Whitehot Magazine

On Damien Hirst's ‘The Currency’ Referendum

Damien Hirst, “The Currency,” 2016-2021, 7721. THAT LOW WIND BRINGS YOU SO MUCH STRESS. Detail. Enamel paint, handmade paper, watermark, microdot, hologram, pencil, 7 9/10 × 11 4/5 in (20 × 30 cm). Image: HENI.


Although crypto art is a relatively new phenomenon, the correlation between art and money has been a fashionable topic at least since the late 1930s when Clement Greenberg pointed out the avant-garde’s attachment to the market ‘by an umbilical cord of gold.’ Art and money are both systems of symbolic value, and their convergence seems a foregone conclusion in our age of the image. However, the union of art and money embodied by the NFTs is forced, and far from equal.  The NFT does not blend aesthetic value and financial value into a harmonious alliance; it devours the first form of value to feed the second.  Taken to its logical conclusion, an art market dominated by NFTs would be a predatory, Darwinian environment in which original works are hunted to physical destruction by their own financialized representations.

Perhaps that is what piqued the interest of the English artist Damien Hirst, whose work shows a long-standing fascination with predators and predation. Hirst came onto the scene as one of the YBAs in the early 90s, shocking the public with a sculpture of a shark preserved in formaldehyde. His latest and most ambitious project: 'The Currency' is a conceptual, participatory artwork that functions as a controlled experiment about choices, the foremost of which is between the aura of a physical work and the semiotic gravitas of a blockchain representation. This past July, he has offered 10,000 unique NFTs for sale at $2,000 each. Each NFT corresponds to a unique painting on handmade paper, numbered, titled, and signed. The buyers will have until 3pm BST on July 27, 2022 to decide whether they want to keep the NFT or exchange it for the material painting. If they choose the original, the NFT is erased. If they choose the NFT, the painting will be publicly destroyed by the Damien Hirst Studio, following a farewell showing of the doomed works.

Damien Hirst, Instagram, July 22, 2021.

Hirst insists that ‘The Currency’ is a democratic (albeit within an arbitrarily circumscribed demos) and open experiment to test the persistent notion that money and art are interchangeable. This notion has been on the artist’s mind at least since the start of his career. Now he is investigating it, enabled by new technology whose disruptive potential in the art ecosystem recalls Dada’s challenge to the physical conception of art a century earlier. But the new paradigm shift takes place in a new environment, against the background of a fully consumer-oriented society, in which consumerism has been firmly incorporated into art by Andy Warhol, who provided his collectors with their preferred colors in Marilyn Monroe silkscreens, and their preferred flavors of Campbell soup. 

With brilliant simplicity ‘The Currency’ condenses a hundred and fifty years of art historical arguments over whether art should be ‘messy’ or ‘clean,’ as well as the relationship between art and money, the roles of ownership and collecting, and many other weighty issues into a single referendum—an art-world version of Brexit. The choice will not be made on aesthetic grounds alone.  Considerable monetary motivation is involved, since the NFT is likely to acquire value more rapidly than the original, and so the project will also test whether people value art more than money. Hirst’s experiment should help to determine if a realm of aesthetic experience can be separated from financial value, or whether art and money are at last identical.

Are they? Hirst seems to hint that they are.  Each physical painting is carefully protected from counterfeiting, not only by being numbered and titled, but also stamped with a bespoke watermark logo, a microdot, and a hologram, just like paper money.  A video of a dialogue between Hirst and Mark Carney, former Governor of the Bank of England, reveals a surprising degree of agreement between the artist and the economist as to the close relation between their respective spheres.  Hirst and Carney concur that money is magic, and that financial value is produced by ‘alchemy.’ They both think of money as an autonomous, self-reproducing sign.  

Damien Hirst, Instagram, July 16, 2021.

Carney cites Karl Marx as saying that money ‘represents infinite wants,’ which is exactly what one would expect Carney himself to believe: value is produced by desire.  But Marx actually said that money represents labor-power.  Like Carney, Hirst seems to miss this point, which is strange given that he also quotes the late anthropologist David Graeber.  Graeber explored the concept of ‘labor-power’ in depth, showing that it means ‘the human capacity for action,’ or human subjective activity considered in the abstract.  The ethical problem with money’s independent power lies in the fact that it is an objectified representation of human life itself.

This ethical critique is absent from Hirst’s project.  He lacks a labor theory of value in either economics or aesthetics.  He complained to Stephen Fry that prospective buyers often question him about the value of the materials in his diamond-encrusted skull (‘For the Love of God’, 2007), whereas they would never raise the same question regarding the Mona Lisa.  Hirst is oblivious to the idea that a work’s value might derive from the quality (or indeed the quantity) of artistic labor involved in its production.  And like Carney, he accepts the neoclassical theory that financial value is derived from market forces, and that it represents alienated subjective experiences like ‘confidence’ and ‘trust.’

The theory of value espoused in ‘The Currency’ contrasts sharply with the one expressed in Marcel Duchamp’s ‘assisted readymade’ sculptures. These early works consisted of a manufactured component customized by the artist. The 1914 Bicycle Wheel was a kitchen stool with an overturned bicycle wheel attached to it, thus raising the question of exactly whose labor went into the work. Hirst’s project is an ‘assisted readymade’ in reverse.  Its departure point is analogue, but it is actualized via technology: the hand-made paintings have been digitized and analyzed, to provide the potential collectors with high resolution image files and information to place individual works within the series. The irony of ‘The Currency’ is that the physical artwork is threatened by its own NFT—a technology—while its only path to self-preservation also runs through technology. The poison is also the antidote.

While ‘The Currency’ is ostensibly based on free choice, the collectors are limited by the manner of distribution imposed on them by the artist. The work can only be acquired via an application process open for a period of one week. This system was set up to avoid hoarding, and to preserve the authenticity of the referendum by maximizing the number of ‘voters.’ The alternative ‘first come, first served’ model would have favored the most interested buyers, those poised to apply as soon as the subscription was released. This method of ‘allocation’ is closer to an equitable distribution.  Each successful applicant is allotted a specific, but randomly chosen work or works. But that is where the randomness ends. 

Once revealed to the lucky applicants (demand exceeded supply six-fold), the artworks are allowed to establish their uniqueness. As they receive their high-resolution image, the collectors learn the title of the work. These are AI generated from Hirst’s favorite song lyrics. The title and a set of other unique characteristics including overlaps, drips, texture, density, and weight determine the placement of the work in the series. Each of these categories is ranked by a machine learning algorithm and contextualized within the entire body of work. Similar analysis is made of each piece’s color palette, title, and even the title’s word count (they range between one and eleven words). The collector can see the number and title penciled in on the recto, along with Hirst’s signature, the watermark, the hologram, and the dot.  The recto also reveals the degree of bleed, which is not consistent across colors. At this point, the fact the works are not an edition of an image that repeats 10,000 times, but rather a series of unique small-format (20cm x 30cm) paintings becomes impossible to ignore. 

Each of the 10,000 works is available for examination online, and collectors are encouraged to ‘compare the rarities in [the] gallery.’ This suggestion to look closely at individual works, and to contextualize them in relation to each other, is a foray into the art historical concept of the ‘series,’ perhaps best known from the work of Monet. Monet’s paintings of his favored motifs—haystacks, Rouen Cathedral, poplar alleys—have a twofold function. They are autonomous, self-contained images, but they are also fragments of the artist’s extended perception of the same motif.

Damien Hirst, “The Currency,” HENI, gallery. Image: HENI.

By urging the viewers to ‘compare rarities in the gallery,’ Hirst revisits the tradition of the ‘series,’ whereby each work is constructed by its context within the whole. He essentially tricks the collectors into very close looking, requiring minute examination of digitized paintings. The technical ability to zoom in to a degree far exceeding he capacity of the naked (or bespectacled) eye takes focus to levels unavailable to connoisseurs of Claude Monet’s work—even those few who were lucky enough to see the entire series at his dealer’s gallery before the individual paintings were sold off and forever separated. And because it is digitized, and 'The Currency' will remain an intact series in perpetuity, regardless of the fate of the individual works.

As Hirst explains in his July 16th interview with Cointelegraph, some initial ambiguity over the uniqueness of individual works was baked into the project from the outset.  The aim was to level the playing field for art and money, by removing the “X” factor of the aura.  But as soon as the originality of the paintings is established both visually (through zooming in), and statistically (through the information generated by the machine learning algorithm), the objects assert themselves as unique. An alchemical reaction has taken place, and it cannot be reversed. 

At this point, the collectors encounter their first true choice: to bond or not to bond with that specific artwork, still only visible to them on the backlit screen, but with the pending promise of an actual, physical encounter. That is, if they ‘swipe right’ and choose the actual painting. What will determine that choice?  Sentiment or Luddism will doubtless encourage some collectors to go for the physical paintings. Conversely, those who see no difference between paintings and their encryptions in the blockchain will probably elect to keep their NFTs, and the corresponding paintings will be destroyed. With gleeful perversity, Hirst plans to exhibit the paintings that were not ‘traded’ for their NFTs before they are destroyed, giving the owners a last chance to commune with them, and time for the implications of their destruction to sink in—rather like those seafood restaurants that let customers select their dinner from a tank of live fish.  

What makes the project especially intriguing, is that while Hirst’s experiment tackles such hefty moral issues as trust and greed, the vote is not a straightforward ethical choice—it is as much about aesthetics.  In the discussions of Western art over the past hundred and fifty years tastes have been divided between those who prefer ‘messy’ art that incorporates chance, painterly gesture and the subconscious, and supporters of ‘clean’ art that is restricted and refined to effect minimalistic visual outcomes.  Such movements as Impressionism, Fauvism, Abstract Expressionism, Painterly Abstraction and Art Informel favored the ‘messy’ school, while Geometric Abstraction, Minimalism, Op-Art and Hard-Edge Abstraction tended towards the ‘clean.’ 

Damien Hirst, “The Currency,” Above: Overlaps. Below: Density. Image: HENI.

One of the benefits of ‘The Currency’ project will be a vote on this issue.  Although they may look similar at first glance, upon AI examination aided by high resolution optics each of Hirst’s 10,000 dot paintings falls somewhere along the historical spectrum of messy-to-clean. And it is the personal preference of the collector regarding such factors as the density of the marks, their overlap, the texture of the paint, its bleed through hand-made paper, the presence or absence of drips, that determine whether a given painting can save itself from destruction by producing a taste-based emotional attachment in the collector.   

We are now in the second phase of the project—the redemption—when the owners of NFT tenders can exchange them for physical art. Once the painting is collected (in person, or via a shipping courier), its NFT is destroyed. This process cannot be reversed. We will not know how the experiment ends until late July 2022, but by looking at the exchange and sales information three and a half months after the allocation, we can see that the vast range of secondary market prices (anywhere between $3,700 and $175,371) is driven by the unique characteristics of the works as they were digitally conveyed to the collectors. The discrepancy in resale price betrays individual collectors’ preferences for clean or messy, more-or-less marked edges, long or short titles, and even for certain words.  Therefore, although this project is made possible by new technology, its fate will be determined by the irreducibly, inimitably human factor of taste making ‘The Currency’ referendum only the latest iteration of an old dispute. WM


Julia Friedman and David Hawkes

Julia Friedman is a Russian-born art historian, writer and curator. After receiving her Ph.D. in Art History from Brown University in 2005, she has researched and taught in the US, UK and Japan. Her work appeared in Artforum, The New Criterion, Quillette and Atheneum Review. www.juliafriedman.org

David Hawkes is Professor of English Literature at Arizona State University. His work has appeared in The Nation, the Times Literary Supplement, The New Criterion, In These Times and numerous scholarly journals. He is the author of seven books, most recently The Reign of Anti-logos: Performance in Postmodernity (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).


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