The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Beeple’s digital ‘artwork’ sold for more than any painting by Titian or Raphael. But as art, it’s a great big zero.

“Everydays: The First 5000 Days” is a digital file by the artist Beeple, who has been posting images every day since 2007. (Christie’s Images Limited 2020)
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The recent sale at Christie’s of — what, exactly? It’s hard to call it an artwork. Let’s just call it a marketable digital product by a graphic designer known as Beeple. But the sale is unlikely to usher in a major shake-up of the art market. It also does not represent the beginning of a whole new chapter in art, as those eager to play up the historic nature of the sale are suggesting.

After bidding that lasted two weeks, “Everydays: The First 5000 Days,” as the digital product is called, sold for $69.3 million (with fees) on March 11, making it the third-highest price paid at auction for work by a living artist. Topping that list are Jeff Koons’s “Rabbit,” which took in $91.1 million in 2019, and David Hockney’s “Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures),” purchased for $90.2 million in 2018.

People can debate the merits of Koons and Hockney all they like. But at least their artworks were physical objects. Paying $69.3 million for a work that exists only digitally and is dated February 2021 is obviously insane. Even more insane is that the buyer, the Singapore-based founder and financer of the cryptofund Metapurse who goes by the name Metakovan, thinks it is “the most valuable piece of art for this generation.”

“It will one day be worth $1 billion,” Metakovan said in a statement.

No painting by Titian or Raphael has ever fetched as much as “Everydays.” So of course this is big news. But it’s also just one more riotous example of high-roller groupthink, market manipulation and the seemingly unstoppable human urge to commodify everything.

The work by Beeple (real name: Mike Winkelmann), a 39-year-old graphic designer from Charleston, S.C., who has created concert visuals for pop stars such as Justin Bieber and Katy Perry, has no discernible aesthetic merit — or none that I can see. But both its form and the manner of its sale are novel.

That’s because “Everydays: The First 5000 Days” is an NFT, or non-fungible token, meaning that, unlike most artworks, it is not a material object. Instead, it’s a digital file that, even though it is theoretically reproducible, has been “minted,” allowing for a secure record of ownership, and therefore the possibility of transferring that ownership. That possibility was spectacularly realized last week at the Christie’s online sale, inscribing a new chapter in the annals of frictionless capitalism.

What is an NFT, and how did an artist called Beeple sell one for $69 million at Christie’s?

Non-fungible tokens grant digital artworks the kind of authenticity more usually bestowed upon physical works. They are about ownership, not copyright, which remains with the artist.

Many people really, really wanted the Beeple sale to succeed. In fact, the high price smacked of market manipulation: NFTs rely on blockchain, a database technology based on decentralized, collective control of blocks of data that have been chained together in a way that makes the data immutable. Metapurse — the company founded and financed by Metakovan, the buyer of “Everydays” — says it “identifies early-stage projects across blockchain infrastructure, finance, art, unique collectibles, and virtual estate.” According to the Art Newspaper, Metapurse “is also a production studio for NFTs and a major funder of the digital art form, reportedly owning the largest known collection of NFTs in the world.”

Making the whole spectacle look even more egregiously engineered, the underbidder was Justin Sun, the founder of TRON, another blockchain company. (Sun said after the auction that he tried to up his bid to $70 million in the final seconds but was blocked by the Christie’s website.)

The success of the auction can be saluted as a triumph of marketing and manipulation, but it has absolutely nothing to do with artistic value. In fact, from an art point of view, the eye-popping sale is interesting mainly as an illustration of irony.

An NFT is essentially just a concept — in this case, that a digital file can be authentic. (Authenticity is also just a concept, one that didn’t have much traction in art before the Renaissance.) The art world is used to assigning value to ideas. In fact, a whole genre of art — conceptual art — gives primacy to ideas over whatever actual forms they may take.

The irony is that the driving force behind conceptual art — which may take the form of a set of instructions, a statement or a declaration — was a desire to resist commodification. Conceptual artists such as Joseph Kosuth, Sol LeWitt and Robert Morris were sick of the way art objects were frenetically bought and sold, to the point where you couldn’t see a powerful painting without seeing it simultaneously haloed by dollar signs, fogged up by ancillary mental stimulants relating to the costs of security and insurance, the drama of investment and appreciation, asset management, tax evasion and — most exciting of all! — the possibility of theft.

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Conceptualists (and, like any kind of artist, they can be terrible or excellent) thought that if you dematerialized art — if you took away the object and our urge to fetishize it — it would be an act of resistance against the art market and the whole capitalist system.

How naive that turned out to be. Of course you can commodify artworks that exist only as ideas! It’s really easy. This should not surprise anyone. Our global financial system is premised on the insight that you don’t actually need material products to generate monetary value. You need only relationships, differentials, future projections and other ideas, all of which can be bought and sold.

In the art world, people have been buying and selling conceptual art, digital art and video works (which may exist only as digital files) for years. So why not NFTs? It’s really not revolutionary. Mostly, NFTs provide a technical fix for the problem (not an especially big problem) of owning digital artworks and tracking their sale.

As for the actual work that was purchased? Yawn. Beeple’s technique — collaging lots of colorful images in grid format — is a soporific cliche. Images like this, sometimes coalescing into other images, are ubiquitous. Metakovan’s claim — that “it represents 13 years of everyday work” — is weak tea. “Techniques are replicable and skill is surpassable,” he continued in his statement, “but the only thing you can’t hack digitally is time.” Even a drunk Don Draper would be embarrassed to pitch such meaningless dross.

Don’t ask if the duct-tape banana is art. Ask if it’s any good.

There is no universally applicable rule when it comes to determining art’s value, and it has been a long time since anyone thought value hinged purely on skill or difficulty of execution. (Lots of people labor for years over worthless trinkets or lame ideas.) But the Beeple sale suggests the extent to which marketing has swarmed into the vacuum created by the shattering of old norms of artistic merit.

To make someone want to buy something, all you need is to create desire. The easiest way to create a desire that didn’t exist yesterday is to convince someone of the reasonable possibility that the thing they are buying will increase in value. If you can do that, it really doesn’t matter what the thing is. What matters is the probability that it will appreciate.

The Italian artist Piero Manzoni sold cans of his excrement. The Frenchman Yves Klein sold air. And more recently, Maurizio Cattelan of Italy sold a banana duct-taped to a wall — in an edition of three! All of them proved the point that, for the art market, what matters is marketing. In doing so, they confirmed an absurdity that is not about to go away, because although it is objectively absurd, it is rational inside the economic structure in which it operates.

It is sad, needless to say, that most of our society’s best creative energies go into manufacturing the desire to acquire things. What is sadder in this specific case is that art, for those who are receptive to it, can actually resist this kind of commodity fetishism (as the Marxists call it). In fact, one of the most profound tasks of art is to remind us that things, including people, can be understood for what they are in themselves, not just in terms of their exchangeability.

But it seems there’s no getting around the art economy. You need only two rich people to want to buy something they can exclusively own for it to become very expensive. The trick, for those selling, is both to create the desire and (in the case of reproducible things) to guarantee uniqueness, even if only notionally. NFT technology has found a novel way to do that. Although I don’t deny that the implications may be big, that success and the temporary sensation it has created are the only reasons people are talking about it.

By the standards we apply to most of the economy, art has always been relatively useless. What good does it do? I personally love that there is no set answer to that question. And I like it when the connection between functionality (or even aesthetic merit) and monetary worth is stretched. It can make us question conventional ideas of what has value and what doesn’t. That can be salutary. It’s nice, for instance, when the market assigns high value to something ephemeral: It can signal that we are willing to value transient things, which can put us in touch, by implication, with our own transience, even our mortality.

But when people are focused on art’s monetary value to the point where they create novel manifestations of “art” almost exclusively with a view to maximizing their monetary value, they have things profoundly backward. When something is just banal — when it is about hype and nothing else — it’s depressing. Rich people, it leaves you thinking, should stop playing foolish games and spend their money where it’s needed.

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