–Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
Over the course of the past year, the non-fungible token (NFT) has emerged as a marketable format, creating a new product, and market, for all manner of expressions—from tweets to sports highlights, and even fine art. NFTs entered the wider public discourse in March 2021, when Everydays: The First 5000 Days, made by the artist known as Beeple (aka Mike Winkelmann), sold for over $69M at Christie’s. The first digital artwork ever sold by the auction house, Everydays is a massive compilation of works that the artist posted, one a day, starting in May 2007.
The staggering price paid for the work solicited a range of responses across the art world and the internet, from disbelief to euphoria, inciting something of a gold rush as artists, gallerists, auction houses, buyers, and the tech community scrambled to participate as creators, intermediaries, and investors.
What is especially interesting to me is how this fits within the current cultural context (something that we make a point of doing at West with every innovation that we work on). Even as it appears to be a fundamentally new development, NFTs are actually only the acceleration of a trend that stretches back to the 19th century and the emergence of the work of art as a commodity. But what is particularly striking about the development of the NFT is that it overturns one of the prevailing myths about the relationship between the uniqueness of the work of art and its value. What is at play here, and has been since the beginning of modernity, are two forces: On one hand, the proliferation of images (exponentially accelerated in the digital age), and on the other, the marketplace’s ongoing innovation to monetize media and technology. Where in the traditional context the marketplace depended on the one-of-a-kind art object to create value, the current art market has invented and monetized distributed ownership systems.
In a 1935 essay entitled The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin attempted to identify the changes brought about by photography and film as creative media, which had arisen at the end of the previous century. When reproduced by the camera, the work of art loses its “aura”—the qualities that come from it being one of a kind. Anyone who has even been to a museum, whether they realized it or not, has experienced this “aura.” It’s the experience of seeing an iconic work of art “in the flesh,” the sensation we feel when standing in front of, say, the Mona Lisa, or Jackson Pollock’s Lavender Mist. We’re struck by the scale, the detail, the brushstrokes or fingerprints, and more than anything, the evidence of the artist’s having been there. All this is absent from the photographic reproduction.
The second aspect that Benjamin identifies is that a reproduced work of art detaches itself from history. No longer rooted in a specific time and place, it becomes easily exchangeable and infinitely reproducible. It functions like any other mass-produced commodity (think Edvard Munch’s The Scream on your dorm room wall or Van Gough’s Starry Night on your coffee mug).
Prior to the mechanical reproduction of images, art existed as official history painting (commissioned by the state) or altarpieces, icons, and other religious scenes (commissioned by the church). With the changes brought about after the French Revolution by a newly emerged bourgeoisie, art began to take the form of a luxury object exclusive to the monied class. The upside of mechanical reproduction (loss of aura notwithstanding) is that the work of art becomes instantly accessible to a broad population, wider audience, and, with it, wider marketplace opportunities. This also posed a challenge to the more traditional art market, and sellers quickly developed tactics to recoup the prices that the unique work of art commanded—numbered prints, signed prints, vintage prints, etc.
By the time Benjamin wrote his essay, even “one-of-a-kind” art was already playing on its status as potentially endlessly reproducible and commercial. Marcel Duchamp had developed his concept of the ready-made, the most famous of which was 1917’s Fountain, made from a commercially available urinal turned on its side and signed by Duchamp using the alias R. Mutt. Interestingly, Duchamp’s “original” Fountain was destroyed and a series of replicas proliferated and were acquired by museums and collections. Thus when art lovers visit, say, the MoMA to see the work of art “in the flesh,” they are seeing a replica of a work that could be reproduced endlessly as long as the artist was alive to sign it. In 1999, a replica sold for over $1.7M.
In the 1960s, Andy Warhol brought another level of attention to the work of art as a reproducible commodity. Warhol began as a commercial artist, primarily illustrating shoes for advertisements, then moving on to record album covers. When he established a fine art practice he worked primarily in silkscreen, using a palette and aesthetic that derived directly from his commercial experience. He famously made images of commodities (soup cans) and celebrities (Elvis, Marylin Monroe, Chairman Mao). And when he created a studio to support his activities, he called it The Factory.
Despite Warhol’s positioning of the work of art as commodity, he never espoused bending artistic concepts to the pressures of the marketplace. His agenda was to make no concession in terms of idea or message and find a way to reproduce and sell the creative concept. Warhol emerged at a time when Abstract Expressionism was fashionable and had been adopted by collectors like Peggy Guggenheim, who helped create a market for such work. Warhol rejected the concept of the work of art as being one of a kind, seeing the opportunity and relevance of art that declared itself, unapologetically, as a commodity. And on the strength of that insight, he became one of the most influential artists of the last century.
In retrospect, one of the most lasting aspects of Warhol’s legacy is how clearly it uncovers the triangulation of mass reproduction, mass media, and market value. His work, which drew so heavily on mass-produced imagery, naturally lends itself to the mass media. His awareness of the importance of the mass media to his practice was evident in his own self presentation. Though he may not have been the first “art star,” he embraced the role; he associated himself with other celebrities and made sure to be seen at places like Max’s Kansas City and, later, Studio 54, and even created his own celebrity-focused publication, the very popular Interview magazine. All of this pointed to a phenomenon that now seems commonplace: The more that the artist and his work appeared in reproduction, the more it acquired value. Warhol pointed to the fundamental relationship between celebrity and the value of the commodity in the post-industrial age. Rather than the uniqueness of the work of art being a primary driver of value, its availability in the mass media became crucial.
The subplot to all this is the broader market context. As Warhol’s creative impact stretched into the 1980s it ran alongside exceptional growth in the stock market, which in turn created unprecedented accumulation and consolidation of wealth and, with that, new appetites for investment opportunities. Prices for works by modern masters skyrocketed, culminating in the 1987 sale of Van Gogh’s Irises for just under $54M.
Such price tags created greater demand for contemporary art and spurred production by artists like Jeff Koons, whose works often cynically drew on commercial, mass-reproduced inspiration, from kitsch to pornography. Koons self-consciously fashioned himself as an art star, often featuring himself in his work, and making the most of the media attention he garnered around his sensationalist productions. Like Warhol, he regularly drew on celebrity (Michael Jackson and Bubbles) and mass-produced objects (porcelain knick-knacks, bubble dogs). Also like Warhol, he used mass media–ready aesthetics and tactics to help create value for his work.
In many ways, the moments outlined above, along with a host of others in between, have brought us to today. As in the 1980s, we are witnessing consolidation of wealth and the concomitant need for new investment opportunities. Digital reproduction has enabled limitless proliferation of visual art, sound, and experiences. This phenomenon accelerates the condition of art as a reproducible object in a way that could never have been imagined in the 1930s. It allows an unprecedented democratization of art through digital means but has also proven to imperil creative industries (to wit, the transformation of the music industry via digital distribution, from Napster to Spotify). The NFT serves a number of needs, from saleable format for creators to investment opportunity.
At its core, the NFT provides a tactic for the marketplace to confer value at a time when it is threatened by a dramatically expanded availability of images. In so doing, it employs the celebrity effect that Warhol identified to drive value for art. The sudden, sizable, and, for many, shocking price paid for Everydays is a testament to the force of the mass media in the digital age—the confluence of the power of the digital age to reproduce and distribute images endlessly, along with the reorganization of capital that has come about in the last two decades. In each instance, the invention of new art products and markets comes with new consolidations of wealth. In Benjamin’s own time, the creation of a fine art market coincided with the new wealth amassed by industrialists; in Warhol’s, the American postwar economic boom.
But the art market, like all economies, has its own bubbles and busts. The jury is still out on the longevity of the NFT.