Digital imaging and the internet enjoy a natural alliance, daughters of the digital age. As it has in many other areas, the ability to self-publish images widely and cheaply has produced a sort of democratization in the field.
There are three ways by which artwork is usually judged: by the intrinsic qualities of the artwork itself, by the pedigree of the artist, and by the established market value of the artist’s prior work. Obviously the first is the most desirable—a work should stand on its own merits. Unfortunately it is the most difficult and unreliable of the three ways, relying as it does on so many variable and subjective factors. The pedigree of the artist—an advanced degree from a prestigious art school, membership in high profile art societies, hanging in distinguished museums—involves fewer unpredictable variables and provides reassurance that the artwork is of high quality and value. The established market value of an artist is perhaps the best predictor of the sale value of an artwork, but offers less assurance regarding the aesthetic value of the work; consider the work of Thomas Kinkade, whose work was roasted by critics but sold in the millions.
The internet has enhanced visibility of artwork, increasing the importance of the qualities of the artwork itself in the assessment of its value. Just as it has in so many other areas, this is resulting in a democratization of the appreciation and distribution of art. This is happening to traditional drawing and painting, even sculpture, as well as computer generated art. Paintings and drawings can be photographed or scanned, and sculpture can be photographed, and these images can then be posted to the internet. This work can be done easily by the artists themselves, or hired out at very modest expense.
Most visual artists now have websites showcasing their work, as well as robust representation on social media, such as Facebook and Twitter. Collectors and curators can evaluate an artist’s body of work for its quality and consistency, providing a context within which individual works can be judged. This is most important for the emerging artist, whose résumé and sales history have just begun to build.
Digital imaging has dramatically enhanced the market for print art. Digital technology has also given rise to giclée printing, which can produce images with colors and resolution rivaling original artwork. Some qualities cannot be duplicated, of course—texture and impasto, for example. Still, with close attention to scanning and printing details, giclée prints can be made that are difficult to distinguish from the artwork that was scanned to produce them. These prints can be duplicated in limited or open editions, potentially reducing the cost to buyers of exceptional art and opening the field to many who could not otherwise afford to be collectors..
I like this democratization of the art collecting process. Some very successful artists have built careers around keeping their art accessible. Though Shepard Fairey was speaking of his street art when he said “Images that are in public space that aren’t advertising reawaken a sense of wonder,” he might as well have been speaking of cyberspace, or of his career as a printmaker, where he strives to keep his works within popular reach. I anticipate that populist art will continue to grow in quality and general acceptance, while “high art” remains the province of the cognoscenti (read “the wealthy”).
I look forward to the coming change.