Trust is the foundation of art on blockchain
By Yehudit Mam
An interesting thing happened as we were getting ready for the first Rare Digital Art Festival. A digital art gallery claimed it was issuing a unique token made by a very famous artist. This single token was going to be auctioned on their website. Bidding would stop at 5000 ETH, which could mean about 4.5 million dollars. However, it soon surfaced that the famous artist had nothing to do with this token. He had not created it or generated it. He didn’t even know what blockchain was:
Someone intended to make a lot of money out of bidders thinking they were getting a unique work created by Richard Prince. This precious scam was created by an academic with no apparent concept of how the real world works (but enough of an idea to keep himself shrouded in mystery until he was found out).
In fact, the gallery that claimed to represent Prince contacted me, and I thought it would be cool to invite him to the festival as an example of adoption of rare digital art by a mainstream artist. Through this gallery, we even set a time slot for Prince to speak at the Festival. Then one of the organizers of the festival found out, accidentally via Twitter, that Richard Prince had no hand in any of this. I felt duped and was totally mortified. Usually, our interactions with other creators in this space have been extraordinarily generous, transparent, and collaborative. It is unfortunate that the head of this project does not understand the first thing about blockchain and its use in art: it is all about transparency and trust. Trust is the only way in which this space can grow to its full potential. This is the ethos that drives the creators of cryptoart.
Now, this guy thinks that he propitiated a meaningful discussion about the nature of our current digital existence, the greediness of the art world, etc. But at no point did he ever come forward to the festival and explained the real nature of his project. Had he done so, we might have considered including it. Cryptoart is nothing if not playful and anti-establishment. Instead, he took the “game” as far as it could go without identifying himself or telling the truth. For those of us who are working hard to create and disseminate art on blockchain with transparency, legitimacy, and respect for individual artists, this is obviously a scam, no matter how meta the irony.
An article about cryptocurrency and art in the New York Times spent most of its real estate exploring this mini brouhaha, mainly because a famous name was attached to it. The irony is that probably 90% of the attendees to the Rare Digital Art Festival have no idea of who Richard Prince is and they don’t care. They came to see the current rock stars of the rare digital art world, pioneers like Joe Looney from Rare Pepes, Mack Flavelle from Cryptokitties, Matt Hall from Cryptopunks, our own Beatriz Ramos from DADA, and Shaban Shaame from Spells of Genesis, among others.
Now that I think of it, this supposed token by Richard Prince should have given me pause for a number of reasons. For one, it replicates the worst aspects of the traditional art market: it sells an object that has no inherent value except for the name attached. As P.T. Barnum said, there’s a sucker born every minute. At first I bought the scam, but I didn’t bid. And I didn’t bid because it is an ugly project. It has no aesthetic value, and even makes much of the fact. If there is any joy to be derived from it, it is purely transactional: it may afford you the joy of possession, but not the delight of art.
It is totally valid to call out the human capacity for greed and its absurdity in the current art world, and to bring the dadaist concept of the ready-made into the blockchain realm, but not at the expense of gullible collectors. Even if it is a karmic joke being played on an artist who is notorious for appropriating stuff and making money from it, there is a difference. Richard Prince creates sexy, provocative works of art.
This project may seem intellectually provocative, but it doesn’t have any trace of Richard Prince’s artistic DNA.
As a conceptual exercise, the creators could have put a disclaimer saying that the work was not really associated with Richard Prince, and see if anyone would still have been interested in being in on the joke; something like a Magritte-inspired “Ceci N’est Pas Un Richard Prince”. The token could have been done honestly, with the same jokey spirit, without misleading people. Would people value appropriation and play without genuine attribution? Would they want to be the proud owners of a transparent fake? Would they elevate a valueless, transparently fake work just for the hell of it? That to me is far more interesting than misleading people into buying a fake. The New York Times article states that the highest bidder learned the truth and was happy to keep bidding. Well, they can knock themselves out.
The project also lacks one vital component of many legitimate creative projects on blockchain: a spirit of innovation that is tied to a common good, to something that may benefit more than one person tangibly or emotionally, if only to create community. You can ask what is the social value of a Cryptopunk, or a Cryptokitty, or a Rare Pepe. Well, there is value in sheer delight before there is value in greed. There is also value in creating a community of fans and creators that continuously expand on the possibilities of rare digital art. At a live auction, people at the festival bid tens of thousands of dollars for Rare Pepes, and for a Cryptokitty with a hat. They knew exactly what they were getting, and it was electrifying fun. But once someone wins an online auction of an ugly digital token, then what happens? Someone bags 5 million dollars in the name of a famous artist? Ha ha.
It’s not that funny.