It wouldn’t be Damien Hirst if he didn’t come up with something provocative. This time, he is one of many artists who are venturing into NFTs. But in a true Hirst fashion, to just buy an NFT won’t be the end of it. Yes, people can purchase one of 10,000 pieces from The Currency collection, but essentially, the transaction is a survey. The famous contemporary artist wants to see what his work truly means – is it the art itself that people desire – or is it the value of art that’s more tempting?
The NFT revolution
NFTs swept the world this year: some people bought crypto cats that “live” only on the blockchain, others invested spent $5.4 million on the source code to the original web browser, and an NFT of Jack Dorsey’s first tweet now has an owner who likened it to Mona Lisa.
In case you missed it, an NFT (non-fungible token) is technically a unit of data stored on a blockchain. This unit represents a valuable digital item, such as Dorsey’s tweet, a gif, or a meme. Uniqueness is guaranteed, and theft is practically impossible, so collectors found a new way to store and sell their precious possessions. Especially during the “covid era”, artists jumped at a unique opportunity to monetize their work.
Some condemn NFTs as another crypto bubble that will burst, others are trying to scam buyers by driving up the value of worthless tokens, and some are making millions. And at the root of all the controversy is a debate on redefining value and ownership. When you can own something so abstract, deciding its value is a whole new discipline. And that’s the concept Hirst is about to explore.
Hirst’s mind games: will you buy NFT or an artwork?
Hirst wonders about that thin line between art and money and the pretentiousness of it all. “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,” he said for Cointelegraph.
The aptly named The Currency consists of 10,000 NFTs and corresponding 10,000 paintings of dots Hirst created in 2016. While they look almost the same, they’re not, and each is numbered, signed, and stamped with a microdot and author’s hologram. Here’s the twist: you can bid $2,000 to get your hands on one of these. But you can’t buy both, as Hirst will make you choose: an NFT or the painting?
Those who opt for an NFT will get a high-resolution photo of the painting. But if they give it up, they’ll own a physical painting waiting for them in a vault. Those who don’t turn in the NFT by July 27th, 2022, will see their corresponding artwork burned. So what’s it going to be?
The irony of art ownership
The fun part is that Hirst is well aware of the irony, and he doesn’t seem to judge. In his Cointelegraph interview, he doesn’t shy away from controversial answers that question the traditional concept of value. Perhaps the value of something on your screen isn’t all that different from a piece of paper and paint framed in the middle of your living room.
Hirst says that to him, an NFT is just another form of ownership. “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.”
All the more reason to look forward to 2022. You – and Hirst himself – will hardly determine which art form is the most valuable. But an experiment on this scale will show more conclusive answers about something we don’t know yet. Those who will buy Hirst’s NFTs will show us: do we value the value, or do we value art?
Damien Hirst at the exihibition Damien Hirst The Complete Spot Paintings 1986-2011, Gagosian Gallery, NYC.