In the world of contemporary art and its attached market, the default mode is surreal. There’s no such thing as normalcy in a world full of formaldehyde pickled sharks, busts made from blood, machines that make poop, and giant sculptures of balloon dogs that sell for millions of dollars. Contemporary art is at the forefront of the commodification of creativity, with mysterious figures paying sometimes nine-figure sums for works that leave spectators scoffing in indignation and claiming that their kids could make that. Last week, amid a sea of Damien Hirsts, Jeff Koons, and widely disputed Da Vincis, a newcomer entered the scene and wholeheartedly dominated it in a way that could change the art world forever. Emphasis on ‘could.’
Mike Winkelmann is an American graphic designer. Under the username Beeple, he has made a new piece of art every single day for the past 13 years. His work is very much a creature born of the internet age: memes, grotesque humor, subtle-as-a-hammer political satire, Bitcoin references, riffs on pop culture, and a hefty dose of perversion. Beeple works often focus on post-apocalyptic landscapes populated by figures like giant Jeff Bezos heads, lactating Buzz Lightyears, and mountains of Shreks. Imagine the work of Simon Stålenhag, the artist behind Tales from the Loop, as reimagined by Reddit. As Beeple’s popularity grew on social media and his day job became hindered by social media, he turned to cryptocurrencies and blockchains to turn his exclusively digital artwork into something of tangible value.
He began selling his work as Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs), which is essentially a digital certificate of ownership. Prices began to rise, and eventually, the prestigious auction house Christie’s got on board. A collage of the first 5000 days of his everyday art project was compiled and put on sale. It’s the first purely digital work to sell at Christie’s. Bidding online started at $100. Last week, it closed at $60 million. Add onto that the buyer’s premium and all other extra charges, and ‘Everydays: The First 5000 Days’ sold for over $69 million. Nobody expected it, least of all Winkelmann, who filmed himself and his family watching the countdown from his home. He loudly declared, ‘I’m going to Disney World!’
This sale now means that Beeple is responsible for the third most expensive artwork by a living artist, putting him behind only David Hockney and Jeff Koons. The new owner of the piece, a crypto investor who goes by the name Metakovan, paid more for it than the $65.1 million the Getty Museum put down for a Manet painting in 2014.
I must admit that I have been completely baffled by and obsessed with this story since it broke. As a modern art lover whose favorite work is typically the kind of divisive provocations that piss off tabloid journalists and your mum, I was all over the rise of Beeple. Not so much the art itself, which I’m not a fan of (so much lactation, you guys), but how much his meteoric rise to the top simultaneously felt like a breakthrough for modern art as well as a sign of the status quo.
Modern art is a popular investment for the stupidly rich. It’s seen as a safe way to protect one’s assets during tough economic times, as well as the ultimate status symbol. Take a look at the list of the most expensive art pieces ever sold and you’ll see a few things. One, the artists whose names guarantee big bucks are all extremely well-known figures — think de Kooning, Cézanne, Picasso, Pollock, Klimt, Rothko, van Gogh. Two, the lion’s share of these artists are contemporary figures, meaning that their work arose from the 20th century. Third, those record-breaking sales aren’t always for what we would call the cream of the crop. ‘Interchange’ is a beautiful piece and clearly a crucial one in the evolution of Willem de Kooning’s style, but it’s nowhere near his best. ‘When Will You Marry?’ is, too, gorgeous, but one probably wouldn’t see it listed among Paul Gaugin’s most iconic works.
All of this reveals the issues of the market: the most value is placed on the big-name artists whose works aren’t all consigned to museums (there’s a reason we don’t know the full value of ‘Mona Lisa’ — because the Louvre are unlikely to have it valued for auction any time soon), and the buyers have no qualms about going above and beyond the estimate for their prize. There’s a reason that most of the biggest investors in art are either shady billionaires, Qatari royals, or anonymous figures who never come forward.
This is what makes the Beeple story so fascinating: He’s not a massive star in the art world. He’s not working with a slew of galleries or agents. There’s no provenance with exclusively digital work to help inflate the prices. He’s not a figure of prestige. Indeed, his entire oeuvre laughs in the face of such concepts (then probably dribbles over it.) Really, he’s a pretty normal guy molded by the internet who seems like the antithesis of Koons, Hirst, and the usual suspects of contemporary art. That’s probably the point. There’s a huge chasm between the art and the investment.
The art itself is harder to parse. I’ve already seen some people roll their eyes and claim that what Beeple does isn’t art. Why not? Sure, it’s not for everyone’s tastes, but neither is Picasso. He works quickly but so do all the modern art big boys with studios full of beleaguered interns doing the grunt work. Beeple’s work is of the moment, and said moment is defined by a fishbowl memory from the audience. Each piece is like a one-liner gag about the issues of the day, or a running joke focused on the sheer exhausting nonsense of online life. There’s not much subtlety to an image of a giant naked Donald Trump lying dead in a park while covered in slogans, but what on Earth was subtle about Donald Trump? It feels like the satire we deserve, for better or worse. I get why it’s beloved by Beeple’s online fans.
But will digital art thrive after this sale? The Beeple sale is certainly a moment to stop and stare at. I get the feeling that it sold for over $69 million so that someone could say they were the first to do so, and believe me, that is a real motivator in the art world. Remember, the buyer didn’t purchase exclusive rights to this collage. He doesn’t get a physical copy of it either. A physical version doesn’t exist. You can go onto Beeple’s social media and see his work instantly without paying eight-figures. This is the part of the equation that most people seem to have a problem with. At least when you pay $100 million for a Picasso, you get to put it on your wall. However, in an always-online life, digital art is of great importance and surely it deserves some sort of monetary value? I’m all in favor of artists getting paid for their labor, and this seems like it could be a good way to do that. Enjoy it now before Koons gets sixteen interns to make NFTs of dull sculptures that he can sell for $50 million.
What the sale reminded me of the most was the infamous Damien Hirst auction of 2008. On the eve of the economic crash, Hirst made the unprecedented move of bypassing the galleries and his own agent to directly sell a slew of brand-new pieces to the public. The sale raised £111 million ($198 million) for 218 items, wildly exceeding expectations and setting a record for a single-artist auction. The auction itself felt like a more important artwork than anything that Hirst was selling, which was an assembly line of repetitious creations, none of which were anywhere near his best work. It was an eye-watering moment of performance art, a violin solo while Rome burned. Since then, many have raised questions over the authenticity of these sales. The Sunday Times accused Hirst and his business colleagues of propping up sale prices to ensure the value of the Hirst brand didn’t falter. This was nothing new for Hirst or the modern art market. The previous year, his infamous jeweled skull, comprised entirely of platinum and over 8,000 diamonds, was put on the market for $50 million, which would have been the highest price ever paid for a single work by a living artist at the time. Hirst claimed that the work had sold for the asking price, in cash, to an anonymous consortium. Said group included Hirst himself, and he later admitted that ‘In the end I covered my fabrication and a few other costs by selling a third of it to an investment group, who are anonymous.’ Another example of the smoke and mirrors that prop up this near-mythical market.
Cryptocurrency could be the future, but that would make it a very bleak future. It takes a massive amount of energy to create and store crypto works. Surely, this is something that many people will have to think about when they invest in something like NFT artwork? Or is that just another way it becomes prestigious?
The contemporary art world is one at the center of a large bubble, and bubbles always burst. It happened in the 2008 crash, and before that, at the end of the Greed is Good 1980s. We still don’t entirely know how much money is running through this market and where it all goes. Shady dealings are the norm, and the ultimate value of many of these well-known artists are bolstered through a cycle of flashy deceit designed to distract. Remember, not that long ago, someone paid $450 million for a painting of Jesus Christ that may have been done by Leonardo Da Vinci (or someone in his studio) but it’s never been 100% authenticated as such. It takes a lot of people beyond the artist to get the money out there and to keep it there. It would be a shame if the evolving world of digital art, in all its boundary-pushing glory, were simply reduced to yet another way to make money. Surely it’s worth more than that?
Header Image Source: Christie's Press Office