Art in a Digital Age (10 Years too late edition)

When my family moved to Holland in 2012, I could not remember the last time I had been to an art museum and I most certainly couldn’t remember the last time I had an art experience. No doubt I had passed by countless public art spaces with sculptures, murals, and of course graffiti but I was never motivated or incentivized to stop and wonder about the meticulously crafted objets d’art. I would love for this to be an inspiring story of how I moved to Holland, visited the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, was inspired by the grandeur of Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch”, and lived happily ever after as an art lover. That did not happen.

The Night Watch by Rembrandt

I did visit the Rijksmuseum, walking past “The Night Watch” with crowds of selfies being taken, respectfully nodded to its status as an artistic masterpiece and walked on without a second look. Art experiences and our interactions with artworks and artists have not transitioned into the digital age. But what’s stood in our way? Why haven’t we transitioned in the ways we have with books, radio, and films? My proposition is that content is plentiful and available, artists and art organizations are willing to transition, but that we lack platforms to capitalize on the opportunities surrounding art.

I had every advantage available to me to appreciate and consume art. My mother graduated with a bachelor’s in art history and my father insisted that I needed to take an art history class during college as it was one of his most influential classes during his bachelors. Amazingly, I forwent his advice and never took an art history class. Why should I? Art is locked up in museums, mansions, and freeports (worth a read if the idea of freeports is new). I did not see how art was for me or how to access art in a way that would appeal to my increasingly digital life. That is, until I found S[Edition].

Screenshot from Transfiguration by Universal Everything on S[Edition]

I came across S[Edition] when in an entrepreneurial class a founder of Bazaart came in seeking advice on how to further monetize his photo collage app. A rabbit hole down Google led me to an odd site where I could purchase digital editions of artworks. For the first time, I was confronted with artwork that I could experience, that I could stare at endlessly. What was so different to my time spent with “The Night Watch”? Well, for one, it was in a medium I could recognize and appreciate. I am used to looking through a screen for everything, so looking at art on a screen was intuitive and natural. I could pause the artwork, mute the volume, and treat it like I do when watching videos on Netflix or Youtube. I might not have known anything about Rembrandt when looking at “The Night Watch” but when I looked at Transfiguration by Universal Everything I could read their profile, see how they described the artwork, and visit the collections of everyone who had bought an edition of Transfiguration. I was finally experiencing art and all it took was a new context. But how to define this experience and replicate it across art? B. Joseph Pine II and James H. Gilmore created a framework for an experience economy, filled with experiential goods.

From “Welcome to the experience economy” (Pine, 102)

Art does a good job fulfilling the esthetic, immersing its participants in an environment but not allowing them to affect it. Art can be entertaining, educational, and provide escapism. Although, rarely is it formatted to hit the “sweet spot” of all four realms of an experience. Digitalization offers a way to create a memorable and consistent experience that has so far been absent in art platforms. Digitalization allows us to actively participate in art without the need to physically visit galleries and museums. It allows us to go from passive participation to active participation while visiting galleries and museums, providing greater context and information through digital channels. Digitalization enables us to take an active role in our environment. We can join a social channel to discuss the art with others who have visited it, studied it, and have been part of a shared experience. We can share our experience in our social networks and we can relive these experiences through access to the content we have created.

Now that we have defined an experience around art, how can we make it matter to more people? How can we open up the experience and allow art to become part of our social framework? Because even with the digitalization and distribution of art online through platforms such as S[Edition] and Artsy, art still remains tightly locked behind these platforms. In 2013, the Rijksmuseum took an ambitious step forward and “unlocked” its collection of public domain images under an open license (most notably, CC0 1.0) and started allowing anyone to create experiences from their hundreds of thousands of artworks (currently over 338,000 images). The Met Museum in 2017 followed suit, releasing over 375,000 open access images. Europeana, a champion in the push for open access content now has a database with over 50 million European cultural items with a mission to “make it easier for people to use [cultural works], whether for work, for learning or just for fun.”

The MET’s searching collection of open access art

We now have a framework for creating experiences around art, enough content to last a lifetime, and art organizations committed to the open access and reuse of artworks. Now we need a platform to bring it all together and capitalize on this incredible opportunity. I am not going to get too finance heavy here, but just to make a point, the “online art market [has] an 8.4% share of the overall art market,” (Hiscox). There’s caveats to the 8.4%, mainly the dilution of the market by large scale purchases as seen with the recent 450 million dollar sale of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvatore Mundi”. But less than 10% of any e-commerce capable market being online is amazing to see none the less. This is only made more baffling when you learn that the artwork I referred to earlier on S[Edition], Transfiguration, has made over $66,000! There is then precedence for an online art platform to be successful and an economic roadmap for digital artists to support their artistic pursuits. However, S[Edition] and similar platforms fall into practices more in tune with traditional locked vault art markets than the open access reality of today. When buying an S[Edition] edition, you receive a “certificate of authenticity” which was brilliantly tackled in an art piece by Pau Waelder in which he mixed real and fake authenticity certificates. Artworks are hidden behind watermarks and are not available for sharing or distribution outside of the platform, inconsistent with the movement towards open access.

Art is a powerful tool that can be central to our societal conversation and consciousness. For this to happen, we need platforms made to create experiences and to make use of open access. I founded Holland Park Media to tackle these problems. We are proud to be launching Azelo, which we believe will be the first of many platforms to make use (re-use) of the opportunities available in the digital age of art. The future of art is a new frontier, not novel to artists who are continuously pushing societal boundaries, but new to businesses trying to capture the experience and excitement of art and translate that experience to as many people as possible.

Written by: Charles Weiler-Ulin