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The $70 Million JPEG

The $70 Million JPEG

Crypto art has the gallery world in a spin.

Carolyn Stewart

There’s a certain phrase that is guaranteed to make an arts professional shake her head: My five-year old could do that. The art-world insider, upon hearing this, will think to herself, Pity the philistine. The guilty party, perhaps an uncle from flyover country, just doesn’t have the intellectual sensitivity to understand the art’s message.

Such condescension makes the events of March 10—when the sale of an artwork by computer illustrator Mike Winkelmann turned the art world’s sensibilities on its head—all the more interesting. When the hammer came down at Christie’s, the outcry from the art world was fast, furious, and nearly unanimous: But that’s not art!

Everydays: The First 5000 Days is a digital canvas of five thousand illustrations produced by Winkelmann over a thirteen-year period. It sold for $69.3 million, an act that automatically converted the art world into the scolds they normally deride. “Vulgar internet kitsch,” exclaimed The New Yorker. “Puerile amusements,” said a New York Times critic. A “soporific cliché,” noted the Washington Post writer. Over at Artnet, a critic warned that the work will have “the shelf life of Taco Bell leftovers.”

Those outside the professional art scene might revel in the delicious irony of the reaction. The art world has spent the last century proclaiming its open-mindedness and expansive sensibilities toward the definition of art. Marcel Duchamp’s urinal, or rather, Fountain, elevated plumbing to gallery status in 1917. Piero Manzoni packaged his own excrement in 1961, producing ninety cans in a work entitled Merda d’artista. The Tate is proud to have #4 in its collection.

Yet with the sale of Everydays and the burgeoning field of cryptocurrency-fueled art, the art world quickly dusted off its 19th-century sensibilities and retreated to a corner mostly occupied by today’s classicists. Questions of taste, beauty, decency, and morality not only returned, but became critical points demanding our full attention. The heroic gains of Signor Manzoni and his ninety cans of merda d’artista all but evaporated.

Many of us applaud an injection of sensibility into contemporary art, but unfortunately criticisms from this quarter are undermined by the state of the art world itself. It’s fine to hold the world to certain values, if one also lives by those values herself. When it comes to digital art, the art-world establishment finds itself standing in a glass gallery, stone in hand. It’ll have to shatter its own cherished conceits before it takes on anyone else’s.

The Artist Type

The reasons why the art world responded so critically and definitively to Everydays are varied, but they largely come down to Winkelmann’s status as a true art-world outsider and the medium of his artwork (which is not, to quote the Tate’s wall text for Manzoni, “Tin can, printed paper, and excrement”).

Everydays is a digital work of art backed by a “nonfungible token,” or NFT—that is, a blockchain-fortified certificate of authenticity. While the NFT technically exists alongside the digital artwork, people commonly use the term “NFT” to refer to both the artwork and authentication. Mystical elk, an eyeball clad in a spacesuit, and a field of giant gorillas are just a few of the visual tableaus stitched together into the Everydays NFT. Winkelmann, also known by his nom d’artiste, Beeple, is a digital illustrator based out of South Carolina. Press photos show him in a modest sweater-shirt combo, with horned rim glasses and a wide smile. He’s the type you’re more likely to see picking up tomato plants at a Home Depot than partying in a Brooklyn warehouse.

Since the art market takes Winkelmann seriously, the art establishment has to, as well. Despite a culture that leans anti-capitalist, the contemporary art world still looks to market value as a determinant of creative worth. Everydays’ $69.3 million sale price was the third-highest amount earned at auction for a living artist and the highest sale ever for a millennial artist. To explain away the record-breaking bid, many in the art world accused the winning bidder of orchestrating a PR stunt with the sale. Others sniffed that the price was inflated by the “new money” of speculative wealth earned by cryptocurrency investors, pointing to the fact that the winning bidder paid the auction house in ether crypto.

Christie’s may be the highest-profile seller of an NFT at the moment, but most sales of crypto art take place through online marketplaces like Nifty Gateway, Foundation, and Rarible. These marketplaces facilitate purchases, but they also allow artists to “mint” a digital item—be it artwork or a gif—by pairing it with an NFT, which acts as a ledger of ownership stored across blockchains. This blockchain storage inextricably links NFTs to cryptocurrency.

The advantage of NFTs for artists is that they receive royalties when their artwork is sold for a third, fourth, or fifth time. This solves a long-running dilemma faced by artists working in the physical realm. They might sell their canvas for $20,000, only to see it sell decades later for millions at auction, with none of the artwork’s appreciated value reaching them.

Cryptocurrency might not be as green as good ol’ American fiat. But to imply that some people’s wealth is better or worse than others, and that the art world has a good track record of only accepting good wealth, is one of the fragile glass-gallery conceits. Bid-rigging has plagued art and antique auctions for decades. Bidders may collude to drive up the price of a particular artwork at auction, which has the secondary effect of increasing the value of the artist’s other artworks in private collections.

Claims that Everydays and other NFT art sales are driven by buyers looking to invest is akin to accusing someone of purchasing a bike so that they can ride it. The entire art market is based on the art-as-financial-investment model, to the extent that the art market multiplied by a factor of twenty-one during the early aughts financial bubble, reaching $67.4 billion globally.

Undoubtedly, cryptocurrency’s ability to store and amplify ill-gotten fortunes is a serious issue. But critics of NFT art concerned with the morality of unregulated wealth might also want to explore the last decade of sales by heritage auction houses that have placed branded outposts near authoritarian nations. The growing bevy of billionaire collectors from these nations gained their wealth, in part, by their participation in regimes that violate human rights, financial law, and the global norms of liberal democracy.

Taste Test

Beyond the issue of establishment wealth, there is the issue of art-world taste. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu provides insight as to why the success of outsider work like Everydays unnerves. Bourdieu polled thousands of his countrymen on the music they listen to, the art they enjoy, the magazines they read, and hobbies they pursue.

“Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier,” Bourdieu notes in his 1979 book, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. We look to institutions of cultural authority to shape our tastes, and then express those tastes as a way to express our affiliation with the institutions. Taste isn’t so much a matter of “good” or “bad” as a way to enrich our social status and distinguish ourselves from others.

The NFT ecosystem exists beyond the gatekeepers of the traditional art world, as hermetically sealed off from their influence as the spacesuit-wearing eyeball in Everydays. Even the NFT artists earning the top sales in the new medium reflect a community of art-world outsiders. Out of the top ten highest-earning NFTs that have been sold, one was by Fewocious, an eighteen-year old artist from Las Vegas; one by Jose Delbo, an eighty-seven year old comic book artist; and another by Steve Aoki, a globally known DJ and music producer.

These artists are digital professionals living at the fringes of the art world, producing art without any thought to the “gallerinas” with their degrees in art history and formalist theory huddled in Chelsea. The new patrons are monied tech geeks, flush with cryptocurrency wealth, purchasing their artwork without the help of art fairs in Basel, London, or Miami or the controlling gallery owners. Christie’s found that 91 percent of the bidders on Everydays were new to the auction house.

The images included in Everydays and other examples of crypto art are not encoded with the subjects and aesthetics that reflect establishment taste. Winkelmann is more likely to draw from the visual language of TikTok memes than art history. Cultural references include Bart Simpson, Etherium, Nintendo, and a towering bottle of Ocean Spray cranberry juice as an homage to the viral video that introduced Gen Z to Fleetwood Mac.

For a taste of the establishment’s prevailing sensibilities, we can look to the Frieze Art Fair in New York. Among the highest-earning sales from the 2020 virtual art fair were studies of classical French baroque paintings, abstract portraits of female genitalia, and wall-spanning canvases scrawled with red and black paint.

That last one, Oscar Murillo’s manifestation, was sold by David Zwirner gallery for $450,000. In what a linguist might deem “high-art English,” the gallery’s press release describes the work as an examination of the “ways in which ideas, languages, and even everyday items are displaced, circulated, and increasingly intermingled.”

Not to be out-nuanced, Winkelmann’s website features something akin to an artist’s statement: “he makes a variety of art crap across a variety of media.… a lot of it kind of blows ass. he’s working on making it suck less everyday though so bear with him :)” While many galleries manage the public images of their artists with kid gloves, Winkelmann speaks the crude, untroubled language of 4chan and Reddit.

There is one more glass gallery conceit to shatter. New York Times art critic Jason Farago echoed the perspective of many critics when he wrote that “what distinguishes Beeple’s digital imagery from other ‘non-establishment’ art is the violent erasure of human values inherent in the pictures.” Yet it’s hard to imagine that Everydays comes with the collateral damage of celebrated but problematic works currently hung in museums, like Paul Gauguin’s Manaò tupapaú (Spirit of the Dead Watching), which features his nude thirteen-year old “bride” as his model.

Criticizing Winkelmann in this way is to presuppose that other artists—and the art establishment in general—exist on a higher plane of morality. Yet the “erasure of human values” has long been a feature of the art world as well. The unregulated nature of gallery employment, a culture that celebrates hedonic excess, and an anything-for-the-sale attitude is a recipe for predatory behavior, with young art-world staff at the bottom of the food chain.

“We are not surprised when gallerists romanticize, minimize, and hide sexually abusive behavior by artists they represent. We are not surprised when a meeting with a collector or a potential patron becomes a sexual proposition,” notes an open letter that was undersigned by nearly two thousand art-world professionals. The trade press offers a daily cadence of #MeToo stories, while Instagram accounts like @CancelArtGalleries chronicle an environment that systematizes the “violent erasure of human values.”

Duchamp’s ceramic urinal shocked gallery-goers out of their conventional presumptions. A century later, the wild, acid-toned, tactile works bubbling out of the art world’s crypto fringe provide that same opportunity for those willing to take it. Near the surface of nearly all NFT art critiques are the prevailing conceits and violations that the art world excuses in its own. Art-world skeptics of crypto wealth and monetized memes who have a few spare rocks to throw might use their new moral criteria to target their profession’s own issues with illicit wealth, abusive work environments, and artwork even a five-year old could have done.

Carolyn Stewart, a contributing editor of American Purpose, is the director of publications at a Washington think tank.