When it comes to existing in the ebb and flow of the art market, the paradoxical conundrum of digital (aka new media) art is present in its very name: While we live in an increasingly digital world, making such art ever more essential to mirror our lived experiences, the fact that we can’t touch this advanced variety of art with our own palpating digits makes it harder to sell, trickier to collect, and less commercially viable on the whole.
This gap between its utility as a meaningful avant-garde art form and its fitness in the marketplace is helpful in some respects, for instance by allowing digital artists to work further from the pernicious seductions of commercial speculation that can be so stultifying when it comes to, say, painting. But it’s certainly a problem in that it makes digital artists more dependent on patronage than their peers in other mediums, and less capable of being self-sustaining. So, are there any historical analogues that may present a solution to this problem?
Performance art would seem to be a natural comparison. Coming into its own in the late 1950s and early ’60s as a kind of elaborate marriage of experimental music and theater with Abstract Expressionism’s penchant for “action painting” theatricality, performance art at first typically involved the creation of a physical end-product (such as Yves Klein’s “Anthropometries,” the Viennese Actionists’ blood-smeared canvases, or even Jim Dine’s busted painting from The Smiling Workman), but then evolved into more ephemeral events where the only physical remnant was perhaps a handful of grainy documentary photographs.
For many artists, such as the Fluxus artists and the Situationists, this “anti-art” impulse to avoid creating saleable objects was part of a larger anti-capitalist agenda that was of a piece with the broader countercultural social and political sweep of the 1960s. The market, however, has a way of recuperating this kind of art, and today archival objects relating to these performances pop up regularly at art fairs, and a number of big-name living artists from that period have more recently profited from making objets that recall their earlier anti-commercial work. (Performance has also become a potential money-maker for museums as a draw for ticket sales—one of the rationales behind MoMA’s infamous and recently scrapped “Art Bay” proposal for its planned new building.)
But while digital art has its roots in earlier groups like Fluxus and Experiments in Art and Technology, and blossomed with the popularization of the World Wide Web in the gritty, anti-sellout ‘90s, today’s digital artists are not by and large anti-capitalist. Instead, perhaps they can best be likened to their technological inclined brethren in Silicon Valley, whose experiments with new formats before a profitable business model existed—such as Twitter, Amazon, Instagram, and the like—more precisely were proto-capitalist, or else anticipating new modes of capitalism. This is why startups like Daata Editions are so important: they are on the front lines of fine-tuning a nontraditional business model for how to promote, distribute, and sell digital art.
Will this new art form one day come to us through subscription services, with physical objects as upsells? Will access to streaming digital art eventually be bundled together with other paid services, à la Amazon Prime? The commercial viability of digital art depends upon the continuation of such experiments, with persistent ingenuity and the ability to see beyond the time-honoured mechanism of gallery sales. For this reason, Daata Editions deserves our gratitude, and support.
Andrew Goldstein is a veteran art and culture journalist. He is the editor-in-chief of artnet News.