untangling the awkward relationship between art and money

S[edition]. The verdict? Count me amongst the s[educed].


Tracey Emin, ‘I Promise to Love You’, s[edition].

What do you get the artist who has everything?

A website upon which he (Damien Hirst), she (Tracey Emin) or they (the Chapman Brothers) can blaze a new frontier, and flog inexpensive digital art to eager but financially challenged collectors.

Meet s[edition]. And despite the somewhat snarky tone of my introduction, I actually find the whole idea very exciting. Window into the future stuff. Just like when I was introduced to the street art movement by the first stencils I saw on the Balaclava railway bridge in East St Kilda many moons ago, this feels like it might just go somewhere. Feel free to get back to me in ten years to say “what, in the name of all that is holy, were you thinking?” But for now, this smells big. Or perhaps it’s teen spirit (apologies to Nirvana).

The premise is deliciously simple, and comes to us thanks to the cranium of Harry Blain, formerly of Haunch of Venison, now of Blain Southern, and probably the art world’s most effective innovator. He’s an artrepreneur. Is that a word? If not, it should be.

So how does it work? Some of the biggest names in contemporary art issue large edition (up to 10,000) digital artworks. They are offered for sale on a sliding scale – if you buy an early edition, the price is low – as little as $8 for some artworks. As the edition proves more popular, the price rises.

Once you have made your purchase, it is stored in your own digital ‘vault’, and you can view it on suitable computery-smart-iThings and devices. You’re issued with a digital certificate of authenticity, complete with scanned signature and the edition number. Although there is no mention of it on the site now, when s[edition] was launched, there was talk of setting up a forum on the site through which collectors could buy and sell their digital artworks.

So, I’ve put together a small collection of my own – initially as a means to demonstrate cutting-edge art marketing to my postgraduate students.

But I think I may be hooked.

What’s most interesting, and not at all surprising, is that some marquee artists (I’m looking at you, Damien Hirst) tend to phone it in. I bought a Hirst spot picture as one of my first purchases – I wanted to do the “names, darling, names” thing in the demonstration to my students. And it is… well… a stationary digital picture of spots. Also not surprisingly, Hirst is responsible for the most expensive artwork on the site – a rotating view of his diamond encrusted baby-skull, For Heaven’s Sake that’s priced at A$800.  Well, it does sparkle. And spin. Yawn.

But as more artists have hitched their wagon to the Blain digital train, there have been some very interesting things turn up. Some people get the digital medium. Others? Not so much.

Matt Collishaw has made some exquisite pieces, as has Bill Viola, and recently Jacco Oliver added two texturally sumptuous artworks to the site.  I’m transfixed by my copy of Collishaw’s Burning Flower. Can’t look away. The best digital art really does take us beyond the physical restrictions of two-, or even three-, dimensional art. With the technology available to make and view digital images moving apace, who knows where this will all end up?

From a market perspective, it’s groundbreaking. What does it mean for the concept of the ‘original’ when an artwork exists as a string of code, and can potentially be reproduced simultaneously, and an infinite number of times, anywhere in the world? Is this the true democratisation of art? You can take your Damien Hirst or Tracey Emin onto the train with you.

And what does this mean for value in the art world? It’s fascinating, and might well be the start of something big. Watch this space.

(Image of Tracey Emin’s ‘I Promise to Love You’ via www.culture24.org.uk)

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