Is this the end or beginning of digital art?

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Here I am again asking a question just as profound as what is the meaning of life? How do you really sell a digital piece of art?


I remember reading on the interweb a while ago that a gentleman by the name of Michael Green tried to sell a GIF he had created. The GIF was inspired by the work of Jeff Koon. The piece, "Balloon Dog" went under the hammer for $58.4m in 2013. At the time this was the most expensive artwork ever sold by a living artist.


What Mr Green did was place his GIF on eBay for the princely sum of $5,800. Many reporters at the time laughed at the idea and filed many stories about how ridiculous it was to sell a GIF image for this price. Clearly no one took it seriously. Especially given that there are millions upon millions of free GIFs, all readily consumed with just a few clicks.


There was an expectation that it wouldn’t sell, it did, but it only managed $200. Someone else purchased another GIF from a New York auction house in 2013 for the grand total of $1,300. Given that you can get apps in Apple's App Store that generate GIFs from multiple photographs, it might even be worth a try!


Art it seems though is worth whatever someone wants to pay for it. Always has been. This I know to be true because some of my work that I did a very long time ago had a varying range of prices. I used to ask people to make me an offer on some of my digital work. Once it was printed out, stretched on a great quality canvas, and after making sure the file was destroyed immediately after the sale, I managed to move a number of pieces. People still make me offers, but nowadays they're not quite so ridiculous as they were back then. Digital my friends, is finally starting to be accepted.


That is how I originally controlled my editions. Nowadays with so many platforms and a much larger market, I very rarely do that unless someone commissions a piece of digital work from me. I always provide the customer with a secure hard disk containing the image, but the file on my system is completely wiped.


In fact I never store digital works locally on a device, they are stored on a number of hard disks across my geeky network and this means I can wipe the entire disk to ensure the integrity of the work and that it can never be sold again. Of course, it is then up to the client to protect the work in the future.


A digital limited edition can never be guaranteed to be limited. Much in the way that a classic from Monet can be copied with some decent brushes, an aged canvas, and a whole bunch of specially prepared paint created in the way that it was during Monet's years.


Digital is also difficult to frame. Unless it's a print, then it becomes like every other artwork. With digital I always ask clients how they want to frame the art, assuming always that they want a print of the work. I wasn't expecting the answer last week when a client said, oh, perhaps on a 32 Gigabyte USB stick. Finally a client who gets digital!


But there is something else just around the corner. Something that excites me a little, and scares me a lot. Could this something become the Spotify of the art world? Does this open a new market for Print On Demand services such as Fine Art America,, Zazzle, Society 6, and others?


Many questions and many opportunities arise from the latest Kickstarter idea that reached 60% of its target, just a half day after the launch. "Look" is the new Kickstarter in question, a device that delivers seemingly unlimited art and the end user has to do nothing apart from pay for the device together with a monthly subscription.


"Look" is essentially a digital photo frame that is significantly different to previous incarnations in that it connects to a subscription service "Look Connect" through a 24-inch diagonal high-definition photo frame screen that provides the owner with all of the art that is made available through the Connect service, and it's a lot of art.


I must admit to being a relatively early adopter of the digital photo frame, and at a time when a HD display was nowhere near achievable for the price. This to me feels different. It is a solid ideology, won’t repeat photographs of next doors, friends, friends dog, unless of course you want it to.


A digital subscription to art though is concerning for artists selling via print on demand. The general demographic of clients I deal with look for good value art that matches the decor, and not necessarily a Renoir. Other clients look for beautiful works that are printed on museum quality canvas.


But there is probably a middle market that I as yet do not reach. Those technically savvy art lovers who like the latest tech, and like digital art delivered digitally. The upfront cost when the device is finally released, and early indications show a very strong possibility that it will be, is not insignificant at $499 plus a $9.99 per month subscription.


Although collectors who want to own a real canvas will continue to do so, my thoughts initially are that there are some who buy frequently from Fine Art America, Zazzle and other print on demand services and they might just be interested by the idea that they can, as long as they subscribe, access their favourite photo streams from popular social media sites such as Flikr, Box, Dropbox, Shutterfly etc. showing an almost unlimited supply of images (probably in some cases, cats and meme’s which are being uploaded every minute), there will certainly be a seemingly never ending supply of poor, and also great art.


The access will also include the 50 million or so images from the Getty Photos Library, and a further 500,000 classic works of art from all over the world and from all centuries. It quickly becomes clearly apparent that this might be enough to at least draw some custom away from print on demand. That is unless a new model is introduced into the print on demand services, but I can see the losers in this will be the artists.


Royalties will almost likely be less for artists, and much, much lower I expect than the royalties given to musicians and pop stars. On the flipside, it might start producing a low but consistent trickle of royalties paid to artists.


The "Look" has a Linux Raspberry Pi computer inside it, connecting via Wi-Fi to the "Look Connect service". That's where the product really shines, because a "Look Connect" account ($9.95 per month) will offer pretty much all of the art you need.


Maybe a number of devices within the same home will be a possibility. I can certainly see a use in the foyer of large companies. They are already planning delivery through SMART connected devices via Laube’s other start-up "Artkick", a sister service to Look.


More worryingly, I do think that the real winner might not be the technology, but imagine having a Spotify type subscription on your iPad or PC, or even the Smart TV in the lounge. The subscription will become the clear winner, although the software to drive the service will be a further income stream for SMART TV and device manufacturers.


My guess is that the subscription service will be aimed in the future at non PC devices, and the "Look" frame will start the ball rolling. If you are already working with a PC, then art on the internet is two a penny. People steal images all of the time to use as screensavers, and whatever other creative use they have.


Finally, there's an entire additional selection of art created by the Kickstarters wife, Nancy Laube a professional artist who specialises in urban multimedia images. No doubt as an early contributor to the platform, we will see a surge in at least Nancy’s popularity as an artist. Who knows, the less cynical side of me thinks that it might be a good promotional tool for emerging artists.


Clearly from this less cynical perspective it is possible that people might see some art and really want to give it as a gift, hang it up in another room, and potentially some additional sales could still come through the print on demand, and traditional art seller routes. Although I expect the subscription model may have also factored that in, providing your favourites on demand in print form. If they haven’t I will take a guess that it will only be a matter of time before they do.


There is a lot of control for users. They can specify very granularly the type of art they would like to display in "Look". For example, if you're really into landscapes from a specific period in time, you can set that preference to show only those works or art. Or, if you really like Matisse’s art, you can specify that. If you only want to show certain friends' photos from Instagram, that too can be preordained. It seems everything has been thought about.


Laube is well known around Silicon Valley as a serial entrepreneur ("Look" is his fifth start-up). He served as Chief Technology Officer at Novell in the early 1990s and has co-founded Internet consulting firm US Web and IT services hosting provider CenterBeam. He was founder and CEO of Zwamy Inc. which developed "Look Connects" cloud-based software.


I guess we will have to wait and see what happens, but if I were operating a Print on Demand service, I would certainly be trying to join the party. There will always be a market for art. There will always be a market for real physical framed prints and originals. The tactile feel of great art is something that will never be replicated on a screen however good. This though might just take away a few of the lower end art collectors, it's certainly disruptive enough to have an impact somewhere within the market. Add a subscription to the Oculus Rift, the Facebook owned Virtual Reality headset, and we might start seeing a Virtual Museum that can change its exhibited items in line with the physical location. Or, you might just be able to curate your own.


Do you think "Look" is a great idea? Do you think it will detract from Print on Demand? Would you be interested in a subscription? And do you think that Print On Demand services should leap in at the beginning? Leave a comment below, let’s start the debate!


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