Look Only With Your Eyes: Digital Art Viewing

Look Only With Your Eyes: Digital Art Viewing

I have often wondered what makes an artwork valuable, and my curiosity only increased when I read about the recent sale of the artwork Everydays: The First 5000 Days by Mike Winkelmann, aka Beeple.

A Look into the Artwork

The piece is a collage, composed of 5000 digital images Winkelmann set out to create and post every day from the 1st of May 2007 to the 7th of January 2021.The digital collage sold for $70 million, which is the third most expensive offer ever made at auction for a piece of art. The price tag is impressive, but what is most remarkable about this sale is that what was sold was a ‘non-fungible token’ (NFT) and not a material artwork. The buyer received Winkelmann’s piece as a JPEG and the NFT, which works as a certificate of authenticity by using blockchain technology to verify the originality and confirm ownership.

As a JPEG, Everydays: The First 5000 Days is not strictly speaking physical, meaning it is not tangible.Viewing this artwork is therefore limited to a visual experience, overlooking the engagement of the other senses, such as audio and olfaction. Having a multisensory experience is important, however, so the spectator can fully participate and engage with an artwork and not merely view it passively.

The Hierarchy of the Senses

The Hierarchy of the Senses can be traced back to the work of Aristotle, who privileged seeing as the dominant sense because it helps us to ‘know things’.For Plato, the eyes are more trustworthy because they provide us with truthful perceptions of the world, whereas taste, smell and touch are subject to interpretations because they are bodily and influenced by our animal nature.

But if digital art, either through the limitation of technology or by the significance of sight, is only stimulating our eyes, can we gain a true sense of pleasure from it?

In the work by Brian L. Ott and Robert L. Mack, they assess the pleasure that comes from the process of ‘looking’ – scopophilia. They state that focusing our attention upon a thing, consuming it visually and binding it with our gaze, activates unconscious desire and gives us a sense of pleasure.

On the other hand, in ‘Home Truths’ Sarah Pink claims that sight is by no means the primary sense, it is only deemed so by modern Western culture. She argues that the senses cannot be truly disconnected from one another, and universally human beings will experience their life through all five senses. Thus, art is more than a visual medium of communication.  

Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media’ by Laura Marks explores ‘haptic visuality’, whereby the eyes become the organ of touch. She claims that many artists wish for a multisensory experience which pushes beyond the audio-visual properties of the medium; they desire to appeal to the viewer’s body as a whole, hence the importance of unrestricted access to the viewers’ other senses.

Sight may be deemed the more objective sense for gathering knowledge in the Hierarchy of the Senses, but the purpose of viewing art is not to find the objective truth. Art offers an immersive experience which allows us to connect to the artist and subject matter on an emotional level. Though I appreciate the immediacy and dynamic nature of viewing art digitally (observing without having to interact), I believe that seeing ‘physical’ art does offer an experience which is more tactile.

Seeing the thickness of the paint, the variation of brushstrokes, or even smelling the aromas of the materials used – all of these things give the artwork a texture, thus going beyond the boundaries of sight. Having access to the artwork only via a screen would diminish the experience and weaken its value.

How Does This Impact the Value of NFTs?

In terms of accessibility, this form of art collecting and ownership limits the availability of the artwork. Having such exclusive ownership means the message the artwork conveys will reach only a select few. This leads to the question: shouldn’t art be as accessible and inclusive as possible if the intention is to communicate and evoke?

By having a limited audience, it is implied that the artist’s preferred reading has priority over the viewer’s interpretation and given meaning. If we consider art’s role as a message or piece of communication, we, the spectator, make meaning out of it – even though cultural and individual differences will make everyone experience an artwork differently.  Art is, and always has been, fundamentally polysemic (open to a number of different interpretations).

Of course, the intended reading of art is ambiguous, but gatekeeping an artwork minimises the modifications that a viewer gives through their own position, experiences, and interests.  

But Who Is Beeple?

Intended message aside, I wonder how and where the valuation of Everydays: The First 5,000 Days came from. At first glance it may seem the value of Winkelmann’s artwork comes from him, the artist and not the art itself, as he is a popular graphic designer and motion artist with a 1.8 million following on Instagram.But until late last year Winkelmann had not sold a print for more than $100, so why the sudden success?

To put the extraordinariness of the sale into perspective, Vincent Van Gogh never sold a painting or sketch in his life. His work was deemed too daring and unorthodox. The value of his work came later when the composition – bold colours and swirling of brushstrokes – were appreciated as outstanding. Van Gogh’s work is worth so much now because of the knowledge of his personal circumstances and the historical and societal contexts in which they were made. 

I assume that the valuation of Winkelmann’s piece, therefore, has come from the originality of concept and composition and that unlike Van Gogh’s contemporaries the admirers of Winkelmann’s work appreciate the creativity of the piece and innovative format. Each individual digital image within Everydays: The First 5000 Days was created by Winkelmann, so this artwork can be read as a mosaic of his talent and creativity as well as his dedication to the art form. This devotion to producing an artwork every day and then piecing them together is what makes Winkelmann’s work so esteemed. 

Collecting and Ownership

Curious as I was to find the answer of how this JPEG ended up being so expensive, I read Haigney’s article on the topic.There she explored the relationship between art ‘collecting’ and ownership and exposed the fundamental aspect of art collection to be possession.

As I understand it, art is not merely a commodity in this exchange as unlike other things we purchase, art neither has a practical function nor is it fetishized in the same way as other status symbols (such as cars).

Instead, the act of gatekeeping an artwork is what people buy. The owner has full control over who sees it, who interacts with it, and to a certain extent determines how it is viewed. This impulse of possession will certainly not be deterred by the digitalisation of the piece. If anything, digitalisation will increase the satisfaction of possessing something no one else has. Having exclusive ownership of something in an environment where plagiarism and copying are strife will increase the gratification of possessing – and as NFTs are relatively new there is the additional novelty of owning a one-of-a-kind digital artwork.

The Future of NFTs and Art Viewing

Everydays: The First 5000 Days is historically and socially significant as it represents a shift from traditional practices of art collecting to modern, virtual proceedings. Considering how 22 million people from eleven different countries tuned in to the final moments of bidding, it’s safe to say this artwork certainly marks the beginning of a new chapter in art history.

I see the tremendous benefits of digitalising art, especially as many art exhibitions, galleries, and theatres were forced to close due to the COVID-19 virus pandemic. With no other (physical) space dedicated to the arts, it is understandable artists turned to webspaces. Being able to reach a wider audience and gain recognition is invaluable for most artists who would otherwise remain under the radar.

This has also made the art world as a whole more accessible to those who are economically and socially disadvantaged – though this does not refer to the auctioneering and purchasing of art, which for obvious reasons still remains elitist.

If NFTs can ensure the authenticity and legal ownership of an artwork, then the artists’ unique vision and execution will not be compromised; the originality will be assured. This will then protect the genesis of art’s value. It is important, however, that we continue to preserve spaces where viewing art can be a multisensory experience.

If digitalisation becomes the norm for art, there is a danger of disengagement from the viewer, who regard it as just ‘another piece of content’. Additionally, as mentioned above, other art forms risk becoming irrelevant in a world which is becoming more and more digitalised. In consideration of this, it is important to preserve the viewing of art as a multisensory experience.

Written by Louisa Howells Vessey.

Graphics by Charlie Colville.

Want more news from the art world? Check out Mouthing Off’s Art Section.

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