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Art to download is little more than dead-eyed commercialism

The vogue for selling digital editions of art by Hirst and Emin at 'affordable' prices is a trivial luxury for a fabled moneyed elite

Human beings are better at inventing things than we are at asking why we invented them. If we can do it, we will. But just occasionally, a supposed wonder of the new age makes me mutter the question: "Why?"

That is how I feel about the vogue for digital art marketing. This week sees the launch of s[edition], a website dedicated to selling digital editions of art. It has been founded by top art dealers and offers the works of top artists, including Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin, to download for "affordable" prices. You can get a limited edition Hirst skull to put on your mobile phone for £500.

Emin, telling the BBC about the project, said it gives art back to the people by making it affordable (or something like that). But are the starving masses or the squeezed middle really going to fork out £500 for a mobile phone picture? Isn't it more like a trivial luxury for the same fabled Russian moneyed elite who buy their art yachts at Frieze?

To put it another way, what kind of person would want a Britart phone image anyway?

The website kept crashing for me this morning – I don't know if the problem was at my end or theirs – but I saw enough to be uncharmed. The enterprise is straightforwardly commercial in a way that opposes the culture of the internet. If artists such as Emin wanted to reconnect with the youth, surely they would give images away online – not participate in a site that presses you to sign up and join the collectors' club.

This is not the first attempt to marry the modern-art market with the internet. The VIP art fair takes a comparable approach, inviting visitors to sign up – and pay an entry fee – for access to its exclusive dealer rooms. The difference is that it sells material works of art.

Both enterprises seem oddly clumsy to me. The art market works through snobbery and sleight of hand, but here it becomes a bit like a TV shopping channel – watch out, the dead-eyed determination to shift product is showing.

One news story compared the artists involved to Hockney on his iPhone, but where is the comparison? Hockney has played creatively and idealistically with a new medium. This is just a less than charismatic new way of flogging a few ephemeral images.

Could the cold wind of financial crisis be driving the art market to cheapen its style? Will we soon see besuited art dealers hawking their products from disused stores on Oxford Street? These really are the last few skulls and the jewels were hand-crafted … © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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