What is cryptoart and should I care?

If you cross Simon Stålenhag’s digital painting style with Noah Kalina’s work ethic, you might end up with Mike Winkelmann, AKA Beeple. Here’s a mention of him from 2017.

“Do androids dream of electric sheep?”: A CGI master made a new artwork every day for 10 yearsDesign You Trust
Beeple is Mike Winkelmann, a graphic designer from Appleton, Wisconsin, USA. His short films have screened at onedotzero, Prix Ars Electronica, the Sydney Biennale, Ann Arbor Film Festival and many others. … For 10 years he’s been posting a new digital illustration—ranging from the abstract to representative, sci-fi to surreal, somber to sarcastic—every 24 hours.

All that effort has paid off, after Christie’s auctioned off a digital collage of the results.

Beeple’s opusChristie’s
Minted exclusively for Christie’s, the monumental digital collage was offered as a single lot sale concurrently with First Open, and realised $69,346,250. Marking two industry firsts, Christie’s is the first major auction house to offer a purely digital work with a unique NFT (Non-fungible token) — effectively a guarantee of its authenticity — and to accept cryptocurrency, in this case Ether, in addition to standard forms of payment for the singular lot.

That’s quite a lot of money, regardless of the currency.

JPG file sells for $69 million, as ‘NFT mania’ gathers paceThe New York Times
After a flurry of more than 180 bids in the final hour, a JPG file made by Mike Winkelmann, the digital artist known as Beeple, was sold on Thursday by Christie’s in an online auction for $69.3 million with fees. The price was a new high for an artwork that exists only digitally, beating auction records for physical paintings by museum-valorized greats like J.M.W. Turner, Georges Seurat and Francisco Goya. Bidding at the two-week Beeple sale, consisting of just one lot, began at $100.

With seconds remaining, the work was set to sell for less than $30 million, but a last-moment cascade of bids prompted a two-minute extension of the auction and pushed the final price over $60 million. Rebecca Riegelhaupt, a Christie’s spokeswoman, said 33 active bidders had contested the work, adding that the result was the third-highest auction price achieved for a living artist, after Jeff Koons and David Hockney.

Beeple sold an NFT for $69 millionThe Verge
The record-smashing NFT sale comes after months of increasingly valuable auctions. In October, Winkelmann sold his first series of NFTs, with a pair going for $66,666.66 each. In December, he sold a series of works for $3.5 million total. And last month, one of the NFTs that originally sold for $66,666.66 was resold for $6.6 million.

But has anyone actually looked at this collection of images? All of them? Whilst the futuristic sci-fi imagery shown above is interesting, if a little derivative, there are some major issues with the rest of it, to say the least. Let’s just say leaving off the titles of the original images was a very wise move.

I looked through all 5,000 images in Beeple’s $69 million magnum opus. What I found isn’t so prettyArtnet News
We’ve passed through a racial uprising and a reckoning with sexism, and the cultural project of the moment is… innovating new ways to worship decade-old, BroBible-level brain farts? During a time of immiseration, investors are competing to throw tens of millions of dollars… at this?

Nevertheless, here we are.

Beeple’s USD 69M NFT enters art historyCryptonews
A non-fungible token (NFT) piece of art thirteen years in the making was just sold for a whopping USD 69.35m at famous British auction house Christie’s, becoming the most expensive NFT ever sold, and positioning the author among the top three most valuable living artists. … According to Bloomberg, prior to the sale, Christie’s Noah Davis said that “there have been a handful of really dogged, really serious clients pursuing it, and they are mostly people who are very steeped in crypto.”

Very steeped in crypto? Who are these people?

Rich millennials are splashing millions on crypto artBloomberg
The decline [in art market sales due to the pandemic] would have been much worse were it not for wealthy collectors who spent more time at home and wanted to beautify their surroundings with art. It was a similar picture with virtual works. More hours glued to a screen encouraged crypto investors — flush with Bitcoin gains — to explore the nascent medium of art attached to a non-fungible token (NFT), a digital certificate of authenticity that runs on blockchain technology.

Who spends millions on NFTs? Meet Beeple’s crypto-rich early collectorsARTnews.com
The digital artist Beeple’s first major collector was Tim Kang, founder of Cue Music and an investor in cryptocurrency. Well before Beeple’s $6.6 million sale at Christie’s, Kang had broken all previous records by buying Beeple’s “MF Collection” for $777,777.77 on the non-fungible token platform Nifty Gateway in December of 2020. This sale launched Beeple from a niche artist working on the digital fringe to a force to reckon with, as the auction made clear three months later. […]

“Crypto and blockchain is more than just a stock; the underlying application is a paradigm shift. Anyone can have an opportunity to participate in a global market,” Kang said. “I have been waiting for so long for the breakthrough, for this to really impact the world beyond just cryptocurrency. Digital art is the perfect medium to communicate the underlying implications of blockchain on self-sovereignty.” NFTs demonstrate how blockchain technology can offer decentralized forms of authority: secure ownership without a gallery or foundation.

No shortage of hyperbole.

Beeple’s ‘5000 Days’ NFT sold for USD 69.35M at Christie’sDesign You Trust
“We must recognize the record-breaking sale of Beeple’s opus as what it is: a watershed moment for our industry. This sale will allow the public to see the capabilities of NFTs in the art space, however, it is just the beginning of the NFT revolution, which will ultimately change the way we live,” Justin Banon, CEO and Co-founder of Boson Protocol, the developer of a “capture resistant dCommerce ecosystem” using NFTs encoded with game theory, said in an emailed comment.

A “revolution which will ultimately change the way we live”? Goodness me. I looked up Boson Protocol, wanting to check if dCommerce was a typo. It seems not, though I’ve no idea what a decentralized, capture-resistant, autonomous commerce ecosystem that operates within a liquid digital market that unlocks two planetary-scale value pools actually is!

Decentralized forms of authority notwithstanding, theft is still theft.

Reports of stolen art on NFT marketplace raise issues for crypto collectorsHyperallergic
The blockchain has frequently been hailed as the future of art commerce, offering a way to ensure a work’s authenticity while creating an unalterable digital record of provenance on a public ledger. But recent reports of hacking on Nifty Gateway, a popular marketplace for non-fungible token (NFT) art, have raised questions about potential security flaws in the system. Several users have taken to social media in the last few days to claim they had NFTs stolen on the platform, with little recourse to get them back.

This isn’t limited to just slightly racist and homophobic digital collages, of course.

Quartz is selling the first-ever NFT news articleQuartz
Quartz is auctioning an article converted into a non-fungible token, or NFT, giving its eventual buyer unimpeachable, blockchain-verified proof of ownership. The process to do this, we found, was surprisingly easy.

Buy This NFT Column on the Blockchain!The New York Times
The first step in making my own NFT was setting up a digital “wallet” that would be used to hold my token, as well as any cryptocurrency I made from selling it. I used a browser extension called MetaMask and set up an empty wallet for Ethereum, the cryptocurrency network of choice for NFT collectors. Then I had to find a place to hold the auction. I chose an NFT marketplace called Foundation, which hosted the sale of the famous “Nyan Cat” graphic this year for nearly $600,000.

Crypto token of New York Times column sells for $560,000The New York Times
@3fmusic could not be reached as of Wednesday afternoon. The user appeared to be an avid collector of NFT artwork. In addition to the Times token, their collection on Foundation also includes such works as “The result of 2020,” an image of a sad-looking Kermit the Frog, and “Mushy’s Midafternoon Nap,” an image of a cartoon toadstool sitting on a log.

I tried getting my head around cryptocurrencies before, but I’m still none the wiser. Headlines like this don’t help.

Bitcoin’s record-breaking surge means one man ended up paying £440m for two pizzasSky News
Bitcoin’s volatility can also have consequences. Laszlo Hanyecz bought two pizzas for 10,000 BTC in 2010, back when the cryptocurrency was worth pennies. Fast forward to now, and this crypto stash is worth a staggering £440m.

One of the collectors above said that digital art is the perfect medium to communicate the underlying implications of blockchain on self-sovereignty. Everest Pipkin, digital artist and author of the following essay, would strongly disagree with that. It’s a long piece, and I’m including more than I would normally here, but I think its clarity is worth sharing. As he explains, it’s not cryptoart specifically that’s so environmentally damaging, it’s anything that’s “minted” on a cryptocurrency blockchain, be it Bitcoin, Ethereum or any other, because of a process called “proof of work”.

Here is the article you can send to people when they say “But the environmental issues with cryptoart will be solved soon, right?”Everest Pipkin
Proof of work, in essence, is a way to confirm that computational effort has been expended by “the prover” (the system doing a task). The idea was originally conceived in 1993 as a way to disincentivize things like spam or bots. Proof of work was supposed to be unnoticeable by normal human users, but would make things like the thousands of requests needed for a denial-of-service attack hard to run. It is like a little puzzle for your computer.

Fast forward to 2009, which saw proof of work (along with another technology called the blockchain, a kind of public ledger) used for a very different purpose; making the digital currency Bitcoin. This is a simplified explanation, but to make a bitcoin, Bitcoin “miners” task their specialized computers to solve those proof of work puzzles, competing with one another to validate blocks on the blockchain. A successful solution – which is somewhat rare – rewards the miner with the new coin. The more a computer “works” (the more energy is expended) the more competitive it is. You can think of it as a lottery, with every kilowatt-hour a ticket. This process is called mining.

This started innocuously enough – mining in 2009 was a background process that could run on a laptop as it idled. However, the difficultly of mining blocks in the blockchain is designed to increase over time. This is because as the network grows, the relative rate of new coins mined stays stable (for Bitcoin, about 1 block is mined every 10 minutes).

To solve the problem of more computers mining, the proof of work puzzles get harder. Miners get more computers, better GPUs. The puzzles get harder. Miners move to places with cheap electricity. The puzzles get harder. Miners retrofit warehouses, air-condition shipping containers. The puzzles get harder. Monumentally harder.

After a decade+ of a growing cryptocurrency market, what we’ve been left with is a financial network that uses more energy than Argentina, with no regulatory structure or federal oversight whatsoever.

I get that scarcity can affect prices; the more rare something is, or the harder it is to find, the more value is has — in the real world.

However, in a digital context scarcity must be constructed – there is nothing that demands the next block in the blockchain be harder to make than the last. If anything, the opposite should be true – computers grow ever more efficient and powerful. This means any scarcity is artificial, a process that demands ever more energy, ever more resources lost to continue to operate and return, for no other reason than to insure that tomorrow it will be even more expensive – which makes the wastefulness of today a good investment.

This is why cryptocurrency is valuable. There is nothing high-tech about it. There is no miracle. It is simply futures speculation without the speculation – no guessing required, because we know it will be more wasteful tomorrow; it is baked into the tech.

The whole thing makes my head swim. Here are some other attempts at explaining why blockchains and cryptocurrencies are bad ideas.

Why Bitcoin is so bad for the planetThe Guardian
In a year, bitcoin uses around the same about of electricity as the entire country of Norway. The digital currency is one that allows people to bypass banks and traditional payment methods. It is the most prominent among thousands of so-called cryptocurrencies and has been repeatedly reaching new records – but is it sustainable?

As NFT sells for $69M, artists question environmental impact of blockchainHyperallergic
As crypto-art speculation rises, however, so do the planet’s temperature and questions about the carbon footprint of NFTs. These unique works are typically sold in “drops,” timed online sales held by NiftyGateway, OpenSea, SuperRare, and Foundation, to name just a few of the most popular marketplaces. NFTs exist on the energy costly Ethereum blockchain; in layman’s terms, they are created (“minted”) based on a process known as proof-of-work (PoW), which necessitates the use of large networks of processing machines that emit CO2.

NFTs are hot. So is their effect on the Earth’s climateWIRED
The works were placed for auction on a website called Nifty Gateway, where they sold out in 10 seconds for thousands of dollars. The sale also consumed 8.7 megawatt-hours of energy, as he later learned from a website called Cryptoart.WTF. That figure was equivalent to two years of energy use in Lemercier’s studio. Since then, the art has been resold, requiring another year’s worth of energy. The tally was still climbing. The problem, as Lemercier saw it, went well beyond himself. His fellow artists were becoming millionaires overnight as the cryptoart world exploded. But so was their role in emitting carbon. Artists didn’t seem to understand the scope of this problem—Lemercier himself hadn’t—and the platforms making the sales didn’t seem interested in clarifying.

I know other areas of our online life affect the health of our physical world…

We finally know how bad for the environment your Netflix habit isWired UK
Netflix claims that one hour of streaming on its platform in 2020 [produces less CO2] than driving an average car a quarter of a mile.

… but this whole cryptoart topic seems so wasteful and unnecessary. To summarise:

Power into artthings magazine
In short. Watch more Netflix. Don’t buy, encourage, promote or celebrate cryptoart.”

Generating a new art market

Many of us are feeling the pinch these days, as the pandemic continues to take its toll on jobs and livelihoods. But there are still people out there more than happy to keep spending.

Instagram rules but don’t expect loyalty: new report analyses our online art buying behaviourThe Art Newspaper
The online art market has been a rare winner during the Covid-19 pandemic, with rising totals and many new buyers starting their collections digitally. […] Art collectors have also spent more money online, increasing the average spend—29% paid an average of $10,000+ per painting, up from 20% in 2019. Those spending over $50,000 on a work went up to 11% ( 4% in 2019).

A little out of my league, but have you seen this? Unique, original art for under £100. Generative art has a rich background, and I know I’ve highlighted new ways of buying art before, but does this feel a little scammy to anyone else?

ART AI – AI generated paintings
We use artificial intelligence to create a vast variety of original artworks. This allows us to sell each artwork once, making one of a kind art accessible to all. […] When you find something you really love, you don’t always want to share it. We find that we are emotionally connected to the art we make and the art we buy – we want it just for ourselves. Thanks to our advanced artificial intelligence, ART AI makes owning one of a kind AI art accessible to everyone, for the first time ever.

I mean, these types of images are ten-a-penny now, aren’t they?

GANksy – A.I. street artist
We trained a StyleGAN2 neural network using the portfolio of a certain street artist to create GANksy, a twisted visual genius whose work reflects our unsettled times. 256 masterpieces are for sale starting at £1, rising by a pound as each one is purchased.

This Fucked Up Homer Does Not Exist
Created by Thomas Dimson (@turtlesoupy) Based on Lightweight GAN from lucidrains.

That’s crying out to be monetised. The way one Bartkrustyhomer transitions to the next would make for a nightmarishly soothing screensaver, for instance.

Holding on

Banksy’s not the only street artist out there trying to make a difference.

Stik hoping to raise £120k at auction to fund sculptures by local artistsHackney Citizen
Hackney’s street art megastar Stik is to auction off a unique model of his first ever public sculpture, Holding Hands, to fund a series of outdoor artworks by local artists. The maquette, a one-off, small-scale version of the sculpture, is predicted to fetch around £120,000 when it opens for bidding at Christie’s tomorrow as part of the auction house’s ‘Post-War and Contemporary Art’ sale. All proceeds will be donated to Hackney Council to help bankroll a series of public works by East London artists.

Hackney Street artist Stik to ‘empower’ local artists by funding a series of sculpturesHackney Gazette
Hackney Mayor Phillip Glanville thanked the artist, who has lived and worked in Hackney for 20 years, for his “record of activism” and generous donation. “We’re proud in Hackney to be able to support and share the creativity of our residents. This represents a long-standing commitment to inclusive public art that can be enjoyed by everyone in our parks and public spaces and I can’t wait to see the creativity that Stik is helping us to showcase and unlock,” the mayor said.

Check out Christie’s video about the original sculpture.

How the street artist STIK is standing up for the next generationChristie’s
The Holding Hands sculpture is being installed at a poignant time in our history, when holding hands is not always possible. But it is a symbol of hope for what has always been, and what will be again.

That bronze maquette had an estimate of £80,000–120,000, and went for a fantastic £287,500, great news for Hackney’s artists and residents.

The story doesn’t end there, though.

Stolen posters donated to Hackney by artist Stik returned after appealSky News
“Holding Hands shows two people looking in opposite directions yet holding hands in a symbol of universal love and solidarity,” Stik said. “The fact that so many prints were returned to the people of Hackney only amplifies its meaning.”

Detective Constable James Readman said it is “really encouraging” that the public has listened to the appeal and “done the right thing by returning a large proportion of the prints”.

Paintings with punch

Banksy paintings worth an estimated £1.2m to be sold at charity auctionThe Guardian
This triptych hangs in Sotheby’s galleries alongside works by some of history’s greatest landscape painters, including Bellotto, Van Goyen and Turner. Banksy’s work, however, stands alone for its potent political message.

Devolving politicians

Banksy painting of chimps as MPs sells for record £9.9m at Sotheby’s
The timing of the sale was impeccable, coming exactly four weeks before the revised Brexit deadline and a year after Banksy’s Girl with Balloon (2002) was shredded via remote control in the same saleroom. That work sold for £1.04m with fees after it was legally designated a new work by Banksy’s handling service Pest Control and renamed Love is in the Bin a week after the auction in October 2019.

Banksy painting of MPs as chimpanzees sells for record £9.9m
Chimpanzees first appeared in his work in 2002, with his piece Laugh Now. The painting shows a row of apes wearing aprons carrying the inscription “Laugh now, but one day we’ll be in charge”. In 2009, Banksy said of Devolved Parliament: “You paint 100 chimpanzees and they still call you a guerrilla artist.”

The Cockroach by Ian McEwan review – a Brexit farce with legs
But in truth the parallel is misleading. It is not just that in McEwan’s case the metamorphosis is reversed: Sams is not a human transmuted into an insect but a cockroach who has taken over the body of the prime minister of the UK. (The room in which he awakes is in 10 Downing Street.) It is also that this fable is much more Swiftian than Kafkaesque. In The Metamorphosis, the story is really about the strangeness of everyday life and the human capacity to deny it. The world of The Cockroach is more like one of Swift’s parallel universes where political and intellectual idiocies are not so much reduced to absurdity as magnified into towering follies.

devolving-politicians-2

Banksy backfires?

At first glance it looks like our plucky artist-as-vigilante-hero puts one over on the avaricious art world.

Banksy auction stunt leaves art world in shreds
Banksy has played what could be one of the most audacious stunts in art history, arranging for one of his best-known works to self-destruct after being sold at auction for just over £1m. […] Shortly after the hammer came down on the item, however, the canvas began to pass through a shredder installed in the frame.

Banksy publishes video detailing auction stunt plan

But this comment further down the article from the founder of MyArtBroker.com puts a different spin on it.

“The auction result will only propel this further and given the media attention this stunt has received, the lucky buyer would see a great return on the £1.02m they paid last night.

“This is now part of art history in its shredded state and we’d estimate Banksy has added at a minimum 50% to its value, possibly as high as being worth £2m plus.”

The house always wins.

Update 12/10/2018

I enjoyed reading this exploration into what Banksy and Sotherby’s were up to.

Myth busting Banksy
I believe that while Sotheby’s was likely not fully aware of what was going to happen, they had a suspicion that something was up and played along for the sake of theater. To minimize the disruption, they put the Banksy work last, but until the shredded work scrolled out the bottom of the frame, the exact nature of the prank was not clear to them. I suspect that Sotheby’s knowledge was limited to knowing something harmless was up that potentially could benefit them as a PR stunt.

It would be analogous to Banksy holding a giant sign with tape on it and Sotheby’s noticing this and graciously winking and turning around so it could be placed on their back. Sotheby’s then acted surprised when others pointed out that the sign read “kick me” and claimed to have been “Banksy’d” and then soaked up the press.

And this raised a smile too.

Please don’t shred your own Banksy print unless you want it to be worth £1
Unfortunately, this is a warning that has already been given but apparently ignored. On October 6th, online art auction platform MyArtBroker tweeted it had “a number of #Banksy print owners contact us today asking if they shred their artwork will it be worth more.” Two days later MyArtBroker claimed someone did just that — shredded a limited edition “Girl with Balloon” print in order to try and raise the value of the work.