Theoretical Speculation:
Digital Art and Photography are Adversely Affected by the Concept of Value as it Relates to Rarity.

by Mark Angelo Cela

While commercial arts such as graphic design, illustration, and photography moved quickly into the digital age, their fine art equivalents remain largely in opposition of the idea. Acceptance of new artistic technologies fostered movable type, and for the first time in history humans could reliably record knowledge for use by later generations. The photographic print allowed for recording moments in complete clarity unlike any artistic medium that came prior. Art and the way humans communicate evolve in parallel to technology. Fear often accompanies these evolutions, and the question of what defines art sometimes comes into question. Art educators and critics have expressed caution with regard to moving into the digital age, resulting in the questioned validity of digital art as a medium beyond the idea of installation work. Digital painters and photographers have encountered barriers from the fine art community, because neither digital painters nor photographers produce a definable, physical, original. This has limited the appeal of their work to collectors and speculators, preventing digital artists from gaining momentum in the fine art world.

In the late 1990s digital artwork began gaining momentum. Graphic designers and illustrators took advantage of the speed at which digital artwork could be made, decreasing turnaround times for clients. Photographers began to adopt digital photography in the early-to- mid 2000s when image quality started rising and equipment costs began to drop. Photographers could batch-process and edit digital images at speeds that were impossible with a traditional negative. Despite these advantages, digital painting and digital photography were dismissed by the fine art community as heresy. When question as to why she chose to remain shooting film instead of digital images, fine artist LaToya Ruby Frazier made her stance quite clear:

“If I want my work to have a visual language that’s in conversation with the social documentary work of the 20th century then I need to use that medium and their tools, and so when my work stands next to a Walker Evans or a Gordon Parks in the museum, there’s a continuity. It’s about me respecting the practice and respecting the history (Genova, 2017).”

The concept that an artist could produce work with no physical labor contradicted the idea of craft. Digital artists who had never touched a paintbrush but could still produce paintings appeared to traditional media artists as disingenuous. Photographers who had spent years patiently developing their craft in the darkroom felt that digital photography took too many shortcuts, and that younger photographers would never mature because the hours required to understand and appreciate the physical craft were now unnecessary to achieve a quality print.

Though not completely embraced, by 2003-2005 digital photography had begun to gain acceptance within the fine art community. The change in position was born of practicality rather than an honest assessment of digital photography as an expressive medium. Commercial photography drives the photographic industry, not fine art. After years of poor-quality digital camera peripherals that ran upwards of $10,000, the camera industry began producing exceptionally high-quality digital camera bodies that halved that price. Within another few years Canon was able to produce a professional-level camera system for $1,500. The need for film diminished, and the ability to process it locally in many areas became almost impossible. With black-and-white film stock relegated to colleges and universities, digital photography became a tool of fine artists, even if only by the force of the commercial market.

There are many different methods these photographers choose to output their images. Some print their files to resin-coated or fine art papers straight from a digital file, but this lacks the craft and original of a traditional, analog photographic print. Some photographers began to make digital negatives through processes used in the commercial printing industry. Fine art photographers utilize machines that laser-print an image directly to film stock. The machine then develops the film, and outputs negatives. This was an expensive alternative to traditional printing. Other photographers began to use ink-jet printers to produce negatives via transparencies. This was a far less-costly alternative, but still produced a physical negative that may be considered an original source to an image. These negatives could be printed in a darkroom the same as their analog counterparts. Other photographers chose to print digitally, but then combined these prints into other media that produced a one-of-a-kind physical piece of artwork (Smythe, 2013).

With respect to fine art, digital painting has not experienced the forward momentum of digital photography. Unlike photography, painting is not driven by a commercial market. Paints and substrates are readily available in most areas, and while some may be expensive, painting still has a relatively low-entry point. Commercial arts such as graphic design and illustration abandoned many traditional methods years ago in favor of digital platforms that may be produced, edited, and output quickly. This has given way to the perception by fine artists that digital painting is a commercial medium, meant to push products and consumerism, rather than an art medium that is used for nothing other than the art’s own existence. This has affected the value of digital art as a marketable fine art medium.

Market value for fine art collectible items is determined by many different factors. A common misconception about the value of most collectibles is that age is a major component of

what makes something valuable. This is not the case. Demand is what makes something valuable. Painting forgeries are often produced on canvasses that are contemporary to the period of the forged painting. For example, an unknown Renaissance era painting will be stripped from its canvas using chemicals in order to paint a forgery. This is because demand for a Renaissance era painting is not based upon age; it is based upon popularity of a given artist and the rarity of the work. In the fine art world, this is often an original, not a copy. The cliché of an artist’s work being more valuable after death is based upon the idea that demand is higher when the body of work is considered finite.

Work by contemporary artists often gain in value by way of being featured in fine art trade publications. Collectors use the publications to speculate on artwork which may gain in value. Where digital painters face the greatest obstacle is that collectors want original pieces. There is a market for limited-edition prints, but prints rely on being sold at far lower prices in tiered, limited, quantities. To attain significant value to a collector, there must be an original (Nelson, A., Chaiken, J., Hoagland, C., Nelson, D., Miller, L., 2001). Designer Dyske Suematsu expressed frustration regarding this very concept in an article published on his personal blog:

The business model of fine artists is to produce objects that can serve as symbols of cultural capital, and sell them to those who are short on cultural capital. To financially succeed as a fine artist, you have to produce objects that can function as a medium of this exchange. “Digital” or “net” artists are much less likely to achieve financial success because their artworks are infinitely reproducible. Music and literature have mechanisms in place to monetize infinitely reproducible works (by distributing far and wide at low price points). The institutions of art, like galleries and museums, are not designed to support artworks that cannot function as a medium of exchange for the super-rich (Suematsu, 2014).

The fine art community is composed of a network of individuals who each affect the decisions of the other. If this social structure is observed through the lens of John Barnes’s Network Theory and Analysis, the system may be analyzed in a way that may bring greater understanding of the relationships between the parties involved. Each person, or node, in the network adjusts their beliefs based upon pressure imposed by the others. This contributes to an overall belief system shared by the fine art community. Those who do not share these overall beliefs are considered to be outside the structure of the network. Graphic designers and illustrators would be considered outsiders in this context. A painter who is ridiculed for using water colors may switch to oils out of pressure from others, and then blend into the network with little issue. Graphic designers and illustrators differ from a painter because at their core they break the most significant standard of the fine art network. Art is created for no other purpose than to exist and express the vision of the artist. Graphic design and illustration exist for the client, not singularly for expression of the designer or illustrator. (Network Theory and Analysis, 2017).

This idea is applied to the digital toolsets used by commercial artists. Fritz Heider’s Attribution Theory helps clarify why this is the case. Mediums such as water color, acrylic, colored pencils, design markers, and digital painting tools have been, or are currently, used by commercial artists. The primary reason is that all of these tools have a quick turn-around time in their use. Client work is the primary focus of commercial artists. These tools are then attributed to the commercial arts and shunned by the fine art community. Digital art tools in particular are

perceived as the ultimate representation of commercial arts, a field that is seen as existing to sell products rather than work that is meant to stand on its own. The bias against commercial art is then attributed to anyone who utilizes the tools to make images. This is where the unsubstantiated stereotype of digital art tools allowing artists to cheat at art is used to condition artists against digital toolsets. The label of commercial is attributed to anything outside the definition of art established by the network (Attribution Theory, 2016).

Photography is judged differently than painting with regard to the fine art market. A photographer still faces many of the same obstacles as a painter. Demand for their work is also based upon coverage in trade publications and critical acclaim. Where photography differs is how the fine art market approaches photographic originals. With traditional, analog, photography, the negative is very valuable. First-generation prints may be produced from the negative, and range in value depending upon who physically prints the images. The most valuable prints are ones physically produced by the photographer in a darkroom. Ansel Adams captured aesthetically well-composed images onto film, but it was the darkroom techniques Adams incorporated into his printing that made the images what they are today. While a valuable print may still be made from Adam’s negatives, the prints will never be touched by the artist himself and will not carry the same value.

Steve McCurry’s famous National Geographic image of Sharbat Gula entitled Afghan Girl may be purchased online from a poster reseller for $1.98. A photographic print made in 2014 from the original 1984 negative, signed, part of an unlimited series of prints, serial numbered, with a legal document of authenticity by McCurry, was featured in a recent auction by Wright auction house in New York for $9,000 - $12,000 (Steve McCurry/Afghan Girl, 2017).

This is how important an original is to the art market. The print is part of an unlimited number of editions, but because the original negative was used, and the print signed by the artist, the work became substantially more valuable. Many fine art photographers will hire third-party vendors to sell high-priced limited editions of signed and numbered prints. These prints are sold in tiers. For example, twenty editions of an image may be printed for sale. Editions 16 through 20 may sell for $750 each. 11 through 15 will sell for $2000 each. 6 Through 10 may be priced at $4,000 each, with the remaining 5 reserved as artists prints that may be kept indefinitely by the photographer, or sold later for substantially more money.

Auction houses such as Christie’s do not currently consider the digital print market to be of value to collectors. In a recently published article by Christie’s entitled Collecting Guide: 11 key things to know about Prints and Multiples, the auction house does not recognize digital reproductions as a viable opportunity for the collector market or speculation. Etchings, woodcuts, lithography, and screen printing are discussed, but digital reproductions are not recommended (Christie’s, 2017). The primary reasons beyond those previously discussed are rather practical, and quite valid in the realm of this topic. There is history to prove that oils painted onto a properly prepared substrate yields an object that may last indefinitely. With proper storage, display, and conservation, paintings last for centuries and longer. Photographs printed on various types of archival fiber papers, tin, and glass, will exist indefinitely with similar practices used to conserve paintings. Digital prints have no proven life span. While companies such as EPSON and Ilford produce high-quality archival papers, there is no proven lifespan outside of accelerated lab testing that proves they will last for significant periods of time. These tests may predict that digital prints last for centuries, but this is with the proper combination of inks and pigments, produced by press and pre-press operators who know they are specifically printing for

archival purposes. The paper is only part of the equation. If non-archival inks are printed to archival paper then the image will fade over time, especially if exposed to sunlight. If the wrong inks with high contents of acidity are combined with the paper, the paper will eventually begin to deteriorate. Improper application of resin coatings and sealants may also damage prints or yellow over time. It is not simply a case of choosing an expensive paper to print an image on. It is a combination of factors that involve other individuals than the artist that affect the extended reliability of a digital print. This is contrary to a painter or photographer who carefully crafts an image from concept to a final, collectible, piece of art.

While digital photographers have cleverly started to succeed in the collector market, digital fine art painters continue to struggle with the barrier of an original. However, each field is still relatively new in the greater scope of fine art, and a few collectors have begun to push against the norm and support the digital artist by buying digital prints regardless of the lack of an original piece. This exemplifies the early stages of E.M. Roger’s Diffusion of Innovation Theory. Diffusion of Innovation Theory is one of the oldest social science theories, and attempts to explain the process by which new products are adopted and spread throughout specific populations or social systems.

The first step of the theory involves the innovators. Innovators are individuals who are the first to try new ideas, and look for areas of innovation that they may partake in or contribute. These are people who do not need to be marketed to, because they are always exploring new products and services. For the fine art collector, these are the people buying artwork and prints regardless of what the speculative market may be, or the archival characteristics of a piece. These individuals want to be a part of something new or cutting-edge. They are there to support new ways of creating art by using their own money without thought of substantial return.

Innovators are the first to give credence to new ideas, and often the ones who generate interest that leads to wider acceptance (Rodgers, 1962).

The second step of Diffusion of Innovation Theory is the early adopter. These are people who possess strong opinions in their respective fields, often holding important positions relative to the discussion. These would be the critics, gallery representatives, and art theorists who are willing to accept new ideas, and understand that art cannot remain technologically stagnant and standards must evolve to change the field positively. Early adopters are those who may not possess an obsession for new ideas the way that innovators do, but they are the individuals who are influential enough to a group that they may introduce new ideas that may otherwise not be taken seriously (Rodgers, 1962).

Third step of Diffusion of Innovation Theory introduces the early majority. These are people who are not necessarily leaders in their field, but are willing to adopt new ways of thinking with solid examples of how new ideas have been successful. These individuals are willing to buy digital work after they have seen how purchasing the work either benefits art as a whole, or how it may benefit them financially or socially. The early majority represents the more progressive greater part of a network. These are people willing to take a chance on new ideas after they have seen them succeed with early adopters. They are often individuals who see an opportunity to raise their status within a network by adopting newer ideas (Rodgers, 1962).

Fourth step of Diffusion of Innovation Theory are the late majority. These are people who are still holding onto tradition, and are only willing to change their mindset after they see definitive proof that change leads to a positive outcome. The late majority would be those who have to see examples of digital artwork being accepted by the fine art community and financially viable as an investment before they would change their position. This group is affected by thesocial perception of change the most, and would attempt to remain relevant after a significant amount of proof. These are the individuals who value their place within the establishment of fine art. The late majority would be concerned about being left behind by the early majority (Rodgers, 1962).

The last step of Diffusion of Innovation Theory involves the laggards. These are the most conservative of the groups. Laggards are individuals who change only through fear and social acceptance. These would equate to the members of the fine art community who will never fully accept digital art, and were most likely the ones who held the strictest standards against accepting it. Laggards are also part of the group that would have been the most vocal about the social ramifications of accepting digital artwork as valid. The driving force behind change by this group is fear of losing status within the network (Rodgers, 1962).

With respect to the Diffusion of Innovation Theory, the fine art community has reached the innovator and early adopter stages. There is not enough critical or financial evidence to suggest that digital painting has reached beyond step two. Digital photography is well into the early majority, step three, but is far from the widespread acceptance of the late majority. Development in both printing technologies and a wider acceptance of newer tools will have to happen in order for later stages to be achieved. The entire network is dependent upon the perception of each node and how they view their place within the group as a whole.

The art world has become culturally less relevant these days because its structure can no longer support newer forms of art that depend less on physical existence (Suematsu, 2014).

There is always a conservative establishment that wants to adhere to past standards of what art means and the techniques used in the production. The last several decades have revealed an interesting problem to artists who have chosen digital tools at their means of expression. The fine art world has never had to cope with a painting or photographic medium that did not have a physical component at the core. This presents a challenge to the very ideas of what makes fine artwork valuable. The community will have to redefine what it means for a piece of artwork to attain value, and digital artists may have to develop a standard by which a physical print or process results in what may be considered an original.


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