What is the Price of Art in Cyberspace?

The economics of art on the Web is quite different from the material art of the past.

Anyone who follows the "art world" knows that there is such a thing as the "art market" in which individual works of art are bought and sold for prices that can fluctuate quite wildly. A leading example, known to all is the work of Vincent Van Gogh, who was able to sell not a single of his works at any price during his lifetime, yet whose works sold in the late1980's for the highest prices ever, approaching a hundred million dollars.

What makes an art work so valuable? For one thing, the art must be famous, in high repute, at least within the art world. Second, of course, it usually helps if the artist is dead, for then she or he can produce no more works. The total quantity of objects to be sold is thus limited. As long as the artist continues to be fashionable and accepted, the limited number of works ought to continue to demand higher prices. (Of course, in practice there is some added complexity. For one, as art works are recognized for commanding high prices, speculators can enter the market, boosting the prices even higher in the hopes that such prices will rise forever. Prices spike up, until suddenly there is no more ready cash rushing into the market, at which point prices fall considerably, though still remaining much higher than at prior cyclical lows min the art market.)

So high prices correspond with fame for an artist, and that usually corresponds to reproductions or images of the original works being spread very widely. Because they are so widespread, these copies are worth very little, but the more common they are, the greater the attention paid, and so the higher the prices of the few originals, which uniquely were actually touched by the artist's own hands. But suppose now that a new artist emerges who makes use of nothing other than cyberspace, that is who creates digital art that may be seen on her own computer screen, or equally well on the screens of anyone who has access to her website. Because this art is only digital, anyone may download a perfect copy that is utterly indistinguishable from the original. How can such a work be sold? The more people look at it, the more copies exist; in themselves they differ not at all from the original. No art collector would need to pay anything for owning one. No museum benefactor would see the need for buying one to be "hung in a museum.

The artist might attempt to assure some scarcity value by restricting who can look at her work. If so, she will also limit the attention her art gets, which for a normal work of art would diminish its monetary worth. She might also try something like selling the computer on which she originally created the work, perhaps offering some papers proving its authenticity, and signing the whole thing. But that would be a little like a painter's collectors seeking not only the finished works, but the palettes, easels and leftover paint tubes connected with each one. But little would be gained by looking at those accoutrements along with the work itself, especially since for artists working in the same medium, the extras would all look pretty much alike. A cyber-artist's computer would have nothing special about it. A museum full of such computers would detract rather than add to the experience of seeing the works themselves. No one would bother to go there.

So Web art can't really be owned by a collector or a museum, at least not in the sense of a collection that would grow in ordinary monetary value. As long as the artist is known to have created the work, the attention that goes to it goes to the artist too, so in a very real sense she keeps on owning the work. And in cyberspace, this is really the only type of ownership there is: the ownership of attention itself. A collector can't collect the work as such, but can collect the attention of the artist or of her fans or both. As a cyber-art collector you would "collect" you favorite art websites, by placing links to their URL's on your own site. If you are admired because of your taste, discernment, and abilities in discovering worthwhile art, numerous art lovers will tune into your web site, and see what you have recently bagged. The better your "collection" the more others will look to you, and the more attention you will get for yourself. But you will actually own none of the art.

Even if you don't have incredible art-spotting talents, you may still become known to the artist, and indirectly to her fans. All you have to do is offer her attention in a more mundane way, satisfying some of her wants and needs, in that way being a kind of benefactor. One way to do this currently would be to provide her with money enough to live on and to pursue her projects, or at least to supply her with some good fraction of that for a time. Another way would be to provide her with other kinds of help, from getting her software she needs to setting up mirror sites for her art, or just being a sympathetic listener, among endless other ways to pay attention.

It's much easier to do this effectively if the artist is still alive; not only can she thank you personally but she can authenticate your helpfulness and interest for others. If you wait until she's dead, all you can do is somehow keep records of her works or make sure they survive, and if she is well enough liked, there are plenty of people who would do that, leaving you one among many, and gaining you nothing special. The only exception would be if you rediscover some long-ignored web site of a dead artist, and then successfully draw lots of attention to it.

In cyberspace then, art is no longer in any sense a commodity for speculators. To succeed even as a "collector" you must have strong empathy with the artist, and be able to draw attention yourself for these qualities. Your artistic temperament, and not much else, will be your only real assets.

This doesn't imply that life for web artists will be easy. It is so easy to enter the field, that most who do will command but little attention. What it does show is that the economics of art on the Web is quite different from the material art of the past. And not just for artists, but, in reality, for everyone, for in cyberspace art is the paradigm for all activity. (Michael H. Goldhaber)