Why Physical Art still Matters in a Digital Age


There is no denial that the digital art market has grown astonishingly in the past few years, especially since the last pandemic, which has helped digital assets to gain value and importance. However, the current growth of digital art and the technologies which enable it, such as NFT, are in no way antagonistic with the continuation and expansion of the traditional physical art movement. This is because digital tools such as NFTs are very beneficial to sellers of physical items and will probably be fully incorporated in this market in the years to come. Besides that, there is a certain value to physical things which can not be reproduced or replaced by digital art.

The Aura of the Artwork

In times of a digital era when artworks are massively reproduced, to witness a concrete, solid and original work of art is becoming rarer and therefore, even more valuable. Besides, there is an almost spiritual connection we create when in the presence of a physical, solid work of art. German philosopher Walter Benjamin reflected a lot on what he called the aura of a work of art. This aura comes from witnessing art in its presence, and the unique point in space and time where this reunion between viewer and art piece can happen. Technology’s expansion has enabled the massive reproduction of the work of art, which has done two things: one is to democratize everyone’s access to art on one level, the other is to strip the aura away from the work of art.

In fact, since the internet has become a popular thing, everyone can know what a Monalisa looks like and it has turned it into an ever more powerful symbol in popular culture, as it became raw matter even for memes. However, few are those who have truly experienced the effect of being in front of the Monalisa original, feeling her stare at them directly as if she was alive.

We can safely assume that as this experience becomes rarer it will become more valuable and stimulate more artists to produce physical art. In fact, we are psychologically drawn to the physical items we behold, as we tend to feel more connected to what is tangible and solid, in other words, truly 3D and palpable. While this connection may be explained in evolutionary terms, it is perhaps increasing now as a resistance to the fast-paced transition into the digital world. This state of anxiety typical of a time of transformation, is becoming inspiration for artists who are exploring the frontiers between the physical and the digital, aiming to dissolve this so-called opposition and discover new forms of making art.

One does not Exclude the Other

The revolutionary NFT technology is one of the most prominent steps we are taking towards the digitalization of everything. NFTs will make it easier to trade and invest in items in the digital realm, however, what people seem to notice less often is that tying an NFT to a physical asset is its ideal use case and what NFTs were originally made for.

Physical works of art will be able to be linked to NFTs helping sellers trace their transaction history all the way from the original artists. Since provenance is usually a determining aspect for the value of an art piece, being able to easily trace it will only enhance the value of physical items that are associated with tokens. By selling a tokenized physical item, sellers will also be able to be sure they are acquiring a legitimate art piece.

Many new projects are coming up precisely to bridge this gap between physical and digital art, such as Strata, a new gallery that aims to support the artistic community in the integration of digital and physical art pieces. In their own words, “for strata the digital and physical are not at odds: they elevate each other. We explore the creative intersection between these two areas and want to change how art, artists and audiences interact and collaborate.”

If we look beyond the supposed antagonism, technologies such as NFT help physical artists as much as digital ones to promote and sell their work independently from intermediary agencies or galleries. In fact, if anything, NFTs are now giving a good reason for digital artists to produce physical versions of their assets as well. Since the digital market is becoming so competitive, many creatives are eyeing an opportunity to stand out by creating physical items with printed versions of their artworks, acknowledging that the public will always have this bias towards the physical. Not to mention that a physical work of art will always be a preferable asset for secure long term investment rather than the volatile digital art market.

 The history of art shows us that art always finds ways to transcend, integrate, and expand regardless of the historical process that humanity goes through. In fact, it serves the purpose of telling the stories of everything that we go through in our journey as society and technology develop and transform. While digital art is gaining ever more evidence and shape and solidifying a previously non-existing space into our minds, physical art will always have its place and importance, and in fact gain an even greater role in helping to distinguish our physical reality. 

Written by Yasmim Franceschi exclusively for sooqbeirut
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