6 December 2021

Tech Times: Digital Art and its Discontents

Digitally encrypted art is certainly having its fifteen minutes of fame - as Andy Warhol would have it - and it is anyone's guess how long the phase will last. But what can NFTs and their like teach us about the nature and value of traditional art?about:blank

As a landscape painter, I'm increasingly asked what I think of digital art. I will not pretend to be an expert in this sphere, and for that reason, I also do not want to be dismissive of new trends which I might not understand fully, and which I am open to learning more about. But I think it can be useful to refer to some previous thinkers when assessing these trends, people like twentieth-century philosopher Walter Benjamin (1892-1940). Benjamin wrote about art, the idea of the original, and the idea of art as a commodity.

For most of the recent past, art was treated as an exalted commodity. At least up until the advent of photography, it was taken for granted that art objects were unique and therefore also uniquely possessed by the art collector, museum, or gallery. Art remained distant from us. We remained enraptured spectators. It was someone else's, and often from another time. In this context art was worshipped, and rendered sacred in the tradition of uniqueness.

This is why Benjamin defined the aura of a work of art as "the unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be." The appeal of traditional art - by which I mean to refer largely to painting - is in large part due to its aura. Great pieces of art compel us to recognise their value as we instinctively understand their nature and provenance to be unique and non-replicable.  

With photographs or photos of works of art however, we see the work differently. The work has become democratized by virtue of being cheaply and easily exchangeable.

Benjamin explained the concept rather poetically in saying that thanks to photography and audio recording, "the cathedral leaves its locale to be received in the studio of a lover of art; the choral production, performed in an auditorium or in the open air, resounds in the drawing-room."

By definition, the replicated works are no longer unique. By extension, one might say they are also less sacrosanct, and no longer bound by tradition. This is what Benjamin refers to as the loss of the aura. But he also thought it was good that art was no longer just a private commodity, and that it was shared. He was also content with the notion that there is no single defining experience of art, and that photography can enhance any given artistic experience. 

One can also argue that reproducibility bestows a new kind of aura on the original work of that. This is because copies induce a desire for the original, making it more famous, more precious by virtue of its distinctive nature and thereby more desirable. If we think of the world's most famous paintings - whether Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa or Picasso's Guernica - the replications of them on postcards or across the internet only make the originals more sought after.

However, this raises further questions over the nature of digital art, given that there is not really any genuine or original work when it comes to the digital sphere. In a sense, NFTs might seem to solve this "problem" by enabling the digital art works to be commoditized in the same way as traditional art.

So the real questions we are left asking are about how we ascribe value to art, and what constitutes an original artwork. In our age of internet sharing and digital manipulation, many of Benjamin's ideas are somewhat prophetic. When it comes to NFTs and the like, he helps us understand why making something either more or less replicable alters the value people find in it. So, if people find value in digital assets by virtue of them being 'non-fungible', that makes sense to me. That said, my instincts tell me that the incentives at play in this sphere are likely to be more financial than artistic, and that the value people find in NFTs is probably not the same kind of value I find in the art which I like.

To a degree, I can sympathise with the idea that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But I'm also an admirer of artistic traditions which have stood the test of time. In this spirit, I think the wisest conclusion one can draw is that the real value of these new trends will best be measured by posterity.

View the article here: https://www.techtimes.com/articles/269008/20211206/digital-art-and-its-discontents.htm

© Oliver Maughan. All Right Reserved. Copyright notice.
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