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Decentralizing Art

The Art of the Blockchain

Wassily Kandinsky – Composition 8
Vassily Kandinsky – Composition 8

Nowhere does value seem more opaque and incomprehensible than in the worlds of art and crypto. Explaining what it means to mine bitcoin to the uninitiated is a task right up there with understanding how a three-foot stainless steel rabbit sculpture could be worth $91,000,000. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that these worlds have increasingly intersected. Entire galleries have put their collections up for sale in cryptocurrency and last year one third of a Warhol was auctioned off via an Ethereum smart contract to more than 30 people.


While crypto may serve to bring more people and more forms of capital into the art world, its underlying technology may have a more substantial impact on it than any given coin, even helping to solve the riddle of provenance. Last year, Christie’s became the first major auction house to enlist blockchain technology to store an encrypted record of every artist, sale, and exhibition detail of a major collection. These records, created by Artory, open up provenance information, usually held institutionally and not very transparently, to secure distribution. It won’t help tell a real Rembrandt from a fake, but it could prevent fraudulent sales and settle debates about newer works’ authenticity.


Ultimately, the art world is also interested in putting the blockchain to use to grow the market, even if through a different kind of transaction. The Warhol Ethereum sale, for example, was managed by Maecenas, a platform where collectors can sell shares of up to 49% of a work via a blockchain network. Much like the high-minded idealism of other crypto and blockchain startups, its founder wants to “disrupt the fine art industry” and allow “small investors” to buy (a share of) expensive artwork. The works are held in “purpose-built art storage facilities” so you can’t hang them – but you could still tell your friends you own a few brushstrokes of a masterpiece.


Artists, particularly digital artists, are increasingly turning to crypto and blockchain as well – to sell their works on platforms like Portion, but also as themes in and of themselves. Some pieces are just downright fanboy-ish, basically fashionably emblazoned bitcoin logos, pieces made to proselytize. Others raise questions about value and the culture of consumption around bitcoin, like the Warhol-inspired 200 Bitcoins, which had a tongue-in-cheek price tag of 199 bitcoin and sold for an undisclosed amount. (Warhol’s 200 One Dollar Bills sold for over $43M in 2009.)


And in the spirit of democratization embraced by many crypto fans, crypto-themed art has also taken to the streets. Among the most well known is Pascal Boyart’s Paris mural, depicting scenes of Gilets Jaunes protests, in which he’d hidden the address to a quarter of a bitcoin he’d received from a patron. (The solution was so complex you have to wonder if it wasn’t an inside job – but that’s the art world!)


Satoshi’s Place leverages the peer-to-peer network of Bitcoin to create an ever-changing participatory work, a digital canvas that can be painted by the pixel, each for a satoshi (the smallest piece of a bitcoin, ฿.00000001). Take a look at what it’s doing today, but be warned: since it’s the Internet and anyone can draw on it, it’s not exactly what passes for high art – and it’s probably NSFW. Openness does not always engender savoriness. This makes it a decent sociological reflection of the broader crypto community which, despite its forerunners’ rhetoric of democracy and freedom of exchange, has a persistent reputation for tax evasion and conspicuous consumption – its true art that of the scam.

Among the most popular – and, following the logic of the art world, pricey – works of crypto art is one you cannot see. Kevin Abosch, portraitist to the rich and famous whose photograph of a potato sold for over a million dollars, turned a picture of a rose into an Ethereum token and sold it – the token, not the picture – to 10 buyers for $100,000 apiece. Abosch says the Forever Rose is not just a symbol, not just a means to popularize blockchain technology, but “is proof of love.” One has to wonder, though, especially in the context of Abosch’s recent collaboration with Ai Weiwei that seeks to interrogate the ways we assign value, if the whole thing isn’t actually just further proof of the art and crypto worlds’ materialism (even when there’s no material involved). Dressed up in the finest conceptual silks and sold to the highest bidder, his “virtual work of art” reminds the rest of us that the emperor has no clothes.