The Artful Collector: In Praise of Tangibility

First, and let’s get this out of the way right at the start: I would never say that digital art isn’t Art.  I have never claimed that digital artists aren’t “real artists” – as some traditional artists do – because “the computer does all the work.”  I’m not spooked by the competition (go ahead and enjoy your giclee’s) nor shifts in the marketplace (s*** happens).  What I am, is not drawn to flux and the ephemeral.

I do not crave the fleeting, the impermanent, the transient or the temporary.  I prefer rain to fog.   Or, to lay it out in a way that relates in a clearer way to my bias:  When I talk about “Art” I’m thinking of it a “tangible cultural artifact”: a product of human endeavor which has material form; physicality.

This definition does not exclude the requirement of all art: that it communicates; it conveys a message.  All visual art does that.  Indeed, all types of art do that.  And, I will concede, illustrative art has the added burden of being persuasive….because it is a marketing tool.  Whether advertising a product, or interpreting an author’s words, it is art which exists to serve a purpose.  But beyond that, and purposely for the sake of being able to distinguish between physical art or “easel art” and “digital art” I am saying “tangible art is where the value is” for me.  Not as an apologist for capitalism, but rather because in human history, the actuality of the object, as opposed to a reproduction, draws people in and gives them a literal way of touching the past.  We make efforts to preserve the original – not a reproduction of Stonehenge – because copies aren’t what we cherish, or value, as a society.

And speaking of what we cherish, or treasure, another unfortunate by-product of the computer is the elimination of memorabilia.  In an interesting article “Flights of Fancy” published by the Smithsonian magazine (April issue, 2013) the noted playwright, author and director, David Mamet “considers the significance of memorabilia throughout his life.”.   He takes the position that (while) “the Gutenberg Press had its antecedents in millennia of writing, the movies and flight were the two greatest and most influential  accomplishments of the West that had no antecendents . . . and have been surpassed, if surpassed, in cultural significance only by the computer — one unfortunate byproduct of which is the elimination of the physical artifact: the flight log, the sectional map, the postcard, the pin-back button and the poster.  In short, of memorabilia.” (p. 39)


Whether you’re “into” mementos, or not – or even give thought to the passing of such things as phone books, address books, and wall calendars,”lack of physicality” has economic consequences.  While I hate to bring monetary value into this discussion, because there are many ways to value work beside “money” – I also think it’s something we have to consider, because that’s how our economy assigns value.  You can rail against it, you can hide from it, you can live your life without a television set or computer, too.  But that won’t make consumerism go away.  Are you going to spend the same amount for a giclee’ (computer print) of a digitally created artwork as you would spend for a comparable image, hand-painted?  I know, I know, there are computer techniques that are not reproduceable using a paintbrush, and vice-versa.  But can you grasp my basic point, here?

Jim Burns "Temporal Void" published cover for the sf novel by Peter Hamilton, ditgital
Jim Burns “Temporal Void” published cover for the SF novel by Peter F. Hamilton, Pan/MacMillan, 2008. Digital Media.

Would you spend $5,000.00 for a computer print (giclee’) of the image you see to your right?  This was all collectors of Hugo-Award winning British artist Jim Burns’ illlustratiive art would have been able to acquire unless they found acceptable an unfinished painting.  Seems the publishers changed direction after Burns had begun work on the commission, and decided they wanted the cover image created digitally.

Jim Burns "Temporal Void" Unfinished painting for the Hamilton novel cover
Jim Burns “Temporal Void” Unfinished painting for the cover commissioned by Pan/MacMillan for the SF novel by Peter F. Hamilton, 2008.

So Jim stopped work on the painting and turned to his computer, leaving the artwork in unfinished form. (see left)

Then came along an admirer of Burns’ work, and (thinking the cover had been completed in traditional media) asked if it was available for purchase.  Alas. It was not.  But the unfinished painting COULD BE COMPLETED . . . if the collector was determined to have it in painted form.  And he was.

Jim Burns "Temporal Void" commissioned painting
Jim Burns “Temporal Void” painting completed in traditional media, replicating the published cover for the SF novel by Peter F. Hamilton, Pan/MacMillan, 2008.

And so – that was how the painting – in traditional media – came into existence, after the image, in digital form, had been published.  Had someone not have been willing to pay the equivalent of another full commission, this artwork would never have existed in physical form.  And Burns would have been that much poorer – because no one, to my knowledge, would have been willing to pay – for a digital print – the thousands he earned for completing the painting using HIS HANDS AND PAINT.   For every digitally-created, commissioned illustration, or (more precisely) for every published illustration for which no finished, complete, tangible equivalent exists – the artist is being cheated out of another major source of income:  the sale of an original, one-of-a-kind piece of art.

From time to time you’ll be hearing more on this subject from me.  In the world I inhabit, I’m constantlly being faced with the consequences of digitization, one that until relatively recently was dependent on paper . . . and paint.  My new job, as I see it, is finding ways of defending what is an increasingly difficult position to defend 🙂


Please take a moment to support Amazing Stories with a one-time or recurring donation via Patreon. We rely on donations to keep the site going, and we need your financial support to continue quality coverage of the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres as well as supply free stories weekly for your reading pleasure.


  1. I think that the move towards digital art (and ebooks for that matter) will only serve to increase the value of physical art and books. A similar analogy would be the increase in value of hand-written manuscripts after the invention of the printing press.

    I've seen a movement towards making "collectible" digital items; the collector's set of Battlestar Galactica Blu-Ray comes to mind. It contains a Cylon figure; somebody made a mockup of that figure, which would be highly collectible.

    New movie props will remain collectible, since there are plenty of them around even when there are lots of digital SFX used to make a film. Signed prints of digital arts will also have value, especially if the artist adds addition details to each print.

    So all is not lost, I think, when it comes to collectibles, although I do believe that the landscape of collecting will change over time.

  2. When you and I were young(er), Jane, art had to be physical and had to be delivered to the publisher.

    Today's publishers want an electronic file, not a physical object. Publishers do not pay a premium for non-digitally-created art. Publishers do not care about the means of production. Publishers, as ever, buy images.

    Art classes in elementary and high schools, for all intents and purposes, are extinct.

    A young artist with $2250 (just for registration) and a week of free time who wanted to learn to paint this year from artists including Donato Giancola and Greg Manchess, could have applied to be a member of the Illustration Master Class (all spaces taken for this year).

    I see, of the five pieces of art highlighted on the Illustration Master Class home page, three were created partly or entirely with software.

    Stephan Martiniere, Best Artist Hugo Award winner in 2008, creates wonderful images: vivid, realistic, complex, colourful; also flat and one-dimensional.

    I am a lover and occasional buyer of two- and three-dimensional art, what I call hand-made art. Hand-made art, to me, is made not with software but with physical materials; oils, acrylics, wood, but not with electricity.

    I am not a collector of books nevertheless I understand the attraction of first editions, limited editions, signed and numbered books published by a small press. But I won't stand in a line to get an autograph or pay a dealer a premium for a signed edition.

    I suggest, a piece of hand-made art is the ultimate signed and numbered and limited edition book equivalent: an edition of one.

    A room with bookcases is well-furnished: a room with attractive art on its walls is well-decorated.

    Rarely does two-dimensional art look realistic, nevertheless I buy it.

    On the wall behind me is an oil painting in the Donato Giancola and Michael Whalen class; a painting given a full page in a Spectrum annual; Chesley Award nominee; winner of a prestigious award given to works of hand-made art.

    An aspect of the oil painting's single figure bothers me. If I was an art editor I would have asked the artist to do the equivalent of a re-write. Nevertheless, if our house was burning, it might be the painting I chose to rescue from destruction.

    Two-dimensional art, to me, has character: hand-made art is alive.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Previous Article

From the In Box 4/13/13

Next Article

Anime roundup 4/14/2013: This Will Be on the Test

You might be interested in …