In a fascinating bit of intellectual history, Andrew Gelman says he started off in math but came to doubt he was good enough at pure math. This reminds me of something one of my Tsinghua students told me a few days ago. An art major at his high school (the top high school in Beijing) was accepted at UC Berkeley with a big scholarship on the condition that the art student compete for Berkeley in a college math competition.
My Theory of Human Evolution (aniline dye)
From The Story of Science, a great new BBC TV series, I learned that in 1856 William Perkin, a British chemist, while trying to synthesize quinine (to cure malaria), created the first aniline dye, called mauveine. It could be used to dye cloth mauve. Continue reading “My Theory of Human Evolution (aniline dye)”
My Theory of Japanese Aesthetics
Japanese packages are beautiful. One after another. Old-fashioned Japanese buildings, Japanese posters, and so on, are also gorgeous. Even the Japanese flag is better-looking than other flags. The look of the IBM Thinkpad came from bento boxes. Why is Japanese visual design so great?
The usual answer is that Japan is an island, with scarce resources, therefore the Japanese learned to do much with little. This might explain a certain minimalism but there are plenty of island countries with undistinguished visual aesthetics.
My answer is different. It starts with the fact that Japan has a very large coastline/area ratio. It isn’t just an island, it’s a skinny island. That’s why the Japanese eat so much seafood. Seafood has a mild flavor. To preserve variety, you cannot spice it much otherwise everything ends up tasting like the spice. The differences between different fish are lost. This is why Japanese cuisine is weakly-flavored.
This created a problem for cooks. If the main food is weakly-flavored, everything else must also be. You want to show you care but you cannot do it with time-consuming complex sauces (such as harisa or mole, which takes a whole afternoon to make) or complex spice mixtures (such as curries) or complex cooking methods (French, Chinese). You are basically serving raw or lightly-cooked food with almost no spices. The solution — the way to show you cared — was presentation. The emotional energy of Japanese cooks went into making their food beautiful. Japanese food isn’t just the least-flavored of all major cuisines, it is also by quite a bit the best-looking. That’s how it started. Japanese cooks figured out how to make food beautiful. The lessons they learned and taught (at every meal!) spread to other design. When you grow up surrounded by beautiful things, as Japanese designers do, it helps you make beautiful things.
A friend of mine is a Chinese design student. She has met Japanese design students. How do they explain it? I asked her. They didn’t talk about it, she said. “We communicated in English. Their English is even worse than mine.”
A Chinese Joke
In a Shanghai apartment, the phone rings. A friend of the occupant answers the phone. “It’s someone from a rural area,” he shouts to the occupant. (Shanghai and other dialects are quite different.) “I’m from Beijing,” says the person on the line. “It’s someone from Rural Beijing,” the friend shouts.
This joke is told by people who are from neither Shanghai nor Beijing.
Fermented Art, Beijing Style
From Time Out Beijing:
Veteran Beijing artist Gu Dexin . . . first turned European noses at a satellite show of the Venice Biennale in 1995, when he dumped three hundred kilos of raw beef into three glass coffins set in a local casino.
In the heat of summer, poisonous gases from the rotting meat quickly forced officials to clean up the show. This shy enfant terrible of the art world went on to astound European audiences in a succession of shows, placing raw meat or fruit in public places and letting them rot.
Up until this year, when he installed raw pork at the Legation Quarter, the formula has served him brilliantly. Part of the force of this current show is the absence of decay â€“ resulting in a sterile and odourless silence.
Ode to Trader Joe’s: Update
A month ago, as I blogged, my friend Carl Willat posted on YouTube a video he’d made titled “If I Made A Commercial For Trader Joe’s“. It has now received several hundred thousand views. I asked Carl for an update. He replied:
This video has received a better reaction than anything Iâ€™ve done in quite a long time. Â Of course part of this is just YouTube, where suddenly you can know what people think of your commercial, through the comments they leave and how many views you get. Â In the past commercials were just sent out into the ether and you never really heard any firsthand audience reaction. Â But some of my old commercials are on YouTube and none of them has this many hits. Â Even Christmas Kisses, which people really seem to like, has maybe 28,000 views in two years. And people arenâ€™t posting it to their blogs or Facebook pages, as far as I know. Â So something is different about this one. Â To a large extent Iâ€™m trading on the goodwill people already have for Trader Joeâ€™s. Â People just love that store. Â And the spot is subversive, which makes it more fun. Â But I think the main difference is the fact that itâ€™s heartfelt, in that it reflects my actual feelings about Trader Joeâ€™s, both positive and negative, and a lot of people can relate to those feelings. Â You canâ€™t do that in a real ad because thereâ€™s an agency and a client that only want to say positive things about the product, and it has to be part of their overall strategy and so forth, which is fine, and Iâ€™ve certainly done my share of ads like that. But itâ€™s hard to get genuine human feeling into traditional advertising, which is a shame, human feeling being the only thing people really care about.
The viewing history:
The spike happened after mention on Boing Boing.
I think Carl’s commercial is very important as a glimpse of the future. Long ago, only the powerful could speak to a mass audience — and they couldn’t tell the truth, for fear of losing their power. Then cheap books came along. Instantly a much larger group of people could speak to a mass audience — and, having little to lose, they could tell the truth. The truth, being rare, was an advantage. When science was young and many scientists were amateurs — Darwin, Mendel — they could tell the truth. As science became a job, a source of income and status that you could lose, scientists lost the ability to say what they really thought. For example, David Healy lost a job because he told the truth about anti-depressants. Self-experimentation is a way around this problem because, as I’ve said, no matter how crazy my conclusions I can keep doing it. I don’t need a grant so I don’t need to worry about offending grant givers.
Because TV commercials are a source of money and status (for ad agencies and marketing execs), they too have great difficulty being truthful. After watching Carl’s commercial I watched a Coke commercial that used the same music. The Coke commercial now struck me as horrible — flat and insincere. (Yet expensive.) Given the choice between an official statement — namely, the commercials you see on TV — and a personal one — a commercial like Carl’s — everyone will not only prefer to watch the personal statement but will also be more persuaded by it. Win-win. So it is in the self-interest of any company that makes a product that somebody loves to stop making the usual insincere stuff and start finding people who love their products and help them express it.
Interview with Bruce Gray, Web-Savvy Sculptor (part 3)
ROBERTS What mistakes have you made with regard to the web?
GRAY I remember years ago I went to a company that was one of those web search enhancement companies and you were supposed to pay them a monthly fee and they would beef up your meta tags and stuff like this, and give you some advice on how to do the stuff, just tweaking out your website to make it more optimized. I was looking at some of the stuff they do, and one of the things was putting in these pages, your background pages, all kinds of meta tags, like keywords in white on a white background–that was kind of technique–a lot of people still use that, but itâ€™s very highly frowned upon in the search engine world and if they catch people doing that kind of thing, they can definitely drop you down on your rankings status there and when I read that, I was like, â€˜Wow, this is the company Iâ€™m paying to do this for me and theyâ€™re doing something that the search engines donâ€™t like you to do,â€™ so I dropped them. I want to be legitimate. I donâ€™t want anybody to have any reason to take away any of my rankings status there.
ROBERTS Are there other artists who have gone into the web more than you? Youâ€™re by far the farthest in of anyone Iâ€™ve met.
GRAY I donâ€™t know anybody else who has remotely the kind of website detail and depth that I do. I just try to put up, literally, almost every piece Iâ€™ve made that I can at least get a photo of. My website is way more in-depth and detailed than any other artist I know, by far.
ROBERTS Yes, that was my impression.
GRAY That helps, obviously.
ROBERTS Yes. Has anyone from the art world come and interviewed you about your web strategy?
GRAY Iâ€™ve definitely been asked about it quite a few times, actually. There was a book that came out years ago about selling art without galleries–I got interviewed about that kind of thing. Actually, almost anytime that I get asked about my sales, I start talking about the web and everybody gets very interested in how Iâ€™m doing it.
ROBERTS Has there been articles focused on that particular topic–you and the web?
ROBERTS What else have you learned besides donâ€™t go with that optimization company?
GRAY That you basically just have to keep up with it, keep it fresh, donâ€™t make it too complex. I canâ€™t tell you how many times, you know, Iâ€™m pretty web savvy, and I go to websites all the time that you get on to them and theyâ€™re so slow loading and when they do finally load, itâ€™s like playing that game Myst to even try to find the buttons to go to anything. Itâ€™s almost more of a showcase for the web designer more than it is for the company that theyâ€™re trying to represent and I think thatâ€™s a huge mistake, because people just get too lost in that, and I think thatâ€™s a mistake thatâ€™s extremely commonplace.
ROBERTS You mean to have some kind of Flash animation, or something?
GRAY Yes, they have just too much crap. Itâ€™s too complex–you canâ€™t even find the buttons, the navigationâ€™s almost impossible. To even find how to make contact, or even get to the next page, you have to mouse all over the images and try to find what is the button, and these are gigantic companies and stuff. Iâ€™m just always amazed that they do things like that. And the other reality is that youâ€™ve go to think who is looking at your website and whoâ€™s your market. In my world–in the art market world–my clientele tend to be older and very wealthy, 50s to 80s, mostly retired or with very hefty bank accounts, and the one thing that they donâ€™t know is computers. Most of these people are not that computer savvy and if they get to your webpage and they canâ€™t navigate around, or if they get to your webpage and it says, â€˜Youâ€™re going to have to download the latest version of Flash,â€™ and this, that, and the other thing, theyâ€™re going to be like, â€˜Oh, well the hell with that. What the hell is a download? Whatâ€™s Flash?â€™ Seriously, I mean I have very smart people that just donâ€™t have any reason to be that web or even computer savvy. They completed most of their career before everybody really go into computers that heavily, so they just donâ€™t know them that well. So you have to make it–at least make the navigation–pretty simple, and no major drama to at least get to the home page. The fancy Flash opening thing in my opinion is just only a showcase for the Flash or the web designer.
ROBERTS I would imagine artists like yourself donâ€™t have a lot of Flash on their pages.
GRAY Well, a lot of them do.
GRAY Iâ€™m all for doing that kind of thing, too, but if I wanted to do that, I would have it as the secondary page. Have the home page where you can have the two buttons, because thatâ€™s what a lot of people do. Go to the HTML version or go to the Flash version. At least if you separate it off on your home page, then people at least have the option before they get stuck in this window of a ten minute download.
ROBERTS What are your hopes–do you have other things youâ€™re hoping for out of your webpage, your web presence, that you havenâ€™t gotten yet? Or is it working pretty well?
GRAY Well, itâ€™s been working pretty well. I just basically want it to continue to grow and get better. And it gradually is. Every year I do some new things and it adds a little bit more–new museums and things linking in–the more of that kind of stuff, the better.
ROBERTS When you say you do new things, you mean you add links or you add whole concepts or categories?
GRAY I mean I add the links any time that Iâ€™m on television or any books, magazines, weblogs or anything–all of that stuff. I link to them and they link to me, and itâ€™s just another notch in the credibility factor.
ROBERTS I see, so itâ€™s an ongoing process of trying to increase linkage and so forth.
GRAY Right. But that is the most important credibility factor in the web search engine world these days–good qualified links coming in to your site. Links that go out donâ€™t mean anything; you can have six million of them and they donâ€™t care.
ROBERTS Yes, I see what you mean. Is there anything about you and the web we havenâ€™t asked about?
GRAY The one other thing that I think I should mention is that there is other ways of enhancing your web experience aside from just your own webpage and thatâ€™s things that are free, like My Space or LinkedIn for instance, are classic examples. They are very searchable in Google and they rank the information on these sites quite highly, so itâ€™s good to have supplemental ways of people seeing your work other than just your own website. One of the reasons for that, and one of the reasons I kind of got into trying to go around and hook up with these other art websites is because of things like: Years ago, Yahoo! decided that they werenâ€™t going to even list my home page anymore unless I paid them, so when they start doing things like that, you know, my website wouldnâ€™t even be listed but all the other websites that mention me or link to me, those are all listed. I still get the listing on Yahoo! but not directly. I think that my website is listed now, but itâ€™s down on the third page or so of listings for â€˜Bruce Gray sculptor.â€™
ROBERTS So if I search Yahoo! for â€˜Bruce Gray sculptor,â€™ I get your home page on the third page of listings–is that what youâ€™re saying?
GRAY Something like that, yes. Youâ€™ll see a whole bunch of other stuff first, letâ€™s put it that way. And thatâ€™s not that way on Google. Thatâ€™s why everybody uses Google now. If the other search engineâ€™s going to make a lot of the cool stuff have to pay to be on there, then obviously theyâ€™re not going to have anywhere near the level of listings that Google does, so whatâ€™s the point of even bothering with it?
ROBERTS Yes, I see what you mean.
GRAY Thatâ€™s why theyâ€™re not doing so well.
ROBERTS Yes, the act of desperation. I think that covers it well. Thank you very much for your time.
Interview with Bruce Gray, Web-Savvy Sculptor (part 2)
Bruce Gray is a Los Angeles sculptor with an impressive website.
ROBERTS Do you know how art galleries have been affected by the web?
GRAY They definitely donâ€™t like it.
ROBERTS How can you tell?
GRAY Iâ€™ve heard them complain about it. They have complained about it a lot. Some galleries wonâ€™t even represent you if you have a website. Â They also don’t like you to list your prices, because they will usually be asking for twice the money.
GRAY But thatâ€™s up to the individual gallery, and it depends how bad they want you. The ones that have the very tight rules on that are usually the galleries that are really hard to get into anyway. But letâ€™s face it, if itâ€™s Gagosian or someone who could triple my prices and turn me into an overnight sensation, then hey, Iâ€™ll take the freaking website down, but until that happens, I need something to keep the bills paid and the web is definitely doing it. Like Iâ€™ve told all my artist friends, every single artist in the world should have a website.
ROBERTS Yeah, and what will the world be like?
GRAY Another great thing is that itâ€™s a portfolio that you have with you wherever you go. Itâ€™s very easy to show people my work at their homes, or even through my iPhone. I keep 300 dpi images up there too on a hidden page. So say Iâ€™m out of town, and I get a call that someone needs a large image for a magazine article, I can just give them that link and I donâ€™t even have to send them anything.
ROBERTS Does this mean that people will be able to buy art at lower prices because the middle man is cut out?
GRAY It does, absolutely.
ROBERTS Are there any signs of this actually happening? Youâ€™re bringing people in to the art market because the prices are lower.
GRAY Of the artists I know, thatâ€™s basically what people have been telling me. Obviously when youâ€™re going directly to an artistâ€™s studio, itâ€™s kind of the same thing as buying through the internet. Youâ€™re cutting out any gallery or dealers in most cases, unless people have signed on for one of those deals where youâ€™re supposed to give your dealer a percentage even if you make your own direct sales, which I just donâ€™t understand why anybody would sign on for that, but I do know people who have that, and they generally get some kind of stipend or something, but I donâ€™t know. It doesnâ€™t look like a good deal to me.
ROBERTS It sounds like there should be new customers in the art world, and I wonder if there are any signs of that.
GRAY The thing about galleries that you canâ€™t escape is they are going to promote you, at least locally, better than you can yourself. And they give you a certain credibility factor. Obviously someone whoâ€™s been around as long as I have, I have enough credits on my biography where people know that Iâ€™m legitimate, so I donâ€™t really need to go out there and beg to get in a bunch of shows just to beef up on the lines on my biography. To get in a cool or interesting show, thatâ€™s still a good thing to do for anybody and I still do that when I get asked, but I just donâ€™t have to do it as much.
ROBERTS How is the traffic to your website changed over the years?
GRAY Itâ€™s pretty damned good. It varies a bit, but it gets a lot of traffic–thousands and thousands of people looking at it every day.
ROBERTSÂ Thousands of distinct visitors per day?
GRAY Yeah. It has been for a long time. Not everybody buys stuff, but a lot of times people, when they purchase art, itâ€™s a decision that can take years to make. They may see something and like it, but it actually takes them several years to commit to buying it. Iâ€™ve had that happen a whole bunch of times. People say, â€˜I really want that, and Iâ€™m getting that some day,â€™ and youâ€™re like, â€˜Oh yeah, yeah, Iâ€™ve heard that,â€™ and five years later they come back and say, â€˜Hey, Iâ€™m getting that!â€™ It does happen.
ROBERTS Have you measured a visitors per dollar or hits per dollar–have you ever computed that index? If you make $10,000 and it requires a million hits?
GRAY Iâ€™ve never really figured that out.
ROBERTS I wonder how that ratio would change over the years.
GRAYÂ Well, I take all the web statistics with a grain of salt because I donâ€™t think any of them are super accurate. If you go to the several different groups that watch that kind of stuff, theyâ€™re all going to give you a different statistic–whether itâ€™s how many sites link into your site, or anything else. If I look online for that kind of information, how many people link to my site, every different page that will give you any of that kind of reference will have a completely different number. You have to just use it like a scale, you just kind of go, â€˜Okay well itâ€™s going up at least.â€™
ROBERTS And it might be going up because of robots.
GRAY Robots just basically spider your information and go and update new stuff; that doesnâ€™t really represent hits the way that an individual coming in will.
ROBERTS How does the number of visitors to your site compare now to a year ago?
GRAY I figured itâ€™s just gradually getting better and better. Every year I have a lot more information on there, which attracts new people in, say, maybe a TV show that I had something on–that might attract in a little bit, or like I had some stuff on this Gene Simmons show a couple of years ago and I just noticed recently that theyâ€™re using one of my photos from the stills from that on this Gene Simmons site, so all of a sudden Iâ€™m getting a bunch of hits in now from that. Each little thing that you add, each little accomplishment, or book appearance or gallery show–all that stuff adds in another layer of keywords and things that people may be searching for. Thatâ€™s all kind of a weird world how that works, too, because for example–Gene Simmons again–heâ€™s obviously a very famous rock star guy and if you look up his name, Iâ€™m not going to get a gazillion hits because I have Gene Simmonsâ€™ name on my website, because when youâ€™re talking about someone who is super-famous, if their name is on your site–as a collector for whatever reason–thereâ€™s so much other material about them already, that you are so way down in the bottom of the relevancy that if you get one or two hits a week because of their name, that would be about average. Trying to kind of beef up your website by putting in a lot of names like that wouldnâ€™t really do anything.
Interview with Bruce Gray, Web-Savvy Sculptor (part 1)
Wandering around the Brewery Art Colony in Los Angeles with Len Mlodinow, we met Bruce Gray, a sculptor who works there. I was amazed how much the Web helps him sell his work. Later I interviewed him about it.
ROBERTS What were you doing before you were a sculptor?
GRAY I was living in Boston and I was working in advertising as a graphic designer and I also worked as a photographer.
ROBERTS When did you make the transition?
GRAY January 1989. I moved out to Los Angeles and I pretty much jumped right in with both feet. I got a studio and just started making stuff. It just took off from there.
ROBERTS What gave you the confidence to do that?
GRAY Probably lack of planning and thinking things out. I donâ€™t know if it was actually the smartest move to try to do something like that. Itâ€™s certainly been a bit of a struggle. But itâ€™s the kind of thing that when you have a dream of something that you want to do bad enough, you just have to make it happen. Â I think thatâ€™s kind of half the battle and there was nothing that I wanted more than to try to be able to make my own art creations and make a living off that.
ROBERTS Had you gone to art school?
GRAY I went to school for design and photography and of course I took all kinds of art classes as well–design and illustration and sculpture, photography.
ROBERTS Where did you go to art school?
GRAY University of Massachusetts.
ROBERTS When you were doing the photography and graphic design, you took other peopleâ€™s ideas and executed them.
GRAY Right. And thatâ€™s what I kind of got tired of, actually. I really do like doing graphic design–things like logos and stuff. The interesting jobs were few and far between and I wanted to do something that I had more control over, and also something a bit more permanent. I just wanted to make my own legacy, I guess.
ROBERTS How did you manage to sell your first sculptures?
GRAY Well, it wasnâ€™t easy. I really didnâ€™t even know L.A. hardly at all, so I went around to galleries; I went around to a lot of the high end furniture stores were really my first big clients, near the Pacific Design Center. Thereâ€™s a lot of high end furniture stores down there and a lot of those guys became clients pretty quickly and it got to the point within, oh, just a year or so, they were ordering quite a few of my early pieces at a time and thatâ€™s been keeping me quite busy.
ROBERTS So they would place your pieces next to their high end furniture and their customers would buy some of them. Is that how it worked?
GRAY Right. Also, a lot of what I was making at that time was more furniture–a line of unique art furniture, like my red, angry dog table and my s-shaped aluminum form table. Things like that were very popular. I think I sold probably fifty of those form tables, mostly all back in that time. But people have a very different view about furniture than they do about sculpture. Itâ€™s way easier to get money for sculpture, comparatively to furniture, and a good is example of that is: I had one furniture store, and I had a very interesting table that I had made, all these intersecting shapes and aluminum and it was kind of expensive and they were having a hard time selling it. They decided that it just looked so cool that they would put it up on the wall and see how people reacted and it sold within just a few days of doing that.
ROBERTS You mean they took it off the floor and they put it on the wall and it sold quickly?
GRAY Exactly. And thatâ€™s just the difference in perception. People think, â€˜oh well, for that many thousands of dollars, how much can I get at IKEA,â€™ or whatever. I donâ€™t know how they think about it, but they certainly have a much harder time spending the comparable money for furniture over sculpture.
ROBERTS Wow! I would have thought that it was the opposite. You can use the furniture.
ROBERTS When did you learn that lesson?
GRAY It was quite a long time ago.
ROBERTS Within the first year of selling the stuff?
GRAY Within the first three years, probably. But then Iâ€™ve gotten more into doing the sculpture stuff instead. I still like to do the furniture pieces, but Iâ€™m also not going to kill myself to make pieces that I have to sell for less than I think theyâ€™re worth just because thatâ€™s the way the market works.
ROBERTS So youâ€™re saying that with sculpture itâ€™s easier to get the price you think itâ€™s worth.
ROBERTS So you shifted from the furniture-like stuff to the sculpture-like stuff. Is that a fair description of what youâ€™ve been doing since then?
GRAY Yes, but I still do some of the furniture stuff, just not that much and mostly by commission. If someone sees something that Iâ€™ve done that they like or they like my work and they want something custom done, then Iâ€™ll do that, but theyâ€™re going to be paying my sculpture prices for that stuff.
ROBERTS When did you get interested in the internet?
GRAY Pretty early on. For someone like me that can end up needing to do some research on a fairly regular basis . . . thereâ€™s a lot of times I may just need an image of a certain kind of insect or something like that, and the internet is just a ridiculous amount of searchable information. You can spend the rest of your life just looking up insect pictures.
ROBERTS So true.
GRAY As many images as I want, the videos; itâ€™s like the encyclopedia on steroids. Anything is there that I need for research. Initially I had wimpy websites, through AOL or Earthlink, those things are really kind of half-assed; they donâ€™t really do much of anything. But I quickly realized that the internet is worldwide and itâ€™s open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. No one else is pushing my work like that. And I get contacts with people from others states and other countries–thereâ€™s just no way I would have had these kind of distant contacts without the internet.
ROBERTS Before the internet, how did you usually sell your stuff?
GRAY Mostly through the local high-end furniture stores, the art galleries, direct mail–I do a lot of postcards that I mail out. Thatâ€™s actually worked out to be a pretty good thing too.
ROBERTS You mailed out postcards?
GRAY Yes. The first postcards I ever mailed out, I ended up getting one of my long-term collectors off of that mailing–they ended up buying three or four pieces for their company, and then they bought another eight pieces or more over the years for their home, and thatâ€™s all from one postcard.
ROBERTS Where did you get the mailing list for that mailing?
GRAY I just looked around and came up with it myself, basically looking through interesting businesses that can relate to modern art, the film industry people, things of that nature, the Academy of Motion Pictures was actually the one that ended up buying a bunch of stuff.
ROBERTS Oh my god, you didnâ€™t buy someone elseâ€™s mailing list? You made the mailing list yourself?
ROBERTS Wow! When did you do that?
GRAY When I first started, pretty much.
ROBERTS Okay, so you were selling stuff that way, and then the internet comes along, and you have a wimpy home page, and then what happened next?
GRAY Then I decided that having a web page is the only way to fly. I just knew that this was the thing to do and Iâ€™ve always felt that I was pretty savvy with computer programs, at least things like Photoshop, but putting the web stuff together, I really didnâ€™t know how to do it, so initially I had a friend of a friend doing some of the stuff for me. He never had time, it was expensive, it would take me weeks to get any update done and Iâ€™m thinking to myself, well this is ridiculous. Iâ€™m going to be using this website for the rest of my life, Â so I might as well just bite the bullet here and buy the program and take a class or whatever I have to do. So I bought Dreamweaver and ended up paying a guy to give me private lessons for about eight to ten hours or so, and a few weeks later that guyâ€™s calling me up to ask questions.
I picked it up pretty quickly and itâ€™s been the greatest thing I ever did. Like today alone, I just took a picture of my latest wall sculpture and boom, itâ€™s already up there. I photographed it digitally and put it right up. Thereâ€™s no middleman, thereâ€™s no problems, no delays. Itâ€™s a very workable system not only for the artist but basically for any entrepreneur or sole proprietor whoâ€™s running their own business.
ROBERTS When did you figure out that this was the way to go? Why did you think, in the very early stages, that this was going to be so great?
GRAY Because it just seemed that was nothing else really like it in the world, where you could connect with people, distant people. One of my best friends has always told me that if you really want to succeed in the art world, the biggest mistake you can make is trying to rely on your home market alone. Even a city like L.A. If you try to just sell your work here, youâ€™ll probably never have your bills caught up, so you have to get your work in front of people from other cities and other countries and the web is the way to do it for free, you know?
ROBERTS Yes. Well, youâ€™re in a building with 30 or 40 other artists, right?
GRAY Well, Iâ€™m in a complex with somewhere over 300-something studios and well over four hundred artists. Itâ€™s supposed to be the biggest art complex in the world, they say.
ROBERTS Do they all agree with you? Do they all have their own web site?
GRAY I would say that just about everybody does at this point. A lot of them have taken my word for it and I had to talk them into it.
ROBERTS You were the first person.
GRAY I was definitely one of the first. To be honest, though, a lot of my artist friends who have done websites have told me that theyâ€™ve never sold anything from it. Even a very well-known successful artist whoâ€™s a good friend of mine–heâ€™s told me that heâ€™s never sold a single piece. A lot of it is what you put into it–you canâ€™t just throw some images up on a website and expect that to be changing your world for you. I spend several hours every week, minimum, adding new stuff and trying to get additional links and things into the site. Right now, the parameters for what ranks you highly keep changing on quite a regular basis, but the thing that is very important right now is good qualified links into your site, especially from things like publications, universities, museums, things like that. A link in from your sisterâ€™s cat website is not going to rank that highly, but valid press links weigh very heavily.
ROBERTS How do you go about getting those links?
GRAY Most of them come naturally from people whoâ€™ve done articles on me and stuff like that, and other times I go around to all the websites that are art-related and see whatâ€™s going on with those. I tend to try to stick with the ones that are free to list with.
ROBERTS You list yourself where you can.
GRAY Right, and then people who have done articles, if they donâ€™t have a link, I ask them for one, and that sort of thing.
ROBERTS Do you think that thereâ€™s something about your work that is especially web-friendly?
GRAY I think, partially, my success is due to the fact that I am quite diverse. I have a lot of different types of work that I do, so I have a little bit of an advantage as far as that goes.
ROBERTS When we visited you, you said you made about 90% of your money from the web?
GRAY Yes, definitely. Itâ€™s probably going to get even higher than that. Itâ€™s been slow. We have an open house here twice a year and several thousand people come through that, and Iâ€™ve been doing that for sixteen years, but the past five years, I donâ€™t think Iâ€™ve sold a piece during that art walk. I think that people have a hard time spending several thousand dollars on the fly like that. Itâ€™s something that they need to consider a bit more. The one thing Iâ€™m amazed at with the web is that people will see an image of one of my sculptures and then just, without even calling me up, or any letter, theyâ€™ll send me an email, ask if itâ€™s available, and next thing I know I get a check in the mail. No phone call or no discussion about it or no question about how is this going to look in person, or that kind of thing. Itâ€™s always kind of surprising to me that people will make these large purchases–$10,000 or so–over the net with just seeing one small image.
ROBERTS What fraction of the people who buy from you live in the United States?
GRAY Most of them do.
ROBERTS What fraction of them speak English?
GRAY Just about everybody. I get emails sometimes that take a bit of translation; I get some overseas calls once in a while. It gets a little tricky to deal with that kind of situation sometimes if thereâ€™s a bit of a communication problem. I do recall one time that I kind of thought I was being scammed because it really didnâ€™t sound like it was a legitimate thing and it turned out to be very legitimate.
ROBERTS Where was it from?
GRAYÂ Korea. It was actually a museum there. They ended up commissioning two large sculptures for their permanent collection.
ROBERTS Wow! How had they heard of you? What led them to you?
GRAY Through the web. They just Googled “rolling ball machine,” or something and my work popped up and they sent me a few emails and just made it happen.
ROBERTS When was that?
GRAY It was last year.
ROBERTS After you started having a nice website, or a conscientious website, how long did it take before you realized that it was going to be a big success?
GRAY I knew fairly close to the beginning that it was working. I donâ€™t get sales from it every week, or even every month. You just never know in my world. I can get five major sales in a week, and then literally nothing at all for five months; itâ€™s very, very hard to predict and plan, but I will say that the sales that are coming in are definitely from the web. The last four pieces Iâ€™m working on or that I have just finished up right now–those are all through the web. Iâ€™m trying to remember the last time I got something that wasnâ€™t.
ROBERTS These are commissions, you mean?
GRAY Yes, all through the web. This one Iâ€™m just finishing right now is going to New Jersey. Even if I had a ton of stuff in galleries over in Santa Monica, I wouldnâ€™t be doing these sales to the East Coast or to Korea.
ROBERTS I hear thereâ€™s a lot of tourism involved in art galleries.
GRAY There is. But itâ€™s still hard to make that sale if they just see it temporarily, especially if itâ€™s over a couple of thousand dollars.
ROBERTS Do you still have shows? Do you still have your stuff in galleries now?
GRAY I do shows from time to time, when I get asked to, but I donâ€™t really push it as much as I used to, partially because itâ€™s just so much of a better deal to not split the money with anybody. Thatâ€™s another huge benefit of the internet. Thereâ€™s no one taking a cut.
How Art School Reveals Human Nature
Sure, we can learn about human nature by looking at art. I’ve done that. What’s less obvious, at least to me, is how muchÂ can be learned about human nature by observing art students. I got a glimpse of this from talking to a student at California College of the Arts. Three things I learned:
1. Every department looks down on every other department. Or, at least, there is a vast amount of “looking down on”. One example is that students in the illustration department look down on students in the fashion department. This is puzzling because the two subjects are unrelated (unlike, say, graphic design and illustration, which are closely related). Why does it happen? My informant thought it was because so many people looked down on illustrators that they were desperate to find a group they themselves could look down on; they chose fashion even though it made no sense.
2. Students in each major have distinct personalities. Photography majors tend to be self-centered and outspoken. In class, they talk more than they need to. Illustration majors are relatively childlike; they are wacky and playful and fun and less serious. In the illustration department, unlike other departments, critiques are always sugar-coated: “This is great, what a nice job you did, you might think about …” Graphic design majors are “urban” — more sophisticated, more interested in being cutting edge, more concerned about the job market. Fashion majors tend to be flighty.
3. Almost all students at CCA enter with their major already decided. They are intensely focused on their subject — think about it all the time. They have little interest in what can be learned from other disciplines. Somehow focus seems to get in the way of curiosity. You might think that art is about being creative and creativity is helped by curiosity. Somehow this doesn’t occur to them and isn’t taught.
Shown the above, my informant, wanting to give a more complete picture, added:
I also think that a lot of those students who help to create these perceptions are probably also the ones that feel the need to be labeled. The photography students who create the image of self-assuredness, the ones who talk about themselves and their work all the time, probably feel they need to do it because it’s the image of themselves and of photographers that they need to create. Same goes for fashion and illustration and all others. There are probably other students who feel the way that I do and just choose not to get into it and would rather leave those “personas” for someone else to convey.
I think it’s specific to art students, and [part of a] desire to be seen as artistic, since most artists i know outside of school don’t seem to perpetuate this. i don’t want to make it seem as if art students are superficial and uninspired. i’ve met my share of really great people.
More. Russ Roberts, interviewing Diane Coyle: “The culture among the graduate students [in economics at the University of Chicago in the late 1970s], and probably among the faculty, was to really look down on the other social sciences and to see them as a total waste of time.”