Three Things That Beeple's $69 Million NFT Reminds Us About Making and Selling Art

Toby Hazlewood

#1 - The medium is the message

Photo by Ståle Grut on Unsplash

On March 11, the artist Beeple (aka Mike Winkelmann) became a very wealthy person when Christie’s sold the NFT for his creation “Everydays: The First 5000 Days” via online auction. It was the third highest price paid for an artwork for a living artist. The sale brought the concept of NFTs forwards in the public consciousness.

The idea that a digital token representing a JPEG file can be worth such a sum is mind-blowing. Many struggle to understand how NFTs can have any value whatsoever given that the artworks themselves — the digital images, audio and video files, computer code, and so-on that the tokens signify ownership of — can be copied freely and accessed globally by others.

What do NFT owners actually own?
What gives an NFT innate value?
Are NFTs really even art?

Since the sale, I’ve been trying to answer some of these questions for myself to satisfy my own curiosity. I’ve summarised my thoughts on what NFTs are and what gives them value. And I’ve even created and offered my own for sale to learn what’s involved.

What strikes me about NFTs is that while they’re technically challenging to comprehend, they represent the latest evolution of art as we know it. They also have much in common with past innovations in the world of art.

To consider them as anything other than art first and foremost is to miss the point of NFTs.

The Medium Is as Significant as the Art Itself

CryptoPunks were one of the first-known implementations of an NFT — there are 10,000 of the unique 24x24 pixel-art characters, each of which is minted into the Ethereum blockchain and owned by one individual who has purchased the token.

What’s significant about the existence of CryptoPunks isn’t so much the quality and intricate craftsmanship of the artwork itself but rather the medium within which it’s created, displayed, owned, and experienced by its audience.

As Marshall McLuhan put it in 1964 (when Bitcoin was a mere digital glint in Satoshi Nakamoto’s eye):

“The medium is the message.”

The same has been true of art throughout time. Whether you subscribe to various different artistic creations as being truly worthy of the label art or not, creators have always pushed the boundaries of what’s accepted and appreciated by the general public.

There was likely a time when the first frescoes painted on ceilings were seen as frivolous, impractical, or excessively flamboyant. Yet few who’ve had the pleasure of witnessing Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel would dispute that its impact is as much about the painting as it is about the medium and the setting — looking towards heaven as they take in the imagery.

The same has been true of other works of art throughout history — their impact has been as much about the medium used to create them and the environment in which they’ve been displayed and experienced in as it is about the subject matter or artistry.

Consider a typical drip painting by Jackson Pollock. His artwork was as much about the scale of his paintings and the method with which they were created (dripping paint onto canvases on the floor) as it was about what they were (abstract expressionist oil paintings).

How about Damien Hirst’s “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’”— a preserved tiger shark suspended in a tank of formaldehyde. The art is about the experience of the person looking at it and the emotions that it evokes in them — as well as the gallery in which the tank sits.

What about a piece of Banksy graffiti, like this piece which appeared overnight, adorning an outside wall of the prison in the English town of Reading:
Photo by Marco Zuppone on Unsplash

Banksy’s creations are renowned for appearing without warning, often in unlikely (but poignant) locations. Their rarity and inimitable humour means that those whose ownership can be claimed and sold, command prices of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Works of art considered conventional in their nature (paintings, drawings, and sculptures) still derive much of their impact through the environment in which they are experienced — galleries and exhibition spaces that are carefully constructed and arranged to maximise the impact of the pieces.

In the context of NFTs, the lesson seems to be that art on the blockchain is an evolution into a new world of artistic media. The tokenised ownership of these pieces is encrypted and locked within the blockchain. Conventional art is secured and displayed behind glass and velvet ropes in a gallery or just locked in a vault beneath the ground for safety. The creations themselves that NFTs represent exist in a digital form and are in many cases experienced in an online setting rather than viewed in a museum or exhibition space.

NFT is just an evolution of the artistic medium — the message, if there is one, seems to be that art, like virtually all other aspects of our modern world is traversing the gap between the real and our virtual, online worlds.

2 - Art Is as Much About the Audience as It Is the Artist

Beeple’s “First 5000 days” sold to a crypto-art collector known pseudonymously as MetaKovan. For as long as NFTs have existed, there has been a market of people willing to appreciate them for what they are — and to pay money to own them. This is another fundamental and inherent feature of art as a concept that NFTs share.

Art is in the eye of the beholder — a creation doesn’t have to demand skill or even thought to warrant the label (see Tracey Emin’s “My Bed” if you need an example). Her creation is considered worthy of being labelled art due to the story she can tell about it and what it represents. She has also earned credibility through her years spent as an artist, and her claim is strengthened since there are people who wish to view her art.

For art to exist, it needs to be appreciated by an audience. I write on Medium, and there are at least a few people willing to pay their monthly subscription to read what I have to say. That makes my writing art. The same thoughts could as easily be written into a journal and kept in my desk drawer — I may consider them to still be art, but they’d have no impact on the consumer as they remained unread.

It’s the impact that a creation has upon the person experiencing it that denotes it as art and which gives it some degree of innate value — that translates into what the audience is willing to pay to own it or experience it.

Value is subjective but also speculative. In an interview on the UnChained podcast, MetaKovan talked extensively about what gives NFTs value and what justifies the price paid to own an NFT like Beeple’s or any other artwork. Value is of course subjective, particularly so in the case of the token denoting ownership of “The First 5000 days “— which you can see and experience entirely for free online.

The same is true for the first ever tweet, sent by Twitter founder Jack Dorsey — the NFT for which was just auctioned for $2.9 million:

Source: Twitter

This brings us to the other factor in the valuation of art — the status that comes with ownership.

I can appreciate the music of Frank Sinatra or a painting by Leonardo Da Vinci — I just have to find a song on Spotify and listen to it or order a poster and stick it to my wall. In listening or looking, I may experience similar emotions as I would in the presence of the real thing, but, crucially, I don’t enjoy the status of owning the master recording or the original artwork.

Art has always been about the status associated with ownership as well as the work of art itself. NFT is merely the evolution of this concept where some are willing to pay thousands or millions for the status of ownership of something unique.

JPEG files can be duplicated more easily than an oil painting can be copied, but MetaKovan will always own the NFT — the one of a kind that signifies his status as the person who paid $69 million for Beeple’s creation (until he sells it). That status is as much a factor in the ownership of NFTs as it has ever been in the ownership of art — arguably though with this being encrypted and immutably logged in the blockchain it could be argued that this status is protected more securely than it would be had a physical artwork been purchased.

3 - Technology Doesn’t Substitute for Hard Work

As a writer online I’ve benefitted from technology making it easier than ever to get the words I write in front of those who may want to read them. This hasn’t meant that the quality of my writing has automatically improved — I am still working daily to improve.

In the aforementioned podcast, MetaKovan was quick to point out that ‘The First 5,000 days” was itself a representation of 5,000 days of Beeple’s work. The composite is made up of a picture from each day, spanning back to May 1, 2007, when he undertook to post one picture per day online.

The culmination of 13-and-a-half years of working and publishing daily.

If you take a quick look at the JPEG, you can see the early pieces on the top left are basic sketches (said as someone who can barely draw a stick person). The later pieces are complex multimedia pieces that are impressively complex.

NFT is inherently about technology and its role in the experience of art, but it doesn’t mean that any digital image, video, or piece of code suddenly becomes valuable, sought after, or of sufficiently high quality to be appreciated by another person, merely because of the technology.

When I created my first NFTs, I offered some of my digital photos of winter sunrises for sale. I’m a hobbyist photographer but have won prizes for my pictures so felt justified in posting these and claiming them to be art. In spite of that minimal amount of social proof, though, there’s no denying that I need to work on my art as a photographer just as I need to work on my writing as a writer.

Quality matters. Genuine artists still need to put in the work, technology or not.

NFTs Are the Evolution of Art

I’ve strayed way out of my comfort zone in this piece, but, as was the case when I first considered NFTs, I’ve found that researching new ideas and then testing that knowledge is the best way of understanding new concepts. What seems clear as I learn more about art, blockchain, and NFTs is that there’s a certain order and logic about NFT as an evolution of art.

Technology has gradually extended itself into most aspects of our lives, and while blockchain has its critics and raises concerns over its environmental impacts (for example), I see little about the relationship between NFT and the world of art that is unique or intrinsically new. Art has always been somewhat divisive. Many artists are considered ground-breaking and push beyond boundaries of what’s accepted from or expected of them.

This was the case for CryptoPunks when they first came about, and it continues to this day for artists like Beeple. The technology will evolve, and eventually something more radical, extreme, and noteworthy will occur that challenges us all to redefine our notions of art once again.

It’s quite exciting really.

Note: This article is for informational purposes only. It should not be considered financial or legal advice. Consult a financial professional before making any major financial decisions.

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