NFTs: What's Worth Obliterating?


NFTs, crypto, digital art, $69m and a buyer’s choice to destroy a historic work. We are talking about an online auction that became notable irrespective of the art, the artist, or even the value. This auction is notable because the highest bidder would walk away not only with a piece of physical art in digitised form, but also the option upon purchase to destroy its real-world counterpart. Hope you’re settling well into 2021, where every other day is absurd or obscene. In this case, it’s both.


First, a quick rundown of NFTs and why they’re important. Non-fungible tokens are data that uses blockchain to certify that a digital asset is unique. Essentially, the technology that makes Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies reliable is what makes NFTs possible. In its simplest terms, we are taking crypto-led tech and using it for authenticity purposes. So, rather than verifying via a ledger that person X paid Y to person Z, that technology is being used to verify a work as genuine. It is important to note that the NFT itself is not art that is being bought and sold; it is better likened to a certificate of authentication. Artist Beeple’s Everydays The First 5000 is almost certainly the most notable NFT yet because it netted a staggering $69 million, simply for the “ownership” of a digital work. Sidenote: I’m yet to be convinced that the winning bid here being the internet’s favourite number is mere coincidence, but we may only speculate.


At the other end of this confounding length of string is Jean-Michel Basquiat, a late 20th Century neo-expressionist artist whose work migrated from a graffiti-duo in America’s crucible – the mean and embattled streets of New York – to its mainstream art galleries. Ultimately, Basquiat’s face would hit the cover of The New York Times Magazine, and he’d also become one half of a bromance that Sothebys called, “. . . one of the most important relationships within the history of contemporary art,” reflecting on Basquiat befriending none other than Andy Warhol. Artist Keith Haring observed that though of entirely different generations and backgrounds, each was inspired to out-do the other. Observing them together, Haring noted that “[t]he collaborations were seemingly effortless. It was a physical conversation happening in paint instead of words. The sense of humour, the snide remarks, the profound realizations, the simple chit-chat all happened with paint and brushes.”

Image: Basquiat with Warhol, artnet.com

Other than his striking talent, what was most exceptional about Basquiat was that he was young, very young, when he rose to fame. He was 18 when he started overturning New York City’s graffiti applecart and 20 when his art began to be hung in galleries and under critics’ noses. Over just about two years for anyone, that is a meteoric rise. By the mid-1980s, Basquiat was earning more than a million dollars a year and walking around with paint on his expensive Armani suits, but in keeping with the tragedies we know so well with artists of that time, Basquiat had his demons, and in seeking solace, turned to drugs. At one time his cocaine use became so excessive that he blew a hole in his nasal septum, and things only got worse from there. In 1988, at only 27 years old, he overdosed on heroin and passed away at his home in the NoHo district of Manhattan.


So, that’s the artist, but what does his art have to do with NFTs? Or digital art at all, for that matter? It came to light recently (I learned about it from a lefty political Twitch streamer, of all places) that Basquiat’s Free Comb with Pagoda (1986) was up for bid on an online NFT marketplace called OpenSea. Explicit in the auction was that upon winning, the recipient would be given say about whether the physical work would be destroyed, ostensibly, as a means that the digital version (verified as unique by the Ethereum blockchain) is the only one to exist. That option meant that this auction was no longer of interest only to the NFT crowd or the broader artworld. It became a talking point for denizens of the internet at large about the implications of destroying physical history to promote the value of a work’s digitisation.

Image: Basquiat’s Free Comb, artnet.com


Interestingly, the group who put the work up for auction, Daystrom, said nothing about how the work would be destroyed: “At the winner’s discretion, the original artwork will be deconstructed, leaving the NFT as the only remaining form of Basquiat’s work to exist” (Yahoo). Even the use of the word, “deconstructed,” feels disingenuous here, but cynical as one may be, you can’t deny it’s clever marketing. This one addendum to the auction is the only reason we are here and talking about it now, and so from a publicity point of view, Daystrom have certainly garnered a far greater level of attention than they otherwise would have, and though there are plausible suggestions that this was a stunt (Gizmodo, Robb Report) the seller argued that: “Value has become increasingly fungible, diluted and unstable in our evolving metaverse and there’s a tremendous spike in user demand for exclusivity. NFT assets provide this exclusivity and create an entirely new online value system that was previously unimaginable.”


Art critic Paddy Johnson gave a stern response to Gizmodo: “What a load of bullshit . . . [It’s] a media stunt designed to sell a bad Basquiat drawing some collector couldn’t unload.” About as cynical a response as you can get, but no less convincing.


So, from the edge of your seat, the edge of your soul, I hear you ask, “Did someone buy the NFT and destroy the original?” The answer is no, but perhaps not for the reason you might suspect. Stunt or not, this perverse and morally questionable option to destroy the original would very quickly come to bite Daystrom in the ass. In fact, with the speed of the internet once again proving itself, The Art Newspaper published a follow-up the very day after their first article to report that the auction was no more. A licensing agent who deals with Basquiat’s archive stated: “The estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat owns the copyright in the artwork referenced. No license or rights were conveyed to the seller and the NFT has subsequently been removed from sale.” 


Was this more than a stunt, but an out-and-out scam? Considering that the Basquiat estate has denounced Daystrom, it’s not only possible, but highly likely. Still, this whole scenario, real or not, raises questions that we as consumers of art have never asked before, the most pertinent of which is: is it unsavoury to destroy art by embracing its marriage with technology? When something subjective and emotive clashes with the inherently cold and calculated, very often the life and energy is drained from work – qualities that make it special in the first place. The growth of NFTs is undeniably important for the digital art market – some starving artists of yesterday are making more money now than they ever believed their art would be worth – but as laudable as that is, in the realm of physical art, digital as an alternative is a threat.  As long as the “original” exists, the NFT will never be worth would what it could be if it were destroyed. This simple matter of economics creates a dichotomy that will not be limited to this single instance. Indulge this author’s limited trend-spotting ability, and I’ll make that a promise.



Image: Beeple’s Everydays—The First 5000, which sold as an NFT for $69m. via Christies


At a time when everyone is trying to work out what this tech really means in this space, there are those who intend on squeezing as much as they can out of all uncertainty and confusion before the dust settles. Settled dust or not, however, we know the most important question to come next: What do NFTs really mean for the future of the art world? The internet is swallowing this market as it has most others, to such an extent that the physical and “real” work is inherently competitive to a blockchain-backed counterpart. The existence of a work in the fullness of reality denies a digital work its complete potential value, and because of this, it will happen again. Should we be worried? Absolutely. This is the cannibalism not only of art, but a stripping of the legacies of artists too, and for what? For a quick buck.

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