“Imagine no possessions,” warbled John Lennon in 1971 as he envisioned a utopian future with fewer cars and washing machines. It seems unlikely he was hoping for a time when an aspiration to own less stuff would apply predominantly to culture, but this is the future we are living in now. We have more clothes and televisions, but our music and book collections have become increasingly abstracted, digitised, object-less and therefore “possession”-free.
Gone are the racks of albums and DVDS, and going are the shelves of paper-paged books. They’ve been replaced by digital versions, which exist in the cloud or on storage devices. Intangible until called down in bits and bytes for use when we want them; waiting, present but invisible when we don’t. This is culture that takes up no physical space in our lives.
Millennials consume music and television predominantly in this way. They’re a mobile generation who have embraced a Lennon-esque version of possession-less living: renting homes rather than buying, car-pooling, streaming, sharing or hiring rather than purchasing; giving away their image and creativity online for free, in a way no previous generation could or would. What they do buy is ephemeral: experiences rather than physical objects, concert tickets rather than albums.
Culturally, visual art is the last bastion of physical object veneration. A $180 million Picasso painting sold in New York this month. But the next generation of buyers are coming, and art dealers have been flirting with the object-less art concept for a while now. Sedition, a website that sells digital art only, was launched in 2011 with some frankly uninspiring taglines: “limited edition art for your digital life”, “turn screens into art”. Prices are, confusingly, in dollars when you buy and sterling when you sell. You can have a Damien Hirst spot composition for $21, a Wim Wenders photograph for $8, a Tracey Emin 48 second HD video neon text piece for $80.
These are big names, but Sedition still feels like an experiment. This is art for a world where screens are king. Purchases are stored online, in a personal “vault”. Buyers can use the art as a screensaver or dedicate a screen on a wall to showing it, but the whole thing feels disposable, worth less, like a postcard of the real thing. Do online artworks, sold, bought and stored online really exist? Maybe I’m the wrong generation.
One tangible measure of their worth lies in resale value. Sedition has that all sewn up. Registered owners of sell-out editions may resell their copies on another area of the site. Currently, there are a lot of Jeremy Dellers with asking prices from £8 to £30, and no bids.
The newest addition to the site is a Yoko Ono video in which a very sharp knife cuts a hole in a blank canvas and a lace-glove-clad hand emerges. It’s called Painting to Shake Hands and it’s actually quite brilliant. You can add it to your screen for $200. I wonder what John would have thought of that?
A version of this column was first published in The Sunday Times Ireland on 24 May 2015.