Digital art and the art market: make ends meet or aim high?



Continuing our exploration of digital forms of artwork, we will examine a few ideas that, though beyond the scope of this guide, are intended to provide food for thought.

The art “system” as we know it is entirely based on the attribution of value to objects and processes. That economic-cultural value is established by a number of different professionals (curators, critics, gallerists, etc.) and is fundamental to the survival of the system as a whole. But if we go beyond purely cultural aspects, how might we attribute market value to artworks created on a computer and distributed via the internet—i.e., pieces that by their very nature are immaterial and easy to replicate? Before we answer this question, let’s take a step back.

At the first glimmer of digital art, artists began to look to the art market with skepticism. A bit like their older siblings in a number of different movements in the 1960s and 1970s, they conceived of the struggle against the art market as just one aspect of their larger opposition to the market economy of modern capitalism. Over time, however, they realized that artistic recognition by the system depends in part on the “evil” market. As a result, a good number of digital artists started to come up with strategies to make their projects more commercially appealing.

Making ends meet!

As a result, some digital artists began to create site-specific installations (famous for being happily accepted by galleries and museums), while others began crafting true merchandise based on their online projects (DVDs, t-shirts, prints, etc.), and yet others returned to more traditional forms of artistic expression such as painting, photography, videos and installations (post-internet). It goes without saying that everyone does what’s necessary to get by, but it also can’t be denied that these choices have ended up emptying digital art from within, depriving it of a recognizable identity.

The lack of personality in digital art

It would be stating the obvious to say that it is increasingly hard to distinguish a media artist who creates a “skateboard + GPS”-type installation from a neo-conceptual artist who does something entirely similar. And the digital artists who sell DVDs and other sorts of publications and merch, though a perfectly understandable, legitimate way to do things, would be wise to remember that digital art, starting with net art and new media art, has always stood out for its anticommercial spirit. What has resulted, in both cases, is a gradual loss of identity and recognizability when it comes to digital art compared to more “official” art forms.

Light at the end of the tunnel?

One way out of this impasse could be a change in the way the online work of these artists is seen by art institutions themselves (including the art market). In an era in which everything (or just about) can be copied and reproduced, does it make sense to tie the market value of something to it being one of a kind? Could it be that features such as technical reproducibility, ubiquity, interactivity and sharing are strengths and not the Achilles’ heel of certain art forms? In short, isn’t it high time to seek out new criteria to determine the value of this type of work, which is doubly linked to modern technology?

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