-long painting and a half-meter long painting might look the same online. There’s very little texture (Van Gogh’s sculptural use of paint, so much that it blobs up on the canvas and casts its own shadows, are flattened out when we look at a digital image of his art). And if you believe (as I do) in a sort of mystical vibe that certain great works project, what the theorist Walter Benjamin called the “aura” that surrounds masterpieces, then that, too, is lost. But to be fair, it is rare these days for art lovers and buyers to see works in person. Aside from the few hundred high-roller art collectors who travel the world to major art fairs (Basel, Miami, Maastricht, Frieze), most “normal” folks buy art that they happen to see locally, or online: on eBay, on a website like Artspace, and so on. Choices are made based on reproduced versions of the work (digital or in printed catalogues), less often than seeing the real thing in person. And so ArtOpen is not all that different. Just simpler, more democratic.
At the moment, the ArtOpen website is in a very basic (though charming) beta version (www.artopen.net). A more elaborate site and, eventually, a Tinder-style smartphone app will be released. It’s in the app that the format can really take off. Have a few spare minutes while waiting for the bus? How much cooler is it to spend that time appraising some fine art, rather than noodling around with pinball or checking your Facebook wall for the seventeenth time today? And making life easier for artists around the world? Sounds like a win for all.
This article originally appeared in Slovenian in the print magazine, Zarja.