On Art

Crypto-art for cryptomillions

Digital art: the millennial trend

This article is taken from the May 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

In 2018, Christie’s New York put an estimate of $7,000 on a work listed as Portrait of Edmond Belamy. However, when the hammer came down, the picture — a blurry thing with an ersatz nineteenth century French feel to it but no accompanying biographical detail about the sitter — fetched $432,500. Picture is the right word, not portrait, since Edmond Belamy never existed and the painter was not a human artist but two different computer algorithms — hence the signature, a line of mathematical equation in place of a name. The “portrait” was the first AI generated work sold by a major auction house.

The idea came from a French art collective called Obvious which used a generative adversarial network (GAN) software system, which it then “trained” on 15,000 real painted portraits, to produce a simulacrum of a man sitting to a simulacrum of a portraitist. The point of the exercise, said one of the collective, was to demonstrate “that algorithms are able to emulate creativity”. What they also demonstrated was that the art world loves a technological novelty and is willing to pay not just handsomely but excessively for it.

Just two years on and this truth has been starkly confirmed. In March this year another piece of computer art was sold for an extravagant sum. This time there was a human creator, Beeple (a 39-year-old American, Michael Joseph Winkelmann), who sold a piece called Everydays — The First 5000 Days, again at Christie’s New York.

It is a work that exists only in digital form and comprises a computer collage of all the images that Beeple has been posting online daily since 2007. It fetched $69.3 million dollars (with fees), making it the third most expensive artwork by a living artist ever sold, after works by David Hockney and Jeff Koons. Beeple’s reaction? “I’m going to Disneyworld.”

Christie’s marketing had been astute, cleverly announcing it would accept payment in the cryptocurrency Ethereum. Interest was such that during the final moments of the auction, as the price became turbocharged, Christie’s website crashed twice.

But Beeple didn’t sell the work at all; instead he was hawking an NFT (nonfungible token) — essentially proof that the buyer, a crypto investor using the pseudonym “Metakovan”, was the legal owner even if the image itself can be downloaded from the internet by anyone. Should “Metakovan” wish to dispose of it, he has incontrovertible proof in a blockchain digital wallet, that the work is his to sell.

This is what happened with another Beeple NFT piece, Crossroads, a 10-second video of pedestrians walking past a giant, graffiti-covered Donald Trump. It was bought for $67,000 in October 2020 and sold just before the Everydays auction for $6.6 million — a 100-fold increase in five months. In the aftermath of the Everydays sale, the auction house did some number crunching and found that, of the 33 different bidders, 58 per cent of them were millennials and only 3 per cent Boomers.

In the words of Noah Davis, the auctioneer behind the sale, “We’re at this moment in time where there could be a drastic shift — a demographic shift, a generational shift — when it comes to what excites younger collectors,” before adding the somewhat otiose aperçu that Christie’s was “really
excited” about the possibilities and “that’s something we want to capitalise on.”

It is something the artworld Barnum Damian Hirst wants to capitalise on too. He has just sold editions of eight prints called The Virtues showing cherry blossom on branches. As pictures they are negligible to the point of vapid, but nevertheless 4,000 customers snapped up 7,481 prints in all, each costing $3,000. They netted Hirst and his dealer some $22 million, accepting payment in Bitcoin and Ether as well as by quaint-seeming credit card.

No one seems keen to ask if the picture is any good, does something new visually, or says something previously unsaid

However, among all the crypto-art chatter there has been one key topic that has not been mentioned at all: aesthetics. So obsessed with money, new markets and new formats have things become that the existence of Everydays as a work of art — and the judgements that traditionally come with that — have been completely ignored.

No one seems keen to ask if the picture is any good, does something new visually, or says something previously unsaid (surely the least you could expect for $69 million) — perhaps because the answers would be meh, meh and meh. Everydays is not the modern equivalent of the invention of oil paint: everything about it is unremarkable except for the price. You can’t even hang it on your wall.

Good luck to Beeple for his prescience in hitting a new development at exactly the right moment but that sassiness doesn’t make him an important artist or even an interesting one. His story is not about art, but money. No wonder that those with financial skin in the game are excited. It may be that “Metakovan” was buying in order to bolster his own crypto interests just as Tesla’s recent purchase of $1.5 billion in Bitcoin helps secure that cryptocurrency in a too-big-to-fail way, but huge amounts of money suddenly sloshing in might have a distorting effect, not least that the path to aesthetic vacuity but worldly riches becomes even more inviting. As one traditional collector put it: “I feel bad for art.”

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