Previous: Trash in Hyperspace: Markets, Institutions, and Artistic Freedom (7)

Next: Composing in the Key of S

NFTs: Now, Franklin's Take

Post #1890 • March 25, 2021, 6:10 PM • 4 Comments

Several readers have asked for my take on the recent non-fungible token phenomenon. In short, I think it's hilarious.

If you need an explainer on this, there are already hundreds of them out there. But the upshot is that a JPEG just sold as an NFT for $69 million. That means that the list of living artists who have commanded the top three most expensive auction sales of single works of art now looks like this: Jeff Koons, David Hockney, and Beeple.

This is a comedy of manners of Wildean proportions. As in any comedy of manners, the humor derives from watching the privileged squirm with discomfort at a déclassé intruder. Exhibit A is Sebastian Smee, “Beeple’s digital ‘artwork’ sold for more than any painting by Titian or Raphael. But as art, it’s a great big zero”:

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.

Smee begins with the lowest damnation possible, that this work is not art and the creator is not an artist. To which I reply, prove it. I have now spent nigh three decades listening to people argue (or at this late stage, simply assuming) that the most important aspect of an artwork since Duchamp is the idea. Art is reified by fiat. The artist declares a thing to be art, and it is art. This characterization does not seem like a courtesy to Beeple, who in fact told The New Yorker that he doesn’t use the label artist because “people have ruined it by being pretentious douche-lords.” On that note, back to Smee:

But the sale is unlikely to usher in a major shake-up of the art market.

I repeat: Koons. Hockney. Beeple. Spots below that are occupied by Brice Marden and Gehard Richter.

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.

Squirm, Smee, squirm. I’m enjoying this.

People can debate the merits of Koons and Hockney all they like. But at least their artworks were physical objects.

Vito Acconci’s Following Piece (1969) consisted entirely of him following random people in public.

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.”

An artwork consisting entirely of following random people in public is obviously insane. Paying $69 million for something that you think will be worth $1 billion someday, as the buyer reportedly does, is sound investment.

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.

Acconci had Following Piece photographed, and the photos are now commodified in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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.”

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.

The market is not a test of truth and beauty. I can forgive Smee for not understanding how blockchains work. I feel less mercy about his not understanding how auctions work. You would expect people who do understand how the blockchains work to pay particular attention to this creative space, and Lord knows they have the capital to participate in it. My question...

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.) what about this is manipulated or engineered? The price went up because people were bidding against each other. Sounds like a clean auction to me. In contrast, in 2015 the Art Newspaper found that a third of major solo exhibitions in US museums from 2007 to 2013 showcased artists from five commercial galleries. At the Guggenheim that figure was 11 out of 12. And this NFT auction looks engineered to you?

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.... 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.

This is so bad. “Differentials”? Does he mean “derivatives”?

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.

That technical fix is in fact revolutionary, and I mean that politically. Because Smee is so comfortably insulated from economics that he doesn’t have to understand how trading works, he has missed the point that a futures contract is not merely an idea. It is a legally binding agreement, and it is that which makes it possible to trade it. An NFT is a blockchain address that is designed not to have equivalent values at other addresses, hence its non-fungibility. It is enforced by a private network of computers rather than a legal mechanism. Contracts stored publicly on blockchains is the first step of the total privatization of government, which however one feels about it, is germane to Smee’s flabby Marxism to follow.

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.

And yet what gold was spun from such dross, for instance, the whole oeuvre of On Kawara.

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.

I’ve long been making points like this. What’s interesting here is that the Beeple sale shattered the replacement norms which were bolted up like so much plywood when the old merit-based norms got shattered. Beeple selling a JPEG for the price of a few Titians introduces art into the auction records about which Smee’s opinion is not worth the carbon dioxide formed by expressing it.

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 last four Pulitzer Prizes for art criticism have gone to critics prone to writing these kinds of mawkish anti-capitalist sentiments. It is boring as hell.

What good does [art] 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.

And the conceptual art made to gratify those sentiments, namely most of it, is likewise boring as hell. Art’s main function is to serve as a repository for visual goodness. It doesn’t do anything else particularly well, and when it tries it tends to duplicate the realm of graphic design from which Beeple hails and to which Smee would like to confine him.

[But 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.

We need a greatly diversified art world, not just in terms of immutable traits of identity, but in terms of the range of allowable opinion. The current circumstances, in the main, are not fostering one. Consider the energy, both in quantity and kind, that went into the establishment of the careers of Koons and Hockney - decades of hard work on the part of the artists, their entourages, their dealers, and once convinced, all the institutions that supported them. Measured in a certain limited way, by auction records, someone inserted himself in their pantheon who was previously known only to a subculture of recent vintage. This is unprecedented, and made possible by technology that has never previously existed. The Beeple work in question is not good art. On that Smee and I agree. But this development is a veritable falling of the walls of Jericho as far as the old order is concerned. To my mind it is most welcome.

Yes, I will be minting my own NFT soon.



Douglas Bowker

March 26, 2021, 12:36 AM

Art with a capital(ist?) A, by which I mean "that which is shown in galleries or sold in auctions, and fought over by critics," is possibly the only field of creativity that has willfully ignored the importance of follow-through. The form follows the function; the function isn't devoid of form.

Every half-decent film maker will declare, "It's about the story," but not one of them would be stupid enough to follow up by saying that the script, the acting, the direction, lighting, sound, and cinematography were all superfluous.

Even the rawest of punk bands understood that somebody had to know how to sing and play. Somehow the art world's inability to recognize humor has boxed itself in these past 100 years. It doesn't look to change anytime soon.



March 26, 2021, 4:39 PM

Humor is allowed. There was an idiotic episode of my writing career in which I was trotted out on more than one occasion for my supposed opposition to humor.

What I think has gone missing is love. Who established his career after Pollock whose work really deals in love? I'm thinking of Paul Cadmus's drawings of Jon Anderson as an example, but who since him? That strikes me as sad.


John Link

March 29, 2021, 5:22 PM



Brian Curtis

April 8, 2021, 5:43 PM

Nicely done. A welcome dose of intelligent sanity. Great read and nuanced insights. Your ability to ascend to higher ground while avoiding the perspectival distortion that normally plagues those in lofty perches is refreshing. The Beatles had it right: "love is all you need - learn how to be in time - nowhere you can be that isn’t where you were meant to be - its easy."



Other Projects


Design and content ©2003-2023 Franklin Einspruch except where otherwise noted