“I want to be a machine,” Andy Warhol once said. Apparently the public wouldn’t mind either.
Recently, a South Carolina digital artist known by the name Beeple has gained a following using 3-D rendering software to create colorful, digestible pastiches that he now sells as files that contain a unique code are authenticated. On Thursday, a montage of these digital files entitled “Everydays – The First 5000 Days” went up in an online auction with one lot at Christie’s on the block, where it became “What Does the Fox Say?” of art sales. A crypto whale known only by the pseudonym Metakovan paid $ 69 million (with fees) for some randomly compiled images of comic monsters, gross gags, and a nursing Donald Trump – suddenly making this computer illustrator the third-highest-selling artist.
The purchase was made in a cryptocurrency called Ether, and Beeple’s association with digital speculation is no coincidence. Some of the images in “Everydays” show cops dragging Bitcoin gold pieces or being cut open to expose precious metal. He recently published a picture of two fornicating bulls on a gold base with a massive bitcoin emblem in the shape of a rapper chain attached to it.
Welcome, users, to your new cultural settlement! A century ago, Andrew Carnegie and his husband used their new money to buy past prices and finance the institutions of the present. Today’s new money favors its own financial and cultural systems where the anarcho-libertarianism of cryptocurrency blends with the amusements of certain boys: the subliterated comedy of Salt Bae and Boaty McBoatface, the penny-ante heroism of online role-playing games, and the stunted Emotions when streaming porn.
What Christie sold was not an object but a “non-fungible token,” so we’d better start with some definitions. “Token” is just Bitcoinese for a unique string of characters that is logged in a blockchain (or decentralized database) and can be transferred and traded between users. Most tokens are fungible: that is, exchangeable, such as for dollars, gold bars, or GameStop stocks.
A “non-fungible” token, on the other hand, is valued independently of all other tokens. In that way it’s like a work of art – this Monet cannot be replaced by this Monet, and it certainly cannot be replaced by this Warhol or this “Dogs Playing Poker”. The NFT produces what digital art has always lacked: limited editions.
The actual images remain in circulation and any citizen or curator can print or project them (unless Beeple, who remains the owner of the copyright, objects). What Christie’s sold was a related asset that, like so many Beeple stocks, can be resold or even hacked up.
Best not to freak out about the price as such. Art prices have been speculative for decades. And for a century, artists have been selling abstract rights rather than objects. Marcel Duchamp’s “Monte Carlo Bond” transformed the person of the artist into a tradable security; Tino Sehgal’s services are sold and certified through verbal contracts. If anything, resorting to Christie’s and the introduction of blockchain uniqueness lies behind the techno-optimistic stance that NFTs enable an end to the art business. The aura of singularity and the legitimation of the auction house transparently serve to increase the price of assets that are functionally equivalent to Beanie Babies or CryptoKitties.
(If NFT’s art speculation brings something new, it will be the appalling environmental price for blockchain transactions. Artist Memo Akten calculated that the average NFT has a carbon footprint equivalent to the electricity used by a European citizen for a month. Artist activists who reluctance The inequalities of museum collections or the misdeeds of board members should be enraged by NFTs, although it seems appropriate that art like this literally accelerates the extinction of life on earth.)
So you’re freaking out about something else: the cultural bias that Beeple is signaling. NFT boosters like to say that a decentralized art market will enable creativity to blossom beyond the elite art world. That is not completely right. Museums, galleries, magazines and art schools have taken up cultural production from far beyond their borders, from folk art to folk dances to memes. What sets Beeple’s digital images apart from other “non-establishment” art is the violent erasure of human values inherent in the images and how happy his crypto fans are to see them go.
Look closely – but anyone? – with the single images of “Everydays”. The NFT in question includes thousands of images that the artist creates once a day using Cinema 4D and Octane software and that Beeple has published publicly since 2007. Many attribute cartoon character status to politicians: Joe Biden as the “Toy Story” character, Buzz Lightyear; Kim Jong-un as one of the transformers. Another burping of the memes of the day: For example, a battery acid genre scene in which skateboarders drink cranberry juice as a tribute to a briefly viral TikTok with an Idahoan sip of Ocean Spray. (Here the skateboarders roll under an ocean spray monolith over a futuristic city.)
There are misty, techno-Japanese seascapes and icebergs for those who prefer “Final Fantasy” Caspar David Friedrich. Oddly enough, many of Beeple’s daily images are based on non-colored sex gags, some of which a borscht belt comic would find demeaning. Christmas brought Beeple “Santa Came Early”, which shows an embarrassed Santa Claus in bed with his dissatisfied girlfriend after the sexual mishap.
Visually, many of Beeple’s images mimick the Japanese Gothic fantasies of video games. Some remember the art of the insane. (On the eve of Thanksgiving, he drew a picture of a man performing oral sex on a turkey.) Beeple has a knack for rendering architecture despite struggling with meat. As in many video games, the skins appear waxy and dried out. It’s like every remaining human in this crypto universe has scurvy, though that may happen if you subordinate your flesh to the screen.
Similar to KAWS, the subject of a current exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, Beeple often uses Pixar, Disney, Star Wars and Pokémon characters in the same way that previous artists painted Christian saints or Greek deities. In contrast to KAWS, who at least tried to produce their own artistic project, Beeple uses these cartoon characters as social media mnemonic. They are signposts in the endless flow of images to confirm that you know what you are seeing, you already like it, and you know the artist is on your team.
Even the blatant images aren’t really interested in rejecting popular culture or American society like Mike Kelley or Paul McCarthy do. They are only intended to signal a certain cultural and ideological disposition in which the promise to get rich quick is accompanied by a youthful aversion to authority (critics of the Sniffy Times very much among the latter).
“I see this as the next chapter in art history,” says Beeple, real name Mike Winkelmann. He is probably right – although what these chapters say may be of interest here. In a cruel coincidence, the digital artist shares his surname with the literal founder of art history: Johann Joachim Winckelmann, scholar of the German Enlightenment, who was the first to systematize the art of the past in the late 18th century.
Winckelmann’s most basic realization was that a sculpture, painting, or building wasn’t just a matter of beauty; A work of art is a product of its time and also expresses itself without trying anything about the place and culture from which it originates. It’s as true as ever and certainly true for Beeple’s pictures of naked giantesses with the face of Pikachu. It is now his culture, benighted but triumphant, where childlike pleasures can never be questioned and the Simpsons have driven the gods away.