“I want to be a machine,” Andy Warhol once said. Apparently the public wouldn’t mind either.
Lately a digital artist from South Carolina, known mononymously as Beeple, has won a following by using 3-D rendering software to make colorful, digestible pastiches, which he now sells as files authenticated with a unique bit of code. On Thursday, a montage of these digital files, titled “Everydays — The First 5000 Days,” went on the block in a one-lot online auction at Christie’s, where it became the “What Does the Fox Say?” of art sales. A crypto whale known only by the pseudonym Metakovan paid $69 million (with fees) for some indiscriminately collated pictures of cartoon monsters, gross-out gags and a breastfeeding Donald Trump — which suddenly makes this computer illustrator the third-highest-selling artist alive.
The purchase was executed with a cryptocurrency called Ether, and Beeple’s connection to digital speculation is not incidental. Several of the images included in “Everydays” depict bulls lugging Bitcoin gold pieces or sliced open to reveal precious metal; recently he released an image of two fornicating bulls on a gold pedestal, topped with a massive Bitcoin emblem shaped like a rapper’s chain.
Welcome, users, to your new cultural settlement! A century ago, Andrew Carnegie and his ilk used their new money to buy the prizes of the past and fund the institutions of the present. Today’s new money prefers its own systems of both finance and culture, where cryptocurrency’s anarcho-libertarianism dovetails with certain boys’ amusements: the subliterate comedy of Salt Bae and Boaty McBoatface, the penny-ante heroism of online role-playing games, and the stunted emotions of streaming porn.
What Christie’s sold was not an object but a “nonfungible token,” so we had better start with some definitions. “Token” is just bitcoinese for a unique string of characters, logged on a blockchain (or decentralized database), that can be transferred and traded between users. Most tokens are fungible: that is to say, exchangeable, like for like, as with dollars or gold bars or GameStop shares.
A “nonfungible” token, by contrast, is valued independently of all other tokens. It is, in this way, like a work of art — this Monet can’t be replaced by that Monet, and certainly can’t be replaced by that Warhol or that “Dogs Playing Poker.” The NFT produces what digital art has always lacked: limited editions.
The actual images remain in circulation, and any citizen or curator can print them out or project them (unless Beeple, who remains the copyright holder, objects). What Christie’s sold was a related asset, which can be resold or even chopped up like so many Beeple stocks.
Best not to freak out about the price as such. Art prices have been speculative for decades now. And artists have been selling abstract rights rather than objects for a century. Marcel Duchamp’s “Monte Carlo Bond” turned the artist’s person into a tradable security; Tino Sehgal’s performances are sold and certified through oral contracts. If anything, the recourse to Christie’s and the introduction of blockchain “uniqueness” gives the lie to the techno-optimist pitch that NFTs allow an end run around the art establishment. The aura of singularity and the auction house’s legitimation serve, transparently, to goose the price of assets functionally equivalent to Beanie Babies or CryptoKitties.
(If NFTs bring anything new to art speculation, it is the appalling environmental price of blockchain transactions; the artist Memo Akten computed that the average NFT has a carbon footprint equal to a European citizen’s power use for a month. Artist-activists who bristle at the inequities of museum collections or the misdeeds of board members should be enraged by NFTs, though it does seem suitable that art like this is literally hastening the extinction of life on earth.)
So freak out about something else: the cultural tendency Beeple signals. NFT boosters like to say that a decentered art market will allow a flowering of creativity beyond the elitist art world. This isn’t quite right. Museums, galleries, magazines and art schools have happily absorbed cultural production from well beyond their borders, from folk art to popular dances to memes themselves. What distinguishes Beeple’s digital imagery from other “non-establishment” art is the violent erasure of human values inherent in the pictures, and how happy his cryptofans are to see them go.
Look closely — does anyone, though? — at the component images of “Everydays.” The NFT in question comprises thousands of images that the artist makes once a day with Cinema 4D and Octane software, and which Beeple has posted publicly since 2007. They’re études, I guess. Many assign politicians the status of cartoon characters: Joe Biden as the “Toy Story” character Buzz Lightyear; Kim Jong-un as one of the Transformers. Also, rote regurgitation of the day’s memes: for instance, a battery-acid genre scene of skateboarders drinking cranberry juice, in tribute to a briefly viral TikTok starring an Idahoan swigging Ocean Spray. (Here the skateboarders coast beneath an Ocean Spray monolith, towering over a futuristic city.)
There are misty, techno-japoniste seascapes and icebergs for those who prefer “Final Fantasy” to Caspar David Friedrich. Weirdly, many of Beeple’s daily images rely on off-color sex gags, some of which a borscht-belt comic would find demeaning. Christmas brought from Beeple “Santa Came Early,” which pictures an ashamed St. Nicholas in bed with his unsatisfied girlfriend after the titular sexual mishap.
Visually, many of Beeple’s pictures mimic the Japanese Gothic fantasias of video games. Some recall the art of the insane. (On the eve of Thanksgiving, he drew a picture of a man performing oral sex on a turkey.) Beeple has a talent for rendering architecture, though he struggles with flesh; as in many video games, the skins appear waxy and desiccated. It’s as if every remaining human in this cryptouniverse has scurvy, though maybe that is what happens when you subordinate your flesh to the screen.
Similarly to KAWS, the subject of a current show at the Brooklyn Museum, Beeple often repurposes Pixar, Disney, “Star Wars” and Pokémon characters in the way earlier artists painted Christian saints or Greek deities. Unlike KAWS, who has at least tried to produce an artistic project of his own, Beeple uses these cartoon characters as social-media mnemonics; they’re signposts in the endless churn of the image stream, to confirm you know what you are looking at, you already like it, you know the artist is on your team.
Even the gross-out images are not actually interested in the abjection of popular culture or American society, in the manner of Mike Kelley or Paul McCarthy. They’re just meant to signal a particular cultural and ideological disposition, where the get-rich-quick promise of cryptocurrency dovetails with a teenage aversion to authority (sniffy Times critics very much among the latter).
“I do view this as the next chapter of art history,” says Beeple, real name Mike Winkelmann. He is probably right — though what those chapters say may be of interest here. In a gruesome coincidence, the digital artist shares his last name with the literal founder of art history: Johann Joachim Winckelmann, scholar of the German Enlightenment, who in the late 18th century was the first to systematize the art of the past.
Winckelmann’s most fundamental insight was that a sculpture, a painting or a building was not just a thing of beauty; a work of art is a product of its time, and expresses even without trying something about the place and the culture it comes from. It is as true as ever, and certainly true about Beeple’s pictures of naked giantesses with the face of Pikachu. It is his culture now, benighted but triumphant, where puerile amusements can never be questioned and the Simpsons have displaced the gods.
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