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Digital art: hindsights and outlooks

Digital art, digital art, crypto-art, NFTs... As the virtual facet of art becomes more and more prominent in the world, the terms are jostling and clashing until they become confusing. Today, digital art is gaining momentum - not only on the artists' side, but also in the interest of collectors. As the medium popularizes with the digitalization of everyday life, it has further experienced an exponential growth with the COVID-19 crisis; in turn the medium is leading the unprecedented growth of the contemporary art market in 2021. Furthermore, Artprice reports that NFTs will represent 2% of the global market in 2021 (Source: The Art Market Report 2021). Today, Artsper investigates this somewhat-controversial subject in order to shed light on its many facets.

Digital art, led by NFT sales, accounted for 5% of global contemporary art sales in 2020-2021

Digital art: understanding the context

Digital art is any type of art that is constructed using digital technology tools. This can vary from a retouched photograph to an imposing installation with various screens, such as those popularized by Nam June Paik. Digital art also encompasses computer-generated graphic art, such as 3D models, video simulations, and GIFs.

In recent decades, digital works have taken their place in the market alongside more traditional formats. For the most part, there are retouched compositions such as the landscapes of artists Cajuca and Alex Branicki that are offered on Artsper. But digital art is not just for young artists: David Hockney himself paints with his iPad, and notably created a whole series of digital paintings in Normandy during the lockdown.

Year in Normandie Hockney Digital art

The impressive mural, A Year in Normandy, created with digital tools that allowed the artist to draw more freely. Here it is exhibited at the Musée de l'Orangerie in Paris.

© David Hockney

Social networks, an incredible lever for digital art

As our daily lives have become dependent on technology, it seems natural that digital art is growing in numbers and interest. On Instagram, digital art accounts are multiplying: @behance and @visual.fodder, for example, post creations by different artists every day. And the fans are numerous: these two accounts are followed by 1.8 million and 745,000 fans, respectively, from all over the world.

Not all of these followers are connoisseurs - many of them, as Instagram users, simply enjoy an original image. The visuals featured are boundlessly creative, requiring just as much talent and work as any traditional art genre. 

One of the Instagram posts of @behance on Instagram: a futuristic digital composition by a UK-based artist

The complexity of definitions

Just as Duchamp's Fountain fueled the debate for tangible works, it is difficult today to define what is or is not a work of art in the virtual world. When it comes to digital versions of physical works of art, the argument is simple. But things are more complicated for creations born digitally and with no associated physical piece... 

Today, a virtual work can be bought and sold like an oil on canvas, and the institutional infrastructure that usually qualifies the auction price of artists (galleries, auction houses, museums...) is not exactly established in the field. The purchase of the Nyan Cat GIF for close to  $600,000 proves that there is a great interest in owning digital creations that can be used freely anywhere on the internet. As far as the rules expected in the art market are concerned, however, the digital domain is currently more like the Wild West than a stratified industry.

Nyan Cat, icon of YouTube’s first years of popularity, now has an owner

Cryptocurrency and NFTs: new perspectives

The Nyan Cat GIF, whether or not it is considered a work of art, is just one example of digital creations that are now being sold as NFTs (non-fungible tokens). The reason this acronym is in the news today is because it promises significant benefits. First of all, the blockchain technology with which NFTs work, allows for guaranteed authenticity via total data security. This means that if - and only if - the information entered is true, the risk of fraud is considerably reduced and artists can enjoy a fairer remuneration in the long run.

But we hear a lot about NFTs also because they disrupt an established order. Instead of dedicating several years of work to be spotted in a gallery or on Instagram, artists can sell their works in a few minutes as NFTs. Autonomy, control, remuneration... The advantages of this system suggest that many independent creators could be tempted to get involved. On the buyer side, too, things are subject to change: anyone can buy art much more easily with NFTs than in the physical world. 

The dark side of crypto-art 

The mechanism already looks well-oiled, but it lacks some important cogs. First, the barriers to entry: while in principle buying an NFT is very simple, it requires some knowledge of the jargon, the concept of cryptocurrencies and the basic operation of the technology. Secondly, there is still no satisfactory method of displaying one's work. Collectors of digital works keep them in their virtual wallets, but cannot enjoy them in the same way as a physical piece, unless they spend large sums of money on customized infrastructures. Finally, the blockchain and cryptocurrencies generally have a damaging impact on the environment, and buyers are recommended to consult with experts in order to make responsible choices. All of these issues may find solutions in the future, but nevertheless remain barriers to entry for the change-averse and the uninitiated. 


The poster image of the Digital Artistic Direction program at the Marangoni Institute, a high-level Italian design school

© Istituto Marangoni

Rising trend or tidal wave?

As far as NFTs are concerned, those who adopt them constitute a new category of collectors, one that grows every day... And among those reluctant to join the NFT scene, there are many potential future buyers, who would begin investing if the conditions of access were simplified. 

Institutions therefore have every interest in getting up to speed - and they’re already working on it. Sotheby's, for example, has opened its own platform dedicated to NFTs, now offering 2 annual sales. The Imperial Art Gallery is offering a hybrid sale in December including the first Napoleonic pieces offered as NFTs. On the museum side, the Russian Hermitage sold NFT versions of historical masterpieces from Da Vinci to Kandinsky this year. The British Museum released thousands of digital copies of works by Japanese artist Hokusai this fall. Each week sees a new and more innovative approach as the market races towards NFTs. 


… Are NFTs the future? While still obscure for many market players, they have certainly made their way into important discourses and practices this year. With promising advantages oftentimes comes prohibitive disadvantages... And for the moment, the NFT market still lacks a bit of hindsight to get a concrete idea of what those may be. But digital art as a whole is not ready to disappear: social networks, online viewing rooms and other digital tools only improve an already fertile ground for the development of new virtual creations. As we approach 2022, the world seems to have its eyes glued to the screens... At Artsper, we’ll be eagerly watching these trends. How about you?

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