DEMOCRATIZATION OF THE MARKET has been the dream of the print industry since its advent in Western Europe (first with woodcuts, then engravings, then movable type, all of which arose in Germany within little more than a generation, beginning around 1400). Printmaking allowed for the dissemination of images beyond contexts of ritual and power, and as Dürer and Rembrandt well knew, offered the potential for profit as well. Every subsequent century has brought with it some innovation that increases the availability of images, culminating, of course, in the invention of photography and the recent digital revolution (the ultimate auratic meltdown, in Benjaminian terms).
These innovations have often been met with disapproval or outright hostility. One need only recall Baudelaire’s 1859 essay “On Photography,” which heaped opprobrium on the newborn medium and the masses who adored it. Even today, print snobs scorn mechanically reproduced prints. Many artists, however—among them Lawrence Weiner, who himself has published an edition with 20x200—consider ephemeral materials, such as mass-produced exhibition announcements and flyers, to be integral to their artistic practice, and embrace their mass appeal and inexpensive production. All the artists I spoke with for this article were enthusiastic about participating in the websites, though they have as yet seen only modest profits. (They declined to say how much.) It is the system’s great reach that attracts them.
Many institutions collect inexpensive and ephemeral materials, but for now museums seem to have adopted a wait-and-see attitude toward acquiring digital editions marketed online. Says Sarah Suzuki, associate curator of prints and illustrated books at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, “We collect printed projects of all kinds, from posters and bookmarks to ephemera—as well as interesting works in digital mediums. But our acquisitions tend to be through galleries, printers and publishers. As far as I know, we haven’t been approached by any of the e-commerce sites. Their goal may not be to make Many institutions collect inexpensive and ephemeral materials, but for now museums seem to have adopted a wait-and-see attitude toward acquiring digital editions marketed online. Says Sarah Suzuki, associate curator of prints and illustrated books at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, “We collect printed projects of all kinds, from posters and bookmarks to ephemera—as well as interesting works in digital mediums. But our acquisitions tend to be through galleries, printers and publishers. As far as I know, we haven’t been approached by any of the e-commerce sites. Their goal may not be to make institutional connections.” She goes on, “As for me, when you work inside [an institution like MoMA], you make your wish list—and mine tends to go in a different direction. That said, my sister’s in her first house, and she bought something from 20x200.”
Curiously, the start-ups discussed here actually take measures to curb proliferation, operating on a simple paradigm: the scarcer a work appears to be, the more desirable it becomes. “Nobody wants anything more than a sold-out print,” remarks Bekman. It seems incredible, but these companies have managed to fold scarcity and availability into what would seem to be the perfect commodity—something analogous to what Facebook does, allowing you to have an “intimate” friendship with thousands. Sometimes touting “curators” and other experts, the sites promise buyers discerning intermediaries who will select from the vast ocean of what’s out there. “Educational” features are available on all the sites to further enhance the desirability of the product, though some proprietors examine data from those features to help determine market strategies [see sidebar, next spread].
So there is in fact no dearth of built-in paradoxes—but no more so than in the photography market, which limits availability in an at-heart reproducible medium through restricted editions or the “touched-by-hand” aura of the “vintage print,” which people seem to forget was a marketing ploy as much as a mark of material distinction. The “vintage” nature of a photograph can boost prices by extracting it from the realm of mere image and transferring it to that of precious object. As for the prints in traditional editioned mediums such as etching or lithography, they are beginning to look more and more singular.
On its FAQ page, Exhibition A answers the question, “What is a print?” with words that will no doubt chill the hearts of devoted printmakers and curators everywhere: “A print is a reproduction of a work of art.” And indeed, when I contacted members of the International Fine Print Dealers Association (IFPDA) to solicit their reaction to the phenomenon of e-commerce prints, they were mainly dismissive. After all, they argue, these are merely reproductions, not prints, which are very much hands-on, with their plates, stones and presses; burins and chisels; aquatint boxes and fancy papers. Indeed, “hands-on” is one of the appeals of the medium to artists. This does not, however, discourage artists like Jane Hammond, famously hands-on in the many projects she has produced at workshops like Pace Prints, Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE) and Shark’s Ink, from expressing an interest in one day publishing an inexpensive, e-commerce inkjet print. “I am frequently contacted by people who wish they could acquire a print by me,” says Hammond. “I would love to make something that is widely affordable.”
Curiously—and perhaps without knowing it—e-commerce print publishers are operating on the model long established in independent print publishing. Traditionally, print publishers foot the bill, matching up artist and workshop, and oversee the marketing of the final product. In like fashion, e-commerce vendors find the artist, arrange for the manufacture of the print with a digital contractor and market the print online, taking a percentage of the profit (generally 50 percent after production costs). In the 1980s, there were quite a few independent publishers of fine-art contemporary prints, and while a number of them still regularly publish (Diane Villani, Peter Blum), others are doing so intermittently (Brooke Alexander Editions) or have ceased altogether (Multiples/Marian Goodman and Ronald Feldman). The function of publishing has been taken over largely by the print workshops or by artists themselves, who might be ill-equipped to meet the challenges of adequate distribution. And galleries are mostly uninterested in wasting time on selling what they deem, after all, to be the low end of the market.