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.)

Now imagine the same scenario as before, about the Clooney portrait, except that the art collector who bought the digital portrait for $100,000 goes out and murders George Clooney hoping that the photo will be worth even more now that he’s dead.

The cryptoart equivalent of that happened last week. An anonymous group of tech bros-cum-speculative-art-collectors burned a Banksy print, which they’d purchased for $95,000, in an attempt to ride the cryptoart wave by turning it into an NFT and selling it for what they hope will be more money than the original.

Banksy, Morons. Screenprint. (2006)

The monochromatic print, titled—this is almost too good to be true—Morons, depicts an illustration of a packed art auction house. A digital display on the auctioneer’s podium shows us the going price—$750,450—as he points to someone out of frame who is, ostensibly, bidding on the ornately framed canvas that reads, “I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU MORONS ACTUALLY BUY THIS SHIT.” It’s one of Banksy’s most pointed, and least subtle, criticisms of the secondary and speculative art markets.

My first hunch was that the whole thing had been orchestrated by Banksy himself as his latest prank. (Damien Hirst once put together an anonymous art consortium to bid on his diamond-encrusted skull, titled For the Love of God, to ensure that it would sell for an enormous amount of money (reportedly between $70-$100 million), thereby setting a new standard for the price of his works. So, it wouldn’t be an unprecedented move on Banksy’s part.) The fact that an anonymous group burned a piece of art about what suckers speculative art collectors are, just to prove what suckers speculative art collectors are, seemed too on the nose not to be the work of someone who delights at poking fun at and manipulating the art market for sport.

But when I heard the speech that the tech bro gave before he burned the print, I changed my mind because I don’t think Banksy would create a stunt with such potentially devastating and far-reaching consequences for the work of other artists:

Right now I’m gonna burn this Banksy. The reason behind this is: for the NFT, if we were to have the NFT and the physical piece, the value would be primarily in the physical piece. By removing the physical piece from existence, and only having the NFT, we can ensure…that no one can alter the piece and it is the true piece that exists in the world. By doing this, the value of the physical piece will then be moved onto the NFT, being the only way you can have this piece anymore. The goal here is to inspire. We want to inspire technology enthusiasts and we want to inspire art…art…artists…we want to inspire artists and we want to explore a new medium for artistic expression.

There’s so much to unpack here. When he says, “if we were to have the NFT and the physical piece, the value would be primarily in the physical piece,” he is stating what we all know to be true: that the NFT has no inherent value. In this situation, if you put an NFT next to anything that has worth, it can never measure up because it is effectively worthless. The only way to imbue the NFT with worth is to take it from something else, which is a lot like someone claiming they got taller because the person standing next to them fell down. In this case, the only way to create perceived value is to destroy real value. And by doing so, it creates a reality in which real value is immaterial. Think about that for a second.

This seems to me a very slippery and terrible slope that I pray our culture makes the decision not to go down. If these self-proclaimed “tech and art enthusiasts” believe that a physical object can be turned into an NFT, what would prevent someone from purchasing a Frank Lloyd Wright home, for example—something into which creativity, thoughtfulness, love, and hundreds of thousands of hours of physical labor were poured—razing it, and creating an NFT out of it for some lucky (read: wealthy) architecture hound to keep as a trophy in his digital wallet?

Until the burning of Morons, cryptoart had always been created by people who decided that an NFT was the authenticated form they wanted their work to take. Similarly, artists have different ways of authenticating physical pieces of art, ranging from signatures to fingerprints to ripping a piece of currency in half, keeping half at the artist’s studio and framing the other half with the piece of art. Nowhere in the legal or social contract of purchasing an authenticated physical piece of art does it give the buyer the right or the ability to change the form of the object. By doing so, it makes the case that the intention of the owner, as it pertains to the final form of the artwork, supersedes the intention of the artist who created it. It says, “If I have enough money, I can take something that an artist touched, cared for, carved, printed, painted, poured, sanded, or honed, and decide that it can only live in the world as a collection of ones and zeros”

If I were Banksy, I would release a statement that said something to the effect that whoever owns the NFT of Morons does not, in fact, own an authenticated Banksy, because Morons exists as a screen print and has been destroyed. But Banksy won’t release a statement like that because part of his practice is allowing the art world to eat itself alive while revealing its cravenness and idiocy to the rest of us.

According to an article on Decrypt, a spokesperson for the anonymous tech group said, ‘We plan to burn a few pieces after this one as well. It will also likely become more mainstream to burn a piece [of art] in the real world in order to mint it into an NFT.’

These burnings strike me as so cynical, and as such a perfect display of whiteness and extractive capitalism: let’s take the heart out of something, manipulate it for our own gain, and then destroy it. 

Anyone who creates or truly appreciates non-digital art knows that there is something ineffable that gets imbued into every physical object an artist makes: the time they spent thinking about it, the effort they put into creating it, the mistakes that you can no longer see, the happy accidents, the piece of their soul that goes out into the world as soon as that piece leaves their studio. A secondary party can’t transfer any of those things into binary code, so if we have any care for art or artists, let’s choose to live in a world where our loyalty rests with the physical object the artist makes over the NFT that the object was destroyed in order to create.

About the author

Jennifer Rabin is a writer and an artist. She serves as the visual arts writer for Willamette Week and her writing has appeared in Harvard Review, Visual Art Source, Hyperallergic, Oregon Humanities, Bitch, and The Rumpus. She is the recipient of a 2016 RACC grant for her memoir in progress, All the Reverence in Our Hearts, and has been an artist in residence at Jentel in Wyoming, The Rensing Center in South Carolina, and Caldera in Oregon. Her creative writing practice and her studio practice have become inextricably linked as she explores ideas and themes in multiple disciplines simultaneously. A diehard populist, she uses her platform as an arts writer to champion underrepresented voices, to challenge the mystique of the white-box art world, and to encourage first-time collectors. At work, she can most often be found wearing her grandmother’s robe or a pair of tattered coveralls, both of which have received sidelong glances during coffee runs to Stumptown.

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