Why the art world must not be the same after COVID-19

In the run-up to last month’s virtual version of Art Basel’s most important annual fair, the one that usually takes place in Basel, Switzerland, every June, Marc Spiegler, Art Basel’s CEO, wrote this trite and self-serving op-ed piece which finally prompted me to write down two main observations about the art industry:  

Observation #1

Given the present configuration of the art industry, the vast majority of art galleries operating in the world’s major art capitals are financially unviable. For those of you who have never delved into the economics of an art gallery or been privy to a gallery P&L, the explanation is straightforward: 

  • large proportion of gallery sales takes place at art fairs (~40% in 2019); 
  • Renting a booth at an art fair is very expensive; 
  • Only art galleries operating brick and mortar retail exhibition spaces are eligible to apply to art fairs; 
  • Commercial art gallery spaces are financial sinkholes. 

These are the indispensable elements of operating a gallery at the most prestigious and lucrative echelon of the industry. (I’m able to speak from first-hand experience because I was an art dealer in Hong Kong ten years ago and am still active in the industry but no longer as a commercial gallerist.) 

Art fairs are essentially dressed up B2C trade fairs providing one-stop-shop convenience for industry stakeholders on both sides of the supply and demand equation. Over the years, they have become major sociocultural happenings attended by celebrities, curiosity-seekers and social gadflies besides. The nut of the circus is a troupe of HNW and UHNW collectors traveling from one top-tier art fair to the next in order to patronize a very elite supplier base of less than 200 major galleries. Outer rings of this universe are populated by second-tier galleries which also participate in art fairs, but less exalted ones. (I won’t go into a recitation of the top fairs but they include all the Art Basel fairs, Frieze and Masterpiece.) In the wake of each circus-like fair is a phalanx of high-end suppliers, alcohol sponsors, F&B outlets, art consultants and event organizers throwing exclusive soirees to entertain the jaded, extremely rich art collectors and their hangers-on. The reasons for ignoring the carbon footprint and sheer wastefulness of these events is twofold. First, the fairs, despite their flaws, are a comparatively efficient means of doing business. Second, why make art collectors and their retinue feel guilty about their outsize carbon footprints and self-indulgence when, in the main, they are liberal, progressive types who generally support the dispossessed, marginalized and alienated, i.e., artists. The fact that the contemporary art world is staunchly left-leaning (due to the fact that artists draw on their own torment to create art and the crucibles of their identities tend to be various forms of adversity stemming from their race/ethnicity/gender or failure to conform to conventional society), helps enormously with white-washing the unforgivable waste and decadence of the industry. (Read Anand Ghiradaradas excellent book, Winner Takes All, on how plutocrats assuage their guilt by “giving back” — but always on their own terms. Jeff Bezos’ recent pledge to spend $10B on climate change mitigation is a great example of this syndrome.)

But let’s get back to the shocking economics: The cost of a medium-size booth (70 square meters) at Art Basel is ~US$60k. That excludes the cost of sending the artwork to and from the fair, flying in the gallery staff, hotels, food, entertainment, etc. All told, the average cost for an established gallery (not a major one) to participate in an overseas art fair is ~US$100k. For a young gallery starting out, it costs less but is still a major outlay. ~US$35k is the bare minimum, provided the latter qualifies for the cheaper section of the fair dedicated to young galleries and is based in the same city as the art fair, so that no one from the gallery needs to be flown in. 

Most articles about the art industry’s lack of sustainability focus on the cost of participating in international art fairs but the problem is the double-whammy of art fair requirements, not just paying for a booth but having to operate a “real” gallery. Based on your own experience, you can probably guess that only a handful of people A WEEK may walk into a gallery space and virtually NONE of them buys an artwork. Nevertheless, galleries must still stage exhibitions open to the public. The cost of putting on an art exhibition is much more expensive than it looks. To the average gallery visitor, there’s nothing complicated or remarkable: usually less than 20 paintings hanging on white walls. But those paintings have to be insured and flown in, in custom-built crates. Moreover, the artist typically flies in to kick off the show and the gallery hosts a dinner for him or her with potential collectors on the night before the exhibition’s opening to the public. Virtually all the sales in a show take place within the first few days of an exhibition’s opening based on high-touch individual solicitation of known collectors and are almost NEVER the product of walk-ins to the art gallery. Adding to the cost of a show, featured artworks are professionally photographed and printed in a catalogue, prefaced with an introductory essay written by an authoritative curator or art professional. Therefore, the cost of a simple exhibition of conventional paintings, is ~$20k and goes up from there depending on the type of artworks shown. Considering that a gallery puts on ~6 shows a year and that the costs just mentioned exclude rent and permanent staff, you can see how expensive it is to run an art gallery, at least $300k per year (based on permanent staff and rent of US$15k per month) EXCLUDING participation in art fairs. 

It’s worth repeating: since sales result, not from the traffic afforded by a street-front location in an exclusive retail quarter but from the one-on-one relationships of art dealers with their clients, a retail art gallery is more like a stage set than a cash register. Expensive charades, namely public art exhibitions, are performed inside art galleries in order to fulfill the expectations of artists and meet the requirements of art fairs. (I failed to mention that galleries customarily mark up artworks by two times, aiming for gross margins of 50% but more often than not, collectors negotiate discounts of at least 10% if not more. It’s therefore more accurate to state a gross margin of 40%.) Assuming a gallery does one local art fair and one international art fair, costing a total of $150k (a low estimate), the annual cost of doing business is $450k, which means it needs to sell $1.125M of artworks before breaking even. $1.125M divided by $35k per artwork is 32 artworks per year. That’s 4 artworks per gallery show plus 4 artworks sold at each art fair. (New original artworks generally make their debut at art galleries before being resold at a premium on the secondary market, explaining the comparatively low price tag of $35k I’ve used. But even at that price point, galleries need some objective validation of their taste and judgment, and there is no better Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval than a gallery’s participation in the world of big art fairs. Galleries’ fair applications are judged by a panel of industry experts.) It doesn’t sound THAT difficult. But if you’re NOT Gagosian or Hauser & Wirth but competing with a hundred other small-medium size art galleries in the same city, breaking even is a 50/50 proposition, even in good times. (Just to be clear, there are lots of mom-and-pop-style galleries operating on a shoestring but their economics are just as precarious because the prices they’re able to command without the validation afforded from participation in the world of blue-chip art fairs is correspondingly less, MUCH less. These galleries tend to traffic in artists whose CVs are devoid of institutional recognition resulting in prices akin to home decoration rather than investable assets with the potential to appreciate in value. The fact remains, walk-in traffic to art galleries is scant to non-existent save for the initial burst of activity around the time of an exhibition’s opening.) 

Not surprisingly, most art world insiders are predicting a mass extinction of galleries in the wake of COVID-19. Moreover, the art world can no longer ignore the untenable gearing of the gallery business model, a model which requires art galleries to operate in a manner which is gravely inefficient. The ROI of commercial art gallery spaces is DEFINITELY less than 1.0 once the sales resulting from gallerists’ strenuous, personal sales efforts are stripped out. (Those sales could be made elsewhere or by other means and don’t require a public retail location to take place.) 

The solutions to this problem are pretty obvious:

  • The inefficiency of a commercial art gallery space is no different than most retail space. The actual footfall and number of days or even hours of commercially fruitful utilization of the space are a fraction of what is needed but the gallerist must sign a two or three year lease and hire permanent staff nonetheless. Gallerists, like almost all retailers these days, need a slice and dice solution for exhibition and sales, for example, short-term, modular commercial retail leases in pre-fitted gallery spaces which can be rented out from one day to two weeks to accommodate exhibitions of between two to 25 artworks, the sort presently conducted in conventional art galleries. This white cube arrangement would be backed up by a full-time staff of art professionals who know how to handle and talk about art and, ideally, robot-powered (vertical) art storage enabling the fast and convenient retrieval of (non-fragile, pre-assembled) artworks at the swipe of a few keystrokes. This way, galleries could follow up with clients who were unable to attend the initial exhibition by meeting with them after the show, in individual viewing rooms rentable by the hour, to show them specific artworks of interest. Such meetings could be ad hoc, rather than contingent on public exhibition dates. (Modular arrangements like this are the future of consumer retail generally, not just art galleries…) 
  • This isn’t the only solution of course. The Condo art fair, launched in 2017, uses the concept of a loose international cooperative of galleries to share space and pool resources between cities. However, this exchange is an “event,” not a permanent or institutionalized commercial  system.

The art industry urgently needs both modular AND cooperative commercial arrangements if the gallery system is to survive. Think of these as the WeWork and Airbnb of art gallery space.

Observation #2

Spiegler makes the point that no digital technology can replace the experience of viewing art in person. No one can disagree with that of course: Seeing a painting through a computer-simulated walk-through of an art gallery is not the same as walking right up to a painting and marveling at its texture and materiality up close. Most traditional art is best appreciated in the direct presence of the five senses because art itself is eminently human. Scale and positioning vis à vis our own body; the defects and compensatory fudging of our own eyesight, the kinetic movement of our own body around and along the surface of an artwork; the atmosphere of the room in which the artwork is displayed, create effects which are both visceral and ineffable. This is the essence of viewing art in person. 

However, Spiegler is right only because he refers to conventional, traditional art – painting, sculpture, with a little bit of photography and video thrown in — the sort which is the stock in trade of art fairs.  

The fact is, there is a lot of art which can be appreciated and enjoyed without standing in front of it in person. However, the art industry has largely ignored this category of art because it cannot be commercialized. This is MEDIA ART, which thrives at the intersection of visual art,  engineering, robotics, science, biotech and other fields of knowledge. It exists in a digital form but this substrate neither limits nor unifies its content. Compared to traditional art, media art is kaleidoscopic and open-ended because it invites collaboration and experimentation, e.g., video art based on the non-repeating dynamics of natural processes (like the weather or erosion), jellyfish animated through robotic respiration, mirrors which reflect back an “image” of the beholder based on infrared heat rather than light, sculptures moving in concert with brainwaves, etc. I delved into this topic two years ago because I was fed up with the repetition and venality of the commercial art world, specifically, its never-ending focus on painting and sculpture. Considering the giant palette of technologies, materials and effects available to today’s artists and how our daily lives are awash in digital imagery and experiences, painting and sculpture feel quaint at best, exhausted and threadbare as a means of exploring the boundaries of sensation, aestheticism and human existence at worst. It is perfectly understandable to cherish painting and sculpture because they are the output of the human hand.  But ask any student at a top art school these days: these techniques are anachronistic, like knitting a sweater or cutting a diamond by hand. Sure, I understand that you don’t want a tankful of roboticized jellyfish in your living room but I, for one, have never regarded art as something to collect. Rather, art, by inhabiting unspoken, liminal spaces, coaxes, provokes and invites the viewer to examine his senses and beliefs. 

I don’t believe that people are uninterested in media art — not at all. Rather, most people have never been exposed to it because it’s not present in art galleries, museums or mainstream art fairs. That’s unfortunate because it is a mind-bending carpet ride to undiscovered realms of thought and experience. Watch this video of my visit to Ars Electronica, the grand-daddy of media art fairs founded more than twenty years ago in Linz, Austria, filmed at the end of last year. Even hard-core devotees of traditional art will be drawn into this fascinating world and understand the potential of media art to pose new questions about human existence and civilization — even if they don’t want to hang it in their living room. 

Media art hasn’t penetrated mainstream art consciousness because it is still difficult to buy and sell and, therefore, hasn’t been invited into the big-money tent of the commercial art world. That tent includes museums, which are not nearly as free or independent as the public believes. Curators, art gallerists and major art collectors enjoy a symbiotic relationship. Gallerists hire curators to curate and write for their exhibitions. Museums, especially contemporary art museums, are heavily influenced by what is de rigueur in the commercial art world. In some cases, a museum is a showcase for a single collector’s artworks — all purchased in the commercial market. (The Broad Museum in LA, which I visited in January, is a case in point, for example.) Gallerists lobby museums to put on shows for their artists because they greatly boost the perceived value of their oeuvres. Major collectors are usually big museum donors. The list of intertwined back scratching goes on and on. Unbeknownst to the general public, there is no Chinese wall or strict separation of Church and State between museums and the commercial art world. Therefore, besides playing an outsize role in setting price cues for the art market, museums assist in perpetuating a definition of art which is based on its saleability. Whether they admit it or not is another question. But to believe that museums are dissociated or immune from the commercial art world is naive in the extreme. Without us being fully aware of it, art has become increasingly and insidiously shaped by commercial interests. The failure of media art to penetrate the public art world is a symptom of that phenomenon because it is undoubtedly the genre most capable of fascinating the public, reinvigorating interest in museums and making the case that art can be relevant and democratic. 

If art is defined by its potential to be bought and sold, that seems like a very impoverished and limiting definition of the word. For me personally, COVID-19 has highlighted the shallowness and irrelevancy of most of the art world and its abandonment of art’s true mission — to enable the viewer to see the world through the eyes of another.

COVID-19 has taught us that: 

  • Traditional art cannot be enjoyed from a distance, yet it is the centerpiece of the art industry. 
  • Along with art fairs, the traditional museum-going experience has been thrown into question.  Do you really want to queue or pay US$20 to stand in front of a painting thronged by ten other people? 
  • Like other industries seeking to overcome the challenges of COVID-19, the art world should welcome technological innovations which can futureproof it against the problems experienced just now. It is crucial to create new platforms and tools which can present art in a decentralized and asynchronous manner — just like the rest of consumer retail and entertainment culture.
  • That said, NOW is a good time to welcome, introduce and promote new forms of art and art appreciation. Many, if not all, forms of media art sidestep the requirements of in-person viewing associated with traditional art while providing a rich and enjoyable art experience. 

Technological solutions are at hand, including many based on blockchain. (My article here describes some of them.) But it will require a brave and influential industry stakeholder to embrace new technology if the art world is ever to undergo the reconfiguration it so badly needs. Right now, the industry continues to  look backwards instead of forward, a perverse and contradictory stance for an industry which prides itself on championing newness and progressivism. 

(I have co-produced an exhibition of media art, accompanied by a series of talks, named “Art Unchained” and sponsored by Swire Properties, that will take place in Hong Kong in November 2020. The centerpiece will be a media art installation by French artist, Patrick Tresset — robots sketching human sitters in 20 minute sessions over the span of two weeks. While I did not write today’s newsletter with a view to promoting this project, this upcoming project does show you where my heart and mind are.) 


Why fashion must not be the same after COVID-19

I haven’t felt like buying a new piece of clothing for about two months — since the onset of the pandemic. Along with my dwindling bank account, this lengthy period of NOT shopping and wearing the same clothes day in and day out has reminded me just how decadent fashion is and how we really do not need yet another dress, shoe or handbag.  COVID19 has been an unwelcome if badly needed reminder that fashion is made by HUMANS.  Now, and only now, when we meet the arrival of a delivery at our doorstep with a spray bottle of sanitizing solution, do we finally realize that the supply chain and its magical logistics, the kind which enable an outfit from Netaporter to appear at our doorstep in a chic beribboned box, cannot be taken for granted. There are no elves, only underpaid hourly wage slaves, most likely from non-OECD countries, with no benefits, whose hands (impeccably clean?) have gingerly picked, packed and gift-wrapped that package. If COVID19 is good for one thing, it is making us think about how and where human hands have touched or handled an object which has entered our personal, physical custody. Isn’t it paradoxical how the depradations of globalization can be brought home by a glossy package of ecommerce goodies?  I hope that fashion consumers, even if they do not disavow shopping entirely, will emerge from this crisis with redoubled skepticism about the fashion system and better habits of mind, namely #whomademyclothes with its demands for greater supply chain transparency, environmental sustainability and fair labour practices. In the meantime, we, whose closets are overflowing with tens of unworn clothes, should consider patronizing circular economy fashion retailers for the first time instead of reverting to our previous patterns of wasteful linear  consumption. The worst offenders are high street fashion brands whose businesses are unapologetically built on accelerating the take-make-dispose dynamic. At my age, 52, I can actually calculate how many times I”m likely to wear a garment before I die.  To be clear, I’m not telling you NOT to shop ever again. I’m just suggesting that you think about it more before buying yet another thing that you really don’t need. OR when you do buy something new, at least consider wearing it to death.  Here’s a fantastic article about three startups enabling the reuse/reconditioning/rental of clothes: https://www.fastcompany.com/90457489/caastle-thredup-trove-most-innovative-companies-2020 Did you know, for example, that Patagonia is buying back and reconditioning its products so they can be resold to consumers? These past few months, COVID19 has prevented the usual commercial stakeholders of the fashion industry (editors, buyers, designers) from participating in their customary round of seasonal events, i.e., fashion shows and wholesale presentations. Hopefully, the cataclysm of this non-event will pave the way to the extinction of the industry’s clunky, wasteful and retrograde system. Originally dictated by the slow cadence of the supply chain from decades ago, the formats and structures of the bi-annual fashion cycle are about as necessary as a petticoat. If current technologies cannot already facilitate viewing and buying fashion collections with greater efficiency than the fashion circuses convened in Paris, Milan and New York, then COVID-19 will certainly speed their perfecting. For that matter, the day is coming soon when fashion — even high fashion — will be untethered from any sort of calendar and available to purchase on demand regardless of shape, style, climate or season. If there’s a silver lining to COVID19, it is greatly hastening the death of this wasteful industry, along with its destructive psychopathologies. These include not only body dysmorphia, shopping addiction and premature objectification and sexualization of young women but a mainstream culture of envy and comparison. 


Why it sucks to be a millennial

You’re facing cataclysmic environmental change.

You can’t relate to the existing two-party political system and regard it with a mixture of contempt and cynicism. Civic engagement is low priority (because your main preoccupation is financial survival) even though you sense that society is falling apart and your life prospects are worsening every day. (The educational emphasis on technical, vocational knowledge over subjects such as current affairs, political science and American history, is partly responsible for the decline in civic engagement and explains millennials’ general lack of interest in politics and news.) You want to get involved and do something about it, but voting seems like a pointless, mini-bandaid, while protesting on the street feels like a fashion statement more than a concrete solution. With few exceptions, your generation has yet to stand up for its beliefs, whatever those are, and systematically mobilize.

Social media exacerbates your anxieties and insecurities by making you feel inadequate. In the best case, you feel badly dressed. In the worst case, you feel like you’re pressing your nose against the glass pane of someone else’s very glamorous and successful life.
If you’re not a self-initiating, extroverted self-promoter who’s adept on social media, your professional and economic prospects could be dimmed because influencers with a built-in following get fast-tracked, even if they don’t possess the same experience, education or talent. In short, you live in a world where attention, rather than merit, tends to be rewarded disproportionately. You ignore social media at your peril, while decrying its pernicious effects on your self-esteem and society at large.

The pressures of social media and today’s economy mean you need real friends more than ever, but technology attenuates and distorts relationships and disconnects people more than it connects them emotionally or psychologically. It is therefore more difficult to develop a true support network based on genuine friendship.

Unless you’re a STEM graduate or very well connected, your job prospects are increasingly uncertain because your education, with its outmoded content and utter failure to arm you with the skills required in the digital information economy, has barely prepared you for the job market; gigging, rather than permanent employment with benefits and security, has become the norm; For the same reason, mentoring and training are almost non-existent because the cost of training human capital is hard to justify when companies regard employees as fungible commodities; it also explains why so many young adults seem to be permanent interns, remaining jacks of all trades and masters of none. In such a dog-eat-dog world, connections are more important than ever and meritocracy is just a vaporous illusion thinly veiling the true dynamics of professional and social mobility, i.e., nepotism and inherited advantage. Add to this the medium-term effects of automation, which foretells the demise of 50% of all current jobs, and you really have no reason to believe that your lowly BA degree equips you for any future beyond permanent internship. Don’t even think about responding to that LinkedIn job posting because, in a world of dwindling jobs and unprecedented job market efficiency, your video resume doesn’t stand a chance against the other 487 applicants applying for the same job.

If you don’t work within one of the well-remunerated job categories prized in the new information economy, you won’t be able to buy your own home unless your household has two incomes or your parents can help out. For those of you who don’t work within a privileged job sector, your persistently low pay makes it impossible to live alone. Thus, you’ll still have roommates when you’re 40 years old.

You are suffering from a complete loss of idealism because you have witnessed the failure of meritocracy in many important spheres of human activity. Two prime examples are the election of Donald Trump and deification of Kim Kardashian. Both take up inordinate amounts of mindshare despite their cretinous vacuity and ostentatious vulgarity. The quiet, steely, authentic heroes of the past have been superseded by greedy, selfish narcissists. These days, money and celebrity, rather than vision, principles or sincerity, command respect. Living in this monoculture of invidious venality, other versions of success have become irrelevant or inadequate. Related to this disillusionment is the evident failure of America’s vaunted democracy and, indeed, representative government, to deliver outcomes reflecting the wishes of the average citizen, let alone solutions addressing urgent problems such as police brutality, climate change, the opioid crisis or the repercussions of globalization. Instead, it’s obvious to even the casual onlooker that American democracy has been hijacked by money and special interest groups. Even Obama conceded that it was necessary to compromise on the Clean Air Act during his re-election year.

You have grown up in an age where analytics and “likes” are the governing barometer of “success” when it comes to content and products. Consequently, creators of products and content chase last season’s (or everybody else’s) successes instead of forging ahead in original and unprecedented directions. Retail has become a least common denominator terrarium of recycled looks and ideas, with only fringe merchants daring to flout statistics in favor of following their inner compass. Not surprisingly, the consumer world feels hollow, chaotic and unrewarding as brands incoherently zigzag and iterate trying to catch the next wave, rather than commanding true loyalty based on unswerving dedication to their original mission. Not having been exposed to the sublime, esoteric, rarefied or exquisite because long tail experiences and products aren’t the stuff of mainstream commercial success (let alone popular social media posts), your exposure to art, culture and history is truly narrow. It’s fair to say that, as a rule, your knowledge of human civilization and culture is generally confined to the first page of Google search results, with little incentive to dig deeper because that sort of curiosity is no longer rewarded by society, consumers or “likes”.

Race relations are more fraught than at any time since the Rodney King episode so that, contrary to the world you expected to live and flourish in, you’re now subject to the same abuses and anxieties that plagued your parents’ generation if you’re a minority living in the US.

You’ve grown up comparatively pampered and shielded from adversity, so while you may have a gloomy presentiment about the state of affairs I’ve described here, you lack the experiences and determination, the sort forged through abuse, violence, warfare and prejudice, to tackle these problems and are certainly not going to give up your career ambitions to wade into the fray. As far as you’re concerned, you just want to earn a living and keep your head down, even if it means accepting the daily grind of a rather hollow, pointless existence which has as its sole reward, the derisory increase of your bank balance.


The Demise of (Beautiful) Brands

[This is the original unedited version of my column for Courier Magazine entitled “Death by Algorithm” in their June 2018 issue.]

Remember the good old days when an idea could gestate in the mind of, say, Vivienne Westwood and, then, voila, the hallucinatory output of a single theme like “Seditionaries” or “Buffalo Girls” would emerge on the runway fully formed, causing jaws to drop (one way or the other) among the small cabal of editors who ruled the fashion establishment? “Les Incroyables,” John Galliano’s Central Saint Martin’s 1984 graduation runway show dishing up 18th century French romanticism interpolated with hard-edged punk flair was possibly the zenith of that epoch, just as Marc Jacobs’ ode to the street style of homeless people was an unmitigated critical and commercial catastrophe during the same period.

These days, the fashion industry is spared from giant errors of judgment like Jacobs’ grunge collection — but also from moments of elation and awe, the sort customarily inspired by the collections of Yves Saint Laurent, John Galliano and Vivienne Westwood twenty years ago. That’s because, for decades, statistics and, now, analytics, have slowly strangled creativity.

For better or worse, in the past, ideas germinated and developed in a vacuum for the simple reason that we were not instantly connected to ideas, images or each other. That in and of itself was not actually a plus, but simply a fact.

In the late 80s, creativity started becoming big business. Louis Vuitton merged with Moet Hennessey in 1987 to become the world’s largest luxury conglomerate and Johann Rupert set up the Richemont Group one year later. The advent of brands like Calvin Klein Jeans (remember how nothing came between Brooke Shields and her Calvins) and Ralph Lauren signaled the mainstreaming of luxury. Not surprisingly, the professionalization of the fashion and luxury industries, no longer a series of family-run enterprises, brought with it the newfound discipline of numbers. Designers’ imaginations still ran amok but their enthusiasms were curbed, at least at the margin, by sell-through reports and managers with MBAs beholden to shareholders. (Considering that sell-through reports, back then, still required a high level of manual tabulation, they had marginal impact on creativity and were more seasonal post-mortems than predictive blueprints for action.)

Then came the influence of Google and, with it, search results including images which eliminated the necessity of sourcing inspiration from travel, museums or even coffee table books. Suddenly, collections about “Venice” or “safari” started resembling each other rather than their native environments because designers, hard pressed for time or, worse, lazy, started culling references from the same first page of Google search results. Fast-forward to today, with most “creative” visual output a cut-and-paste of freely available design references, and it’s no wonder that the depth and intellectual commitment which marked the creative projects of twenty or thirty years ago have gone missing. The creative process, once based on independent, even solitary exploration, has given way to the mental terrarium of Google.

That artists and designers are discouraged from risk-taking by large-scale capital and our imaginative capacities vastly diminished by Google paint a bleak picture for many creative industries. But the real coup de grace has been analytics and its apparent ability to foretell commercial success or failure, even before the lightbulb goes off in the mind of a designer or artist. With job security based on positive ROI and designers themselves obsessed with Instagram like counts, the sheltered space for creative germination which once led to the birthing of full-blown works of art has been squeezed out of existence. The current system, if anything, penalizes unbridled creativity. (To take an example from an industry which has undergone the same seismic shifts, music, contrast The Wall by Pink Floyd, an entirely original, integrated work of art referring to nothing which came before it, to the music created by today’s major pop stars, Rihanna, Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, etc.. The showcase for musical artistry formerly known as the “album” has been abandoned, much like the runway collection, in favor of hit singles based on riffs, tropes and styles known to provoke the desired aural reaction among listeners.)

Thus, consumers are treated to an endless stream of thinly veiled retreads of best sellers and hit-or-miss collaborations, each a desperate stab to reproduce the glory days of last season. The formulaic recycling of old ideas has become so instinctive that it feels practically suicidal to return to the more venturesome days of creative risk-taking, when brand integrity was defined by a philosophy, a mission, an aesthetic. Athletic brands like Nike and Adidas are especially guilty of this form of “product development”, forsaking investment in product R&D to chase after collaborations with the next big streetwear influencer. Similarly, Louis Vuitton has never been the same since Marc Jacobs invited Takashi Murakami to co-create a collection. The brand is practically defined by its collaborations and LV’s recent appointment of Supreme creative director, Virgile Abloh, to helm its menswear design is an unapologetic case of the commercial tail wagging the creative dog. I never thought I’d see the day when streetwear tropes, so easily wielded within the world of Adobe Photoshop, would ascend to the apex of the luxury world.

To put it in the simplest way possible: When is the last time that you experienced an electric frisson looking at a new runway collection, photograph, piece of music — or sneaker? In short, when is the last time you felt like you were looking at something BRAND NEW and it actually gave you a JOLT?

If brands lose their leadership position, it’s their own fault. Why should a consumer look up to them when they fail to demonstrate confidence, leadership or sure-footedness. Commentators complain that “millenials don’t give a sh — -t about brands.” But the truth is, most brands, the big ones anyway, deserve to be abandoned, not just by millennials but by all of us. Soullessly following statistics rather than the inner compass of an original vision, brands have lost their very reason for being in the first place.


John Snow had White Walkers. We have AI.

In 2060, human life is likely to be exterminated by AI.
After reading this long and brilliant blog post by Tim Urban, which consolidates the existing viewpoints and prognoses about humankind’s AI future into a single, comprehensive overview, I now believe this to be our ineluctable fate. If it sounds like I ran off and joined a cult, know that this cult has Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates and Elon Musk as firm believers. It also explains why they have sounded loud alarms about the dangers posed by AI.
Far from being sad or upset by this learning, I’m much more at peace than I have ever been. Knowing that the end of my life will most likely coincide with the end of human existence in ~2060 palliates my despair at the decline of civilization brought on by technology.
I made this vlog because my newfound understanding of AI has affected me so deeply that, in light of this new learning, any content which follows it will be unavoidably colored by it.

Technology is ruining civilization #2: The soullessness of the “like” economy

Real-time analytics and “likes” have a lockhold on marketers — and, now, us. Here’s why and the repercussions.

For the first time since advertising was invented, it’s possible to measure positive audience feedback.

But the measurement is crude and doesn’t permit negative, lukewarm or ambivalent feedback. That’s on purpose of course. In short, there is no assessment of value based on complex, nuanced criteria, the sort which would ordinarily be included in a long form book review or runway report. (Even the TripAdvisor system is better than the one-dimensional system of Facebook likes.)

“Likes” do not equal expertise; but there is no system which does objectively quantify expertise or quality of thinking. Consequently, the “like” system has no competition and reigns supreme among advertisers and publishers.

But it’s still the only thing we have. And since it’s better than nothing, marketers and companies tend to assign way way way too much value to it — to the point where traditional experts have been sidelined in favor of influencers with huge follower numbers.
Our news funnel is dominated by feeds and push communications, increasing the power of social media at the expense of traditional experts (unless of course those experts have a big social media following).

The fact that news, brands and products are being discovered primarily via social media feeds or push communications, rather than web browser (via Google search), is yet another blow to the expert whose thoughtful, well-written critical content resides on the latter. These days and most of the time, you retrieve a long form article because it was mentioned in some form of push communication, for example, an email newsletter from a newspaper or a post within the social media feed of a friend you’re following.

Besides those daily staples like the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal which you might keep open all day on your browser, how often do you independently decide to log on to a new website without first having come across the link in a feed or push communication? I refer to leisure reading, something which is not entailed by school or your professional responsibilities. Today, for example, I looked up a brand’s website because I saw their handbag worn by a famous blogger I follow on Instagram. Similarly, I googled an artist because my friend snapped and shared their street art on her Instagram account. If you look at any one of your open browser tabs on your computer right now and trace the referral chain, 80% of the time, that tab is open because you clicked or followed up from a social media post or newsletter.

If information and brand discovery take place primarily through social media, then, obviously, accounts with huge numbers of followers will be seen by more people, even if those individuals or posts are mediocre and inexpert.

Experts basically have to put up or shut up with this new system of validation because, again, there aren’t very many other forms of external, objective validation (except an industry-beating CV — and that only works if the CV practically levitates).

Brands and marketers see all those likes and are comforted that they are doing their jobs well — or if not well, escaping censure for taking unwarranted risks.

These same marketers generally hew to formulas which duplicate past historical successes — resulting in an endless churn of well-rehearsed, tried-and-true pabulum (e.g., inoffensive Instagram posts featuring glossily groomed thirty-something women who are almost as pretty as models but not, wearing ensembles of matching designer clothes or ingenious high-low pairings, which show just enough fashion IQ to create an air of adventure and risk-taking without losing the vibe of the popular girl-next-door. For every Anna Della Russo, there are at least 1000 such innocuous would-be fashion pin-ups on Instagram.)

If you’re wondering why you, consumer, are so exhausted and uninspired, it’s because statistics have replaced originality and risk-taking while subjecting you to a homogeneous tsunami of drivel every waking minute of the day. It is this combination of too much of nothing special at all which is the true crisis of modern consumer media.

I end this essay by posing two major questions:
How do we introduce creativity back into the system (for the great mass of talented designers and creatives who don’t have the same access to capital or bully pulpit as, say, visionary Elon Musk)? What’s the future, if any, for traditional experts (besides getting on the social media bandwagon) — or are we already relegated to the same destiny as the dinosaurs?

At what point does the consumer understand that all of this abundance is actually just a sham illusion?


Vlog #10: This is about NOW (The Home Truths of the Handmaid’s Tale)

(WARNING: Contains disturbing sexual and violent content suitable for mature audiences only.) A chilling work of genius that got me vlogging after a hiatus of several months, the Emmy-award-winning, Hulu series, The Handmaid’s Tale, exaggerates and magnifies the insidious dynamics of present-day society, to bring home the profound power imbalance between men and women which, until now, remains a backdrop of, at best, silent oppression and, at worst, potential violence. Unlike Orwell’s 1984, this work isn’t predictive or even dystopian. IT’S NOW. Indeed, it’s so true that any menstruating girl will find its home truths ineluctable.

Daily Mind-ful 16 September 2017 (Cincinnati, Day 1 — after more than 35 years)

My first full day back in Cincinnati, Ohio after more than 35 years, with Sam and my brother. We visit all the places which defined — and traumatized — us, the places which were the crucibles of my, if not our, personality. Sam told me that the best thing about this trip was getting to know his uncle James and me more — by listening to us revisit our childhood and experiences.
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