No two people can look at a work of art and think about it in the same way. We all have our own interpretations about what's good art and bad art, what's innovative and what's unoriginal, what's valuable and what worthless. Despite that, there's still a market where works of art get priced and sold accordingly.
How is that price determined, and how has the market changed in recent years? More important, what else can we mean by the "value" of a work of art, and how have new art forms disrupted how we determine that value?
What is the “value” of art?
Art has two kinds of value: subjective and monetary. The subjective value of art boils down to what the work means to an individual or group of people and how relevant this meaning is to today’s society. The more relevant this meaning is, the more value it has, just like how your favourite book is something that really speaks to your personality or experiences.
A work of art also has a price. According to Sotheby’s, the price of a work of art is determined by ten things: authenticity, condition, rarity, provenance, historical importance, size, fashion, subject matter, medium, and quality. Michael Findlay, author of The Value of Art: Money, Power, Beauty, outlines five main characteristics: provenance, condition, authenticity, exposure, and quality.
To describe a few, provenance describes a history of ownership, which increases the value of a work of art by 15 percent. Condition describes what's outlined in a condition report. How credible the professional who conducts this report influences the value of a work of art. Quality refers to the execution, the mastery of the medium and the authority of expression of the work of art, and that varies depending on the times.
In his 2012 book, The Value of Art: Money, Power, Beauty, Michael Findlay explains other factors that determine a work of art's monetary value. Basically, art is only as valuable as how much someone with authority says it is, like curators and art dealers.
Larger works and colourful pieces of art are generally more expensive than smaller works and monochromatic pieces. Larger works may also include the cost of manufacturing in the price, such as the casting of a statue. Lithographs, etchings, and silkscreens are also generally more expensive.
If a piece of work is resold, its value increases. The rarer it is, the more expensive it is. If more of an artist’s work is found in museums, the works that are privately available will be more expensive because they’re rare. That artist also gains prestige which ups the price.
All these factors considered, it all chalks up to how a work of art is sold by an art and the system that creates a market around that. Without galleries to broker sales, wealthy collectors to drive demand, and museums and institutions to offer associative prestige, an artist is without an audience and without a pay check.
That system is changing.
The rising dollar value of art
Normally, an art advisor like Candace Worth would expect a 10-15 percent increase on the price of a work that is resold, but she had the experience of trying to negotiate a price for a work of art that was 32 thousand dollars one month and 60 thousand dollars the next. Paul Morris, an art dealer who has produced 80 art fairs, now sees the starting price for new artists being 5 thousand dollars rather than 500.
The way people view art has changed. People don’t walk into art galleries anymore. Instead, potential buyers go to art fairs, giant fine art bazaars where art is sold and connections are made. Indeed, the online art market has grown to over $3 billion in 2016. To top it off, there’s a new kind of art that can only be viewed online.
The term “net art” describes a brief movement in the 1990s to early 2000s where artists used the internet as a medium. Digital artists today make work exclusively online. Prominent digital artists include Yung Jake and Rafaël Rozendaal among others. Though it’s a challenge to exhibit such art, museums like The Whitney has collected some digital works. Some prominent examples of net art can be found here.
Though internet art is exciting in its innovation, some critics argue that since it has become redundant, a new movement has taken its place.
Post-internet art can be defined as art made after a moment of internet art. It takes the internet as a given and goes from there. It is artists using digital strategies to create tangible objects compared to exclusively web-based internet art. That’s why post-internet art can easily fit into brick and mortar galleries.
In a Sydney Contemporary panel, Clinton Ng, a prominent art collector, described post-internet art as “art that’s made with the consciousness of the internet.” Artists tackle the subjects around the internet, including political or economic turmoil, ecological crises or psychological issues, by making real life objects out of it. Some examples can be found here.
Though post-internet art can easily be given a price based on the criteria outlined above, internet art disrupts that system. How do you price a work that is intangible?
The monetary value of internet art vs. traditional art
Mainstream contemporary art has experienced dramatic growth in its market and popularity. This is because of economic growth and the opening of international museums, art fairs, and biennial exhibitions. Internet art has also established its own institutions. Appearance in these institutions adds to the value of internet art in the mainstream art market. Clinton Ng notes that 10 percent of the art displayed at the Leon is post-internet art, which shows that this form has value in the art world. This doesn’t change the fact art experiences that don’t work well in the gallery system are hard to sell, so how is the value of internet art measured?
In the book, A Companion to Digital Art, Annet Dekker notes, “It’s not necessarily that material objects are considered most valuable but the intrinsic qualities of artwork that provide the viewer with a certain experience."
In that case, digital art has qualities outside of the criteria mentioned above that should give it a price. Joshua Citarella, a digital artist, mentioned in an interview with Artspace that he, "learned that art's value is derived through context. So, on the level of the image, where you don't have much context other than the space, the most effective way to make an object read as valuable is to depict it in a valuable space."
There is something valuable about the space that a piece of internet occupies. "The domain name makes it sellable," Rafaël Rozendaal says. He sells the domains of his works, and the name of the collector gets put in the title bar. The more unique the piece of internet art is, the greater the price.
However, reselling domains lowers the value of internet art. A website is hard to preserve, and the work of art may change depending on how you archive it. Unlike tangible art which gains value as you resell it, internet art loses value because its lifespan decreases with each computer update.
In general, there’s the perception that putting art online cheapens it. Claire Bishop notes in her essay, Digital Divide, that artists tend to use analog film reels and projected slides because it makes it commercially viable. ￼
Jeana Lindo, a photographer based in New York, observes that the internet has made it harder for people to care about photography as art. “We see more images online now than ever before,” she says. “This is why contemporary photographers are returning to films, so their images can become objects again and gain value.”
Whether it’s tangible or intangible, “art is a commodity. It is sold. And innovation is rewarded in it,” art dealer Paul Morris at TEDxSchechterWestchester notes. Regardless of whether its value measures up to that of tangible art, Internet Art can still be priced and sold.
The more interesting question is what meaning it holds in the art world and beyond. Is it fine art or something else entirely?
The subjective value of art
We can think about the subjective value of art in a few ways. The first one is how relevant it is. “Art just always reflects the period of time you’re in.” Nazareno Crea, digital artist and designer notes in an interview with Crane.tv. That means that art will have value because of its context.
Even Aaron Seeto, Director of Indonesia's Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art agrees that "The best artists create art that is responsive to the here and now."
Youtube's Nerdwriter even goes so far as to say that, "What we think is great art speaks ultimately to what we think is valuable in culture."
Internet and post-internet art show that the internet has become so infused in our daily lives that it has become a valuable part of our culture. A column in The Guardian argues that the primary reason we invest in the arts is because of its cultural value. Art is life-enhancing, entertaining and defines our personal and national identities.
Finally, Robert Hughes says that "the truly significant works of art are the ones that prepare the future."
How are intangible forms of art preparing us for the future? What relevant messages do they have for us today? How valuable do these messages make them?
The subjective value of traditional art
In the Western artistic canon, cultural value is placed on art that is a unique, finished object in a specific time and space. In her TEDx talk, Jane Deeth noted that “We assign value to art that is a well-executed representation of realistic things, beautiful expressions of profound emotions, or well-balanced arrangements of lines and forms and colours,” and that even though “Contemporary art doesn’t do that,” it still has value because it makes us reflect on art’s effect on us in a different way.
The subjective value of post-internet art
With post-internet art, we reflect on our new relationship to images and objects inspired by the diverse culture on the web. It’s engaged with issues that relate to how connected we really are in our digital networked culture. These meanings have value because they are relevant, and that is why collectors like Clinton Ng collect post-internet art.
The subjective value of internet art
In general, museums don’t show a lot of interest for digital culture, so their subjective value may be low compared to mainstream contemporary art. However, the true value of internet art lies in what it makes us consider. Nerdwriter says that it helps us see the internet. It also prompts us to consider the social implications of science and technology in our modern world.
In her essay, Digital Divide, Claire Bishop notes that, "If the digital means anything for visual art, it is the need to take stock of this orientation and to question art's most treasured assumptions."
Basically, internet art forces us to re-examine what we think is art. To reflect that, digital artists think about art differently. "I worry about whatever's interesting," Rafaël Rozendaal says. If it’s interesting, then it’s art.
Digital artists are also different from other artists because they don't put an emphasis on making art that can be sold, but art that can be shared widely. That gives it more social value since sharing art is a social action. "I have a copy, and the whole world has a copy," Rafaël Rozendaal says.
Internet Artists like Rozendaal organise BYOB (Bring Your Own Bimmer) parties that function like art exhibitions where artists bring their projectors and beam them onto white wall spaces, creating the effect of art all around you. "With this internet," he says, "we can have the support of rich old people, but we can also have an audience that supports the artist." This shows that there is social and cultural value in bringing an audience outside of the elite community into art.
“Social media breaks down elite communities,” Aaron Seeto said in a debate on Intelligence Squared. There is meaning in bringing art beyond those who can afford it, and that gives internet art the most value. After all, the Internet is a social construct as much as it is technology, and it’s the diverse social network around internet art that makes it meaningful.
In the end, collectors collect what they love, and pay what they think reflects how much it means to them. The value of art will always be a combination of what a society thinks gives it value, what individuals think gives it value and how relevant it is at any time and place.
As for the future of art, Claire Bishop outlines some implications of digital art on our world in Digital Divide: “At its most Utopian, the digital revolution opens up a new dematerialised, deauthored, and unmarketable reality of collective culture. At its worst, it signals the impending obsolescence of visual art itself."
Because internet art breaks down the paradigm that art is something physical which can be seen in a physical space, it's changing the way we view art. Some people in the art world are concerned that social media is killing art because it's prohibiting us from viewing art in a "human way" among other things such as intellectual theft and all the issues that come with putting your work up on the internet. Others claim that the internet makes art more democratic, that those who can't afford to buy art can still engage with it without the inconvenience of finding the nearest art gallery or museum. People from developing countries where there aren't many museums or art galleries can enjoy art just as much as someone who lives and breathes art every day.
In general, art opens our minds to new ideas and creates a reflective experience out of our viewing of it. Whether this meaning changes in the future depends on how relevant art will become. One thing is certain. Internet art came as a reaction to the internet, and post-internet art to our acknowledgment that it's a part of our daily lives, so art will not cease to be relevant so long as humans have a will to express themselves about the world around and within them.