The art economy’s absurdity in modern times

Sebastian Smee

THE WASHINGTON POST – 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 USD69.3 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’ ‘Rabbit’, which took in USD91.1 million in 2019, and David Hockney’s ‘Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)’ purchased for USD90.2 million in 2018.

People can debate the merits of Koons and Hockney all they like. But at least their artworks were physical objects. Paying USD69.3 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 USD1 billion,” Metakovan said in a statement.

‘Everydays: The First 5000 Days’ by Beeple. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

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, 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 realised last week at the Christie’s online sale, inscribing a new chapter in the annals of frictionless capitalism.

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 decentralised, 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’ – said 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.

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 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 ‘art’. 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 said, 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.