Art in the Tech Age: Digital Image Fetches $69 Million at Auction

as digital art evolves in the 21st century, we're determining its monetary value

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

As a sign of the times, a JPG file recently sold for $69.3 million at auction. The piece, known as “Everydays—The First 5,000 Days,” is a collage of every image the artist, known as Beeple, has posted online since 2007. Art and its perceived value are shifting in the digital age.

Artist drawing at desk with computer
Technological advances have fundamentally changed every aspect of society, including the expression of art, advancing into the showcase of digital art. Photo By / Shutterstock

In the digital age, with advancing technology and increasing internet speeds, the face of every art medium is changing permanently. Same-day streaming services have replaced movie theaters during the pandemic and digital music has reduced an album from a 40- to 80-minute experience with 12-inch artwork down to individual songs with stamp-sized images representing them.

Another symbol of the times was a recent JPG—digital image—file that sold at auction for $69.3 million. A collage of images by the artist, the work broke records for digital art at auction.

In her video series How Digital Technology Shapes Us, Dr. Indre Viskontas, Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of San Francisco, explained how art is changing in the 21st century.

Money in the Bank

In the last quarter century, as digital art has evolved, one of the hottest debates is what the value of art is. Perhaps nobody has been more central to that discussion than the anonymous artist Banksy, whose sociopolitical, spray-painted stencil work has popped up all over the world and caused plenty of controversy and debate.

“Without debating the quality of Banksy’s art, one of his experiments tells us a lot about the influence of social acceptance on our notion of value,” Dr. Viskontas said. “In 2013, on a Saturday in October, the artist set up a stall in New York’s Central Park, alongside others laden with touristy wares, and hired a nondescript 60-year-old man to sell authentic, signed original canvases for 60 bucks each.”

Dr. Viskontas said that by the end of the day, the man had only made $420, although when word of the experiment and the canvases’ real creator got out, the work was estimated to have been worth $225,000. By now it’s likely worth far more. However, Banksy’s most shocking test for the art industry had yet to come.

“In 2018, just as Banksy’s famous piece Girl with a Balloon was sold at auction by Sotheby’s for $1.4 million, a device embedded into the frame immediately began shredding it while viewers watched,” Dr. Viskontas said. “Since then, hilariously, other collectors have wondered whether shredding their art pieces might similarly increase their value.”

After the Flood

So where do computers come in? In Banksy’s case, social media has helped his work and his art experiments go viral. And as Dr. Viskontas asked, “If the whole world couldn’t watch the video of a self-shredding, million-dollar painting, would it be as valuable?”

Elsewhere, digitization of art has also saturated markets with tremendous volume.

“It’s become next to impossible to browse through the material and discover new artists without the help of some kind of curator or algorithm,” Dr. Viskontas said. “This saturation can also make it daunting for a young artist to take the time to hone their craft. Why spend 10 years learning to play the violin when you can listen to Itzhak Perlman or any other great violinist whenever you want?

“Or better yet, play a digital violin just as beautifully yourself in a virtual world?”

Much like the trials that faced the record industry in the days of Napster, visual artists and the art industry find themselves having to find new footing in the tech age. However, auctions like Beeple’s show that there’s still hope to be found.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily