speculative art market

The value of art: Cats, cryptoart, and morons

A group of collectors just burned a Banksy screenprint in order to increase the value of the digital version of the same image. Why? And what does this mean for art?

Imagine taking a digital portrait of someone famous—let’s say George Clooney. You embed a code into the meta data of the photo, which proves that you’re the photographer and that the photo is one of a kind, and then you sell the digital file to an art collector for $100,000. At the same time, you release a high-resolution version of the image on the internet so that anyone with a computer can see, use, download, and even print out the exact same “one-of-a-kind” image that you just sold for 100K.

That’s the best analogy I can think of for the newest trend in speculative art collecting called cryptoart, which is what happens when you combine mostly rich white art collectors who care more about money than art with rich white tech bros who care more about money than art. It can get a little complicated—because it’s tied to cryptocurrency and blockchain—but here are the basics: technologists have figured out a way to make a digital image, which can be replicated ad infinitum, unique compared to any of its identical copies. They have invented something called a non-fungible token (NFT) that they can embed into that digital file to prove it’s the original from which all copies are made.

Still image from Nyan Cat, GIF (2011). NFT sold for $560,000

For example, anyone can download and use the gif of this cat for free, as much as they want and in any form that they want, but someone recently purchased the NFT of it for $560,000 so that they can resell it on the speculative art market. (It should be noted that, for our purposes here, we’re talking about the cryptoart that is created with the intention of opportunistic profit. Not all cryptoart is. There are artists who work strictly in the digital medium for whom cryptoart has provided the first legitimate way to authenticate and sell their work. There is also a movement of Black artists and activists who use cryptoart to create and disseminate works about social justice, racism, and Afrofuturism—to envision a better society and often raise money for causes like Black Lives Matter. These artists are not the subject of this essay.)