On Valentine’s Day, a small group of art collectors pooled $1 million worth of cryptocurrency to buy a photograph of a rose. But the picture won’t be unwrapped over a candlelit dinner or hung on a bedroom wall. The photograph doesn’t exist physically; it’s a simple digital image. Its apparent value lies in its associated “token”: a one-of-a-kind digital asset that exists on an enduring, cryptographic digital ledger called the blockchain. The token, unlike the image, can’t be duplicated. But its success could be.
Earlier this week, I wrote about people trying to turn a cartoon frog called Pepe into the vanguard of art’s future on the blockchain. Reporting on that story immersed me in memes, but also in the ways that new technology might change the art world. A small triumvirate of artists, technologists and financiers are using the blockchain to render art rare and then selling it. In the process, they’ve figured out a way to make digital art valuable.
A lot of what makes physical art valuable is its scarcity — there are only so many paintings by Mark Rothko, after all. But digital art has always been different because it can be perfectly copied, ad infinitum. Crypto technology and the blockchain may be able to change all that. Just like Bitcoins are scarce, so too can original digital artwork now be scarce, even if duplicates remain common in the same way that prints or photographs of physical artwork are common. Proponents argue that this would democratize and decentralize art, helping artists get paid, helping resolve issues of authorship and ownership that the internet had rendered murky, and taking power out of the hands of auction houses and gallerists. But as I dove deeper into the promise of crypto-art, it seems to me more likely to democratize and decentralize not art itself, but art commerce. The appreciation of art and the fetishization of its prices have already become hopelessly intertwined. Crypto-art pulls this knot even tighter. Read more