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British artist David Hockney speaks about his exhibition 'Hockney - Van Gogh: The Joy of Nature' showing at the Van Gogh Museum on Feb. 27, 2019.


Like most normal people, David Hockney doesn’t really get NFTs.

Unlike most normal people, Hockney should be in a position to do so. He’s been both beneficiary and victim of art world hysterias and hyperinflation.

How else would you describe it if a painting you sold for 18 grand eventually got auctioned for US$90-million? I mean, that’s good for you. And also terrible for you.

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What Hockney has trouble grasping isn’t the blockchain concept. Nobody understands that. If you say the word “blockchain” to me, my mind goes blank and I wake up an hour later on the kitchen floor.

No, what Hockney appears to have trouble with is the whole computer idea.

“Things can get lost on a computer, can’t they?” the 83-year-old painter said recently on the Waldy and Bendy’s Adventures in Art podcast. “And they will be, in the future, lost in the computer, even when the cloud gets going. There’s going to be so much on it. How will you find it?” Something tells me Hockney is the sort of guy who sends people in lanyards screaming for the exits whenever he shows up at the Genius Bar.

What about Beeple, the NFT star who just sold 5,000 consecutive days worth of computer-generated images, amalgamated into a single art work, for far too much money?

“I saw the pictures, but I mean it just looked like silly little things,” Hockney said. “I couldn’t make out what it was.”

Yeah, I guess they are small when you stare at a collage of all 5,000 of them. Is it possible Hockney doesn’t understand how point-and-click works?

Later, fully engaging the old-man-shakes-fist-at-changing-world trope, Hockney called NFT sellers “crooks and swindlers.” But when asked whether he’d give the medium a try, he didn’t demur on moral or aesthetic grounds.

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Instead, he said, “I don’t need the money.” Which suggests his answer might be different if he did.

Two months ago, no average person knew what NFTs (non-fungible tokens) were. Now we’ve reached the point where we don’t need to spend the next eight paragraphs explaining what they are. If you’ve gotten this far, you have a vague idea. They are art on the internet that you own, but anyone can have.

NFT apostles like to point out that anyone can take a picture of the Mona Lisa, but only one person can own the real thing. That made a weird sort of sense the first time you read it. Upon reflection, less so.

The value in the Mona Lisa is not the image. The image belongs to everyone. It’s in a quite famous museum. The modern middle-class version of a pilgrimage is, at some point in your life, wasting a half-day in Paris trying to shove your way in front of it.

The painting is a commodity primarily because it was touched by Da Vinci, and because you, the owner, may touch it now.

If the Mona Lisa was to burn in a fire, we would still have millions of copies of its image. But we would not claim we still had the Mona Lisa.

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NFTs are art, in the sense that anything can be. But regardless of how much some rich nitwit is willing to pay for them, they cannot be the Mona Lisa.

Increasingly – and we’re talking here about trend lifecycles lasting days, rather than months or years – NFTs are connected to celebrity. That’s the surest sign they are already in decline.

This past week, Toronto’s the Weeknd auctioned US$2.9-million worth of NFT art. In this case, “art” means a few snippets of video and a song.

In a press release – a pretty good indicator that what follows concerns commerce, not art – the Weekend talked about re-imagining “the archaic music biz.” He praised NFTs for “allowing creators to be seen and heard more than ever before on their terms.”

One obvious problem with the NFT market is what the Weeknd sees as its virtue – it has no gatekeepers. There are no barriers to entry. Anyone can do it. And probably do it just about as well as anyone else.

As such, all the current winners in the market have to distinguish themselves is an established name and/or celebrity. It’s not talent that separates them. It’s branding. Which sounds a lot like the old system.

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NFTs aren’t new at all. They are the same old star machine/cool-kid clique repackaged to seem democratic through the magic of putting it on the internet. The con isn’t the art, though that is largely rubbish. It’s convincing buyers they are in on the ground floor of something revolutionary.

There is still something wonderfully ironic about the likes of David Hockney being affronted by this shift. He’s one of human history’s great winners when it comes to spinning the art market’s roulette wheel.

These days, Hockney does most of his art on an iPad. Like I could. Like you could. They are valuable not because they are good, but because they are Hockneys.

In his defence, he does at least print them out before he sells them.

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