Bidder pays £50m for unique string of code

Catnip: the creator of Nyan Cat recently sold an edition of his animated meme for £430,000.

Are non-fungible tokens the future of art? The price was a new high for an artwork that exists only digitally, beating records for physical paintings by greats like Turner, Seurat and Goya.

The virtual auctioneer's jaw dropped to the floor as he banged his hammer. Everydays: The First 5000 Days, a digital artwork by the American artist Mike Winkelmann (known as Beeple) was sold yesterday for a record-smashing £49,614,815.

Beeple’s work was sold as a non-fungible token (now generally known as an NFT).

A what? A non-fungible token is a unique piece of code stored on a database called a blockchain. (Bitcoin uses blockchain as well). The main point of it is that it is impossible to copy. So if you own it you can sell it – and it can be worth a lot of money.

NFTs have gained enormous ground in the past month. A basketball fan spent £148,817 to purchase a clip of player LeBron James. Animator Chris Torres peddled a new version of Nyan Cat — a meme of a flying, rainbow-discharging cat with a Pop-Tart body — for £430,000.

And musician Grimes made £4.3m auctioning her artworks, which sold out in 20 minutes.

Yesterday’s auction suggests that NFTs possess a similar value to traditional, non-digital artworks. “It is very, very valuable because of who is behind it”, claims collector Pablo Rodriguez-Fraile.

History might be on the side of the NFTs. Our idea of art is constantly expanding. In the past century, countless new media — collage, abstract painting, textiles, installations, photography, film, sound art, performance — have become uncontroversial parts of museum collections. Digital art is next, and NFTs provide a valuable way to purchase, collect and archive it.

Besides, artistic value emerges over time. When Turner painted his Slave Ship in 1840, angry critics called it “a tortoise-shell cat having a fit in a platter of tomatoes” and a product of “the imbecility of old age.”

Others are less sure that NFTs have a future. For one, they are environmentally damaging. The electricity expected on a single NFT transaction is equivalent to an EU resident’s power consumption over four days. And they might be a passing fad: Guardian technology editor Alex Hern calls the rapid escalation a “dumb speculative bubble.”

The cash value of an artwork usually depends on its authenticity: the guarantee that it was created by a particular artist. A forged painting will never be the same as the original, and worth significantly less.

A digital artwork can be endlessly, identically duplicated. What is the true worth of a £430,000 Nyan Cat when millions of free Nyan Cats are circulated everyday?

“It's incredibly unclear,” writes Hern, “what the benefits actually are.” NFTs do not give their owners exclusive use of a work. The artworks’ creator usually retains intellectual property. “The point of owning a piece of art,” says the digital artist v buckenham, “is to look at it and enjoy it — and buying an NFT doesn’t help you to do that.”

So are non-fungible tokens the future of art?

Boom and bust

Obviously, say some: the £50m sale speaks for itself. Markets are based on an agreement over what an item is worth, and the relevant people clearly believe NFTs possess a real value. They solve the question of how to trade and protect digital art. And art moves with technology and the times.

Steady on, say others. NFTs are enjoying a moment of commercial success, but the bubble might burst and the novelty might fade. Although NFTs offer some kind of authenticity for digital art, they fail to guarantee that artwork will retain its value after reproduction.

You Decide

  1. Would you rather own a famous painting or an NFT of a widely circulated digital meme?
  2. Does the financial value of a painting relate to its artistic value?

Activities

  1. Conceptualise and create a digital artwork then present it to the class as if an auction lot, persuading the class that they should buy it.
  2. Write a short review of a classic work of art from the perspective of an alien that has never encountered human art before.

Some People Say...

“What strip mining is to nature, the art market has become to culture.”

Robert Hughes (1938 — 2012), Australian art critic

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Art historians widely agree that the value of an artwork has been dependent on its authenticity since the Italian Renaissance, when artists started to sign works to signify their authorship. In his influential The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, German cultural critic Walter Benjamin wrote that an original work of art possesses an authenticity and an aura — “its unique existence at the place where it happens to be” — which reproduced forms of art lack.
What do we not know?
There remains debate over the relative importance of nominal and expressive authenticity. The first refers to the physical provenance of an artwork – whether it was created by the right artist in the right place and time. The second, meanwhile, derives from whether the work of art is an original product of its creator’s intention and beliefs about the world.

Word Watch

Non-fungible
A fungible good can be replaced with another identical item, such as a coin, oil or an unopened jar of jam. Non-fungible goods are those which cannot be switched due to their unique qualities, such as a one-off drawing.
Peddled
Sold items, particularly while moving between different places. The word descends from pedis, the Latin for “foot”.
Meme
An idea which spreads by imitation. Based on the Ancient Greek word mimema, meaning an “imitated thing”, it was coined in 1976 by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.
Turner
Joseph Mallord William Turner, English landscape artist (1775 – 1851) whose extraordinary later works are regarded as a precursor to abstract painting.
Imbecility
Extreme foolishness. It was originally used to describe the physically weak, from the Latin imbecillus meaning “without a supporting staff.”
Bubble
A situation in the value of a product soars based on implausible assumptions about the future. An infamous example is the Tulipmania in 17th Century Holland, where a single tulip root could be traded for four oxen, an entire bed or a thousand pounds of cheese.
Intellectual property
Rights such as patents, trademarks and copyright which projects the intangible creations of human intellect. The first patent rights emerged in the ancient city of Sybaris, in present-day Italy.

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