What is the social value of (digital) art?

This text was prepared to explore the general subject area that I'm looking at for my research paper. I'm very much aware that there are probably enough questions and issues here for a 30,000 word paper – rather than the 3000 that is required – and that I need to focus. The question now is where to focus – and what can I dismiss as less valuable – or has been already been covered by previous research. I'm currently thinking that my final paragraph below (in italic) might be the way to go?

Much of the contemporary art world and business is elitist and exclusive. Many feel intimidated, alienated and baffled by it. How do we extend the accessibility, affordability and relevance of art to a greater number? And how do digital media and technologies offer substantial new possibilities for addressing this issue?

Possible answers might include democratic participation in public art projects in face-to-face situations – but can also now be found online – using crowd sourcing, social media etc (eg. Katrine Granholm, Can Art Be Social? ; Yoko Ono etc). The mass reproduction of artworks as affordable prints has traditionally been seen as another solution – but how does this compare with recent ‘limited edition’ digital editions, eg. seditionart.com? How does this relate to questions of ‘the original’ in digital production? (cf. Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art…). Once we also consider the democratising potential of digital production, how does this relate to questions of ‘the professional’ (cf. Lev Manovich, The Practice of Everyday (Media) Life). How has art moved from the frame and wall, to one of interaction? (opening the work up for accessibility rather then doctrine).

Can contemporary fine artists actually learn anything valuable from mass produced, popular, commercial ‘wall art’ (as sold in stores like B&Q, Ikea, Habitat or Argos). How do such stores find or commission artists? How does their artistic value compare with fashionable, successful ‘fine’ artists? By what criteria do we make these judgements? (Presumably, a typical store’s criteria would mainly include: what sells best, what reinforces the store’s brand, market research and the personal tastes of the store’s buyers. Whereas contemporary art critics probably like to think they use a much broader criteria – including conceptual and technical excellence, originality, emotional impact, social relevance – as well as their personal tastes… but are they really so different?) How do these physical stores compare with the growing number of online art and print sellers? (On-demand digital printing means online sellers can present almost limitless choice, since they are not constrained by space as physical stores are... but do they in turn lose their editorial 'voice'?)

Can contemporary fine artists also learn anything valuable from artists such as Jack Vettriano and Thomas Kinkade – who sell so well to the general public and yet are critically slated by the art establishment? What does this tell us about ideas of class and taste? (eg. Grayson Perry, All In The Best Possible Taste). Is mass taste really conservative? If so, why? Can professional artists successfully cater to both the mass market and the fine art world of galleries and collectors? How can art be both a luxury for the wealthy, as well as an essential part of all human cultures? Is elitism such a problem anyway? How else do we achieve ‘standards of excellence’?

Social engagement is about more than just public participation. It is also about individual artists actively choosing to engage with his/her social context in their selection of subject etc. Which artists consciously and directly seek their source material from the world around them? In particular, which do so from the inner city? (eg. Robert Rauschenberg,  Jean-Michel Basquiat, Cornelia Parker)? (The inner city becomes more significant as the global population continues to shift from the rural to the urban.) How have recent phenomena such as street art affected these questions? Which artists seek to make the meaning of their work understandable to anyone? (eg. Gilbert & George’s idea of ‘Art for All’). Is there a case for ‘exoteric’ art? (“great art simplifies and makes elegant and digestible a complex, accurate psychological truth”, Alain de Botton.)