When he’s not preserving dead animals in formaldehyde or filling skulls with diamonds, Damien Hirst is known for his stains.
On the surface, they appear to be a more innocent affair, clusters of rainbow blobs that simply make the viewer feel happy, rather than provoke the outrage that a pickled shark or cut-down-the-middle cow and her calf might say , or a photograph of the artist posing and grinning next to a severed human head.
It was there Hirst announced that his spaces would become part of an NFT experiment, The Currency, a project met with joy and admiration by some in the art world and fans of his work – but a fair amount of skepticism and criticism as well.
First up, for those who managed to avoid the explosion in the last couple of years, an NFT is a non-fungible token, a unique digital asset. NFTs can be anything digital – music, video clips, art, even a tweet.
In 2021, The Collins Dictionary made NFT the word of the yearand an NFT made by digital artist Beeple sold for $69.3m (£50.3m at the time) through Christie’s – the first ever sale by a major auction house of a work of art that does not exist in physical form.
For a short period of time, NFTs seemed a safe way for artists and investors to make money. After the initial boom, the market has crashed somewhat, but does it matter to those who simply want to enjoy their digital art? It’s a concept many people find difficult to wrap their heads around.
Enter the industry’s enfant terrible Hirst, who in 2016 began working on a conceptual art project, creating 10,000 unique but visually similar spot paintings in A4 size. In July 2021, he revealed that these would form the basis of The Currency, his first NFT collection.
Potential buyers entered a lottery to pick up a piece for $2,000 (about £1,770 now, something of a bargain for a Hirst original). Those who were successful were given a choice: keep the NFT and watch the physical painting burn, or replace it with the original, obliterating the digital version.
They had a year to decide, and the split was tighter even than the other famously controversial vote that started in 2016: 5,149 buyers chose the physical artworks, 4,851 kept the NFTs.
It should be noted here that this figure is slightly skewed, however, by the fact that Hirst supported the new art form he embraced, keeping 1,000 pieces as NFTs for himself. But there is still plenty of trust in digital, even among fans of the project.
Some decided quickly, others waited until the end. In September 2021, the buyer of number 2,604, titled Revocation, resold it for $172,239 (about £150,000 now). This was the NFT version. According to Hirst’s book on the project, The Currency has so far generated $89m (£78.9m) in sales.
Limit pushing or a publicity stunt?
The experiment is now on public display at Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery in Vauxhall, south London. Ten thousand works of art sounds like a lot, but it is perhaps only when you see the exhibition in reality that you can appreciate the scope of the project. (Sorry, NFT enthusiasts, the digital realm just doesn’t quite capture size in the same way.)
Each artwork is numbered, titled, stamped and signed by Hirst, with a watermark, a microdot and a hologram containing his portrait, and a title generated through AI using some of his favorite song lyrics. No color is repeated on each piece.
All 10,000 paintings are represented in the gallery, hung in Plexiglas. The 5,149 works whose owners chose the physical have been toned down, the pieces now no doubt cheering up walls around the world; the remaining 4,851 are palpably there, ready for the multi-million pound bonfire, due to begin in October. The painting fires await them upstairs.
Hirst says he sees The Currency as a work of art where people participate by buying, holding, selling and exchanging the pieces.
So, is his testing the value of digital art versus physical a genius, boundary-pushing endeavor — or just another publicity and money-making stunt?
Writing for the i newspaper, art critic Florence Hallett describes The Currency as “rather like a small child dangling a teddy over the toilet in an attempt to get the upper hand – only with significantly less sincerity and huge amounts of money”.
In a column titled “How it all went wrong for Damien Hirst”, the Sunday Times’ chief art critic Waldemar Januszczak – who says he was a loyal admirer of the artist’s earlier work – describes NFTs as something “invented by the devil to lure in fools in the art world and persuade them to spend their money on nothing’.
But for one of the art world’s biggest provocateurs, the criticism surely only adds to the pleasure. And he has more than enough admirers of his work.
“I don’t think it’s better or worse to appreciate art in person”
Molly Jane Zuckerman, who is the chief content officer of crypto data provider CoinMarketCap, entered the ballot to pick up a piece of The Currency, but was unsuccessful. Despite her work in the crypto industry, she says she would have opted for the physical painting as an NFT version would have felt like a “pale imitation” of an original Hirst.
However, she believes that it is all down to personal preference.
“Some digital NFT art is so cool. I own a few NFTs that I find fascinating. Most of them cost me less than $3 and I enjoy looking at them…
“But I like to appreciate my art in person. And I don’t think that appreciating art in person is necessarily better or worse or makes art more valid, if you can touch it, it was painted, versus being created online I just think each person has different ways that aesthetics please them.
“I would love a Damien Hirst hanging in my house, and I would feel less aesthetically satisfied seeing it on my iPhone or as my profile picture. But people like different things and I can’t fault them for wanting , you know, a $2 million picture of a monkey on their profile picture. That’s entirely their prerogative.”
“I don’t know if it’s right or wrong, but it’s been a roller coaster”
Artist Roy Tyson, who goes by the name Roy’s People, is known for his work with miniature figures, often using the subjects of other creators – including Banksy, Keith Haring and Hirst – as a backdrop for his own.
In 2021, he became the owner of The Currency piece 4,967, titled What Am I To Know, and earlier this year made the decision to keep the physical painting and destroy the NFT.
“I’m a big fan of Hirst and I love the way he pushes the boundaries and doesn’t answer to anybody, doesn’t really adhere to any old-fashioned rules of the art world,” says Tyson. “My initial thought when this came out was, ‘wow, an original Damien Hirst for £1,500’. It’s unheard of, no brainer.”
But seeing some NFT versions sell for too much early on made him temporarily reconsider.
“You start thinking, what could this be worth? It’s been such a journey… in the end I decided to go with my original thinking. I don’t know if that’s right or wrong, but it’s been a bit of a roller coaster. .”
Tyson has only created physical artwork himself, but says the same rules apply when it comes to buying digital art.
“Collecting art for investment rather than collecting art for art’s sake, you have to know what you’re buying.
“It kind of feels like it’s probably the art of the future and the way people can collect. Look at cash, you know, cash has disappeared. Digital currency, really we just see numbers on our screens. But I don’t know don’t think physical art will ever disappear.”
Which will be worth more?
Of course, destroying art is nothing new. In the case of Banksy’s Love Is In The Bin – the artwork that crushed itself after being sold in 2018 – it only increased in value, sold again for £18.5m in October 2021a record for the artist at auction.
Hirst himself claims he struggled with the decision of what to do with his own 1,000 pieces from the collection, saying he was “all over the damn shop with my decision-making process, trying to figure out what to do”.
Writing on Twitter in July, he said: “I believe in art and art in all its forms, but in the end I thought f*** it! this zone is so damn exciting and the one I know the least about and I love this The NFT community, it blows my mind.”
While she doesn’t necessarily see NFTs as the future of art, Zuckerman believes Hirst’s project is an interesting exploration of what consumers consider valuable.
“Artists experiment,” she says. “I think a lot of it [Hirst] do with dots and with his [physical] artwork, you know, 100, 200 years ago wouldn’t be considered art either. And now there is, a time when people went beyond just considering realism, oil paintings, you know, biblical paintings, art.
“I’m all for artists experimenting with as many forms as possible. I think there are really cool things that NFTs can do and can bring. NFTs can change over time, they can evolve. They can be 3D -rotating shapes, something that a pencil, a brush physically can’t do. So I don’t think there’s any reason for artists not to use NFTs.”
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However, she adds that NFTs are no longer a certain shortcut to making money.
“If you buy an NFT for a specific reason – you want to be part of an exclusive club, for example. Bored Ape Yacht Club, people who own these NFTs, they get the benefits of being in this community; it’s events, it’s hits, it’s the weight attached to it on social media and sometimes in real life too, it makes sense to own an NFT.
“If you want to support an artist, buying their art in any form is definitely supporting that particular artist. If you want to make money, that’s not really the case anymore. The hype of flipping NFTs for To make a significant amount of money, it can definitely still be done, but it is not [case of] taking candy from a baby like it was about a year ago.”
Six months, five years, a century later: which of The Currency works will be worth more?
Hirst says he is “proud to have created something alive, something and provocative” – and that the excitement is in the unknown.
“I have no idea what the future holds, whether NFTs or physical devices are going to become more valuable or less. But it’s art! The fun, part of the journey and maybe the point of the whole project. Even after a year, I feel that the journey has only just begun.”
The Currency exhibition is open now at the Newport Street Gallery, and runs until 30 October 2022