Never before has the artist and buyer had so many options and avenues to connect with each another, whether for appreciation or transaction. For the artist, technological advances and the prevalence of the Internet have revolutionised production, opened new geographical markets and provided sales channels to those markets. Equally, for the buyer, the increasing – perhaps overwhelming - choice of artist, style, supplier, and production type shows no sign of abating. Excitement, confusion and frustration grow at pace and in parallel.
As this new frontier of art marketing develops, largely fuelled by online land-grabs by well funded galleries and online stores, elements of the erotic art market are also finding channels open to them that couldn’t have been imagined only a few years back. So, where does this leave the erotic art market today, compared to the past, compared to the future? How might this story turn out?
For all the excitement and opportunities that these new horizons bring, the reality will be that good old fashion economics of supply and demand – not least influenced by a degree of corporate cash - will have the ultimate say, and many artists will see those new horizons narrowing just as quickly as they opened up.
Historically, prior to the Internet, and for many years, there was an established – though often inaccessible and certainly more societal – market for high quality erotic art and photography. Volume wise, it wasn’t huge, but for a small number of well-regarded artists and photographers high prices for erotica could be sustained in this market. It was a more collector-based and sophisticated market. And, of course, with exclusivity and rarity there was a premium on prices – a premium that those who could afford and had access to buy would pay, on the basis that what they were buying wasn’t for the masses. What they were buying was curious and exquisite erotica – what the hoi polloi were concerned with was socially unacceptable porn.
Of course, the Internet changed all that. The Internet opened up a Pandora’s box that had several negatives for the perception and sale of erotic art. Most importantly, it blurred lines. Going back 10 years, to search ‘erotic art’ online would provide an overwhelming spectrum of poor quality websites ‘showcasing’ poor quality images, both artistically and technically. Not only could people now view online rather than invest in an original or print, but also what was once exclusive and celebrated had now become common and contaminated. For erotic art to be both accepted and desired, it needs to try harder than any other genre: it needs to be classy, maintain the highest quality production values, and be marketed within a sophisticated, stylish environment. The early days of the Internet ensured that erotic art was treated in every way opposite to the above ideals. This was not helpful to the erotic art market, and contributed swiftly to demise in demand.
10 years on, and we can see a different market starting to shape up. Better blogging, website development and sophistication of search engines in differentiating high quality sites from what went before have helped. Slowly but surely a search now for erotic art isn’t quite the trauma it once was for many. This has helped the wider positive perception of erotic art and there’s now a vastly improved wealth of artistically and technically excellent work that has drawn attention to this genre as an art that inspires rather than simply excites at a base level.
Does this mean we will see more erotic art for sale in every other main street gallery? Probably not. The drivers here haven’t changed. Local galleries are constrained by their geography and local customer base. As a niche genre, erotic art pieces won’t sell as much a landscape for example. As a gallery owner looking to stay in business, which one would you hang on your walls?
The Internet, however, without the same constraints of wall space and local sensibilities allows for so much more. It allows access to that niche customer in every town and city, in every country, worldwide. All of a sudden artists have what looks like a greatly expanded potential customer base to market and sell to. Together with the wider contemporary acceptance of erotica noted earlier, we can say with confidence that the ‘demand’ side of our supply/demand equation is looking very healthy. Having a picture in a local gallery or regional exhibitions aside, the Internet has ensured a very exciting potential for worldwide fame and sales for erotic artists and photographers everywhere.
Exciting as that seems, though, the last part is the real crux: erotic artist and photographers are, indeed, everywhere. This is where the supply side of the equation rather tempers the earlier enthusiasm. As the world opens up to potential new customers, it opens up equally to an overwhelming number of competing talents who can reach those customers too – and at the end of the day there’s online a finite amount of wall space and customer cash to go round.
As in any market where information, products and services are either too difficult to find or there’s simply too much choice, there will be room for intermediaries to create value. In the real world these have always been there in the shape of galleries. Online these intermediaries are taking several forms; bloggers, galleries and general online stores.
Bloggers are great for artists and photographers who want to maintain their own sites, market and sell directly to clients. Blogs raise awareness and appreciation but this is democracy in its purest form and only the best talent will find their work blogged about on a regular basis. Indeed, many artists who once had significant presence across the World Wide Web now find it much harder to be seen amongst a saturated playing field of their peers.
Outside of this sphere, the larger galleries and online stores are also dipping their toes in to the market. From Art.com to Amazon, we’re invited to browse through sections marked up as ‘erotic’ and ‘nude’. This is, of course, is their sanitised version of said genres. Experimental, engaging, cutting edge? No. But like Athena and many poster stores before them, they will sell more than a few. The danger for the average artist though is that these stores will define much of the market going forward making it much harder still for those without corporate deals to be seen.
Financial clout means that products from the major retailers will reach the top of search engines and paid search results. The competition between these sites will drive prices down – and not just on their sites, but in the market as a whole.
Print-on-demand websites have been a great fillip to these stores in their ability to showcase some much more cutting edge work and offer greater print choices for artists to take advantage of. The likes of DeviantArt and FineArtAmerica have phenomenal membership bases and, as no real curation or censorship is applied on the part of these community sites, they have over the years showcased and provided a sales channel for some stunning works that do engage, that do very much push the boundaries.
Such website offer many artists a very decent channel to sell prints through. The danger remains, however: an over supply on these sites will soon outstrip demand, thus driving down the prices that these websites and member artists will be able to sell for. Surrounded by average work and lower prices, the overall perception of value becomes depreciated. In a recent conversation with the legendary Bunny Yeager, of Bettie Page fame, the same sentiment was conveyed. Initially finding eBay a fertile channel to market, the e-store’s popularity with other artists quickly meant a progressive and continual reduction in the prices she could expect to charge for selling her prints.
For artists and their work to retain value, quality and differentiation is key. As mentioned earlier, to maximise potential of art – and especially erotic art - it needs to be classy, maintain the highest quality production values, and be marketed within a sophisticated, stylish environment. Whether this is an artist’s own site, a partner retailer, or exhibition – artists and photographers should think very carefully about where they want to position themselves within the expanding landscape.
To conclude, the market for erotic art is getting busier with demand driven by a larger, more accepting and global customer base. This has the potential to provide wonderful opportunities for many talented artists and photographers. The flip side is that supply is ever so slightly outpacing that demand. While this is fine and, indeed, a welcome development in the appreciation and engagement of erotic art, it will have a depreciative affect on the values artists and photographers will be able to sell for. The key is to find your part of that market and differentiate. If artists can do this successfully and cultivate a client base, then there’s every chance they will be able to retain a good return for their work.