What does it mean to “buy” digital art?

August 6, 2015

How do you buy or sell a piece of digital art? Sam Sedgman explores notions of ownership in a digital age.

Six months ago, an artist called Michael Green tried to sell a GIF he’d made. It was inspired by Jeff Koons’s Balloon Dog, which went under the hammer for $58.4m in 2013 – the most expensive artwork ever sold by a living artist. Green priced his GIF, Balloon Dog Deflated, at $5,800 – a mere 1/10,000th of Koons’s sale price – when he listed the GIF for sale on eBay.

That’s right: $5,800. For a GIF. This GIF, in fact:

Koons' iconic Balloon Dog

A lot of reporters filed stories about how this was ridiculous – and it is, in many ways, ridiculous – asking why anyone would buy something that’s there, online, for free, and that you can right click to copy and save any time you like. There’s no need to buy a GIF. Why would you?

Well, someone did. Though it didn’t go for $5,800, it did end up selling for a little over $200. Which is hardly a headline, since someone bought another GIF for $1,300 at a New York auction house in 2013. That might sound like a lot, but scroll back a few paragraphs to Jeff Koons’s $60m. This isn’t new. Art, like everything, is worth what someone is willing to pay for it.

People buy GIFs. Artists have been making and selling them for a while. There’s even a whole website, GIFMarket, devoted to it. And it’s not just GIFs. The artist Stuart Semple recently sold five websites through another eBay auction, attracting bids of several hundred pounds. But he seemed as surprised as anyone: “I have no idea (if they’ll sell)!” Semple told an interviewer from Dazed, “I’ve never done anything like this before!”.

“Art, like everything, is worth what someone is willing to pay for it.”

In a world still making up its mind about the impact digital technology will have on the art marketplace, trying to sell a GIF or a website is almost an act of conceptual art in itself. Because ‘owning’ these things doesn’t mean the same as owning a Picasso. Though Semple’s sites have sold, they are still freely accessible to the public. They can’t be taken home. Indeed, one could argue that nothing meaningful changes about them when they are passed from one hand to another, other than perhaps a nametag. Nothing happens when you buy these things. So why does anyone bother?

Semple and Green talk about these sales in terms of subversion: of creating a spectacle in a volatile marketplace where nobody is quite sure what buying digital art means. But this isn’t really the case. Patterns are certainly emerging – and one company, Sedition, has managed to position itself as the main player in the world of buying and selling digital artworks since it was founded in 2011.

“Screens are the new walls,” claims Robert Norton, Sedition’s CEO. And if you want a Damien Hirst on your phone, or a Tracey Emin on your TV, then Sedition is definitely the place to go. Pieces designed specifically to be experienced digitally are sold through Sedition’s in-app store for anywhere from £5 up to £1,500.

“In a world still making up its mind about the impact digital technology will have on the art marketplace, trying to sell a GIF or a website is almost an act of conceptual art in itself.”

Though Green and Semple might be just as unsure as I am about how, or even if, the marketplace for digital art exists, Sedition has gone to great lengths to establish fixed rules and practices, standardising the process of buying digital art in order to create a stable, profitable platform. For a company whose name means ‘inciting people to overthrow the established order’, its model is surprisingly rooted in the traditional architecture of selling physical art.

Here’s how it works. You download the app to your phone, tablet or TV, and browse Sedition’s extensive collection of exclusive digital artworks. When you find one you like, you can purchase it to add it to your ‘Vault’ – where you can look at it as much as you like. Each piece of artwork comes with a certificate of authenticity, and each is part of a ‘limited edition’ – so after a set number of copies have been sold, they can no longer be bought from the store.

Though Sedition confers ownership of an artwork on you, it’s not an ownership free of restrictions. For one thing, you aren’t free to do with the artwork as you wish. If it’s a video, for example, you can’t download it – you have to stream it from the site directly, like a very exclusive version of YouTube. And whatever the artwork, it can only be viewed through the app itself. It’s a bit like a furniture shop where you’re able to buy a chair, but you can’t take that chair out of the shop. And if that’s the case, do you really own the chair?

“In order to create an environment that feels and behaves like a familiar marketplace, Sedition has had to restrict the true nature of the digital world.”

It seems unfair to compare a digital platform for selling digital art to a physical shop selling physical things, but Sedition invites that comparison itself. By restricting (some would say ‘securing’) how digital art is sold, Sedition creates an environment that is familiar enough to attract seasoned art collectors and make them comfortable enough to buy and sell there. This is vital. Words like ‘vault’ are reassuringly physical. Names like Hirst and Emin add to the high-end appeal, as does the sleek design and the familiar vocabulary of the world of fine art.

It is also careful to provide you with a certificate of authenticity to demonstrate that your purchase is real. Because how else could you tell? A ‘forgery’ of a digital artwork is identical to the original. Furthermore, Sedition is only able to sell digital artworks at all because digital files can be transported and recreated freely and instantly on any device. Turning on your phone to access artwork you’ve purchased relies on copying the image data from Sedition’s server onto your phone – in exactly the same way as a forgery would be produced. In some sense, you are ‘forging’ the artwork every time you look at it.

“Our understanding of how digital books and digital art should be valued comes from a connection to their incarnations as objects, which they fundamentally don’t have.”

I know this line of thinking seems ridiculous – it makes no sense to paste the vocabulary of physical artworks over the services that Sedition or any other digital art seller offers, because they are completely different beings. But that’s the point – it seems entirely bizarre to treat one as though it were the other, but we have no other way to think about digital art. We have to rely on metaphor, to treat these artworks as strange invisible paintings or sculptures. But that’s not really the case.

In 2013, Amazon patented the concept of the ‘used ebook store’ – a place where customers could sell on ebooks they had finished with at a reduced cost. The idea was widely ridiculed – because of course a used ebook is identical to a brand new one, so how can it be ‘used’? But Sedition’s Trade platform – which allows owners to put their digital artworks up for sale at a price of their choice – takes on much the same model. A used art store, if you like. But it seems much less ridiculous (and it actually works) because we have a perception of art increasing in value with time, unlike books: art is a commodity, an investment – and books aren’t. Our understanding of how digital books and digital art should be valued comes from a connection to their incarnations as objects which they fundamentally don’t have.

It took some time for photography and film to be treated seriously as art forms – and given time, our attitudes to digital art may well be transformed in a similar way. Each new technological leap changes how we see art, how we see all kinds of culture. And with the digital revolution, we are also changing how and why we buy things.

The main reason we used to buy these things – books, paintings, music – was to access a cultural experience. You’d buy the vinyl record to hear the music; buy the DVD to watch the film. But now these objects are being superseded by digital services that give us direct access to the art itself, so owning those books, records and DVDs is becoming much less important. We are far more likely to pay (or not pay) to stream cultural media through Spotify or YouTube. What we are paying for is the privilege of access, not the right to own something. Even when the language of ownership is used, there are often restrictions – for example, purchasing an ebook that can only be read on a certain device, through a certain online store, which cannot be leant, photocopied or donated to a charity shop.

“It took some time for photography and film to be treated seriously as art forms – and given time, our attitudes to digital art may well be transformed in a similar way.”

With fewer people actually buying stuff, it’s easy to see how this new model affects artists. More and more creators are putting their work out into the world for free, and using crowdfunding platforms such as Patreon and Kickstarter to then leverage support directly from a core group of passionate fans. These groups are willing to buy the artists’ work because they care about it, because they want to support the artist, and because the perks and rewards that come with it offer them a close association with art that means something to them. It’s the difference between watching a film, and buying it to add to your collection; the difference between seeing some digital art, and knowing you own it.

In a world where we can consume art and culture without having to buy anything, electing to own something, or support someone, becomes a personal act of commitment rather than a fee to access an experience. We choose these purchases more judiciously because they say something about us. And they can say something about us even if they don’t get us anything we can actually hold in our hands.

In the digital world, we are all art collectors; we are all curating an artistic portfolio. Less often are we buying to get something – instead, we are buying to have bought something. To know we have, to say we have, to feel we have. The fact that I can easily copy a GIF selling for $1,000 doesn’t undercut the truth that someone will choose to pay for it, just to be the person who owns it. And sure, I can stream my favourite band’s new album for free – but I’ll choose to buy it on CD all the same because I want to own it: to experience it in a way that’s more than just listening to it. Screens may be the new walls, but not everyone is happy to make do with pinning a postcard of the Mona Lisa onto them. Someone wants to have the original – to buy the right to say “I own it – it’s mine – and it makes me who I am”.

Sam Sedgman is a freelance writer and digital producer. @samuelsedgman

Want to read more on digital art? Try our resourcesHow tech is shaping art and design, Apps&art & Virtual gallery