Burning the Banksy: NFTs and the transmutation of authenticity

Recently, Christie’s auction house sold a piece of digital artwork by Beeple (Mike Winkelmann) for over $69 million. The interesting thing about the work, entitled EVERYDAYS: THE FIRST 5000 DAYS, beyond its aesthetic and mode of production, for me, is that the item sold is not a physical manifestation of the piece, nor is it “merely” a high-resolution digital file.  The work was an NFT, or Non-Fungible Token.  Similar NFTs have been extremely hot commodities online, with some video clips of professional basketball players, and pixelated cat illustrations, selling in the millions in some cases. 

But what’s actually being sold?  The art?  The videos? The avatars?  No.  Not really. 

Take the Banksy work I’ll discuss below in greater detail.  That work, entitled MORONS (WHITE) 2006, was one of an edition of 500 prints.  A company, Injective Protocol, bought a singular print of the edition, transformed it into an NFT, then destroyed the “original” purchased print.  The image in question can be seen online in innumerable different places, including this blog:

(non-coincidental title is non-coincidental.  Image from Banksy’s Twitter.)

And probably if someone wanted this image, you could right click on it and save the file, and there you go, you have it too.  If that didn’t work, most of us can take a screenshot pretty easily, and again, there you go.  The image is yours. 

Or is it?

Obviously, you don’t need advanced degrees to understand that the process I just described allows you to save a file copy of the image.  No one would seriously confuse (though we sometimes conflate) an “original” work of art with an image of it we see on the internet. 

(you probably see where I’m going with this.  Magritte, The Treachery of Images, 1928-9. LACMA)

The following is a dramatic recreation of an exchange in my office.  Okay, it’s more drama than recreation. …okay, it’s entirely fictional.  (apologies to my officemate)

“What the hell am I looking at?” my officemate exclaims when she sees the pixilated image of cats pop up on my screen.  She’s not confused by the image, but by the context.  “Someone paid millions for this?”

“Well…Yes…and no.”  I hedge.  She looks annoyed, as she often does when I start in with that contemporary art stuff.

“So, you couldn’t download this can you?”

“Well…this..I can.” and I right click the image on my screen and save as a jpeg on my desktop. 

“So… did you steal that image?”

Surprised, “…not… technically…”  suddenly I’m concerned about copyright warnings for that image and all the others I’ve plucked from the Googles and currently reside scattered across my desktop.

“But you have it on your computer.”

“I have a copy of the jpeg, yes.”

“I thought you said NFTs are not copyable.”

“They’re not.”

“But you copied it.”

“I copied the image, not the NFT.”

“But the NFT is the image.”

“No…but in a way, maybe, yes.”  I decide on a different approach. “So, when you go to the British Library website and look at medieval books, what are you looking at?”

“Scanned copies of the manuscripts.”

“Right, the images on your screen are a representation of the pages.  The original pages are in the book…”

“Manuscript.”

“…right…manuscript…in a museum or archive.” 

“Yeah.”

“So, in this scenario, the image on my screen is just a representation of data in the NFT.  The NFT contains the image, and I’ve copied a representation of that.  But the original is in the data of the NFT and is not replicable.”

“But it’s on your desktop.”

“No, a jpeg is on my desktop, the NFT is not.  If I buy a poster of the Mona Lisa and hang it on my wall, I don’t own the Mona Lisa, I own a copy of its likeness.” 

“I understand that.  But I don’t understand why someone would pay hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars for a jpeg you can download to your computer at any time, and distribute freely.”

“They’re not paying for the jpeg; they’re paying for the NFT.”    

Skeptical look.  “So, this is just a way for rich people to exchange money with each other under the guise of art collecting?” 

End scene.

——-

For those who don’t know, and those of us (including me) who only barely comprehend the technology, an NFT is a type of crypto-currency created on a smart contract platform, commonly Ethereum.  The Token created by the Ethereum blockchain is non-fungible.  Simply put, tokens that are fungible have equivalent value, like Bitcoins, or Euros, or Dollars.  One Bitcoin always equals one Bitcoin, when the price of these tokens rises or fall, each individual unit remains equivalent to every other individual unit, this is essentially how money works and is the same reason a US dollar is equal to a US dollar, and at any given moment in time, no one USD has more or less value than any other USD.  Non-Fungible Tokens differ in that each unit, or Token, is totally unique and non-replicable. 

From Investopedia:

“NFTs shift the crypto paradigm by making each token unique and irreplaceable, thereby making it impossible for one non-fungible token to be equal to another. They are digital representations of assets and have been likened to digital passports because each token contains a unique, non-transferable identity to distinguish it from other tokens.”  (Rakesh Sharma)

 It’s uniqueness, it’s rarity (or perhaps better economic term, scarcity) is its existence as a digital object that is indivisible and not reproducible.  Encoded within (or attached to?  I don’t necessarily understand the mechanics) the Token can have other data, including images, music, videos, text, etc.  Metadata, including things like an artist’s signature, can be added. 

What was for sale at Christie’s was a digital token that contained the image.  The image itself can be copied, replicated, deleted, altered at will.  But the Token cannot.  What sold for over 69 million US dollars was not really the artwork, but the token associated with it.  I’m sure the artist and auction house would argue against that idea, but, in my opinion, the unique object for sale in that auction was not really the work of art, although the NFT is inseparable from the work of art (as far as I understand).  I’m not discrediting the amazing process and images contained within Beeple’s work, and I’m not suggesting his art isn’t worth or would not have gotten this price range if it were offered through some other media.  I am suggesting that there is something fundamentally different about the NFT medium that speaks more closely to economics and financial trading than it does to the aesthetics of contemporary art.  

Essentially the NFT serves as a kind of certificate of authenticity, it tracks origin, ownership, basically the provenance of a digital work.  It is verifiable through the blockchain, the ownership cannot be revoked or removed, once it’s yours, it’s totally yours, no DRM, no licensing.  The NFT itself cannot be recreated; each token is one-of-a-kind. 

This newest art trend (or fad, according to some) is highly speculative with inflated prices not unlike what one sees in other cryptocurrency trading.

This is not to say that these objects have no use-value.  This technology has the potential to open the market to artists to engage directly with potential buyers and collectors without the necessity of galleries, agents, or auction houses, at least in theory, if not in practice.  Beeple sold through Christie’s after all.  But whether this becomes the new standard for art selling and buying in the future, or if it’s a trend that burns itself out in a few months, what I’m interested in here is the larger implications of what it means to make, buy, and sell art in the age of digital reproduction. 

And this brings me back to burning the Banksy.

“Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.”  (Walter Benjamin)

Yep, I’m going there.  We’re talking Walter Benjamin and authenticity.  

The Banksy work was acquired and in a ritual performance streamed online, it was sacrificed.  I know that probably reads as being over dramatic, but I don’t think it’s unwarranted.  A masked figure approaches the work and sets it alight.  It doesn’t go up right away, in a flash, but eventually it smolders and burns.  And something fundamental changes. 

A representative of the company that bought and was responsible for the decision to burn the piece, Injective Protocal, explains in a YouTube video that the destruction was necessary to destroy the primacy of the physical original. 

Taking a work of art by one person and “destroying” it to create something new from its remains is not a new idea in contemporary art, ERASED DE KOONING, is just one well known example.

(Rauschenberg, Erased De Kooning, 1953.  SFMOMA.)

Rauschenberg performatively disrupts the status of Willem De Kooning as an Old Master of Abstract Expressionism by physically removing the original artist’s hand from the surface of the work.  The resultant piece is Robert Rauschenberg’s, his act of erasure also a flag post, claiming ownership of the item both physically and conceptually.

Banksy’s own works that self destruct (remember the self-shredding piece?) also seem like more sophisticated versions of Jean Tinguely’s machines.  Banksy directs his works poignantly at the art market itself, at the commodification of art fundamentally. 

But this wasn’t exactly what happened in this most recent performance.  The purpose of the destruction was not to claim the object, or disrupt the position of Banksy in the contemporary art scene (at least I don’t see it that way).  Nor do I think it was quite the swipe at the elitist economics of the art auction house that the artist himself has done. 

This burning ritual was not a critique of how the market values art, but rather a transfer of value.  In order to ensure that the NFT iteration of the work was valued as The Work proper, it’s original, the signified, had to be eliminated, thus (presumably) transferring the status of original to the NFT.  The digital iteration, formerly a signifier referencing the print, became through the process of destruction, that which was the referent.  While the print was in “its unique existence at the place where it happens to be…” the newer iteration would be robbed of potential market value.  Burning the print transmuted the NFT to the status of original.  If the market value of the print was actually transferred can only be seen once it is sold.  No market, no market value. 

Now, it does not escape me that the original was a print.  One of 500 more or less identical images of the same scene.  That edition now has 499, and the NFT iteration is fundamentally a unique, non-replicable, theoretically non-destructible object.  The irony is rich, and I’m sure intentional.

“…changes of ownership are subject to a tradition which must be traced from the situation of the original.”  (Walter Benjamin)

The NFT is a new iteration of the former print.  Because that object no longer exists, the tradition of its ownership now extends from the creation of the digital file.  Its existence is predicated on the existence of the former object (like the Rauschenberg was predicated on the de Kooning) but the resultant object, the digital file, is something separate.  I don’t know if the NFT iteration indicates Banksy as a single creator of the work, but I would argue at this point the object of art in this case is the company’s object, or at least it’s a collaboration, whether or not Banksy willingly cooperated, or knew what was going to happen. 

“Within the system of selling and buying, the aesthetic illusion—the commodity’s promise of use-value—enters the arena as an independent function in selling.”  (W.F. Haug, 17)

The extreme speculation of this market speaks to the allure of its novelty.  Christie’s involvement as broker of the Beeple sale gives NFT based art real-world legitimacy.  Perhaps serving as a door opener to collectors otherwise uncomfortable navigating the ever-churning waters of cryptocurrency trading.  Concerns and criticisms about the contemporary art market’s elitism are not assuaged by this development, but rather, concentrated.  Art collecting has for a very long time (maybe always?) been a signifier of prestige, wealth, and power, a demonstration taste making and gatekeeping.  Transcending the physical object to the purely digital, finally commodifying the digital into tokens that can have scarcity, and therefore tradable value on the market, maybe does not alter the purpose or function of art per se, but it does lend itself to an acceleration of art’s commodification.  And as art becomes increasingly and more transparently a commodity, a financial asset, how does that in reality, empower artistic expression? 

In Esquire magazine, Anna Grace Lee writes:

From an ethical and equity perspective, the option of selling one’s art as NFTs may not be the ample opportunity it has the potential to be. On Twitter, digital artist RJ Palmer recently warned fellow artists that there was an account ripping off art by minting artists’ tweets of their art and selling them as NFTs. There’s potential for abysmal exploitation of emerging artists’ work, without the proper enforcement or investigation into whether the person minting an NFT is the actual artist, true creator, and copyright owner of the work. The relative anonymity of crypto transactions has created an environment ripe for exploitation, theft, and harm.

The Christie’s auction provided legitimacy to the idea that what was being sold was what was being advertised.  Other artists, not so well represented, are at risk for being ripped off, as collectors chase these rare tokens with little to no regard for the art it portends to represent.  In the future, will NFTs be the democratizing and freeing medium that unleashes expression to a new generation of creatives?  Or will it become yet another tool of exploitation, another way for rich people to exchange money with other rich people?  Most likely, both, to some degree. 

“…the ideal of commodity aesthetics is to deliver the absolute minimum of use-value, disguised and staged by a maximum of seductive illusion…”  (W.F. Haug, 54)

In my opinion, the NFT market as it currently exists, is illusionary, the seduction of the new, the cutting edge, ultimately though an aesthetic of technology veiling the blisteringly fast pace of art’s commodification and placement as servant to capital. 

I admit I do not understand the technology in a comprehensive way, so perhaps there’s something essential to the process that escapes me.  Until I do understand whatever that missing piece is, W.F. Haug’s comments about commodity aesthetics seems to me fairly apropos. 

“Capital, with art at it’s disposal, not only shows off as a connoisseur and admirer of Fine Art but also, in its esoteric interests, adopts the lofty illusion that it is the highest creations of the human spirit, and not profit, which is its determining aim.  Thus, everything good, noble, beautiful and great seems to speak for capital.  Art is used to dazzle, as a tool to create the illusion that the domination of capital is legitimate, and just as valid as the domination of the good, the true, the beautiful, and so forth.  In this way art can become a means, among others, of stupefying the public.”  (Haug, 129)



Sources:

W.F. Haug, Critique of Commodity Aestheticts: Appearances, Sexuality and Adversitsing in Captialist Sockeity, Trans. Robert Block, Intro. by Sturar Hall. University of Minnesoata Prewss, 1986.

W. Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, In: Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt, translated by Harry Zohn, from the 1935 essay. New York: Schocken Books, 1969

https://mashable.com/article/nft-explainer-what-are-non-fungible-tokens/

https://www.investopedia.com/non-fungible-tokens-nft-5115211

https://www.cnbc.com/2021/03/03/what-are-nfts-all-you-need-to-know-about-crypto-collectibles.html

https://www.esquire.com/entertainment/a35742083/what-are-nfts-explained/

https://www.coindesk.com/what-are-nfts

Published by Dr. EMS

Art history professor and lover of all things contemporary arts. Teaching and living in Zhejiang province, China.

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