It is very important to make some distinction between galleries selling work, and gallery exhibition. In the United States, the two are fairly separate, which is unfortunate. Here, museums, universities, and arts organizations are largely the venues for exhibition shows, and galleries are stores for selling work. Exhibition shows have greater weight, because of the absence of the commercial primary goal.
Being seen is the beginning of any fine artist’s career. There is nothing worse than being invisible, especially if an artist deserves to be seen. This value is usually provided by sales history. Fine artists who manage to get shown, and appreciated, but do not sell work get to die just as broke as those who are never seen. They all compete for the same service and construction jobs, the same teaching positions, etc.
There are several layers of consideration when trying to make comparisons in the “arts”. One problem is “performance” getting lumped up into the same discussion as “solid” artwork. Performance and solid are two very different things. It used to be that performers of all stripes were called that. Musicians, singers, actors, dancers, all went by those names. Now, anyone who makes anything of any type is called an “artist” and anything made, conjured up, written, interpreted, or otherwise generated by a person is called “art”. In fact, that has completely overtaken the meaning of the word.
Conversely, those who went to “art” schools, got “art” degrees, bought supplies at “art” stores, showed work in “art” galleries were called “artists”. These people made “solid” art, one off, one of a kind, things that stood in space, and were regarded visually and tactilely, and had a relative permanence. You got a BFA or MFA with the qualifier of ‘Fine’ to indicate solid. Fine art has been all but left behind, and galleries have been more culprit than savior.
Performance “art” is intended to be repeated, and selling the copied sounds or performances is how those entities eke out a living (hopefully). This is a way bigger group, and the assuming the mantle of “artist” has come to mean more as a performance descriptor than fine art one. Oh well…
However, it is not ok to make copies of fine art, and since the value of fine or ‘solid’ artwork is in it’s uniqueness, it needs a place to be seen and experienced first hand. This has been (up until now) largely the stage created by galleries. The web does not address this, or provide any assistance. The web only gives some poor clues as to how something looks, and the rest of the experience of solid art is lost. Seeing solid art in the “flesh” (so to speak) is the only true way to experience it because just seeing something in an image does not allow one to experience the other equally valuable aspects of a work, such as surface, or visual weight, or size, or it’s affect on the space it occupies, it’s emotional or architectural weight. None of that is possible in a web image. The hand of the “fine” artist is not present.
A couple of examples:
Cris Bruch is a sculptor I know who does drawings and installations, etc. that mean almost nothing in images on the web. You have to walk around them, be with them, experience their mass, and size, and presence. You have to relate to them physically. His drawings are large and linear and live in a space larger than the frame and glass that contains them.
When I open a show of my own work, it is not uncommon to see people up nose to paintings or looking at them from several angles, because the surface is important. They are paint, and up close that becomes very obvious. The further back you get the image becomes more center stage. Like Cris’s work, any solid artist’s work will occupy space larger than the image when viewed in person. This experience can only happen in the work’s presence, and the web cannot begin to supply this.
Often, when a painting (or any other ‘solid’ artwork) is shown, it is accompanied by additional information, which when supplied within the bubble of a work’s presence, has weight that does not happen on a screen. It can be a placard with some description or additional or helpful insight, or it can be an informed person willing to speak about the work or the maker. These elements give weight to a viewers consideration as well, especially if the person who creates the placard or speaks of the artist has some intimacy with the artist, the kind that comes from knowing them.
Having work in a gallery because it is popular and sells is a sad commentary on the evolution of the gallery and it’s relationship to fine art and to the public at large. Monkeys smoking cigars and bronze children flying kites may sell and pay bills, but this type of weak gate-keeping erodes the mortar that is the part of the foundation of a culture that powerful art can harden.
So, is the web the culprit? Is the Web killing galleries? Are galleries and the “art market” killing art? Are we all backing off of our responsibilities to improve our culture by ignoring the discussion? Are we collectively at fault?