On March 11, 2021, a 10 second video clip by video artist Beeble, whose real name is Mike Winkelmann, was sold by Miami-based art collector Pablo Rodriquez-Fraile for $69,346,250 in Ethereum Digital currency. He had bought it in October 2020 for $67,000 making quite a nice profit less than a year later. No one to date has bought NFT’s (non-fungible tokens) for their aesthetic value, although Beeble’s work is quite beautiful. “Everydays: The First 5000 Days,” a collage of 5000 images produced over 33 years by Beeble, is a unique string of code called a non-fungible token (NFT). Unique to the buyer/owner, it cannot be reproduced or sent to anyone else. Consequently, the artwork can only be viewed by the purchaser, on their computer, or projected on their wall. It carries on the tradition of the Renaissance fresco, only viewable in the Medici or Sforza palace or church, and transferable for a price when the building’s walls on which the fresco is painted is sold (or taken after conquest). NFT’s are hardly different from an old film, held in a “can” owned by a unique individual or company to be projected only by them for their pleasure or that of guests in their space. Like the film, where royalties are paid to the screenwriter, director or producer whenever the film is later shown to an audience, some NFTs award 10% or a different percentage to the creator. 10% is awarded to Beeple, when an earlier collage, “Crossroad” changes hands. “Crossroad”, Beeple’s collage of Donald Trump lying down, surrounded by text commenting on him, sold in Ethers on Nifty Gateway for. $6.6 million last year.
These allegedly unique works of art are only unique in the form in which they are bought and sold, with strings of code serving as authentication, and bitcoins, ethers or other digital currency substituting for paper currency or gold as methods of exchange. When bitcoin was first allowed to buy artwork, there were problems. First, as the price was secret, as bitcoin purchases often are, the work could not be insured. Buyers preferred to keep their identities hidden to avoid paying taxes on the artwork. The secret nature of the NFT allows it to be insured, noting the price, (in digital currency) but can keep the buyer secret. If the work is subsequently sold, the code, the chain is sold so the buyer need not be identified at all. (We may note, in comparing these purchases to those of early films or Renaissance frescoes, that neither film nor fresco were produced after income taxes were charged). But the buyer pays a price for engaging with services that pay with virtual currency. Recently, the chains have been hacked, and although purchases using Ethereum were protected by two-factor authentication, others were transferred to the accounts of the hacker, and lacking insurance, were lost by the original buyer. Buyer beware! It is of course possible to create physical prints from online images of the work, by printing it on a printer, preferably a high-quality inkjet printer, but those are only copies. The original is still held as an NFT by the buyer, or subsequent buyers (or hackers).
So except for getting a lot of images for your money, and the exclusivity of owning a unique work of art viewable only by you, these digital art works are new only in form and potential for monetization without recognition or tax penalties. Let’s hope for Beeple, who declared, “I’m going to Disneyworld” upon hearing the exorbitant price his artwork commanded, that Disney World takes Ethereum.
I have written before, in this publication, how art displayed and heard online democratizes art, making it available to people of all economic classes across the globe, not all of whom are able to travel to see art in museums, exhibitions, art fairs or biennales/biennials. NFT’s carries us back centuries in allowing those who can access or afford the art, whether in traditional currencies or in digital currencies to monopolize and privatize the art market, claiming art only for themselves. That is the tragedy of those who engage in digital art, selling it or providing it.
At least the frescoes owned by the Medici and Sforza families could be seen by the public in churches and public buildings. The latest digital art form, NFT is only for the buyer who engages in the latest game of investing and monetizing art. I hope they enjoy it as well.