By JULIA FRIEDMAN and DAVID HAWKES, November 2022
In culture, confidence is the currency of value… Attention is what creates value. Artworks are made as well by how people interact with them — and therefore by what quality of interaction they can inspire.—Brian Eno
July 27, 2022 was the much publicized deadline of Damien Hirst’s ongoing NFT project. The “holders” of The Currency were forced to finalize their choice between blockchain inscriptions and physical paintings, thus condemning the unwanted tokens, or “tenders,” to be burned—metaphorically in the case of the NFTs, and literally in the case of the paintings. A mere three days later a Miami-based businessman, Martin Mobarak, hosted a poolside party, during which he publicly incinerated an original Frida Kahlo drawing in an oversized martini glass filled with blue alcohol and fake ice, while a live mariachi band provided a jolly soundtrack.
Party guests whooped in delight as the drawing went up in flames, while a projection in the background represented the painting’s disembodied spirit floating off into the metaverse like a butterfly freed from its chrysalis. The drawing’s title Fantasmones Siniestros (Sinister Ghosts) attained an ironic valence, as its physical existence went up in smoke, to be replaced by a purely figurative afterlife. The ethereal transcendence on the screen made it seem that the drawing had died and gone to heaven. This was a cause for celebration: the conversion of the physical artwork into 10,000 disembodied NFTs was an elevation to a higher plane. Yet there was something profoundly unsettling about this adoration of the golden calf. As Mobarak’s rowdy audience rejoiced at the destruction of Kahlo’s art, the spotlights glittered on the iconic image of her face, gazing sternly out in sequins from the back of the businessman’s dinner jacket.
It’s been clear for a while now that NFTs exist in a contradictory and hostile relationship to the original artworks that they represent. A century ago, Walter Benjamin identified mechanical reproduction as a threat to the “aura” that inhabited the original, authentic artwork. Mechanical reproduction diminished the aura’s effect by making its image infinitely replicable. The emergence of NFTs escalated hostilities, and the antagonism has now broken out into open warfare. In March 2021, a company called Injective Protocol bought a Banksy print for $95,000, sold its NFT for $380,000, and publicly burned the original on YouTube. The next month, a firm known as Daystrom attempted to auction off an NFT of a drawing by Jean-Michel Basquiat on the understanding that the purchaser would have the right to “deconstruct” the original. The public’s reaction was predictable. Headlines included “NFT: No Fucking Thanks” and “Sickos.” The BBC’s language was more restrained, but its objections were just as forceful: “Banksy Art Burned, Destroyed and Sold as Token in ‘Money-making Stunt.’”
Hirst’s intervention in this conflict was widely seen as a game-changer. Here was an artist presenting the destruction of his own art as part of the work itself. The artworld was familiar, even comfortable, with this concept. It had been pioneered by twentieth-century luminaries from Yves Klein to Pete Townshend, and the audience was confident that Hirst’s status as a legitimate artist proved that his auto da fe represented a profound statement of some kind. No-one cherishes such illusions about Martin Mobarak. In his YouTube video of the party, he gurns around a kitschy Miami mansion, his jacket glinting in the dark, like a medieval allegory of Avarice.
Naturally his first statement is a strenuous denial of avarice. In terms that strike an audible chord with the “effective altruism” advocated by FTX fraudster Sam Bankman-Fried, we are assured that the incineration of Kahlo’s work is a “profound act… done for unfortunate children, battered women, and other less fortunate around the world to receive hope.” The shimmering entrepreneur presents as a benign deity: not only is Frida herself now “immortalized in NFT form,” he informs his audience, the destruction of her art “will solve some of the world’s biggest problems.”
Mobarak could not have been more provocative if he’d been trying. As he ignites Kahlo’s drawing, Mobarak literally wears her face on his back, as if to claim her imprimatur for what is transpiring. Outraged artworld commentators rushed to heap scorn on his pretensions. Artnet’s Ben Davis mocked the promotional video’s title, “Frida Kahlo: Life of an Icon,” noting that “[t]he event has literally nothing to do with Frida’s life.” But such criticism misses the point. It’s true that Mobarak’s pool party had nothing to do with the life of Kahlo. What it did have to do with, however, is the life of an icon. By destroying the original artwork, the source of the Benjaminian aura, Mobarak’s iconoclasm reallocates its value. His calculation is that the NFTs that now represent the drawing (which he values at $10 million) will take on its financial value as a direct result of the original’s destruction. This illustrates why the owners of NFTs have a strong financial incentive to physically assault the artworks their NFTs represent.
An NFT stands simultaneously for two kinds of abstraction: financial value and the aesthetic aura. In the form of the NFT, we might say, financial value conquers the aura and assimilates it into itself. The fact that both of these abstractions can be incarnated in the same symbol at the same time shows that they have become functionally identical. And if identical, then interchangeable. If art is money, then money is art. Mobarak’s description of himself as an “art alchemist who turns physical art into digital gold” is precisely accurate—not to say suspiciously reminiscent of Hirst’s July 2021 statement to Cointelegraph: “Alchemy. That’s what art really is.” But Hirst’s project has been received as a serious artistic proposition, while Mobarak’s has been dismissed as a vulgar publicity stunt. It is partly a matter of style: Mobarak’s inept and hungry self-promotion lacks the elegiac tone of The Currency, or even BurntBanksy. It is not just the optics that the businessman gets wrong. As his video emphatically demonstrates, Mobarak regards the collapse of aesthetic into financial value as a cause for celebration. Hirst is at least (at most) ambivalent about it. The Currency is basically a research project, designed to test the relative value people attribute to art and money. Mobarak’s spectacular act is designed to exploit the contradiction between them.
It is therefore ironic that the most obvious difference between the two projects is their financial outcome. Mobarak’s 10,000 NFTs were priced at $4000 a piece, exactly double the initial offering for The Currency. But unlike The Currency, Frida.nft. did not achieve anything approaching adequate sales. The New York Times reported that only four NFTs have been sold, rendering a meager profit of $11,200—probably enough to cover the sequined jacket. In striking contrast, The Currency had accrued $90,327,733 in total sales as of November 20. Another difference is that Hirst destroyed his own work while, not being an artist, Mobarak’s only option was to destroy someone else’s. He chose unwisely: the works of Frida Kahlo are officially classified as national treasures by the Mexican state, which is currently considering a criminal prosecution of the hapless businessman.
But ultimately the reason Mobarak’s NFT project flopped so spectacularly is that he acted as if it was a solo project with an audience, rather than a community project with a leader. Mobarak only paid lip service to the concept of community. In the video, despite his protestations of altruism, the businessman is ostentatiously constructed as the star of the evening, and the event is replete with the tackiest signifiers of cheap glamour: a poolside swimsuit show, multi-colored spotlights, a themed catered reception. The condemned Kahlo drawing is marched out to execution by a heavily armed, uniformed security guard sporting a tactical vest, as if to thwart any last-minute rescue attempts by desperate art-lovers. The camera creates the impression of a VIP room, an inner sanctum about to witness an occult, sacrificial rite. The event has all the spiritual appeal of a Vegas floor show. A parade of surgically enhanced blondes is followed by a fire-twirling limbo dancer, an exhibition of handbags, a mariachi band. Nothing has anything to do with art, except its destruction.
The contrast with Hirst’s carefully choreographed incineration of the unclaimed paintings could not have been greater. Hirst knows how to perform art properly. Distinguished by his silver overalls from a group of orange-clad assistants, he moved about the gallery, picking up the condemned drawings from a stack, holding them up to the camera, calling out their titles, and then placing them on a wooden pyre to disintegrate into ashes. Two hundred guests were led up into the room, in small groups, for a close-up glimpse, affording them a chance to make their own personal video and share it live on social media. The press were cordoned off on the other end of the gallery. This was a somber event, and it was dominated by the audience, not by the artist-star.
The disparity between Hirst’s inclusive accessibility and Mobarak’s exclusive pomposity reflects more than the cultural chasm separating South Beach from South London. It expresses Hirst’s understanding of the constitutive role played by the community in creating The Currency. Frida.nft was Mobarak’s alone. His Life of Brian version of an NFT project is excruciatingly outdated in its aim to laud the “creator,” using a “curated list of attendees” to elevate the main actor. In exchange for their support, the potential buyers of Frida.nft are promised giveaways that “may include real world items, digital items, and exclusive experiences” as well as access to the “historic ‘phygital’ event” to be held during Basel Miami, yet to all but the terminally naïve these promises emit a strong scent of future faking.
Hirst emphasized that most of The Currency’s value accrued from the community of collectors, which he has made sure to foster and support at every stage of the project. Membership in the community was selective—the application lottery was oversubscribed sixfold—which increased demand through scarcity. Community members interact on the lively Discord message boards that count over 20,000 members (compared to 33 on Mobarak’s inactive Frida.nft Discord), they are invited to personally watch Hirst burn their paintings, to participate in lotteries, win studio visits complete with free paintings, enjoy the open bar at the Newport Street Gallery holders’ party—in short, they are encouraged to identify as a collective whose main purpose is the celebration and advocacy of the project that unites them. And of course, it was the members of the community, not the artist, who decided the fate of the art. The vote last July was effectively a referendum on digital vs. physical art. To an extent unprecedented—and impossible—in the traditional art market, the consumers of The Currency are also its creators.
In the world of NFTs, the “community” is not an optional extra or a token concept, but the necessary condition for a successful project. As the Financial Times put it: “the main currency of NFTs is attention.” A successful NFT project involves a tightly-knit group that feels invested in the project in more than a financial sense. And as Brian Eno aptly remarked decades ago: “In culture, confidence is the currency of value… Attention is what creates value. Artworks are made as well by how people interact with them — and therefore by what quality of interaction they can inspire.”
Crucially, participants in The Currency brought to the project a pre-existing faith in Damien Hirst qua artist. For Hirst, who has been wielding solo power since the early 1990s, the thrill was in letting go of the old paradigm of the omnipotent auteur. Having the right to decide whether to keep their NFTs or exchange them for the corresponding painting empowered the collectors, giving them agency to legally destroy important works of art. Hirst himself did not know in advance how the referendum would go. He vacillated right up until the deadline, veering between certainty that preference would be given to the paintings, and conviction that the blockchain inscriptions would prove more popular. The result, the value, the meaning of the project was determined by the collectors—not by the artist.
It has been fifty years since literary scholars like Roland Barthes and Stanley Fish heralded the “death of the author.” They argued that significance was not implanted in a literary text by its creator, but was rather produced by its readers, who formed what Fish called “interpretative communities” licensed to ascribe meaning to the work. The Currency translates such theories into practice. The buyers were never treated as a passive audience, but as full-fledged participants in the project. Their exchanges on the project’s Discord channel have been published as a book: Damien Hirst’s The Currency: Chronicles Vol.1 The publisher’s website emphasizes the importance of the participating collectors: “This vibrant community composed of thousands of members world-wide have shared their thoughts on and experience of the project. …‘The Chronicles’ is a diverse record of the impact The Currency had on the lives of this community and the friendships and bonds it has created.” The second volume of Chronicles, which will include more recent material from Discord and documentation from the Newport Street gallery exhibition, is on the way.
Would it be a stretch to call The Currency “community art”? According to the Tate Gallery website, “community art is artistic activity that is based in a community setting, characterised by interaction or dialogue with the community and often involving a professional artist collaborating with people who may not otherwise engage in the arts.” The Currency certainly fits this description: 10,000 enamel-on-paper paintings, manufactured five years previously in the studio of a professional artist, became the basis for a collaboration between the artist and his public.
Hirst’s project incorporates literary theory’s critique of the omniscient author, by relinquishing control over its direction to the community he engages. The community pays back in kind, fueling the project with its precious attention, the currency of any successful NFT. We learned as much from speaking to the collectors who attended the event on October 11th, when Hirst burned the 1000 paintings he personally owned (he opted to keep the NFTs), and also at the “Connect the Dots” holders’ party on October 15th. Successive interlocutors at both events assured us that they felt in charge of the artwork’s direction, often pointing out that events celebrating The Currency were themselves a part of the project.
The Currency shows how community is constructed around what Hirst’s favorite anthropologist David Graeber called “human economies,” which operate through collective social practices, rather than through the mind of an individual genius. Successful NFT projects operate on this basis, not as mini market economies which regard NFTs as just another form of financial derivative. This type of exploitative approach has more in common with the Greater Fool Theory than with Graeber’s human economies. In The Currency Hirst utilizes community art as a strategy to remove central artistic decisions from his sole purview: the uber-capitalist, blue-chip artist uses an unimpeachably collectivist modality to create his work. The artist no longer needs to be the kingpin. All he needs do is connect the dots. WM
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).
view all articles from this author