Does Digital Art Hold Value?

I wonder, with all the copyright and Pinterest discussion flying around these days, if we’re not seeing the wholesale devaluation of the Arts.

The creation of digital art seems to hold little to no intrinsic value any more.

It makes me wonder if digital art holds any value at all. Digital has made it “easy”…or at the very least easier…to create art. From music, to photography, to graphic design, to 3D animation. If you create something that is easily transferable to digital, or created digitally, there is little value in the finished good.


Is it raising the bar? With the broad access to digital arts tools, and the masses of individuals creating digital art now, has it made it so that the best have to do better to stand out?

Have you seen the latest results from Sotheby’s? Art is certainly far from devalued.

Ever since 2008, I feel like we’ve stepped back in time. I think this new digital age of P2P, DIY art and commerce is like a new arts & crafts movement. For me, the arts & craft movement was like design, a mix of art and tool making. A chair can be both, but there were pieces from the movement (the majority) that were strictly art. I think the same is true of the web today…some projects are art (cat videos), some art + tools (facebook).

For example: This website really made me sit up and take notice. I just finished a case analysis in a business class where I suggested something similar for a brick and mortar travel agency, with a specialty in sports tourism, to set up. It’s already done by someone else for peanuts. The barriers to entry are tumbling and the people who are willing to burn calories to do something are winning in terms of money, but more importantly social impact.

Raising the bar:

I think it has started to raise the bar. Initially, good creatives were pulled towards TV, movies, manufacturing, marketing because it’s what feeds us. However, now it seems that creatives can be more successful going straight to the web. I’m thinking of Pretty Lights (torrents their own MP3s into a good live career), Kirby Ferguson (documentarian, as we’ve discussed elsewhere), Marc Maron (started a comedy podcast that has driven traffic to his live shows) and the various web 2.0 websites that have popped up such as craigslist,, pinterest, etc. It almost seems as if having a “job” is a distinct disadvantage moving forward.

In terms of raising the creative bar, digital formats allow for near infinite replication, ie lots of instances. With so many instances, people-artists-creatives-kids-etc are exposed to much more than they would “normally” be allowed. The increased exposure to good and bad and exceptional I think leads to better and better “best of’s”. There will always be junk and wannabes, but the true creators only grow from seeing-hearing more of more.

As far as value goes, I think any instance of a given digital representation can be valued by its emotional response. That’s the thing that people really value, and will “pay” for, whether through currency or endless web searching or, in past times, foraging though a record store. I think you also need to look at the root of the emotional driver being represented. A photo of a wedding dress is still about the physical dress, so the web photo is less valuable. A lossless music file is still about the actual performance, so copying some files around is trivial.

For better or worse, I think we’re headed to future that will eventually bring digital representations that are as good as “live” or true physical experiences.

i am involved in a little project with an artist right now and have been thinking about where design ends and art starts. I think mr_914 has a very good point when he is talking about arts and crafts instead of “real” art. for me it is only real art when there is more to it than what meets the eye. a cultural topic, a thought provocation. as long as the “artist” is only trying to make something beautiful, i see it in the direction of arts and crafts and i think the digital world is raising the bar a lot in that direction.

Art to me is the embodiement of a special thought, reason and topic the artist wants to communicate, whatever medium he uses and however good he does it in the eye of the observer and nothing digital is going to change that.

Going back to IP’s question, I don’t think it’s an “or”. I think the bar can be raised, with higher quality work being created, while at the same time the public gives less value to that work.

First, the bar raising: I do think that the bar is being continuously raised for digital content creation, but I find it interesting that at the same time we see a huge amount of crap. I think a chart plotting this over time would look like a pyramid rising out of the ground, with those few at the top being pushed to create even better work, but as they rise more and more people rush in at the bottom creating mediocre to poor work. But these people at the bottom are pushing up the intermediate, and the intermediate are pushing up the best.

As for value, I sort of hate to bring money into this, because there are many ways to value work besides money, but I think we have to consider it because that’s how our economy assigns value. When a painter is able to support himself by selling paintings, essentially society is saying “we think the work you do (painting) is valuable enough that you can do this full time as your contribution to society” or “because you made that painting you get a roof over your head and food to eat.” I know that’s simplistic, but I think that’s a useful lens look at this through. So if I look at Mr-914’s examples:

… two out of the three require them to do work in the “real” world in order to support themselves. And it looks like Kirby Ferguson also augments his income from donations with real world presentations. I know you could say that it is both the digital and real world work that they get paid for when they get paid in the real world, but without their real world work they aren’t getting paid (or are paid much less).

I know there are examples of those who’ve made it through only digital means, and I think there are more examples every day. The first example that comes to mind is anyone who’s created a popular enough YouTube video to earn some of the ad revenue. I think it’s worth noting in that case that they still had to use a well established publisher who essentially monopolizes the distribution of that content (sharing involves links back to YouTube, instead of direct sharing of the content), much like traditional media. The second is musicians who’ve sold music digitally, but that’s a bit of an oddball since the content is generally meant to be consumed offline.

Overall though, I think as a society we are still bad at giving monetary value to digital creation. Lots of “likes” and shares certainly are legitimate ways for people to say something has value, but nothing says that quite like “because you made this I’ll give you money so you can eat.”

This is kind of where my thoughts are going on this. The fact that tangible art is where the value is at. My idea is that digitzing of art holds almost zero value. Creating a world where copyright on a digital piece of art holds little to no (to seurban’s point) monetary value.

Music? The value is in the live show.
Movies? The value is much more nebulous, but I venture to say that the value is in the “big picture experience”.
Books? This is the next great unknown. Books are going through their own upheaval that I am very unclear of where it will land.
Photography? As soon as you post a digital photograph on the Interwebz, you are opening yourself up for a world of heartache. How do you protect digital photography? Copyright laws are are virtually useless against a global Internet.

An oil painting has intrinsic value in that it is a one of a kind. You can make lithos of it, but you can never make another. Same for any art that is tangible. The original is what holds the value. And the Sotheby’s valuations seem to support that thought.

I’m not sure where this fits into the digital valuation discussion. Like the tangible art angle, I see Arts & Crafts as being the creation of something tangible.

The creation of a website is very different from art. In the case of, it is creating value through time. As in, their website saves my family time. And time, as we all know, is money. Inherent value in their proposition.

The arts are a tough nut. Digital Tech is forcing a wholesale mind shift around this.

IP: tangible v. intangible.

With regards to the art that is sold at Sothebys, it’s often old and the artist is long dead. That means that the market is limited. That too adds value to the piece.

Moving forward, I think the value depends on what you are valuing. If $ per unit is the measure, digital is less valuable. However, if you want exposure and to communicate something to as many people as possible, tangible is less valuable.

Right, so this is what I’m struggling to get my head around.

If what you say is true, digital is about exposure and communicating something to as many people as possible…then copyright as it exists today in a digital media is moot.

It is not needed…or at the very least, its role has changed. The only thing that get’s hairy is how to prove who created the “original” digital copy so credit can be properly distributed.

When it comes to paying for the digital artifacts (thanks Alan), or “distributing credit”, I think the trend is moving towards walled gardens, like iTunes, Amazon, and Hulu to a lesser extent. There’s going to be the bootleg stuff and the independently released stuff, but I think the bulk of content is going to be behind a wall.

The companies making the real money though are the carriers, the pipelines that carry all of our paid for and torrented content.

Not a whole lot different than the “old” system of Galleries and Art Dealers.

The truth seems to starting to lie in the fact that musicians have come to the realization that the live show is where their value is.

This holds up with movie/video for the most part.

But what about books? If a book is digital, the only way to retain value is through an Amazon/iBooks model anymore.

Photography? Even more nebulous. Commisioned photos I suppose are where the value (money) is. It is the act of taking the photo that creates the value, not the photo itself, no?

It’s not clear because we are in it. In 100 years it will be evident to everyone.

Brett: I think iTunes is getting passed by Spotify. Everything available all the time on a subscription basis. However, I think the most interesting things are free/torrent based. It seems as though the suits think that it is too risky to do something original within the pay-for model.

IP: I think the minute you put something on the net, even behind a wall, you are essentially giving it away. It’s so difficult to protect something and once your distribute, it will get cracked. I don’t think there is a software, music album or movie that hasn’t been.

As for books, a lot of young new non-fiction writers are doing blogs for 1-3 years and then doing a book or making so much from blog ads that they don’t want to go to a publisher. I’m sure something similar is happening in fiction.


So, if this is the case. And this is “acceptable”. Where is the value then?

For non-tangible root content, like music or movies or photography, the monetary value is starting to come down to a matter of fidelity. Already iTunes has a varying SD price and an HD price in their store. I might argue that the better the fidelity is, the better the emotional payoff, the better the chance someone will pay money for it.

Think of the value of an Ansel Adams image. An avatar sized gif vs. 640-480 jpeg vs. 10k tif suitable for poster size print —> vs. original print, vs. trip to Yosemite in the spring. The emotional payoff and monetary cost vary wildly. I’ll take a “free” google searched jpeg for my iPhone wallpaper, but maybe I pay a few bucks for a high res print file to hang in my house. Same with free Pandora vs pay Pandora, vs a lossless file ripped from a CD.

Books and literature are kind of an odd duck, because fidelity doesn’t really matter. The cost is really more time driven. Newer books = more money, old books+free.

So there’s different levels of fidelity that can be assigned value. The flip side of the equation is how to enjoy the content. You need good display tech to enjoy 1080p video and good loudspeakers to enjoy a really high bitrate audio file. Maybe the bigger question is whether the abundance of low fidelity devices is reducing the desire for high fidelity experiences, and in turn reducing the willingness to pay. My hunch is not, and that it’s more of a technology gap. As better and better technology becomes more accessible, people will be seeking out higher fidelity experiences and the willingness to pay for high fidelity data will increase.

Ironically, I think one of our collegues has already started to tickle a possible business model for books. His Wicked Problems project is interesting on many levels:

this is fun
“Hi Art”, from the modernist definition, died with the rise of mass media six decades ago,
(at least it’s dead from it’s own perspective as containing the vital core of cultural creation).
You’d think it’d be starting to go away altogether by now, but I think it may just becoming more realistic about where it stands in the post-modern era. Art still has value, ask Damien Hurst.

I agree with the assertions so far
Value created by scarcity can explain Sotheby’s prices.
Value created by fidelity keeps thing’s like movies and opera’s in business, though some struggle.
Value created by preciousness, think great craftsmanship or labor intensive work, supports writing.
then there’s Value created by Volume, mass-produced with mass-appeal.

We designers understand how the market has increasingly fragmented with every new medium, and distribution innovation.
And I don’t think (fill in creative act here) is better today than decades past just because more people are able to earn livings doing it. They now have a way to find their niche market is all.
And you can argue there is more crap available now and therefore it drags down the overall average, but that’s not entirely fair. One mans trash, as the saying goes.

There is clearly a curatorial need being met. Connoisseurship will provide it’s own value to this explosion.
I’m interested where this thread leads…

It depends who is doing it - David Hockney's instant iPad art - BBC News

IP, The topic of books interests me in particular. I just took a course on rare books and manuscripts at school, and we discussed this topic at length. The general idea we discussed (and my opinion) is that obviously most mass produced books wouldn’t hold much value compared to digital copies. Kind of like the generic art you see in stores that was almost made to be put in a frame.

But there are certain books, older books, leather bound books, books with a certain haptic element that simply cannot be replicated digitally. You could scan and perfectly digitize a gutenberg bible, but it still wouldn’t be a gutenberg bible. it’d be missing the weight, and “oldness” that makes it what it is.

Another example of this is the recent comeback of vinyl. More and more people are taking to this format in an “analogue rebellion” against digital music. I think this is going to continue to spread to other mediums as well.

I think for that reason, even though the value of digital art is increasing it won’t ever equal the value of tangible art.

Yes and no. The fact that it is Hockney carries value through image which has been built up over a significant amount of time. But he’s also doing something very clever in that he’s not printing or distributing these images. So, similar to the idea of an oil canvas painting, he’s created scarcity. This is a one-off…until the day he decides to post them to the Net.

Now that actually becomes an interesting angle to this discussion. What value do the images he talks about in the article carry where he talks about creating a digital drawing of the sunset at 6 AM and by 7 AM he has sent it off by his friend. the value of those images, I posit, are much less than the ones in the curated stone gallary near the Eiffel Tower.

You see that the value of digital art is increasing? How so? I still see it that digital art carries little to no quantifiable monetary value.

i feel the same way as you, ip. If I see some digital art that’s beautiful, i will download it and make it my desktop…I think it’s basically valueless. Is it to do with transparency, and KNOWING that it is just pixels pushed around with photoshop? Is it the attitude of “oh i could do that”?

I understand that oil painting or sculpting from stone requires specialised tools and knowledge, but it’s realistic to create stunning digital art using a mouse and am everyday computer. When you think about it, so much of our existence is pushing pixels around a screen - effectively turning on and off little coloured lights. WEe get really excited when we make the lights behave in a certain way, and we even get paid for it! ( i think that’s from a webcomic…maybe xkcd?)

What do you think?