By JULIA FRIEDMAN and DAVID HAWKES, August 2022
The result of ‘The Currency’ vote is in: 5,149 paintings to 4,851 NFTs. The majority of NFT holders opted to exchange their non-fungible tokens for authentic, original, material paintings, and artworld commentators showed restrained elation. Even the Discord discussion board, on which participants in the project reveal the motives behind their choices, is full of testimonials fetishizing the artworks’ materiality. A typical exclamation is: ‘Am so excited I can’t wait to see and smell the paint.’
While it is tempting to read the result as a definitive endorsement of the Benjaminian ‘aura’, it was hardly a ‘resounding preference for traditional art’ as Artnet’s Caroline Goldstein optimistically claims. Until the last few hours before the deadline, the NFTs were in the lead—662 votes against them were cast on the very last day. Was it peer pressure that shifted the balance, causing the eleventh-hour flip in favor of physical paintings? Or was it a visceral recoil against the idea of annihilating unique works of art? The precedents of ‘BurntBanksy,’ and other experiments in which artworks were destroyed in order to increase the value of the correlating NFTs, resulted in public condemnation of this blatant preference for money over aesthetics. Those who purchased ‘The Currency’ were not immune to veneration of the aura; their collective decision was not made on financial grounds alone. This follows from the fact that while NFTs in general lost a great deal of value by June of 2022, this did not produce a wave of selling among the holders of ‘The Currency.’ Hirst’s NFTs sustained a stable marketplace unaffected by fluctuations in the value of other non-fungible tokens. The true value of these works must therefore reside elsewhere, beyond the reach of digital trends.
Much like the Brexit referendum to which Hirst’s project alludes, his poll seems to raise more questions than it answers. The intriguing provocation of ‘The Currency’ lies in its suggestion that art and money could be one. The pricing of the paintings becomes part of the artwork: NFTs originally sold for $2,000 each are now placed for resale on Heni for anywhere between $8,000 and $200,000, with one offered up for an irrational $30,000,000. This disparity echoes Yves Klein’s 1957 “Monochrome Propositions. Blue Period” exhibition in Milan, where Klein presented eleven ostensibly identical paintings for sale at different prices that were supposed to correspond to the subjective significance they held for the individual buyer. The holders of Hirst’s ‘currency’ similarly translate the monetary value of the NFTs into the experience of participating in the project. As one buyer commented on the Discord message-board:
"I have never been about stuff or financial returns on this…. To me this is about being part of a huge project that has been created by one of the biggest living artists. That alone is enough for me. The exhibition and all the other stuff, that in itself is absolutely huge to me. I will never forget these experiences."
Ostensibly, the question posited by ‘The Currency’ is whether the artworld is driven by financial or aesthetic considerations. However, participants and observers alike seem to be undermining the principle of that question by finding aesthetic pleasure in financial transactions. In postmodernity, everything can be translated into financial terms—personal relationships quite as much as aesthetic experiences. Advocates of NFTs often refer to themselves as a ‘community,’ not just out of sentiment, but from a hard-headed calculation that a sense of community also has financial value. The purchasers of ‘The Currency’ create its social value as well as its commercial worth. This is among the project’s main selling-points. As Hirst puts it: ‘The whole project is an artwork, and anyone who buys ‘The Currency’ will participate in this work.’
Therefore, although a slim majority of Hirst’s buyers chose to retain their paintings and destroy their NFTs, this cannot be taken to indicate that they value art over money. Perhaps they prefer physical art to the disembodied kind. But physical art has long ceased to refer to the real world. The rise of modernism produced a dramatic efflorescence of ever-more abstract art, ultimately arriving at pure conceptualism. At the same time, financial value departed the physical body of bullion, and even banknotes, finally manifesting itself in the entirely imaginary form of ‘derivatives.’ Art and money have both been moving towards abstraction since the late nineteenth century. Hirst’s project suggests that abstraction facilitates the union of art and money which become indistinguishable to the degree that they become immaterial. Another word for ‘immaterial’ is ‘spiritual,’ and the discussion on the Discord board often takes a quasi-theological tone:
"I think traditional art is weighed more about the art and slightly less about money. NFTs seem (in the majority) to flip that. I think that's what makes me uncomfortable and opens the door to a lot of demons for people."
The ethical problem exposed by Hirst’s project is not that people prefer money to art. It is that art and money become the same thing if treated interchangeably. The second phase of ‘The Currency’—the ‘redemption,’ in which the owners of NFTs could exchange their inscription on the blockchain for physical Tenders—was presented as performative, even ritualistic, and it drove this point home.
Here is how the process transpired. Having accessed the MetaMask digital wallet, where the allocated NFTs were stored, the owners were asked to ‘select […] NFTs you would like to exchange for the physical artwork.’ After choosing the work, and paying shipping costs, the owner was informed, in bold font: ‘In order the finalize the exchange process, you need to burn your NFT(s). If you do not do this, your artwork(s) will not be sent.’ Underneath was a window to check, along with an accompanying statement of consent: ‘I understand that burning my NFT(s) permanently destroys my NFT(s) and cannot be undone.’ Below that a button inscribed ‘Burn Using MetaMask’ promised to initiate the process with a single click. The following screen ‘BURNING NFT(S)’ confirmed that the process was under way.
Hirst clearly aimed to emphasize the irreversibility of the choice to burn digital tokens. Yet burning an NFT is never truly, literally destructive. It is just a commonly used turn of phrase. The project’s originality was the initial Sophie’s Choice, which stipulated that selecting one iteration of the image would automatically condemn the other to annihilation. While the owner is asked to ‘burn’ whichever iteration is rejected, the action is metaphorical in the case of NFTs, but undeniably, irrevocably physical in the case of the paintings. There is no fire and smoke when NFTs are burned: they are ‘re-homed,’ sent to a null address and thus made unusable. In dramatic contrast, the paintings condemned for destruction will first be placed on view at London’s Newport Street Gallery in early September, and then burned, as part of an exhibition, at a specified time of each day. The exhibition will culminate in a massive conflagration, in which the remaining artworks will meet a fiery end, as their creator looks on.
In a perfect poetic happenstance, the very last NFT (#8272) exchanged for a painting just before the deadline of 3:00 GMT on July 27, 2022, was titled “They fought for what they had.” It is as if the 10,000 physical paintings produced in 2016, four years before the NFT project was launched, struggled for their own survival like living creatures. Rather sadistically, Hirst made sure that ‘saving’ the physical paintings required taking action, since doing nothing would result in a default retention of the NFT(s). Doing nothing also constituted effective consent to the destruction of the NFT’s tangible equivalent, the painting. And this destruction is no discrete deletion at an uncertain time and place, but a spectacular extinction by public burning. Moreover, these executions are cruelly extended over a lengthy period, and the witnessing public will be implicated in the act.
The parallels with the public executions of yore are surely deliberate, and deliberately uncomfortable. Half a millennium ago, Savonarola’s Florence blazed with ‘bonfires of the vanities’ in which sinful art, books and commodities were burnt in public squares. By all accounts they were impressive events: iconoclasm has its own aesthetic. And in the 1930s the Nazis after exhibiting ‘degenerate art’ in Munich, incinerated it in the courtyard of the ‘Old Fire Station’ in Berlin. Ironically, while it was supposed to show the evils of modernism, the infamous Munich exhibition turned out to be the first 20th century blockbuster, with over two million attendees. ‘The Currency’ provocatively alludes to such precedents, unavoidably connecting the participants to the culling of 4,851 original artworks. This is not a decision to be made lightly.
Hirst’s own choice was to retain the 1,000 NFTs that belong to him personally. In an Instagram post following the announcement of the results, he presented his decision as both flippant and agonizing:
"I have been all over the fucking shop with my decision making…. I believe in art and art in all its forms but in the end I thought fuck it! this zone is so fucking exiting and the one I know least about and I love this NFT community it blows my mind…. I’m amazed at how this community breeds support and seems to care about shit so in the end I decided I have to keep all my 1000 currency as NFTs otherwise it wouldn’t carry on being a proper adventure for me and so I decided I need to show my 100 percent support and confidence in the NFT world (even though it means I will have to destroy the corresponding 1000 physical artworks). Eeeeeeeek! I still don’t know what I’m doing and I have no idea what the future holds, whether the NFTs or physicals are going to be more valuable or less. But that is art! The fun, part of the journey and maybe the point of the whole project. Even after one year, I feel the journey is just beginning. I have already learnt so much and it’s only been a year and I am so proud to have created something alive, something mad and provocative and been a passenger (along with all the other participants in the currency) and to help build a fantastic community on @heni. Long may it last and I can’t wait for the next twists and turns."
Hirst’s exuberant, rambling monologue describes his vacillation between paintings and NFTs, before exploding in the punk ‘fuck it!’ The artist’s choice is not coldly financial; as he explains, it reflects his support of the NFT community. Moreover, the very number of 10,000 NFTs/paintings that comprise this project is presumably a reference to the pioneering NFT known as ‘CryptoPunks,’ which consists of 10,000 unique collectable characters. Now CryptoPunks price had plunged, and the conversation around them fading, while ‘The Currency’ is not only healthy in terms of valuation, but continues to generate considerable interest. Perhaps Hirst’s vote for the NFTs is also a gracious gesture of a victor displaying his good sportsmanship.
When digital NFTs first appeared in the artworld, it was frequently suggested that they threatened the existence of the objects they represented. ‘The Currency’ tested this hypothesis, creating a controlled experiment in which people had to make an irreversible choice between NFTs and physical art. As the experiment unfolded, however, the threat of annihilation hovering over the physical artworks seems to have reasserted the value of the ‘aura’—the unique, irreplicable significance possessed by original artworks. By bluntly stressing the process of extermination, Hirst once again directs our attention to the physical possibility of death. While he seems somewhat dismayed at the prospect of destroying his own work, Hirst understands that the destruction of art is itself a form of art. He claims to have created ‘something alive, something mad and provocative’ and excitedly anticipates future adventures: ‘I can’t wait for the next twists and turns.’ Like his canonical formaldehyde shark entitled ‘The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living,’ Hirst’s NFT project uses death to locate life. ‘The Currency’ is a memento mori, intended to help us appreciate life. Or is it? A more cynical reading of this project might concur with Leo Tolstoy that an awareness of death actually undermines the meaning of life. Either way, Hirst’s experiment will not end with the planned incinerations. The union of art and money contains possibilities, and dangers, that will continue to inform aesthetics and economics as long as those categories have meaning. 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