Selling an Idea

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Back in secondary school, I had the coolest collection of screensavers. No digital artwork was safe from my speedy right click ‘download image’. Image by image, the value of owning digital art was being systematically undermined. Digital artists could only rage and gnash their teeth in vain as I would pull off each daring heist. After all, the images I was downloading were aesthetically identical to the originals. But, on March 11 2021 someone bought a digital image for $69.4m in an online Christie’s auction: Beeple’s ‘Everydays: The First 5000 Days’

This sale only marks one peak in the recent trend of crypto-art. Using cryptocurrency, an artist can now convert a digital image into a non-fungible token (NFT), which is a digital fingerprint proving its unique existence in the digital space. Artists have found a way to prove unique ownership of a digital image through cryptocurrency. In doing so, cryptocurrency claims to have brought the value of digital ownership to the same level as that of a physical artwork. 

Conceptual artworks are often about the idea. The physical embodiment is a perfunctory afterthought

The collective Injective Protocol has taken this one step further and tried to prove that there really is no difference between digital and physical artwork. Marked in the crypto-art market’s digital ledgers, you can find ownership of a high-quality digital photograph representing the Banksy work ‘Morons’ ascribed to a user named ‘GALAXY’. The physical print doesn’t exist. Originally purchased for $32,500 in 2019, it has been digitalised, burnt, and resold for $382,000. Not only has a digital image broke even with a physical counterpart, but it has also outstripped it in value.

While baffling at first pass, what’s happening here isn’t so different to a lot of physical artworks. I’m sure I could buy a urinal and make a good stab at appending a crude ‘R. Mutt’ with my sharpie, but I wouldn’t have made Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’. Conceptual artworks are often about the idea. The physical embodiment is a perfunctory afterthought; the urinal itself is evidence of an artistic idea. 

destruction can be a generative act

Maurizio Cattelan’s ‘Comedian’ demonstrates this disconnect and is a brilliant physical parallel to what is happening with the NFTs. In 2019, $120,000 netted you an artwork consisting of: a banana; a bit of tape, instructions on how to replace said banana (when it inevitably rotted), and a certificate of authenticity. In short, an idea. What is being bought is ownership in the purest sense, and this is eerily similar to NFTs. 

The burning of ‘Morons’ by Injective Protocol presented a bold attempt to bridge the physical and non-physical. In a video released alongside the image, they explain that by burning the work, ‘the value of the physical piece will then be moved onto the NFT’. They are looking to create a digital mirror that will test whether a digital piece can equal a physical one – an exciting artistic idea in itself. Their idea will be successful if we look at the NFT and receive an identical artistic experience to looking at the physical piece.

we have a new unintended artwork – a digital token of a conceptual action, a handful of digital ashes – but at the cost of the Banksy that they burnt

This doesn’t happen. Where they go wrong is in creating a tangible absence. In looking at the NFT, we encounter the phantom presence of its non-existent physical counterpart. A shadow is cast over our experience of the digital image. Like looking at the blank canvas of Rauschenberg’s ‘Erased De Kooning’, we feel the lack. It’s a disconcerting experience, something akin to looking at the photo of a dead person. Non-tangible actions carry distinct value. In this way, destruction can be a generative act.

So, the NFT expresses two values, that of ‘Morons’ and that of the burning of ‘Morons’. Like the urinal and the banana, their NFT has become a token of their artistic action. Sadly, we are left with an asymmetry between what Injective Protocol created and what they destroyed. Any evidence that they wanted to find is obscured, revealing that their concept was incoherent from the outset. Instead, we have a new unintended artwork – a digital token of a conceptual action, a handful of digital ashes – but at the cost of the Banksy that they burnt.

Image: “Beeple / Mike Winkelmann (US)” by Ars Electronica is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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