A jpeg for $70m: welcome to the strange world of cryptocurrency art | Digital art


On 11 March, one of the art world’s signature can-you-believe-it moments made global headlines: a digital-only artwork sold for more than $69m, the third highest price ever paid for an artwork at auction. It was a digital collage by the artist Mike Winkelmann, known as Beeple, who until October had never sold a print for more than $100.

This sensational auction came on the heels of simmering interest in “non-fungible tokens”, or NFTs, which finally boiled over into the annals of art auction houses. NFTs are unique assets verified by blockchain technology; as with cryptocurrency, a record of who owns what is stored on a decentralised public ledger of sorts. Thus NFTs function like a digital certificate of authenticity that can be attached to all manner of things, virtual or physical. Mostly now, they are being used to monetise digital assets such as audio files, videos, Gifs, tweets and even virtual versions of sneakers; 621 of them recently sold for a combined $3.1m.

It’s worth noting: buying an NFT does not necessarily mean you are buying the copyright to something, or even the only digital copy; many NFTs are minted for videos or images that are easily accessible elsewhere on the internet. (Even images of Beeple’s record-smashing work are visible all over the web.) But an NFT confers a particular kind of ownership rights – it’s like purchasing not a particular thing, but your ownership of that thing.

The NFT-meets-art-world craze is the latest in a series of blockchain-backed experiments around the authentication of property and digital art on the internet. NFTs are a way for artists working in new technologies to make money in a space that has been historically difficult to monetise. Viewed less generously, the whole ordeal is a fad for the rich, who are speculating with crypto on things no one needs or perhaps even really wants, possibly as a way to quickly flip the assets for more crypto. Or, as Jacob Silverman put it in the New Republic: “[NFTs] are title deeds for increasingly useless crap.”

The NFT craze strikes me as fascinating mostly as a continuation, in a new form, of the strange practice of collecting in general. The collector is fetishised in the art world – and in literature about art – as a disciplined figure with a keen eye who can spot beautiful things before anyone else, someone who is at once a connoisseur and a kind of entrepreneur. The collector’s impulses drive many of the mechanics of what we think of as “the art world”: auctions and sales, fairs and biennales, loans and donations to museums. Indeed, much of the world’s art is in private collections, though we have no idea how much, nor any way to begin to tally it up. Collectors accumulate their troves of paintings and sculpture and photographs for all kinds of reasons – love of art, love of the game of collecting, love of money. (Art is often spoken of as a good investment, one that always appreciates.) And perhaps the most crucial aspect of collecting is possession: the sense that you are buying something that is yours and yours alone.

The concept of ownership has become so embedded in our conception of artwork that the idea of digital “collecting” has long been vexed. Is a digital collection just a series of image files online, pixelated? Couldn’t someone easily “steal” your Jpeg just downloading a copy elsewhere? Is there any point, if you can’t show your prized painting off on your physical wall? NFTs hardly answer all of these questions, but they manage to provide a clear enough articulation of digital ownership to spark the interest of curious collectors and speculators. This new concept of digital possession, however murky it may actually be, is worth quite a lot of money.

Thus the collector’s impulse has finally found its way to the virtual realm, now that the point is less the virtual objects themselves and more the ownership of them. Some people are buying for the crypto gains, and some for the novelty, and maybe a few for the art itself. Artists will have a chance to experiment with new forms, and maybe even poke some fun at the absurd market dynamics. (It would hardly be first time: I am thinking of Yves Klein, the French artist and stunt master who sold documents certifying ownership of part of the Zone de Sensibilité Picturale Immatérielle, or empty space, in exchange for gold; then, if the buyer wished, they could burn the check and Klein would throw half the gold into the Seine.)

But in my view what’s interesting about the dynamics of NFTs in the art world are that, so far, they don’t represent much of a departure at all from big business as usual. NFTs allow the mechanics of the art world to turn once again back towards the collector’s impulse. More than the art or the object or the virtual thing, possession is the point.

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