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The rise of digital art in the 21st century

The rise of digital art

The oldest form of visual art goes as far back as at least 40,000 years with depictions of animals in caves in Indonesia, Spain and France. Since that time, art has constantly evolved, but at its fundamentals, it continues to inspire and resonate with the viewer’s senses, mind and feelings. The digital age began between 1950 and 1970 and it caused a significant pivot in the art space with artists applying their techniques to digital mediums for mass consumption. In a literal sense, digital art can be defined as “contemporary art that uses mass-production methods via digital media.”

The rise of the internet, social media, motion pictures and art contests has had a massive impact on visual art and what was once considered as a very niche market is now mainstream. Online images have been enhanced in one way or another and digital illustrations were created using computer graphics using a virtual canvas and tools such as brushes and colours. Despite their existence only in the digital realm, these ‘digital artworks’ have been surprisingly easy to master for the public, who have welcomed these tools with open arms. 

What is digital art?

Simply put, digital art is anything visual that artists have created using a computer. With everything digitised in the world we live in, the convenience, accessibility and affordability means that it is without a shadow of a doubt, a tool for the future. Digital art has also blurred the boundaries between the different mediums as art is now incorporated into three-dimensional television and AI (artificial intelligence) to create immersive environments in television and video games. 

While at first glance it might be impossible to distinguish between digital and non-digital painting, the process is entirely different along with the benefits and challenges of each form. Choosing the best tools to create a masterpiece in digital art requires expertise and ingenuity and with the need of multiple software applications, artists are always uncertain how the final version of digital artwork will look. However, the benefits of it are that the creation process can be reversed in a step-by-step format which is a time saver.

Rise of digital art
Have tablets, apps and stylus’ replaced the conventional brush and canvas?

Challenges faced by digital artists

However, the downside to digital art is that it’s difficult for artists to protect their copyrighted work when it’s on the internet. People often download art from the internet without giving due credit to the artist and can even claim other’s work as their own while remaining blissfully unaware of copyright laws. This has forced digital artists to leave signatures, watermarks and copyright information but it hasn’t been enough to reassure potential buyers. 

Amongst purists, there is an argument that digital art isn’t real because it’s computer-generation and an artist can produce infinite copies and no tangible original. In contrast, a traditional artist creates a one-of-a-kind visual art that exists physically. Moreover, digital artwork can be at the risk of viruses, power surges, hacking etc while canvas paintings can be eaten by bugs or the art can degrade with sunlight or other natural causes.

Also read: Traditional art forms and its role in storytelling

Has NFT revolutionised the digital art world?

The word NFT has been trending on social media for a long time but what exactly is it? NFTs are the blockchain-based equivalent of collectable trading cards. The innovation has led to many new artists coming into the art market and has given easy access to potential buyers to own a unique or limited edition NFT art with just a few clicks. The rise of NFTs has radically changed how art collectables can be bought, sold, tracked or authenticated. 

An NFT links digital work with a token which an artist can access on an encrypted artwork platform. The key can be passed to the buyer to certify proof of ownership and authenticity. Digital artists can sell just one or a limited edition offering by issuing a set amount of tokens to ensure scarcity, thereby keeping the value of their artwork high. The uniqueness of NFTs is that they cannot be destroyed and for the first time in history, a single person can own limited-edition digital assets that can be tracked to make their ownership transparent and verifiable.

How are new NFTs created?

Artists can create new forms of an NFT and its versatility helps artists innovate and increase their sales beyond traditional revenue streams. Moreover, technology has led to a more equitable distribution of value art and experiences. For example, Mike Winkelman was unknown to the traditional art world before his NFT “Everydays: The First 5,000 Days” sold for $68.3M in March 2021, making it the third most valuable artwork in history. However, before the sale, his worth was estimated to be just $100!

In 2021, NFT sale volumes surged 1000% as people’s interest in digital art grew exponentially. NFTs were not just linked to the artwork but also videos, music, collectables etc with Twitter’s very first tweet by Jack Dorsey selling for $3 million as an NFT. St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum plans to photograph its work and tokenize them, selling their images for thousands of dollars which have completely changed the way modern art is viewed and owned. 

Most expensive NFT ever sold
Everydays: The First 5000 Days is a collage of 5000 digital images created by Winkelmann for his Everydays series (Image source: Wikipedia)

Pivoting art during the COVID-19 pandemic

During the COVID-19 pandemic, a study carried out by the International Council of Museums (ICOM) proved that 30% of museums were forced to reduce their staff while 6% were forced to close for good. However, with the digitisation of museums becoming mainstream, they are turning towards NFTs to increase their revenue streams. Three of the largest museums in the world – the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg (No. 2), the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City (No. 4), and the British Museum in London (No. 12) have relied on NFTs for fundraising in 2021 while there is an entire museum based on the Metaverse called Museum of Digital Life.

In the old days, if you wanted to view art, you would go to a gallery. Today, screens are considered the new walls and NFTs give greater accessibility of the art world to the masses. Visual art is no longer reserved just for the wealthy and the general public can also purchase art at a lower cost securely and transparently. The art industry is estimated to be a US$65 billion industry out of which 90% of transactions are still over-the-counter. However, the risks involved in the ‘traditional medium’ include price manipulation, secret commissions and art forgery.

Advantages of NFTs in the art market 

Buying NFTs is publicly verifiable, easy to track and can confirm authenticity. It also allows instant, direct transactions without the involvement of banks, eliminating associated costs and clearance time. It’s clear that NFTs have been the biggest disruptors in the art world with CryptoArt being the second highest-selling artist of all time with a $65 million market capitalization while Bored Ape Yacht Club ranks first with the last NFT selling for over $1 million,

So who are the traditional buyers of NFTs? Usually, they appeal to younger, entrepreneurial individuals who tend to come from a tech background with the majority (58%) individuals coming from the millennial demographic. Nearly all bidders for NFTs were new to Christie’s (auction house) so it’s fair to say that in the traditional art circles, they would be regarded as ‘new money’. 

Digital art is now recognised as legitimate art and the concept will improve in the coming years. With artificial intelligence becoming increasingly mainstream, it does raise the question of whether the creator is indeed a digital artist or just a curator. Is he just an individual who entered prompts into an AI machine to create artwork? One thing’s for certain, digital art is here to stay and its trajectory is virtually impossible to predict given how quickly technology is advancing.

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