Hosted by Highsnobiety’s Editor-at-Large Christopher Morency, “On the Record” is a podcast series of intimate, off the cuff conversations with icons and cultural engineers that have shaped the worlds of fashion, music, tech, art, business, sports and youth culture at large. For this episode, Morency spoke with Lucas Zwirner, head of content at David Zwirner gallery.
The art world is evolving, fast. What has long been considered one of the world’s most elitist societies – composed of high brow art dealers, collectors, and artists – has slowly opened up. The digitization of art has not only changed the means in which art is experienced and sold, but it has also evolved its aesthetic. Most of all, it’s democratized the playing field for a younger generation, one with its own curatorial tastes and behaviors.
Lucas Zwirner is highly aware of this shift, and it’s been this shift he’s been navigating through as head of content at David Zwirner gallery, which has locations in New York, London, Paris and Hong Kong, and is arguably one of the world’s most prestigious galleries, representing such artists as Jeff Koons, Barbara Kruger, Raymond Pettibon, and Jordan Wolfson. In his role, Lucas leads and creates a unified brand voice and editorial vision for the gallery, its publishing house, and its online platforms, deepening the conversation around the gallery’s artists, exhibitions, and projects through books, podcasts, video, web content, public programming, partnerships, and online sales. I called him up from his New York apartment where we broke down the many ways in which the art world is opening up, and if it’s really becoming more democratic.
The below interview is a written version of ‘On the Record’ Season 2, Episode 6. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Christopher Morency: Lucas, there's been a real shift happening for the past few years, in terms of art democratization with digital and with a new interest from a younger-than-usual generation of collectors and enthusiasts. Yet for a long time, the art world has been slow to adapt. We’re seeing a slow change now with you guys hosting an online exhibition.
Lucas Zwirner: Yes, we launched our first [online] viewing room in 2017, so we had the advantage of being in the game for a few years before this crisis set in. That meant that we actually were equipped, meaning we had the teams in place and we had buy-in from enough artists to be able to start presenting things online. When you compare it to other industries like fashion or music, the biggest difference is that in fashion and music, you can sell hundreds of thousands, millions of units.
So the online reach is very significant to the business side of the operation, and I think that's probably why those industries were so quick to adapt to the internet as a kind of dis-inter-mediating device, getting rid of the middle man so that you can sell directly to a large audience.
Of course, in the art world you have a very limited number of works available.So, it makes sense that the art world was slower to adapt, because from a strictly commercial standpoint, it's unclear exactly what service it provides.
Now, I think what you began by saying and what's so crucial, is that there's a whole new generation of art enthusiasts, our generation really. And because they're used to the online tools, art needs to find a way to be presentable in those formats. It’s so clear if you look at any great art object, be it a historical one or a contemporary one, part of its greatness lies in the narratives that are constructed around it. So the meaning that it's had for different people at different times, the way it's been written about, the shows it's been in, the history that builds up around the object and around the artist. Of course, the online space is uniquely positioned to tell some of those stories.
It's interesting, you mentioned the exclusivity of the art element and how that's differentiated from fashion or music. What we are seeing now, to add to that, is this idea of selling watches and jewelry for hundreds of thousands of dollars via WhatsApp and Instagram.
Right. The traditional means of communicating with people who are out there looking for things, of course, are changing. You see kind of all creative forms that rely on a visual, or a physical encounter, that will be a crucial part of the experience, that you will go in and encounter a piece of art in person. That's a very special intimate moment that takes place between a viewer and an object, and that's not going to be replaced. You have to remember back in the day, very few people would be able to travel to see an art exhibition, especially a gallery exhibition.
And so, galleries and museums have produced these incredibly compelling and lush catalogs. And I can't tell you how many conversations I've had with academics or with other artists who say that, "This Picasso catalog," that they've found or whatever it is, was the definitive moment in their becoming interested in art on the creative side. I do think that catalogs are a crucial vehicle for transmitting knowledge, but there's no reason why the online space can't be taken as seriously, can't have the same amount of rigor, and of course, even greater accessibility.
When we talk about the digitization of art, that's when we see these really interesting numbers, where 29% of this survey that Art Basel and UBS did, of collectors under the 35 said they actually preferred buying art online, and that was just 1 percent less than buying in the physical space. And by contrast, 10% of those older than 60, which make up the majority of art collectors, said they preferred buying art online. So there's this massive divide between the two.
Yes, it's also a divide that has to do with how people first encounter art objects. So the reason you go to art fairs, or you used to go to art fairs, I should say, is two-fold. On the one hand, you see clients that are the committed collectors who interact with the gallery, on the other hand, you inevitably meet lots of new people. This proliferation of art fairs all over the world was an attempt to create client bases in new areas, whether it's an art fair in India or the art fairs in China. But finding new people is, of course, more effectively done in many ways digitally, right? I feel personally, among my generation, there's a real excitement to learn more [and] use the internet as a resource, really be an autodidact, and teach yourself about things. If we can contribute to that culture of wanting to learn more, of increasing one's knowledge base around an artist, that's a really beautiful thing to be part of. f course, inevitably down the line, that will lead to people being enthusiastic about the artist that they've really come to love.
It’s a great point. I remember speaking to a friend of a friend recently who spoke to Supreme’s design director, and he asked him why Supreme never explains its references too heavily. And what he answered was that “the people we cater to, this young generation, they'll find it themselves. We just have to give them a name and they'll do the digging."
It's kind of an amazing moment, because what I said earlier is the market for artworks is more limited by the supply, but the audience, as you said, for artists and art has grown exponentially, even in the last five years. And you're right that fashion has played a role in this.
And I think our culture is so visual that it's unsurprising that the most dynamic visual creators would find themselves at the center of a lot of the conversations. And so, the online thing is also catering to that reality, that actually, when we do a [Yayoi] Kusama show at the gallery, and that's an extreme example, we might, over the course of six weeks, have 100,000 people coming into the gallery, which is crazy. And you have to assume that there are even more people all over the world who want to experience Kusama in some way, who want to buy a book and those people also want to be reached, or should be reached digitally in some way so they can begin to experience and understand what it is about that practice that's so significant.
Where does this idea of a lot more younger artists and this constant need for finding the next big artist, very similar to the fashion industry and the music industry, come into play?
It’s not necessarily the case. I mean, one of the artists who's on everyone's mind right now and who's certainly got one of the widest and most engaged audiences, young and old, is painter Kerry James Marshall, who has been working actively for well over 30 years. And he's by no means a young artist, but he's completely contemporary in the way he's communicating with people, the imagery he's making, his approach to visual storytelling. So, I would actually say that it's often the best artists that communicate best have the widest audience. I'm personally worried about the emphasis on younger and younger artists.
I recently did a podcast with photographer Tyler Mitchell, who was like 23 when he shot this Vogue cover, but was very self reflective about the speed of which all of this can happen, and that the reality is you really need time as an artist to experiment, to find out what your vision is. To not just produce a product that people like, because then you're basically doing what a company does. That can be a critical stance you take as an older artist, where you kind of take commodity culture and turn it on its head in some way, and certainly artists have pursued that. But I think the pressure to be a younger artist performing at a really high level can quickly lead to burnout or a lack of solidity in the career. I think the best artists, you would hope, would be making the same work regardless of success or no success, like they're pursuing an independent vision.
When we talk about the democratization of art, first was the digital component, and secondly it's this idea where a lot more artists now are open to selling a lot at high price points. Once upon a time exclusivity was extremely important. But we do see this willingness from this generation of art consumers to buy into a group. It's okay if 100 other people have it as long as you can have it as well.
Right. I think absolutely, that's a reality that's out there, and definitely there are markets where that's the case. I think though, most of the time we can tell whether a gesture is authentic or inauthentic, right? And by that I mean whether or not they're churning out 500 of something because they're being told to churn that out, or they think that they can make some money doing that, or whether or not that's an authentic thing where they think, "Well, I've made this one image as a painting, but I really want this image to go out into the world in a wider way, so I'm going to find another vehicle whether it's a lithograph or a monotype, where I can make many of the same images and bring them out into the world."
I think we often feel it very powerfully with brands, when a brand feels like it's not being totally honest, or it's got a marketing campaign that's out of sync with the product that it's actually making. This new generation of art enthusiasts has been marketed to and sold to so aggressively for basically all of their adult lives on the internet, that their sensors are highly, highly attuned to falseness, to anything that feels cheesy or fake, and the same goes for artists, I think there's a real sensitivity.
Something else I really wanted to ask you today is about how aesthetics have changed, both with the digitization of art, but also with the consumer becoming younger. The obvious example I think about is with Maurizio Cattelan, the banana and duct tape which introduced a lot of people to the “Is this art or not?” discussion.
It’s a question that can be answered in different ways. The Maurizio Cattelan question, "Is it art or is it not art?" Is of course a question that's been posed by other artists since the beginning of postmodernism. And [Marcel] Duchamp is in many ways the father of that question with his urinal being presented in a gallery, and taking an everyday object, whether it's a bottle rack, and presenting it in an art context. But I think because of the way culture is right now and it quickly moves, that probably each generation will be reintroduced to that question in a different way. And the Cattelan iteration was interesting because he's taking the art fair, which it's like a zone of commerce, and basically he's saying that in that zone of commerce, almost anything can be sold. Like, you can sell the bookshelf, you can sell the chairs off your both. It's like it's a feeding frenzy often. And so, to put a banana with the duct tape up in that context is also saying something about not only how art gets contextualized in a gallery space, but now how art gets contextualized as art.
I would say that the more interesting way in which aesthetics have begun to, not shift, but it's something that we all notice, is that certain objects reproduce really well in photography and look really good online. That's just an interesting function of the media we have available for us for transmitting images. Someone like Raymond Pettibon, where there's high contrast, graphic, and there's very legible images, can look really strong in a digital presentation. And then there's certain things where there's such subtlety in the surface, whether it's someone like Agnes Martin, where it becomes much harder to communicate what makes it such good art. It’s the subtlety that makes it so good. What I would worry about is that as these digital mechanisms become crucial for disseminating, that we need to make sure that we're understanding that they privilege certain kinds of artwork over others simply because that artwork reproduces better.
It almost taps into what you're doing at David Zwirner Gallery in recent years, finding ways to connect with an audience, whether it be through podcasts, through editorials, or through the book section, how do you convey the original message of an artwork through different mediums?
When I started I was an editor in this publishing house [David Zwirner Books] that we started, that was about five years ago. My background is very much in philosophy and literature, and art history.I've always been fascinated by what I've thought of as contextual aesthetics, basically how meaning is made through proximity to other objects and through narratives. I think we all have this fantasy that art objects carry their meaning only on their surface in some way, like you see it, it makes an impression on you, and that's all you need to know. And abstraction, in a funny way, lends itself to that fantasy. The moment you deal with an older piece of art that has a narrative, whether it's a religious narrative, you clearly need to know something about the narrative in order to understand the fullness of the meaning of that work of art. I think those are all ultimately philosophical questions that artists are pursuing that need to be illuminated in some way.
The vehicles for that illumination are books often, and now, a digital presence, or conversations with artists, which is why people have always loved going to artist's talks. The [David Zwirner] podcast idea grew explicitly out of that, like an artist's talk is also limited in its audience, you could have an auditorium with a few hundred people, but if I do a podcast episode 30,000 to 50,000 people can listen to an artist's vision.
It's pushing the limits of what an art gallery can be and what their artists can show. Now, you have this massive audience online, how do you engage them in new ways?
I think that engaging them in meaningful ways is crucial. That it should never feel cheap, because it isn't. Like, if you're dealing with a serious artist's work, it needs to feel like that.
Like this is someone's life's work and vision that they've poured into these objects, so they need to be dealt with respectfully and with real thoughtfulness. I think we're all predisposed to thinking of the internet, or certainly I am, as a kind of a medium that can quickly become lowbrow, because there's just so much weird information out there, it's so mixed up. But I think the challenge that we're setting for ourselves is how do you turn this medium, at least for art, into something that can stand shoulder to shoulder with great catalogs and great exhibitions so that it feels like one seamless really, really thoughtful and engaged experience?
Then you get the question if everything even needs to be digitized? I think of a Michelin star restaurant, for example, do they have to be on a delivery service? Or does Couture need to have an online platform?
Right. I think that's something that will play out over the next few years. It's certainly not going to replace the brick and mortar, because art objects are made to be experienced in-person that people pursue for the pleasure of engaging with them. But I do think that these online platforms will become really important amplification systems, especially as the messages start to reach wider audiences.
Then the third point of the democratization of art, next to digitization, and a younger audience is using fashion as a vehicle to introduce art to the next generation like we saw with Raf Simons and Brian Calvin or Marc Jacobs and Takashi Murakami or Richard Prince and Jonathan Anderson with John Allen and Anthea Hamilton.
I think the moment it's calculated simply is a way of almost virtue signalling like, "I am highbrow," or, "I'm philosophically deep," it's problematic. I know that Jonathan really likes looking at art, I've spoken to him about artists, he's excited about art, he collects it. So there's a real commitment to that kind of creative vision. And I said that about Raf earlier, I think that when it's authentic in that way, it's extremely meaningful.
It's interesting how you're seeing the next frontier of that dialogue between art and fashion coming up.
Yes, I think that one thing I would say is that every designer I've ever spoken about talks about how exhausting the machine of fashion can be. It’s unclear whether or not when they imagined that outlet, they also imagined the 20 shows a year they would have to produce. And I think there's a real fantasy for the true freedom of visual arts, [where] as an artist, you get to decide how much you want to participate in that speed. In a funny way, it might be a symptom of what has felt like an unbelievably accelerated fashion world, that has produced this trend towards sinking into or falling in love with the art world, where objects are produced over time slowly without much concern for their commercial viability, or for the sequence of shows. And again, all of that is part of the system and the structure.
Consumers now feel like they have a direct relationship with the creative director, so they want to know what it is these directors endorse beyond the fashion realm. Like I want to know about Rick Owens’ workout routine is, I want to know the artists that Jonathan Anderson likes, I want to know what museums Grace Wales Bonner visits.
I've always thought about spheres of influence. If you think about the artist's sphere of influence, it's changing because of what's happening in the world, but it used to be relatively small. It was a sphere of museums, art lovers, art historians, academics, collectors, ultimately a small group of people. Artists are the people that other people look up to. So if you're a young person in the world who's excited about J. W. Anderson's designs, or Raf Simons, or Kim Jones, or whoever it is, and then you start to look into those references, they often point to artists. So it's almost like this very small group of people that have a very outsized influence, because it cascades down.
Lucas, thank you. I recommend everyone checking out Lucas’ podcast ‘Dialogues’. There's some great chats on there between leaders in all creative industries and himself.