There's been a Thing in the news lately. Artist named Maurizio Cattelan made a piece that consists of a banana duct taped to the wall, entitled "The Comedian."
Three copies of this work sold, for between $120,000 and $150,000. Crucially, the work includes a certificate.
The point here is that what you're buying is a certificate, which entitles you to tape a banana to a wall, and refer to it as "The Comedian," a piece by Maurizio Cattelan. He could have made it about a blank wall, but the banana makes it funny.
This is, essentially, performance art. There's a goodly history of sales of performance art which work in the same way: you are buying a contract which entitles you to stage, or command to be staged, a performance of whatever it was. There is a similar history around certain sculpture. I think it's Dan Flavin I am thinking of here. You can buy a sculpture that includes a bunch of fluorescent tubes made in Dan Flavin's shop, and it includes a certificate. With the certificate, it is a sculpture by Dan Flavin, and as such it is worth some money. Without the certificate, it's just a light, and is worth correspondingly less.
It happens that another performance artist walked up and ate the banana, he is hailed as a hero by the Modern Art Sucks crowd, but in fact he's 100% supportive of Cattelan's intention here. The banana doesn't matter, it is irrelevant. The certificate makes clear that you can stick a new banana up any time you like.
This is surprisingly relevant to photography. Especially in this day and age of color-profiled files and equipment, and inkjet printers, the intrinsic value of the Fine Print has never been lower. David Hurn allegedly tells curators at faraway exhibitions of his work to simply tear up the prints at the conclusion of the show, because it's cheaper and easier to re-print them than it is to ship them back, and he claims he is not alone.
The Art in the case of both a photograph and "The Comedian" lies somewhere other than on the wall. What is on the wall is merely an ephemeral manifestation of the Art.
Now, I don't find any particular Art value in "The Comedian," it's just some mook trying to have a Duchamp moment, which happens from time to time. I guess it's a fine thing to poke the eye of the Art Industry from time to time, except that the Art Industry seems to enjoy the experience (someone pulled down, what, $200,000 in commissions right?) It's just a joke, and a pretty good one. Who wouldn't want a certificate that permits you to tape a banana to a wall and, with real legitimacy, claim it as a piece by a more or less well known contemporary artist? I'd pay $10 for that on a good day. Logically, if I had a net worth 12,000 times larger than my current net worth, I'd as happily pay $120,000 for it.
This doesn't make it particularly substantive Art, though. People have noted a resemblance of the banana and duct tape to the hammer and sickle, but I am dubious, and anyways that's a thread of meaning that doesn't really seem to go anywhere.
A photograph, just as ephemeral, can be and usually is just as shallow and meaningless. But it doesn't have to be.
In much the same way, I can imagine easy-to-install installations like "The Comedian" which could be sold in the same way, and which would carry a lot of meaning, a lot of artistic weight. They would likely not be funny, and since they would also not be poking the Art Industry in the eye, they would not command the same prices.
I own a set of tires for my car which are, somewhat to my surprise, not actually tires but a right to have tires on my car. I got a flat and destroyed a tire across the border once, and my tire shop paid me back for the tire I bought in Canada, because I don't have tires, I have a contract to have tires on my car. I guess I also own some tires.
Anyways, there's no reason modern digital photographs could not be sold as in the same way as my tires and Cattelan's banana. You could sell a right to have one (or ten, or whatever) prints. If the print fades, or gets ruined, or lost, you simply bang out another one.
What this does it it points away from the precious Fine Print as the locus of value and, to be honest, none too soon.
Yet another legacy of painting: the insistence that the object is the thing, which leads to absurdities like editions, hand work, and so on, to try to turn what is ultimately a mass-produced object into an object of desire. The value of the dye-transfer print is less in the majestic depth of the blacks and more in the difficulty of reproduction. If you pretend that the picture is somehow lifeless, artistically void, except in dye-transfer, then, lo you have created scarcity and thence, presumably, value.
We're past that now, the object need not be the thing. The art-ness of something can reside elsewhere, and the object (if any) is free to simply be an ephemeral manifestation of the art-ness of the piece.
I think movie-makers have known this for a long time. The art is only alive as it flickers on the screen, and when it's over, the art goes away. Somewhere. It's not entirely clear where. But that does not make a movie un-art.
I have this notion that something here might point the way to a better understanding of photography-as-art in social media, but in general photography sharing platforms are such pallid, lifeless, uniform containers for pictures I don't think there's a lot of hope here. Maybe there's a germ of an idea here, a more vibrant, interesting, platform. Something that doesn't force your pictures into the same pallid container everyone shares, but allows expression?
Maybe by embracing the ephemeral nature of the digital platform, something new and interesting might arise. Here's hoping!