Somebody just paid US$69-million for a jpeg. Not any old jpeg, but a file containing a collage of 5,000 images representing the daily output of the digital artist known as Beeple since he began posting his art online in 2007. The online auction at Christie’s Thursday makes Beeple, or Mike Winkelmann, the third-most expensive living artist after David Hockney and Jeff Koons and, in midst of a scorching hot market, it sets a new record for crypto art.
It used to be that you would not want the word crypto attached to your best efforts. There were crypto-Communists and crypto-fascists, and if there were more benign uses of the modifier out there, you would now have to pull a physical dictionary from the shelf to find them. Google the word “crypto” today and all you will uncover is the current rage for cryptocurrencies, followed closely by crypto art.
For the currencies, the crypto is intended as a good thing; it’s the digital code that keeps virtual coins unique and secure, available only to their rightful owner. Just remember to leave the password with your spouse or your mom, in case you get hit by a bus.
And, in theory, making art crypto might be a good thing, too. Crypto art is assigned an NFT – or non-fungible token, which associates a unique code with a digital work so that one person, and only one person, can own it. (Fungible assets, such as currencies, are ones that are interchangeable: One $20 bill is like another and can always be traded for two $10s. Non-fungible assets, such as houses or original art works, are unique.)
Unlike the password that protects your bank account or your Canadian Tire shopping cart, the code associated with an NFT is protected by a blockchain, one of those digital databases that store chronological lists of transactions in linked blocks with security protocols so sprawling and so intricate they are all but impossible to hack.
Because a blockchain can take an easily reproduced digital file and indicate to the world that it has one owner, the technology has sometimes been held out as the salvation of the creative industries. It might end piracy and fix a broken market where distributors get rich while producers starve. If individual musicians, writers and visual artists could control the sale and digital distribution of their work, perhaps they could finally get fair compensation.
But while we are waiting for that to happen, a handful of artists and speculators are getting rich selling crypto art to crazed collectors who have been stuck inside the house too long and can’t get to Art Basel to see the real thing.
Digital art – whether that is a computer-generated image or video, or a photograph rendered as a digital file – is a varied and perfectly legitimate endeavour, but its creators and collectors are often stymied by the ease with which it can be reproduced. Who is willing to pay for an image anybody could lift off a website?
Crypto art tries to solve this problem. You buy an NFT created by an artist, whether in an edition of one or of hundreds, and a blockchain acknowledges you as its owner and the only person who can resell it. Recent examples include not only Beeple’s single collage, but also short videos sold in large editions by the Canadian musician Grimes and a real print by the British graffiti artist Banksy that speculators burned and reproduced as an NFT.
Meanwhile, others can still see the work and could potentially reproduce it. All the recent news stories about crypto art are accompanied by illustrations that you could easily copy and paste. At this point, advocates for crypto art like to haul out the Mona Lisa. It doesn’t matter how many postcards you have; only the Louvre owns the real Mona Lisa.
Unfortunately, the comparison doesn’t really hold because there are demonstrable differences between a photographic reproduction of a painting and the actually paint-on-canvas original. That is much less true with digital art, where the individuality lies in the idea, not the medium, and where one copy is indistinguishable from the other except for the degree of resolution.
Christie’s Beeple auction is an attempt to associate the aura of uniqueness that we attribute to physical art to an infinitely reproducible digital image; it’s a bid for something that every Picasso and every toddler’s finger painting can claim: non-fungibility. So far, the market has gleefully embraced this pseudo scarcity, encouraging rampant speculation among bonkers billionaires.
To top it off, like cryptocurrencies, crypto art is an ecological disaster. Because they rely on computing at scale for their security, both bitcoins and NFTs use vast quantities of electricity. How vast? Estimates are that bitcoin mining is currently using the same amount of energy every year as a small country: Ireland, New Zealand or the Netherlands, depending on who you ask.
After all that, it seems almost irrelevant to point out that most of the crypto art that has been earning these exorbitant sums appears to be bland and flip, little more than glorified internet memes. Successful crypto artists aren’t necessarily talented or interesting. They are, however, very rich.
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