2020.08.01 Sat, by
Demented Digital: No online saviour for auctions

by Chris Moore

“Auction sales across all formats nearly halved in the year to July 10, according to ArtTactic’s “2020 In Review” report published this week. Total sales at Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips fell from $5.7bn in the equivalent period last year to $2.9bn in 2020.”Auction sales halve in 2020 in spite of online boost, by Melanie Gelis, Financial Times, July 24, 2020: https://www.ft.com/content/5389a93d-836e-4525-9cac-0ca2b639c6ad (pay wall)

The art market continues to cling to the false hope of a digital savior. This is deluded.

Funnily enough it repeats a frequent misconception about digital art: mistaking the medium for the message when often the medium is…just medium, and mediocre at that. To be blunt, the digital art market is not bigger, more important or even more efficient than the existing physical market. This is, unsurprisingly, partly because in the case of art, still mainly physical objects, the digital, the virtual are generally not as good as the real thing (unless they are the real thing: the art itself, not an image of it but the digital recording…as you see, things quickly get circular, but we are not interested in a course of 101 Art Philosophy here, so back to the real world…). It is also because the art market operates in a top-down way, meaning that personal relationships are absolutely crucial – whether or not digital technologies are used to maintain them is beside the point. While lots of millennials may lazily click cool on an image of a giant blow up doll floating in a harbor, it is monetized in negotiations with collectors and related merchandise deals for Muji shops (like the music industry, increasingly popular new art relies upon the audience’s ignorance of history. C’est la vie).

Accordingly, there is little to be drawn from the reported online sales at Art Basel. As usual, sales staff at galleries email and phone and send WeChat and WhatsApp messages to their clients. Yes, some artworks are sold using digital platforms such as artnet and artsy but this does not replace the existing market. Nor would we want it to, for it is really boring to reduce the experience of art to catalogue browsing. And besides, we already have auctions for that.

This is not to dismiss online viewing rooms. They are repetitive and dull but right now also necessary, or at least better than nothing. The bigger issue is how can new technologies make the experience of art more interesting. The benefits of bringing museums to isolated classrooms are obvious but benefits to the market are less clear other than simply more images and (very imperfect) price comparison.

The real advantage of adapting technology to the art market will be storage – location, security, insurance. But the real innovations will come not from new technology but simply scale – the bigger and more fluid the market, the more opportunities there will be for exhibiting, collecting and trading art, and in some cases also for controlling supply and even market manipulation. But we will leave that discussion for another day.

Meanwhile, something less easily defined and more intriguing is happening. Howsoever the art market may like to present itself, the practice of art making is fragmenting. It is increasingly cross-disciplinary, and not merely between related media such as film, design, fashion and architecture, but also with biology, physics and politics (it always had these links but now they are increasingly diverse, complicated, frequent and influential – think of the works of Olaf Elliasson and Tomás Saraceno). It is also increasingly unmediated, with artists becoming famous without the need for galleries, collectors and museums. They don’t even need to be talented, merely social media savvy. Finland has already given away traditional school subjects such as physics, math, languages, in favor of an interdisciplinary world – it makes sense, because this is how the world is. This is just the beginning. Many other areas of society are going to be structured in increasingly interdisciplinary and fluid ways. Artistic practice will be a mode of thought applied to many aspects of life, but that does not mean it will necessarily have an economic value or commercial system the way it does now. It will still be traded because it usually has a decorative value of some sort and is a conveniently transportable marker of value. Whether such things will be of any interest to the most brilliant artistic minds of the near future is however utterly uncertain, doubtful even – except perhaps in the field of trademark licensing.

So while we mope desultorily through yet another online viewing room, scroll through the latest auction sale, ignore the don’t-miss-digital-forum, remember this is actually the smallest, least interesting corner of the expanding art universe. The digital experience is still flawed and inadequate compared with reality. Or rather, it is something different. It replaces nothing, yet. Or perhaps the art world is just averse to moving fast and breaking things. As the Joker says–

“Introduce A Little Anarchy, Upset The Established Order, And Everything Becomes Chaos.”