Mike Winkelmann never called himself an artist. But that was before he made $ 3.5 million in a single weekend selling his works. In December, he auctioned off multiple editions of three digital artworks, each priced at $ 969, and 21 unique works, most of which sold for around $ 100,000 each. It was only the second time he had put his art up for sale.
The digital artist, who goes through Beeple, has been creating a drawing every day for 13 years. He started out with pen and paper, but now mainly uses computer software such as the Cinema 4D program. On Thursday, a two-week online auction of a composite of the project’s first 5,000 days will begin at Christie’s, which claims this is the house’s first sale of an artwork-only digital. It will also be the first time that Christie’s will accept payment in Ether cryptocurrency.
Beeple sells these works as NFTs – non-fungible tokens – digital collectibles that use blockchain technology as authentication. An NFT can take any form, but for Beeple it’s usually an image or video file, sometimes with a physical object attached, verified with a digital signature on a blockchain. NFTs intelligently respond to the need for authentication and provenance in the art world in an increasingly digital world, permanently linking a digital file to its creator. This makes digital works of art unique and therefore salable.
The speculative NFT market has exploded over the past 12 months and continues to grow. According to the NFT Report 2020, published by L’Atelier BNP Paribas and Nonfungible.com, the value of the NFT market tripled in 2020, bringing its current value to more than $ 250 million. Now, the same cryptocurrency investors are trading sharply increasing NFT volumes on websites such as MakersPlace (which partners with Christie’s for the Beeple sale), SuperRare, and Rarible, where recent trades are in focus. center of concern. Memes and graphic collectibles are sold alongside artwork like Beeple, blurring the line between them.
Although this is the first time that Christie’s will sell a purely virtual work, the art world is familiar with this kind of sale. To take an example, anyone could stick a banana on the wall, but it would not be Maurizio Cattelan’s “Comedian”. Likewise, someone could easily make a digital copy of Beeple’s “Everyday – The First 5000 Days”, but even if the content would be exactly the same, they would not own the work itself without verification. the blockchain. NFTs collect digital artwork in the same way as paintings, sculptures, or conceptual artwork.
“I don’t know anything about the traditional art world,” said Beeple, a computer science graduate, who didn’t start researching NFTs until mid-October. Although he was a newcomer to fine art and crypto-art, his project “Everydays,” now 13, has gained popularity online. He racked up huge success (nearly two million on Instagram, 200,000 on Twitter) with his apocalyptic and distorted aesthetic leading to commissions from brands such as Louis Vuitton, whose spring 2019 collection was adorned with his images.
Beeple’s work has a brash appeal, like a political sketch cartoon set in a dystopian video game. Politicians like Donald J. Trump, Kim Jong-un, and Hillary Clinton (often nude with mutant robot bodies), as well as Buzz Lightyear, Mickey Mouse, and Pikachu. Since Winkelmann creates one drawing per day, his works often reflect what’s happening in the news, instantly metabolizing internet culture into visual commentary. It’s a style that speaks the native language of a group of literate speculators, many of whom have made huge sums of money through technology and crypto investments.
After a first “drop” (a term with streetwear accents) of NFTs in October, Winkelmann decided to conduct its December sale via the Nifty Gateway site. The sale broke the top records for digital art within five minutes. Many buyers immediately resold the works for higher prices, seeing their initial investment multiply within minutes. Today, many of these works sell for over 1,000% of their original price.
“It was a real wake-up call for all of us,” said Noah Davis, post-war and contemporary art specialist at Christie’s, “to see such large sums being donated.
“We are facing a potential paradigm shift,” Davis continued, pointing to the recent cryptocurrency boom and GameStop revolt against Wall Street this year as proof that financial markets are changing rapidly.
Beeple operates with two gigantic always-on TV screens, one tuned to Fox and the other to CNN, both muted, on the wall of his studio, also furnished with a leather sofa and beige carpet mellow. Reached for an interview on Zoom, he was enthusiastic and irreverent, with a shameless demeanor, with his hair parted and wearing a gray half-zip sweater with a button underneath. It seemed, in short, more likely to offer you technical support than a radical new art support.
For a long time, Beeple felt rejected by the art world. He’s having a lot of fun with this crypto-fueled reversal. These works, which he describes for the most part as “shit”, are suddenly anointed by one of the art world’s most revered auction houses. “The traditional art world is like, ‘Who’s that kid,’ but I also have 1.8 million Instagram followers,” he says. “The Christie’s thing brings a level of validation for that.”
The fine art world “is finally starting to recognize digital artists as real art,” he added.
For a whole host of digital illustrators and graphic designers who have struggled to make a living from their work, this is a game-changer. NFTs are a do-it-yourself shortcut to bypass the facility’s guards. “There is an argument to be made for this to be ‘punk’,” said Ruth Catlow, researcher and curator at Furtherfield’s decentralized art lab in London and editor of the book ‘Artists Re: Thinking the Blockchain’. “It is a testament to the torn dignity of a long-suffering class of artists who perpetually struggle for a living, but who are devalued by the upper art market machines and marketing platforms.
The huge sums of money generated by NFTs tell a different story, however. As a rule, the art world disdains “flipping” – when a collector buys a work and then immediately resells it for a profit. But unlike traditional artwork, with NFTs, the blockchain that authenticates the artwork can also create a set of rules that govern its future use. For example, Beeple’s contract will ensure that he, as an artist, will make money while others are speculating on his work – in his case, 10% of every aftermarket sale (a standard of l industry for NFTs). In this sense, NFTs offer artists a model to capture the value of their work as it grows. “When you buy the artwork, you kind of enter into a relationship with me,” he says.
Catlow said in a video interview: “They allow these artists to schedule a set of contracts with collectors into the work.”
She added that she sees the Beeple sale at Christie’s as a ‘pure show’, a ‘financial event’, as many artists migrate to platforms like Zora and Foundation, and create DAOs (decentralized autonomous organizations) that make it possible to put community values before art speculators. “You can see these programmable works of art as a way to create new forms of relationships,” Catlow said.
This opens up more radical possibilities for sharing the benefits of works of art using NFTs. Artist Sara Ludy, for example, recently ad that she preemptively negotiated a profit of 7% for each of her gallery employees, Bit Shapes, for any future sale of NFT. “I wanted to give an example of one of the many ways that funds could be redistributed with this new market,” Ludy wrote in an email.
“It’s the first time, at least I’ve seen it, that artists have taken over a market,” she says. “It’s a really great feeling.”
Like many artists planning to strike NFTs, Ludy is also concerned about the enormous environmental impact of cryptocurrency, of which Bitcoin is the worst offender. But NFTs, which operate mostly on the separate Ethereum network, are rapidly moving to a proof-of-stake model (as opposed to the current proof-of-work model) that will not only be more energy efficient, but also faster and cheaper – incentives that can encourage change.
The low entry bar (anyone can hit an NFT, in theory) and the underdog mentality offers an obvious parallel: street art. “I think of them as being similar in how they disrupt traditional categories of contemporary art collecting,” said Davis, of Christie’s.
Beeple, however, had his eyes on the numbers, noting that Christie’s auctioned 21 works by Banksy in September, the same number of works as its $ 3.5 million drop. “They alone,” he paused to put air quotes around the last word, “made $ 2.9 million,” he said, before laughing out loud.
The estimate of his own Christie’s auction? “Unknown.”