The collection (and hence the sale) of digital art is yet another topic that has been hotly debated since the art form began to register on the radar of the art market. The value of art – at least when it comes to the traditional model – is inextricably linked to its economic value but the ‘scarcity equals value’ model does not necessarily work when it comes to digital art. … The model of limited editions established by photography has been adopted by some digital artists whose work consists mostly of software, and this has allowed their art to enter the collections of major museums around the world.

Christiane Paul “Digital Art

Thames and Hudson 2003

This quotation is about the more challenging forms of digital art – where the technology is itself the medium. Nevertheless, many of the same difficulties emerge in considering work such as my own, which is an extension of ‘conventional’ media using digital tools. Even here, where the output is a 2D image on paper, the concept of the ‘original’ breaks down.

I have always had problems in accepting the idea of a limited edition photograph, but I can see some merit in it. The limited edition has its origins in practical limitations that do not apply to photography in the same way and not at all to digital photographs. There are only so many prints that can be made from a plate before it physically deteriorates. Silkscreen prints have an even smaller practical limit. These physical limitations do not apply to the photographic print, but nevertheless wet darkroom work is not a precise art. Each and every photographic print requires the application of a craft skill and thus each print is in its own way unique.

This whole assemblage, so carefully constructed by photographers to raise the standing – and not coincidentally the value – of their art is destroyed however by digital photography and by extension, digital art in general. There are digital equivalents of all the wet darkroom tools – dodging/burning, changing contrast, toning etc, but once the first print has been made all the others are infinitely reproducible without any variation. While I’ve seen it argued that with digital photographs, the ‘original’ is the computer file and all the prints are copies, I think this is nonsense. In truth, digital photography makes the whole concept of an ‘original’ both irrelevant and meaningless. If each copy of an image is identical to the first one, and is made using the same process and media, how can it be otherwise?

So, returning to the quotation, if there is no ‘original’ what does this do for value? Clearly value based on scarcity goes out of the window unless that scarcity is manufactured by artificial limits on the number of prints made. What other drivers of value might there be?

One of these is of course reputation. The conventional path to a reputation seems to involve being adopted by a big name like Saatchi, or becoming the darling of a small group of Mafiosi cognoscenti, almost always gallery owners or critics - Damien Hirst and ‘BritArt’ being perhaps the most obvious examples. The response from the Mafiosi to people like Jack Vettriano is illuminating too. The venom directed towards his work, popular with the public without being taken up by the big galleries, is remarkable.

This is the inevitable consequence I think of that worldview which holds that art is simply what the ‘enlightened’ say it is. As well as being arrogant, this view has always seemed to me to be anti-creative, denying the essential openness of artistic endeavour. That openness is however a good match for the openness of the internet, and it may be that the opportune link between digital art and the digital technology of the Internet offers an alternative route to the generation of value through reputation. We can see some of this at work on social media sites like Facebook, Flickr and their various clones. Indeed, the relentless pursuit of views, comments and favourites ratings pursued by many on Flickr suggests that peer group approval – regardless of the members of that group – is a significant factor in generating self-worth for some people.

However, for an artist to translate reputation gained in this manner into financial returns, more is needed. At one time it seemed as if micropayment sites like RedBook (now defunct) provided a mechanism, but the income generated was trivial, for me at least. Microstock agencies do appear to be generating income, but I suspect largely for the agencies themselves. So, in the awful jargon used by Yahoo after its acquisition of Flickr, artists need to ‘monetize’ the reputation created on sites like Flickr or MySpace. Yahoo’s ideas for monetization don’t semm likely to have much to do with their customers however, if their recent behaviour is anything to go by. I suspect that for artists, generating value and reputation is much more about creating new marketplaces than about increasing the share of a static market.

I’ve touched on one aspect in this post about art markets. In the UK most Art Fairs are again in the hands of the galleries and critics. In the US things appear much more open. The galleries still control the very big names, but in a vast network of Art Festivals where artists, a different community of peripatetic artists sell their work direct to the public. Undoubtedly much of that work is populist rather than challenging but this alternative market place is nevertheless available. In the UK we have much further to go.

The gallery model depends on high prices – the gallery owners need to pay rent on expensive floorspace. They can’t generate the volumes of a high street store so to get a decent ratio of income/ft2 they need a high markup. This in turn limits the market to the high rollers who can afford it. The so-called Affordable Art Fair includes items up to I think £5000 – not exactly the sort of sum available to most people. Creating those prices is as much hype as anything else. It depends on blowing up the reputation of a small bunch of people as ‘The Next Big Thing’. To keep this bubble expanding it also depends on more and more extreme works. It doesn’t monetize the work, it fetishises it. The secondary market for these artists is often non-existent. The big investors – with millions available - go by and large for Monet or Van Gogh, not Emin or Hirst.

Your average jobbing artist doesn’t get a look in with this process. Most need to combine their work with teaching or the pursuit of public money. Because they have no alternative model available, they also imbue a similar worldview in their students and in their public paymasters.

If art – real art – is to have a future in this country, it has to be a profession in which there is a realistic chance of making a living. Prostitution on the public purse or the pursuit of rich patrons are not viable career paths. I hope in future posts to come back to this problem.