On Valentine’s Day, a small group of art collectors pooled $1 million worth of cryptocurrency to buy a photograph of a rose. But the picture won’t be unwrapped over a candlelit dinner or hung on a bedroom wall. The photograph doesn’t exist physically; it’s a simple digital image. Its apparent value lies in its associated “token”: a one-of-a-kind digital asset that exists on an enduring, cryptographic digital ledger called the blockchain. The token, unlike the image, can’t be duplicated. But its success could be.
Earlier this week, I wrote about people trying to turn a cartoon frog called Pepe into the vanguard of art’s future on the blockchain. Reporting on that story immersed me in memes, but also in the ways that new technology might change the art world. A small triumvirate of artists, technologists and financiers are using the blockchain to render art rare and then selling it. In the process, they’ve figured out a way to make digital art valuable.
A lot of what makes physical art valuable is its scarcity — there are only so many paintings by Mark Rothko, after all. But digital art has always been different because it can be perfectly copied, ad infinitum. Crypto technology and the blockchain may be able to change all that. Just like Bitcoins are scarce, so too can original digital artwork now be scarce, even if duplicates remain common in the same way that prints or photographs of physical artwork are common. Proponents argue that this would democratize and decentralize art, helping artists get paid, helping resolve issues of authorship and ownership that the internet had rendered murky, and taking power out of the hands of auction houses and gallerists. But as I dove deeper into the promise of crypto-art, it seems to me more likely to democratize and decentralize not art itself, but art commerce. The appreciation of art and the fetishization of its prices have already become hopelessly intertwined. Crypto-art pulls this knot even tighter.
Specific works of art used to be scarce simply because there was no technology available that could precisely copy them. Painters could, and did, attempt to recreate others’ works, but for centuries the only really reliable image of, say, Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” was the “Mona Lisa” itself. If only da Vinci’s rivals had had a camera.
This eventually changed, of course. John Berger, an English critic, was fascinated by what happened when humans developed the technology to reproduce art, especially oil paintings. “For the first time ever,” he wrote in 1972, “images of art have become ephemeral, ubiquitous, insubstantial, available, valueless, free.” Even as I write this, I’m drinking tea from a mug decorated with a collage of images pulled from the works of artists from da Vinci to Edvard Munch to Jeff Koons. For Berger, this was the democratizing process, and one that undermined an art establishment that “makes inequality seem noble and hierarchies seem thrilling.” As far as Berger was concerned, the cultural role that museums play should instead be filled by the images children choose to pin to their bulletin boards.
Computers and the internet accelerated art’s movement toward ubiquity and freeness — images, songs and films could be shared infinitely and quickly (often to the chagrin of their creators, who sometimes fought back). Those trying to bring the blockchain to art are, in a way, trying to reverse this process — to reintroduce scarcity, authenticity and an aura of exclusivity to a work of art. A piece of art on the blockchain can be one-of-a-kind in the way the “Mona Lisa” once was.
There are several outfits in search of a crypto da Vinci. The Rare Pepe project and its cartoon frogs may be the first blockchain art market where anyone can submit their original work. CryptoKitties, the Beanie Babies of the blockchain, offers blockchain-bound cats for users to collect and breed. CryptoPunks deals in algorithmically generated digital characters. DADA.nyc is an artistic social network, featuring visual conversations between artists, that’s now powered by the blockchain.
Beatriz Helena Ramos founded DADA.nyc and knows that money is part of crypto-art’s allure. “When I saw the Rare Pepes example, I knew there was something there. Now it feels like a movement. It feels like the beginning of something big.”
Jason Bailey, who creates, collects and blogs about crypto-art, agreed with Ramos and added that crypto-art also redistributes power in the art market. “We have seen what happens to organizations like the National Endowment for the Arts when left in the hands of a centralized power,” Bailey said — if much of the money supporting the arts comes from a few big groups, then thousands of artists are at risk any time those groups face funding cuts. “Building a robust, decentralized network of patrons is an important step toward ensuring the arts flourish in the future.” (Power and money are never far from each other in art.)
But these claims of democratizing art are coming from the opposite direction of Berger’s. Berger argues that technology like the camera leads to free and widespread replication, which levels the playing field, which allows consumers from all walks of life to access art. But crypto-art’s boosters invert that dynamic. Technology like the blockchain, they say, democratizes art by creating scarcity, allowing more artists to profit from their work, thus leveling the playing field for creators rather than consumers. In their minds, that’s the gunshot that will spark the revolution.
Art as commodity
Art has existed since Neanderthals began making cave paintings, but its hypercommercialization is a much more recent phenomenon, reaching a crescendo in the last few decades. No one artist’s work was more responsible for melding art with cash than Andy Warhol’s, which generates great mass media appeal and exists in great quantities — Warhol mass-produced replicas of Brillo boxes that now sell for millions. The 2018 version of Warhol’s iconic Marilyn Monroe is a cartoon frog named Pepe.
Some prominent critics saw an existential danger in art’s gold rush. “The entanglement of big money with art has become a curse on how art is made, controlled and, above all, the way it is experienced,” the late critic Robert Hughes says in his 2008 documentary, “The Mona Lisa Curse.” He continues: “At the age of 70, I belong to the last generation that could spend time in a museum without ever once thinking about what the art might cost.”
As art reached new heights of commercialism, artists split into two schools. On one hand were the commercialists: savvy marketeers such as Koons and Damien Hirst making market- and hype-ready pieces and getting very rich. On the other hand were the non-commercialists, including the earthworks artists, such as Michael Heizer and Robert Smithson, who ventured to the middle of a desert or a lake and turned rocks and dirt into unsellable work the size of towns that could, literally, crush an art gallery.1
But in the popular consciousness, the commercialists won. “Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art,” Warhol once said.
Crypto-art seems to embrace Warhol’s philosophy. Sure, Rare Pepes and CrytoKitties can’t fetch anywhere near the astronomical prices that traditional art can sometimes command. But in crypto-art, commerce is wrapped like a kudzu vine around the industry’s newly formed artistic infrastructure. In the case of Rare Pepes, the art, literally and technically, is the currency — Rare Pepes are bought with Pepe Cash, a cryptocurrency that’s just an incredibly plentiful piece of Pepe art. The value of an artwork fluctuates directly and wildly with swings in the exchange rate between U.S. dollars and Pepe Cash.
Jess Houlgrave, a cofounder of a company that tracks art ownership using the blockchain, regularly ponders these issues. She comes from a finance background, has worked at both Credit Suisse and the bids department at Sotheby’s auction house, and wrote a master’s thesis titled “Blockchain: A critical assessment of use within the art ecosystem.” I asked her what it meant that art was moving to the blockchain, and whether we should worry about the further intertwining of art and commerce.
“Artists have — for hundreds if not thousands of years — explored, explained and challenged current social and technological phenomena,” Houlgrave said. “The artists who are making work focused on the blockchain — it’s like any other movement [of people] who are looking at what’s happening on the cutting edge.” The cutting edge is now commerce.
Houlgrave said that disputing or fighting the innate connection between art and commerce, as Hughes did or as I am inclined to, is naive. “There’s a tendency for people to say that art is just art and we shouldn’t commodify it and should treat it as something that isn’t an asset. The truth is that, for thousands of years, art has been an asset. It’s been very tied up with our financial systems.” Crypto-art just takes those ties a step further: It lives on a financial system.
The new art factory
Every revolution has its unintended consequences. What will be crypto-art’s?
John Zettler runs Rare Art Labs, a company that has sprouted up to help speed along the adoption of crypto-art. The company plans to tokenize digital artworks, thereby giving them a home on the blockchain, and to advise artists on how — and for how much — to sell their work.
At Rare Art Labs’ Rare Digital Art Festival in January, a single digital Pepe the Frog image called “Homer Pepe” sold for over $30,000. The festival merited wide-eyed coverage in The New York Times, The Paris Review and Vice (though the Times didn’t mention Pepe). If you’ve heard of crypto-art before this week, odds are it was thanks to this event.
Rare Art Labs’ motto is #ArtistsDeserveMore, and by my count, Zettler said the phrase “value accretion” four times during our interview. (His pinned tweet is a quote from Peter Thiel, the PayPal co-founder and billionaire venture capitalist.) “Our founding mission is to increase the aggregate artistic output of humankind,” Zettler told me as we sat in a gilded monument to late capitalism: an exclusive coworking space in Manhattan’s Flatiron District that’s sponsored by a huge multinational bank and designed for financial technology professionals. During the day he ponders artistic techno-abracadabra like: “How would you build an incentive structure for all network participants whereby you could actually create a self-fueling virtuous loop with an economics-based fuel, if you will, for bootstrapping the network and creating monetary incentives for early adoption?”
One of Zettler’s goals for the company is to establish, “in places like Brooklyn,” coworking spaces where artists can ply their trade at “very reduced prices.” The company would supply creation tools such as cameras and software; Zettler’s on-site tech experts would help the artists tokenize their work, placing it on the blockchain; and auction consultants would advise artists on when, where and in what quantities to sell their work.
Warhol had his Factory; now Zettler wants his.
Others in his company sounded well aware of the risks of this marriage between art and commerce. “If this turns out to be part of the crypto-bastardization of art, I will be ashamed for the rest of my life for being a part of it, but I think, as of now, it seems it is having and will have a very positive impact on creators,” Tommy Nicholas, Rare Art Labs’ founding adviser, told me.
A new order is emerging in the art world. But will it be any different than the old one? People like Zettler make me think not. He and Rare Art Labs may be handling a new type of art, but what they’re doing with it is nothing new; in fact, it’s exactly what the critic Hughes warned us against: the fetishization of art’s prices and the emptying of its higher virtues. As a result, the relationship between art and the blockchain, which seems symbiotic for the moment, could soon become parasitic. Artists can only avoid the art establishment’s capitalistic maw for so long.
Development by Justin McCraw.