Would you pay millions of pounds for art you can’t touch?

While the art world is no stranger to record-breaking sales, 11th March 2021 marked a particularly unusual moment for an industry used to shocks and surprises. American graphic designer Mike Winkelmann, better known as Beeple, found himself catapulted among the highest-commanding living artists (third only to Jeff Koons and David Hockney) after his artwork Everydays: The First 5,000 Days sold for a staggering $69.3m (£50.5m).

But unlike Koons’ stainless steel Rabbit sculpture or Hockney’s Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), Beeple’s artwork cannot be installed in the corner of museum, or hung on the wall of a mansion. It’s a digital-only JPEG file: a collage of 5,000 digital images Beeple created over 13 and a half years from 1 May 2007 to 7 January 2021 charting the evolution of his style and artistic skill from rough sketches to edgy 3D renders of alien landscapes and nightmarish visions of beloved childhood toys Pikachu and Buzz Lightyear. Everydays made history as the first purely digital work with an attached NFT, or non-fungible token, sold by Christie’s, as well as becoming the first to be paid for by cryptocurrency. 

Mike Winkelmann, who goes by Beeple, at work in his home studio (Photo: Andrew J. Whitaker/The Post And Courier via AP)

An NFT is a digital token used to provide authenticity, meaning it can be used to demonstrate ownership when attached to an artwork or other digital asset, such as a digital drawing, video, image, song or gif. To do this, an artist signs up to an NFT art marketplace such as SuperRare, Opensea and Nifty Gateway and uploads their information to a blockchain – a digital public ledger for recording transactions commonly used by cryptocurrencies including bitcoin – to ‘mint’ a digital token.  

The artwork can then be auctioned off, and although the art’s creator still retains the reproduction rights and copyright of the piece itself, just as they would with a physical piece, the existence of the token means that while others may be able to look at, watch or even replicate a digital artwork, only the NFT owner owns the original, with that ownership is clearly demonstrable by the blockchain records.

Notable NFTs

While Beeple’s Everydays is the most expensive NFT by far, others have also managed to command impressive sums. 

Cryptopunk #3100 and Cryptopunk #7804 are the joint second-most valuable NFTs after selling for $7.6m each on the same date as Everydays, and are two of 10,000 unique collectible characters created by two-man studio Larva Labs in 2017. While #3100 consists of a pixelated blue character wearing a headband, #7804 sees the same character sporting a pair of sunglasses, black cap and smoking a pipe.

While Jack Dorsey’s first ever tweet edges into third place thanks to its $2.9m price tag, the fourth and fifth most expensive NFTs are more Cryptopunk characters: #6965 and #4156 respectively. 

In sixth place is LeBron James “Cosmic” Dunk #29, a National Basketball Association (NBA)-licensed video highlight of a legendary dunk LA Lakers player LeBron James made in 2019, which sold for $200,000 in February this year. 

Despite the stratospheric levels of hype around NFT, it’s far from a new technology. One of the earliest examples of an NFT is Cryptokitties, a game set up in 2017 that generates blockchain-certified digital collectable cartoon cats that can be bred to create new collectibles. One user made headlines by purchasing a pink and black cryptokitty named Dragon for the equivalent of $172,000 in 2018, effectively paving the way for Beeple’s historic sale. 

While Christie’s is not claiming to be a frontrunner in the digital collectible arena, Beeple’s sale brought the burgeoning market to the international art collecting community for the first time, Noah Davis, specialist in post-war and contemporary art at Christie’s, said.

“Like anything, mainstream adaption takes time,” he says. “However, coming off a year in which every major arts institution, Christie’s very much included, has made it their priority to optimise the at-home art experience, essentially presenting every work of art as though it was digital, has absolutely expedited the art world’s embrace of this medium, but it was also inevitable, and I am very confident that it will continue to escalate from here.”

There is already “significant” overlap among traditional art collectors who are becoming involved with digital art, he adds.

Big Love by Damien Hirst is displayed during preparations ahead of online sales in March in London (Photo: Ian Gavan/Getty)

“They are interested in the prospect of the established digital art community, and enthusiastic about what the future will bring for a medium that is unrestricted by physicality.

“Some are very much interested in buying them for exhibition purposes, whether that be within their homes, or newly emerging museums, while others are more motivated by the idea of building out their collections.”

While Beeple’s success will undoubtedly inspire a new generation of artists to sell their own digital artworks, big names in the art, music and tech worlds have already joined the bandwagon. Damien Hirst excitedly announced last month he was working on a secret NFT project five years in the making called The Currency, centred around exploring and challenging the concept of value through art. He has called it “the most exciting project I have ever worked on by far,” adding: “It’s blowing my mind.” 

Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey’s first ever tweet recently sold as an NFT (Photo: Reuters)

Canadian musician, producer and artist Grimes sold a series of 10 images and short videos on Nifty Gateway for around $6m in February, while Twitter founder Jack Dorsey recently donated the $2.9m raised by the NFT sale of his first-ever tweet (“just setting up my twttr”) to charity GiveDirectly. 
As artists become more adept at using technology to create art and generations are brought up in largely digital environme
nts, the evolution of NFTs as a means of verifying pieces and facilitating sales was inevitable, says former artist Tristram Fetherstonhaugh, who founded ArtPassport, a free app featuring 360-degree videos of exhibitions in galleries across the world, with his brother Patrick. 

“Owning something that’s both inherently reproducible and not tangible is a weird concept, spending a lot of money on something you don’t actually get to hang in your bathroom,” he says. “But the digital art/NFT relationship does fit into a fascination with art that is transgressive, breaks boundaries and rails against the concept of the picture on the wall.” 

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The lineage of digital art can be traced from video back to photography, which many more traditional members of the art establishment refused to accept as art, he points out, adding that an exciting new class of artist and collector is being born from the burgeoning interest in NFT art.  

“The art world is traditionally a little bit conservative, but I think the lockdowns have forced it to wake up and realise the world is digital now,” he says. “The auction houses have embraced NFTs because they’re very excited by the cash aspect, and although the artists represented by NFTs are currently still slightly outside the art establishment, I’m sure that will change.”

However, NFTs acceptance as art in the eyes of purists is just one the challenges facing the technology. Questions have been raised over the legality of essentially buying the digital token and not the piece itself, which will depend on the licenses used from transaction to transaction, and artists have warned thieves are registering profiles in their names to sell fraudulent NFTs without their permission – a major issue when a person isn’t required to own the copyright to a digital asset in order to mint it.

A detail shot from Beeple’s Everydays (Photo: Christie’s images/Reuters)

“I’ve seen artists having their work copied without permission and sold through NFTs – easily done, as these are not physical products so much as tags that point to a piece of art while claiming ownership,” says Connor McKee, Lecturer, Computer Games Art at Solent University. “But the main issue for me is the associated carbon emissions – the crypto economy in general is remarkably energy intensive.” 

The controversy surrounding NFTs’ environmental impact prompted Beeple to commit to ensuring his future artwork is either carbon neutral or negative, investing in renewable energy projects to offset the emissions largely generated by cryptocurrency Ethereum that uses an incredibly energy-intensive system called proof of work – giant calculations to mine new currency and verify transactions.

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Green NFTs, a bounty system created by blogger Jason Bailey to fund more environmentally-friendly NFT networks, has attracted attention from artists, and Joe Lubin, co-founder of the popular Ethereum blockchain, has launched Palm, an alternative NFT network that claims to be 99 per cent more energy-efficient than the current Ethereum network. 

While the ‘New Masters’ of tomorrow existing on screens and not hanging on gallery walls for all to see may be difficult for some people to grasp, change in the traditional art establishment is positive,
 Mr Fetherstonhaugh says. 

“NFTs rail against the bourgeois view of what art is, the age-old student question of ‘But is it art?’” he explains. “After all, during Warhol’s lifetime the art establishment looked down on him and it was up for debate whether his work was proper art or not.”  

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