May 30, 2024

Art: Value, Meaning and Information in a Digital World

Art: Value, Meaning and Information in a Digital World

Shortly before the launch of his “Currency” project in July 2021, Damien Hirst recorded a conversation with Mark Carney, former governor of the Bank of England. The Currency was a conceptual art initiative in which 10,000 paintings, each composed of a unique arrangement of coloured dots, were sold accompanied by an NFT. After a year, purchasers had to decide whether to keep the painting and destroy the NFT or vice versa.

The Currency's Dilemma

During the video, Hirst and Carney discuss the similarities and differences between art and money as stores of value. “If you put the value aside,” asks Hirst at one point, “which would you rather have, the NFT or the painting?” He answers his own question, “Of course, the answer is that you can’t put the value aside”.

In the end, buyers of The Currency preferred physical to digital by a small majority of 51% to 49%. Artnet declared this outcome to be a referendum on NFTs. However, in August 2022 when the result was declared, the daily average value of NFT sales was 90% off its peak of a year earlier, so it is perhaps surprising that anyone should have wanted the NFT at all. Was Damien wrong when he said you can’t put the value aside, or were people just buying the dip in the market? This begs a further question: where does the value of an artwork come from in the first place?

Botticelli, Bardi Altarpiece (1484-1485)
Botticelli, Bardi Altarpiece (1484-1485)

Decoding Artistic Value

The contract for Botticelli’s 1485 Bardi Altarpiece has been held up as an early example of how, during the 15th century, the value of artworks began to be separated from their material inputs. The contract distinguished between the value of the altarpiece’s materials (40 florins) and the value of Botticelli’s ‘brush’ (35 florins). Nowadays, the value of an artwork is rarely even based on its material inputs. As Hirst pointed out in his conversation with Carney, “we give painting almost an infinite value, but its ingredients are nothing”.  Even the technical skill of the artist has a limited influence. After all, the paintings in The Currency, were specifically designed so that it was easy to make 10,000 of them by hand and yet, having sold at issue for £2000 each, their value has increased to up to £30,000 (the NFTs, in case you were wondering, currently sell for about £2900).

No, the value of an artwork mainly comes from intangible factors such as the artistic idea behind the piece and the viewers experience of it, the collector who owns it, the status of the artist, the reputation of the gallery and the cultural impact it has had on the world. These factors accumulate to form a kind of collective memory that gives meaning to the object as it journeys through time and space, beyond the fact of its physical existence.  

Prehistoric paintings from Lascaux Caves in Montignac, France
Prehistoric paintings from Lascaux Caves in Montignac, France

This takes us back to the very origins of art. Artistic representations of the world have been found from the dawn of pre-history, millennia before the adoption of agriculture, urban settlement, writing, or any of the other markers of human social development. Art provided a means to make sense of life and to cement shared community values. In turn, objects were held in common by the community and their history became part of the collective memory.

Yet the world moved on and art began to be traded and so too gain status that transcended individual communities. In response, new ways were needed to record and share information about the significance of these objects. For a long time, this has been done through a combination of connoisseurship and scholarship. Expert curators and researchers acting as authorities and arbiters of the truth - albeit not without dispute and controversy - investigate, record and opine on the vital intangibles, publishing their work in catalogue raisonées, sale catalogues and scholarly articles.

The dawn of the digital era poses challenges to the traditional art market's processes

Challenges in the Digital Era

But the globalisation of the art market, the proliferation of artists and collectors and, more recently, the development of digital and generative art have exposed the limitations of this system.

In part, the problem is that there is just too much art and too much information for any body of experts to process. The issue is made worse because it is becoming ever more difficult to know what is real. Data can be reproduced in an instant and just as easily doctored or changed. Digital art, where data is the medium, obviously suffers the same fate but so too, increasingly, does physical art, and not just prints. Even forgery (technically, reproduction) can now be automated and with the advent of generative AI, fakery is heading in the same direction.

In these circumstances, is it possible any longer reliably to attach meaning to individual objects? Does it not become a mere function of publicity, forcing artists and collectors to engage in a never-ending cycle of hype or risk foundering to obscurity under the flood of data? Does art get reduced to a set of online images, ubiquitous, hyper-available, detached from the tangible world and monetised through a pay-per-use licensing regime? In other words, in the encounter between digital and physical, does the digital ultimately prevail?

Such a dematerialised world would seem incomplete and would run counter to deeply held instincts that the value of art resides in the particular, not the general. Artist David Ray made a series of paintings using the same paper and technique as Damian Hirst, titled “The Currency is Not Burnt”. Stylistically, these are identical to the Hirsts, but whereas the latter sell for up £30,000 as we noted earlier, you can buy a Ray for £995 – clearly it is not just the images people are buying.  

So, what can be done to bolster the physical and the unique against the digital onslaught? NFTs and blockchain have been touted as the answer but, while they can secure unique records, the links between NFTs and the artifacts they are supposed to represent have hitherto been weak. This means that the experience of owning an NFT is entirely detached from the experience of the art it relates to. There is also a practical problem in that, without a strong connection confirming that the digital record relates to the unique physical object, we must continue to rely on the same over-worked and non-scalable body of experts that is already overwhelmed.

Artclear: Bridging the Gap

This is where Artclear comes in. Our unique infrastructure enables people to create indelible links between important facts about a work of art, verifiably attributable to their sources and the unique object to which the facts relate. This is a simple, yet profound, connection. It makes it possible to create a memory of each object, made up of the experiences of the many people who touch it over its life: artists, galleries, scholars, exhibitors and owners. And since shared memory and shared experience are the very essence of community, this memory becomes a basis around which communities of interest can be built and maintained across both time and space. It also means that the things that give the artwork value will never be lost or forgotten. And, as we know, you can never put value aside.