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British artist Damien Hirst uses NFTs to blur the boundaries between art and money – Cointelegraph Magazine

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“I used to give a lot of art away to people,” reflects Damien Hirst at one of his sprawling west London studios. “And they’d always sell it after a lot less time than I thought they would. You know, they wouldn’t sell it for leukaemia treatment for their children or mother or something, they’d sell it to buy handbags. And I’d be like, ‘Damn, I hate that!’”

Hirst is not on a quest to make a few bucks from a collectible NFT. He’s not particularly interested in celebrating career highlights, or even attracting a younger, richer, snazzier audience.

He wants to know where the line between art and money is drawn. And if it can be drawn at all.

“And I suppose this whole project is like a test of that sort of area, right? I came to terms with it — it’s like, you know, when you walk downstairs in your house if you got a painting and it’s not long before the spots represent dollar signs. I’ve been thinking about that for a long time.”

Instead of allowing it to lurk in the background, his latest work brings the tension between money and art to the fore. The Currency is the name for his drop of 10,000 NFTs, each tied to a physical painting created in 2016. After the $2,000 purchase of a “Tender”, as Hirst calls them, collectors will have to choose whether to keep the NFT, which will be a high-resolution photo of the painting, or turn the NFT in for the physical painting.

 

Source: HENI

 

The Currency blurs the line between fungibility and non-fungibility, between money and art, and the project’s core choice will force each collector to make a value judgement between paintings in meatspace and NFTs. By nature The Currency raises a number of philosophical questions: for starters, what is the value of the art versus the dollar value of selling it on the secondary market? What is the value of displaying it on the wall, versus on a monitor? What is the value of portability versus permanence?

These complex, perhaps unanswerable queries may obscuring a more intimate one he’s ultimately posing to his audience, however: what am I worth to you?

First Lessons

It’s like Newton getting bopped on the head with an apple: as Hirst was first learning about art, he was simultaneously learning about the art market. 

Hirst often cites an early art teacher as a foundational influence — a “really great guy, a theatrical guy” who recruited him as Bottom in a school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; who fought valiantly to secure him a spot in the sixth form; and perhaps most importantly, who kept the classroom stocked with art auction catalogues. 

“From very early on, I was looking at all the items on auction, which is a good way in […] and I’d look at the prices, and I remember you could do like 10 grand, 20 grand for a Picasso or something,” Hirst told Cointelegraph. “It wasn’t a lot of money, but to me it was a lot of money at the time. Just seeing art and money in that catalogue was good.”

In much the same way a happy accident helped Newton apprehend a fundamental law of physics, Hirst grasped early on that the attainment of fame in his field meant accepting and adapting to the reality that fine art and money are inextricably linked. 

Today, his remunerative wizardry is widely renowned — even occasionally taking the spotlight from his work. He’s a master and a trailblazer when it comes to what crypto aficionados might call “pumpanomics” — the slurry of marketing, conceptual or visionary heft, and simple supply/demand mechanics inherent in scarcity that can make a project’s value soar to stratospheric heights. 

Highlights include the 2008 sale of Always Beautiful Inside My Head Forever — a complete exhibition of 223 works that, in an unprecedented move, bypassed galleries to sell directly at auction for a staggering $200 million — and For the Love of God, a diamond-encrusted platinum cast of a skull that sold for $100 million to a consortium of owners that included himself. At multiple points in his career he’s held the record for the most expensive work of art sold by a living artist; he currently sits in second place. Adjusted for inflation, anyway. 

 

Source: HENI

 

“I mean, I worked out a long time ago that, you know, if there are two people with a lot of money and there’s not a lot of something, it’s going to sell for a lot,” he observes. Where some artists accidentally ride Veblen curves to fortunes, Hirst constructs, aligns, and launches himself from them like Evel Knievel. 

Hirst and NFTs may be a perfect match for this experiment. NFTs, by simple virtue of existence, often set critics apoplectic — digital goods, they argue, don’t have ‘real’ value. Or, by contrast, there’s an emerging faction of pearl-clutchers who say NFTs paradoxically have too much value —  that they represent a perfect tool for the commodification and/or securitization of art. 

And here’s Hirst, an artist who has faced similar criticism at both ends of the value spectrum, taking these liminal notions often floating at the fringes of contemporary fine art and concocting an experiment to force collectors and critics alike to choose. 

“People get upset if I say, ‘My art is connected in a biological way to money,’ I just love it that people hate it. It just inspires me to do it. I want to look at it and see what happens. Will it do this? Can you push it this far without it breaking? Or will it break? I’ve done that in everything, in individual art and in this project.”

The ‘master of exponential growth’

In part, The Currency can be viewed as a response to a hypocrisy Hirst has been battling throughout his career — that art has always been “associated with lots of money” but “people weren’t really allowed to talk about it.”

“There’s the Van Gogh thing where you’re supposed to be a starving artist and you don’t make any money, never sell a painting. And everybody wants that. It’s a complicated thing. I mean, the thing about art is, it’s magic. You know, the whole thing is magic. You’re taking really cheap ingredients, and you put them together in a way that they become worth beyond their wildest ingredients. […] Alchemy. That’s what art really is.”

Viewers and collectors only selectively believing in the “alchemy” of art that has long frustrated him — no one “looks at the Mona Lisa and says, ‘That’s just 20 quid in canvas and paint,’” but by contrast throughout his career he’s often been asked about the prices of his sculptures relative to the cost of materials used to create them. It’s a false dichotomy that artists minting NFTs and dealing in digital scarcity are likely familiar with — and perhaps why Hirst was quick to embrace them as a medium. 

“I don’t really know why, but I didn’t have that massive resistance that a lot of people I respect have got, I saw it as a really amazing thing. I saw it like the invention of paper. It’s like, you’re arguing about paper, like ‘I’m not going to stop using papyrus!’ You’re already living in a world where you can have artworks, prints, and editions, and it seems like now you can have artwork, prints, editions, and NFTs.”

Part of the immediate comfort could be that Hirst intuitively understands digital ownership. He recounted a story about one of his sons purchasing $10,000 worth of digital goods in Clash of Clans, but even grown-up collectors are increasingly drawn to virtual expressions of ownership as well.

“In the world I was living in, where increasingly I’ve noticed all art collectors are coming up to me, going ‘I’ve just bought this, I’ve just bought this’ on [their phones] and you’re looking at Picassos and Jackson Pollocks, crazy stuff that they’ve got that’s worth huge amounts of money. And they’re sitting in bars, going ‘I’ve got this, I’ve got this.’”

As a result, he’s now pondering whether digital or physical ownership is a more powerful psychological draw — and he’s eager to force people to make the determination:

“Looking at the NFTs and the actual artwork, I look at it and I think, I don’t know, I’m excited by both, I don’t know which is most important. But then when I think about it, when I go, ‘what will people do?’ It sort of tells me where I lie, which is that most people will keep the [physical] art.” 

An ironic element to the experiment is that Hirst freely admits that he’d be relieved if the project’s technical and market elements flopped. He tells a story about a collector who approached him once, griping that he was unable to sell a painting; Hirst thought to himself, ‘Well, put it on the wall!’ 

There is a universe where The Currency Tenders, instead of being fractionalized and digitized and widely traded and living forever on the blockchain, are simply framed and hung and enjoyed — as an artist, Hirst thinks that would be a comfortable place for the experiment to end. The risk for him is in “letting go,” in knowing that collectors may take, break, sell, or even destroy his work. 

Letting go also means that the project becomes something that is “alive” — trading, moving throughout the world in marketplaces, changing hands, reaching new audiences. This effort involves the brilliance of Joe Hage, who Hirst calls “the master of exponential growth.” 

 

Source: HENI

 

Hage, who was once described by ARTnews as a “significant but rarely discussed force behind the scenes,” is Hirst’s equivalent of a CTO. Commanding a small army of data scientists, lawyers, and smart contract developers, Hage — one of the partners of Palm, the ConsenSys-backed NFT-centric sidechain where The Currency will drop — tinkered with the specifications of the project to create what may turn out to be a generous drop strategy. 

His team likely could have charged thousands more per Tender (Meebits, a project from NFT maestros Larva Labs, recently brought in over $70 million compared to The Currency’s $20 million sale) but for the thing to take flight you need to offset some of that potential gain to collectors, who are then tested by thriving secondary markets. If prices do soar, it will tempt the greed of collectors, who will have to weigh potential profits — another key element in The Currency’s broader experiment.

Cults, Gods, and Creators

Forty years after a child aimlessly flipped through a stack of auctions catalogues, in an innocuous former car park in west London there is a temple being built to Damien Hirst. Palatial vaulted ceilings capped with translucent golden windows bathe the top floor with almost cathedral lighting (“‘An Almost Cathedral Light!’ Hirst bellows at this reporter from across the park, “I like that! I’m going to use that!”). 

One day it’ll be an excellent museum, perhaps Hirst’s equivalent of The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh; for now it’s one of the best private galleries in the world. When Cointelegraph visited, dozens of his cherry blossom paintings decorated the walls; French gallerist Hervé Chandès reportedly took one look and offered Hirst an exhibition on the spot. Hage notes that “less than 100 people in the world know this is here” —  many of them, no doubt, took in all that beauty and ended up eager buyers of Hirst’s wares. 

Religions need gods, cults need cult leaders, and often cryptocurrencies need founders. The founders attend conferences — yearly ritual gatherings in the major capitals of the world — where they nourish the souls of their followers with announcements, announcements of announcements, roadmap updates, new whitepapers, and even, ever-so-rarely, genuine technical improvements that (even more rarely) might offer functional utility to crypto hodlers. 

 

 

In short, until the advent of decentralized finance and the birth of “productive” cryptoassets, buying a cryptocurrency meant speculators were buying a vision — a story about a possible future, often from a charismatic leader. 

Set aside the artistic implications and take Hirst at his word, however ironic: he’s creating a currency. This is another powerful form of magic, one which even just a few centuries ago was the exclusive provenance of god-kings and emperors. As an artist and a modern icon, however, Hirst might be perfectly suited to launch his own.

For starters, when he talks about money he talks like a crypto founder, eagerly citing David Graeber’s Debts: The First 5000 Years.

“It’s just amazing when you realize [money] is just trust. The debts get too big, then they wipe it out, and they start again, and the whole cycle goes over and over again, and people are getting ripped off continuously as well.” 

He has a keen understanding of what Charles Eisentein would call “Sacred Economies” —  the knowledge that all money is ultimately backed by nothing more than a story, that “the proclamation that money is backed is little different from any other ritual incantation and that it derives its power from collective human belief.” While critics like to call Bitcoin an elaborate Ponzi, in that respect it’s not much different than the U.S. dollar.

Me, You, and Value

But what does this mean for The Currency? Which of the two forms of magic at play — money and art — is more powerful? Unlike a traditional crypto founder, Hirst readily admits his doubts. Since he first sold a piece for over a million pounds, he told Cointelegraph, he’s wondered about the tenuous relationship between the two, and claims that if he ever discovers the money is more important than the art, he’d “stop making it.” 

“I guess I had a fear very early on that money was more important. And then, through that I’ve always tried to challenge it. But when I sold a piece for a million pounds, I got total fear. I just thought, ‘It’s not worth it.’”

In a project that seeks to raise questions about the nature of value, about art and money, about the physical and the digital, this is the most important question Hirst is now asking his audience: what am I worth

“Really it’s like a test, isn’t it? You know, about that belief. It’s like, ‘Can you believe in me? Can you believe in this? Can you really believe in this? How long can you believe in me? Does it last, does it stack up, does it spread out?’ […] I mean, I don’t know where the art ends and the money starts or ends. The whole thing’s crossed over.”





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The future of art? World-famous artists delve into NFTs

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For millennia, the world of art has remained unchanged for the most part. The tradition has always revolved around artists selling their work to museums, galleries, or individual collectors. In return, the artist would get a market value for their work which was often kept in private vaults and only displayed to the public ever so often.

With the advent of NFTs, many artists are now able to take their work and offer it up for sale as a digital collectible. Through these blockchain-enabled digital assets, the artist cannot only maintain ownership of a piece of the art they produce but also gain royalties from sales made in secondary markets.

Undoubtedly, NFTs are changing the contemporary art scene as artists no longer have to rely on galleries and museums as their sole medium through which they can sell their work. This shift in perspective has allowed for greater freedom and choice in the artists’ work while also bringing in new audiences and a new stream of traditional artists to NFTs.

Here is a look at the most famous contemporary artists that have gotten into NFTs lately.

Damien Hirst

Hirst recently launched “The Currency” project that consists of 10,000 NFTs corresponding to physical prints of his five-year-old artwork now stored in vaults. The NFTs will cost buyers $2,000 per piece and will be available for purchase by the end of the month.

NFTs are changing the world and the art world is increasingly looking toward crypto, however, for Damien Hirst, it’s not all about a get-rich-quick scheme that is portrayed all over the media. The English artist and entrepreneur was once one of the youngest contemporary artists to dominate the U.K. art scene in the 1990s and is the region’s richest living artist, according to reports.

The Currency project is set to blur the lines between fungibility and nonfungibility (especially money and art), as collectors of Hirst’s NFTs will have the choice of either getting the physical painting or the NFT version of the painting. The NFT will be a high-resolution photo of the physical painting.

In an interview with Cointelegraph, Hirst said that he used to give a lot of art away and he would get frustrated whenever people would sell the art.

“I suppose this whole project is like a test. It’s like when you walk downstairs in your house if you got a painting and it’s not long before the spot represents a dollar sign.”

Related: British artist Damien Hirst uses NFTs to blur the boundaries between art and money

Other highlights of Hirst’s work include a 2008 sale of the “Always Beautiful Inside My Head Forever” project that sold for over $220 million in a direct sale at an auction, as well as the “For the love of God” project that entailed a diamond-encrusted skull which sold for $100 million.

In an interview with Cointelegraph, Hirst said that he was annoyed by applications such as iTunes that take ownership away from musicians and applauded NFTs for their contribution in helping artists maintain ownership of their creations.

Related: British art icon Damien Hirst to accept BTC, ETH payments for print run

Philip Colbert

With a strong background in contemporary art as well as graphic design, Colin Philip Colbert was already a recognized rising star of the pop art world before he joined the NFT space. The British contemporary artist has even gone as far as receiving the praise of legendary designer André Leon Talley. Colbert got his start as an undergrad at the University of St Andrews in Scotland before moving to London’s then-emerging East End arts scene where he conceptualized the project that would become Lobsteropolis.

Based on Colbert’s initial Lobster University project, Lobsteropolis is a digital city built on Decentraland’s blockchain-based virtual world, featuring composite elements of Colbert’s work from several international art exhibitions, shows and museums.

The ambitious project offers a rare glimpse into an emerging industry that features an intersection between blockchain technology and the art world. It also features an open virtual world environment that allows people to interact with one another and the art.

Already, Colbert’s work has attracted the praise of famous personalities in the world of art, including Simon de Pury, a world-renown art auctioneer and curator, and Charles Saatchi, a contemporary art collector and a businessman.

Colbert said that the digital space enables him to explore the narrative of his art in a new way.

One of Lobsteropolis’ most outstanding features is a hybrid artwork and musical performance feature titled Lob-Ster De-Vo which is a rock band-themed multimedia experience. The city is not just an art exhibition but an interactive virtual world as well. Lobsteropolis pushes the boundaries of both virtual and augmented reality in a gameplay experience that allows users to interact with their peers and create several layers of fantasy.

Related: Bringing contemporary pop art to an NFT metaverse

Huang Heshan

“Bu Tu Garden” is Huang Heshan’s latest NFT-based real estate art that will be showcased at the Taobao Maker Festival. The young Chinese artist who initially assumed that everything blockchain-related would be “very complicated and troublesome to operate” admits to his surprise that working with nonfungible tokens is way easier.

Huang will be launching his virtual “Bu Tu Garden” project at Taobao Maker Festival, which is an annual event that celebrates Chinese art and entrepreneurship. Taobao, an Alibaba-owned platform, will be showcasing NFTs for the first time since the beginning of the festival in 2016.

Huang’s debut NFT art project is built on the NEAR blockchain protocol and is made of a virtual real-estate landscape that comprises more than 1,000 virtual structures, 300 high-end family villas and another 1,000 parasols.

With a background in fine arts, Huang’s Bu Tu Garden takes after the local tastes of Chinese streets in a wild design filled with vibrantly colored trees, inspired by the story of a fictional real-estate tycoon who is dedicated to building up-market housing for the less fortunate.

Grimes

Another artist who is making a debut into the NFT landscape is Grimes. Popularly known for her exploration of synth-pop music and experimental art, Grimes recently sold her digital artworks for a staggering $6 million in an auction on Nifty Gateway. The artwork includes a series of one-of-a-kind visual and audio artworks. One particular piece called “Death of the Old” sold for over $350,000. A bulk of the sales amounting to more than $6 million originated from individual pieces of art that comprised thousands of copies, selling for $7,500 each.

Related: Musician Grimes’ debut NFT auction generates $5.8M in 20 minutes

The Canadian singer and visual artist already managed to be a critically-acclaimed pop star long before entering the NFT space. Her electronic pop music as well as her relationship with Elon Musk (tech CEO and entrepreneur) has brought her a large following of over 1.9 million people on Instagram. Through her NFT artwork, she showcases her versatile talent in writing, producing and editing her music.

Steve Aoki and Antonio Tudisco

Antoni Tudisco is a creative director and 3D visual artist who was born and raised in Hamburg, Germany. He boasts of a background in media management and web design and development, among other fields of study.

The fashion enthusiast and designer has collaborated with top brands like Adidas, Nike, Versace and Puma, and garnered the attention of artists such as Will Smith. He also has his brand TUDISCO STUDIO, which he recently unveiled at a runway show in New York City.

Now, Tudisco is making a debut into the NFT space by collaborating with American music producer and DJ Steve Aoki to create “Dream Catcher.”

So far, the artwork has already earned more than $4.29 million and entails a collection of NFTs that can be redeemed in the form of a physical screen displaying the artwork. Apart from Tudisco, Aoki has also partnered with motivational speaker Tom Bileu in launching the “Neon Future” NFT set.

The intersection of technology and art

While modern art is becoming increasingly augmented with technology, some still believe that there will always be a place for traditional artwork in galleries and auction houses. However, one of the best aspects of NFTs is that they offer an opportunity for new artists to get a market for their art, especially for artists who are not able to enroll in prestigious fine art graduate programs. With NFTs, artists can sell their work directly to collectors and without the need for intermediaries. They no longer have to worry about geographical, financial and educational barriers. Is this the future of contemporary art?