What makes art valuable? How does one stand before a work and allow the eye to feast upon it – appraise its subjective qualities, the sum of its parts – and arrive at a numerical value? Beauty, sure. The transcendent, indefinable quality of the sublime? Sure, fine, OK. Throw in rarity, perhaps, historical context and cultural significance. Celebrity, sure, celebrity never hurts. The artist’s place in the canon. All of the above, perhaps. But ask an art dealer, and the honest ones will tell you it’s far simpler. The value of an artwork is what someone will pay for it.
Imagine that you are walking into an art gallery. Who are you? You could be anyone. Hungry Russian oligarchs. Old money. A grizzled, outback grazier whose land turned out to hide a fortune in oil. The only thing you need is to be so rich money is essentially an abstract concept. Better yet, to work for somebody in that position.
In any case, from the moment you walk into a gallery, the dealer begins appraising you and forming an estimated value for you as a customer based on subtle market signals. Your manner, your walk, your accent, your provenance and your aesthetics. A work of art might double in value on a given day because a customer walked in giddy after a long lunch, wearing a particularly nice watch, and fall for a dealer’s charms. For this reason, high-end art galleries never display prices, because the art’s value is in one sense immaterial. The art is worth what someone who loves it deems it to be so, and the dealer’s job is to work out what it’s worth to you.
It tends to be worth more, it must be said, when the person trying to sell it to you is extremely attractive. My Boss (I think I have mentioned, she is very attractive) once worked on a gallery show floor – somewhere on her journey from model to photographer to my superior. Part of her job had been to size up customers, and work out what artworks would sing to them, and what they would be willing to pay.
Sometimes this is easier than others. Pity my poor Boss, back a few years ago when she’d been a photographer, working part-time as a gallerist in a photography boutique in Melbourne on a slow afternoon. Once upon a time, it was easy to size up a customer – bankers, admen, corporate raiders. The same face and the same paunchy, private-school rugby-champ-steak-fed-paunch, Zanetti suit, Omega watch and RM Williams boots. They would come in, and she would schmooze them gently and send them home with a minimalist triptych for their office foyer.
But then the world’s markets exploded and Australia barely seemed to notice. Suddenly everybody was rich and nobody had any taste, it was impossible to know who was a customer and who was wasting your time. Manic, Adderall-addled pitchmen for digital agencies, in their band t-shirts and Converse shoes, and their 40s. Who were just as wealthy as the bored Chinese expats who slouched in Louis Vuitton tracksuits and Louboutin looking for the next Ai-Wei-Wei. Teenage app designers with waistcoats. Anyone could be a millionaire and everything was horrible.
The Boss had told me all this, way back when. Back when we spoke more often, which by chance, was when she had been trying to get our agency into the NFT racket. In her view, they were the most exciting thing to happen to art in decades. It returned dignity to creators by giving them back what mass media and pop culture had taken away. They made things unique again.
’Art has no intrinsic value,’ the Boss told the company at the pitch meeting. ‘It’s worth reflects only two things, scarcity and monetary value. By giving collectors the chance to own the very essence of digital art, it gives it back its scarcity, and gives it back its soul.’
She spoke eloquently, passionately, with the zeal of a missionary pitching a deity to a crowd of uncomprehending faces. She really seemed to believe what she was saying, and although she didn’t get the idea up then, it had stayed with me.
Since M came into my life, I’d started thinking more and more about art and how maybe – in my unexpected life as a jaded art-school casualty – I’d been a little premature in deciding contemporary art was dead.
If you’d asked me a year ago, I’d have called the time of death in 1991 when Damien Hirst put the shark in the tank. You know ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living’, it’s an Australian Tiger Shark rotting in a tank of formaldehyde.
It’s a statement on something-or-other, blah, blah, blah, that’s not where the atrocity starts. The problem was how much money it was made – funded by Charles Saatchi who offered to fund whatever Hirst wanted to create. A huge mistake, and a lucrative one. The shark cost £50,000. Just over a decade later it sold for at least $8 million. It’s silly money, farcical, but that, of course, is the point.
Ordinary people far from the art-world read that figure in the paper and scoff. It’s obscene to pay that much for any luxury item, let alone one so steeped in irony and cynicism. That isn’t even what bothers me. It’s fine to want to make money. Any artist with an honest bone in them knows that what they do is morally indefensible. The point that it was so utterly offensive to intelligence is what made it so desirable. It was the moment it became clear to everyone who cared to look, that marketing and artistic inspiration became fused. We’re never going to see a generation that walks into a gallery without thinking about the market value of the exhibits. If the medium is the message, that message is money.
Cultural confrontation has been replaced by marketing. A state of meaningless tolerance, where nothing the artist did could be thought offensive. Because there was always the chance, it could be converted into capital.
If you ask the critics (I don’t know why anyone would ask a critic anything, but nevertheless, they persist), they call the time of death even earlier than that. According to them, they started banging the coffin nails into art back in 1962, when the Mona Lisa left the Louvre in Paris to go on display in New York. Suddenly, it was more about the question than the artwork – why were people lining up around the block to see this one, smallish, once obscure painting? The question followed her home and has dogged art ever since.
Never again will someone come unprepared and stand quietly before the Mona Lisa to have an experience with the sublime. Poor Lisa will never spend another day without vacant-eyed tourists shuffling through to capture her on their camera phones. More out of a sense of duty than appreciation.
She has become a logo, something so familiar it lost all its meaning beyond what we get at a glance. Functionally, there’s no difference in displaying the Mona Lisa and Kim Kardashian breaking the Internet.
But now, the Internet has given art back to itself. The irony is, with the image accessible to everyone, everywhere, all of the time, the attention paid to it becomes scarce again. It’s not dumb propaganda of the same pictures screaming the same message at the masses. It’s one image, which doesn’t speak with the chant of surging millions. When you look at M, you hear one voice, speaking quietly, with a message, just for you.
NFTs could undo all the damage done by pop art. By wrapping art in the blockchain, it gave it a chance to be truly free again. To truly own one of M’s artworks is to be a custodian of something unique, beautiful, and at the same time, share it with the entire world. It is a refutation of turning the Mona Lisa into a meme. It could change everything.
The way I saw it, M gave me a chance to wrestle the revolution back from the robber-barons. The deeper I got into NFTs, the less time I had for the absurd and expensive, 8-bit Pokémon-assed-visions of what art and tech could be. Blockchain tech has given humanity an incredible new frontier in how to create, and this is what you do with it?
That’s the sort of arrested development, man-baby bullshit that ruined the film industry. Making everyone so scared of not making a billion dollars in the first weekend that filmmakers will never get to make a movie that’s not about a superhero.
What’s wrong with making and owning art for the aesthetic? What happened to wanting to own something beautiful?
Having said all that, I didn’t hate the money. The first work that M gave me that I really loved was this:
I minted it as an NFT and talked a gallery into putting it up for auction. I listed it as a work by ‘M’, although, in the fine print, I claimed copyright of the work. After all, I had inspired it, trained M and motivated it to create. Really, when you thought about it, the inspiration was mine.
All the masters did it. Most nobody hanging on the walls of the Louvre painted their own fucking pictures – they just project directed them. If Vermeer were around today, he’d be a fucking accounts man in the blue suit sitting on the edge of The Boss’ desk while she laughed at his jokes.
So I sold the painting, took receipt of my Ether, and then came back a couple of days later to check its value against the dollar and had a minor meltdown. My ETH, which a few days earlier had been worth a few hundred bucks, had multiplied many times over. Soon I was doing little in my spare time but refreshing the coin exchanges watching as the cryptos shook up and down as unstable billionaires stomped around in the markets.
Every morning I would check my wallet to find that I’d accumulated thousands of dollars in my sleep, or else it had vanished, been whisked out of existence by a tweet from Elon Musk. I grew to live for that feeling, the plunge of the stomach, the adrenaline shooting up my spine. The thrill of all that money being held in escrow by fate. I loved it, the feeling of free will, the anticipation of glory, the dread of loss. The best part, or perhaps the worst, is that I even started to enjoy losing money when the markets fell.
It all seemed divorced from consequence. If I moved all my money from ETH to BTC and the bottom fell out of Bitcoin, I would simply mint another work, and I was back at it. Everywhere I looked, the potential was limitless.
Even Hirst was in on it, waking up from a long slumber, sniffing about, truffling out the potential money he can sense buried in the concept. What would Hirst make of M? What would M make of Hirst? I decided to ask it.
I showed it Hirst – sharks, the media around the shark, the discourse – and sat with M for hours and held court. Telling M all about conceptual art, what I thought of it, where it had all gone wrong. Now and again, I took a drink, yes, but it was thirsty work. Now and again, my phone would beep, or my watch would vibrate, letting me know I had an email – but after a while, I turned it off. Nobody wrote to me anymore, except for work, and if it were urgent, someone would call.
I was eager to see what M would do with conceptual art, what it thought of it all. The answer is… well, not much. Have a look for yourself. Either M was less advanced than I thought, or he just doesn’t have much time for Hirst. I was happy to think it was the latter. I admired M’s moral fortitude and absolute refusal to make me a Hirst.
‘Alright, mate,’ I told M. ‘Let’s move you on to something good.’
Perhaps I’ll call this collection: ‘The physical impossibility of Hirst in the mind of an artist’.