Tracey Emin on iPhone
Digital art lacking an aura?
Some of London’s best known artists are producing digitally replicable artworks that function as screensavers or desktop backgrounds. What would Walter Benjamin say?
s[edition] is a website dedicated to selling digital editions of art. Contributing artists include Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, whose work can be downloaded for "affordable" prices. For instance, you can get a limited edition Hirst skull to put on your mobile phone for £500 although prices start at about £50.
Buyers keep a copy of the artwork, which is numbered and authenticated, in an online "vault". In turn, this is accessed via connected devices like iPads or internet-enabled televisions.
As art critic Jonathan Jones says in the Guardian newspaper, “occasionally, a supposed wonder of the new age makes me mutter the question: "Why?"”
In an interview for the BBC, Tracey Emin claims this gives art back to the masses at an affordable price. But commentators have protested - rightly - that £500 for a mobile phone background is ludicrous and unlikely to attract anyone apart from the superrich.
This is all very different to the more reasonable prices, and good cause, of something like the RCA Secret. They might be postcards, but at least they’re tangible.
And it’s also interestingly contrasted with some of the more interesting experimentations in digital media. With s[edition] you are basically buying a digital image of a real work of art. Why shouldn’t the art itself be in digital form? For a good example, we can look to the One Dot Zero digital film festival.
Or another illustration is David Hockney, who has taken to producing (mainly dreadful) artworks on his iPhone. The Guardian art critic describes his work as playing “creatively and idealistically with a new medium.” And at least they are interesting.
Back to Benjamin
So what would Water Benjamin say? In his famous essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, he emphasises that being able to reproduce a work of art changes its meaning (and relationship to capitalism). He says: “In principle a work of art has always been reproducible... Mechanical reproduction of a work of art, however, represents something new.”
So what of s[edition]? Benjamin talks about a key characteristic of the manual production (i.e. the painting, sculpting) of a work of art being its “aura”. A photo, or a digital app for your iPhone, lacks this. Yet somehow, the art on show at One Dot Zero doesn’t.