March 10, 2021
ON MARCH 11, Christie’s will make history as the first traditional auction house to complete a sale of a purely digital artwork, authenticated on a blockchain, payable in cryptocurrency. The single lot sale consists only of EVERYDAYS: THE FIRST 5000 DAYS by the artist known as Beeple, real name Mike Winkelmann. The image file, a whopping 21,069 x 21,069 pixels, is really five thousand individual images tiled into a dense mosaic, the result of a feat of creative endurance in which Beeple created a new digital drawing each day over thirteen years, originally sharing them to his Instagram, which is currently followed by nearly two million people. Beeple’s Christie’s auction has no estimate, and the bidding began on February 25 at $100, a low number considering that the artist sold a piece on a crypto art marketplace in February for $6.6 million—a record that will be shattered on Thursday: As of this writing, the current bid is already at $9.75 million.
Beeple’s sudden commercial success is part of an explosion of interest and ballooning prices in the crypto art market. The bulk of sales in this volatile and speculative form of collecting are happening on websites purpose-built for the new trade that connect buyers’ cryptocurrency wallets to slick artist discovery interfaces. Sites like SuperRare, Zora, and Foundation facilitate sales and offer specialized contracts that guarantee artists a cut of resale transactions. The sites are well designed, and it’s fun to poke around and see the trippy animations and moody dreamscapes, which leads to an obvious question: If we can all see these images—and even download and make copies of them—what exactly are these marketplaces selling? They’re not selling artworks; they’re selling digital certificates of ownership. They’re selling the thing that the frictionless reproducibility of internet media seems designed to eliminate: scarcity.
Crypto art can be anything, but it usually takes the form of a digital image or video file. The crypto art market is built on nonfungible tokens (NFTs), which are certificates of authenticity written into a blockchain that point to a digital object and specify its ownership. While there is a crypto art aesthetic emerging—think kaleidoscopic GIFs, glitchy abstraction, crisp renders of pastel-tinted fantasy scenes—none of this has any material connection to the technology that enables the minting and exchange of NFTs. The NFT is not a medium, but merely a speculative financial instrument that can be pointed at a digital artwork just as easily as it could be pointed at anything else. The largest NFT marketplace, for example, is Top Shot, a website where the NBA sells collectible “moments” such as a short video clip of an epic Lebron dunk. The sudden ascent of the NFT market is redirecting the discourse surrounding digital art in an unusual way because it’s not a new method for making or even distributing images. It is concerned only with symbolic ownership and resale. The NFT is a financial innovation masquerading as an art innovation.
The apparent ease of transfer of NFTs and the digital artworks they authenticate belies a dark side to the market: It is incredibly bad for the environment. It would seem that producing and selling fully digital “objects” would eliminate nearly all of the emissions of traditional art production (material extraction, shipping, travel), and it does, but these are replaced by an absurd, energy-sucking authentication process. In order for digital exchanges to be certified, giant servers somewhere have to complete massive security calculations. French artist Joanie Lemercier spent the past few years working to lower the carbon footprint of his studio only to learn that his first “drop” of NFT artworks on Nifty Gateway “consumed in 10 seconds more electricity than the entire studio over the past 2 years.” Other artists, like Everest Pipkin and Memo Akten, have made strong cases that the ecological impact of crypto art makes the entire phenomenon untenable. Akten implores the marketplaces to be more transparent: “Providing even ballpark figures, or simple advice regarding one’s ecological impact should be compulsory.” OK, but made compulsory by whom? The whole cryptocurrency ecosystem rests on wild anarcho-capitalist speculation. While NFTs may not provide a material framework for the artworks riding the wave of speculative investing, they do provide an ideological one, lending a hip veneer to the latest flavor of techno-optimism. At its worst, trading art on the blockchain is a libertarian pyramid scheme built on hype and a near-total disregard for the inevitable losers of the game, whether that’s atmospheric CO2 levels or whoever is left holding an overpriced cryptographic token pointing to a digital object that doesn’t physically exist.
Then again, the movement is young, and there are many potential paths forward. Novelist Robin Sloan has a project called Amulet that factors in carbon offsets and addresses the disconnect between NFTs as cryptographic objects and the images they reference. An Amulet is a haiku-like poem, but instead of counting syllables, Amulet status is confirmed only if a given text produces a highly unlikely string of characters (at least four consecutive 8s), when the verse is translated into an encrypted form. Sloan provides a tool that tests whether a given snippet of text qualifies as an Amulet, and anyone can mint Amulets they discover as new NFTs. The likelihood of stumbling upon an Amulet by chance is astronomically low, but not impossible. The opportunity to find tiny bits of poetic beauty in an incomprehensibly vast sea of cryptographic nonsense perfectly encapsulates the absurdity of blockchain authentication. Sloan sold eight Amulets when he launched the project, one reading in its entirety, “THIS AMULET AT ANY PRICE FELT LIKE THE TRUTH.”
Kevin Buist is a design strategist, independent curator, writer, and former artistic director of ArtPrize, where he oversaw artists, operations, and design.