What is art in the digital age?

I was walking with my wife through an art gallery at Wynn the other day. We saw this remarkable clock that made us stop while it went minute-by-minute. We weren’t the only ones — another couple stopped, too.

Instead of standard readouts, it lights up different words in different positions. You can see it work in the video above.

Depending on the size and the material, it can cost you $15,000. The one that was in the window was $1,700.

We were thinking about buying it. Just for grins, I decided to check if the App Store had anything like it. Indeed it did. For 99 cents. It wasn’t a knock off; the company that makes the $15,000 piece also sells the 99-cent piece.

What makes art then? Obviously this isn’t as a utilitarian piece. As my wife said, she can get the time for free on her phone. We liked the design of it; that’s what really caught our eye. The design is fully represented on the iPad app. It’s even better because I can change faces and languages with the flick of a finger. (Both of which would require hundreds of dollars per faceplate.)

We can buy another iPad and mount it on the wall. Does the art have to be the acrylic or the stainless steel? A lot of people (including me) consider Jony Ive’s industrial design to be art. The iPod is in the collection at New York’s MoMA. Is it more art if we show the clock on an iPad versus an Android device?

Digital imaging is another area where technology blurs the lines. We have Vladimir Kush’s Diary of Discoveries in our home. It’s a limited edition print. It takes a lot of space on the wall. It could easily be rendered beautifully on a 4k TV. Where is the art? Is it in the JPG you see below?


Does a larger reproduction on a 4k TV constitute art? Or the hand signed, numbered print on my wall? Or is it just the artist painted original? I might actually prefer to have digital, 4k resolution images so that I can have more of them without having to worry about storage. (We can’t buy more “art” because we don’t have enough wall space.)

Photos we take could be art. We have them by the thousands in our phones, computers, iPads and cameras. But in the context of thousands of images they don’t feel that way. I’ve had several of my photos printed in magazines and books. Does the fact that someone else deemed it worthy make it art? Maybe the number of likes or shares that a picture gets? (It would be much easier to use these definitions of art if Facebook allowed me to pull up most commented, most favorited and make slideshows from them.) What if we have Shutterfly print it as a canvas triptych and post it on the wall?

Does it have to be a physical object to be art? We have an original Chihuly.


That’s an original, but they make a lot of them. And it’s highly unlikely that Dale Chihuly made the one that we have.

From a societally optimal point of view, wouldn’t it be better for me to buy the 99-cent app and donate the difference to charity?

One thing that is for sure is that art is highly contextual. Where it’s staged, your relationship to the object or image, your relationship to its creator.

In 2007, Joshua Bell performed in the DC Metro, much as a busker would. In a concert venue, Bell would have them filling the seats at more than $100 a pop. In the morning rush, people couldn’t be bothered to stop to listen to a world class violinist playing on a $3.5 million violin.

While I keep figuring it out, I’ll continue to support art in the forms that I can. Maybe next time you visit, you’ll see an iPad hanging on the wall with the QCLOCKTWO app. Or the piece we were looking at in the Wynn window.





About Rakesh Agrawal

Rakesh Agrawal is Senior Director of product at Amazon (Audible). Previously, he launched local and mobile products for Microsoft and AOL. He tweets at @rakeshlobster.
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