42 Talks |Damien Hirst: Why Art ≠ “Currency”?

In light of the recent media controversy about whether it is preferable to pick NFT or tangible art,relating to Damien Hirst’s NFT project ‘The Currency’ released last year, I hesitate to talk about Damien Hirst’s project from a more pertinent perspective. After all, after a bear market that has exploded like a firestorm, how many buyers or visitors, apart from being cautious, would really reflect on NFT art itself rather than the monetary value? In this regard, I have my doubts about this.

To clarify, let’s go back to the beginning of the entire event: The piece “Everydays: The First 5000 Days” by designer Beeple was sold at Sotheby’s in early 2021 for a record-breaking sum of $69,346,250. NFT art quickly gained popular recognition and attracted numerous traditional painters. One of them is Damien Hirst, a prominent figure in the British YBA (Young British Artists). On July 14, 2021, Hirst revealed his first NFT project, which he called “The Currency,” on the official HENI website. After five years of thought, the artist believes that this endeavor is a terrific exercise in converting art into a true “currency” because money is brittle and real currency is art.

This project is based on Hirst’s hand-painted wave-point physical paintings created in 2016. A total of 10,000 NFTs are issued, each NFT corresponds to a unique physical painting, and each physical painting has an independent number, title, artist’s autograph, watermark, micro-point analysis data and artist’s hologram. At the same time, according to computer vision analysis and other methods, the analysis of the droplets, the number of overlaps and the texture of the pigment in the painting finally constitute the unique integrated characteristics of each work. In other words, the scarcity and scarcity index of these 10,000 works are distinguished by overlap, droplet, texture, density, colour, words, symbols, title theme and weight.

The project is based on dot hand drawings by Damien Hirst created in 2016. 10,000 NFTs are issued, each of which corresponds to a unique physical painting that is individually numbered, titled, signed by the artist, and titled, with a microdot and a hologram of the artist. At the same time, the droplets of paint, the number of overlaps and the texture of the paint are analysed, for example by computer visual analysis, to create the unique integrated qualities of each work. In other words, the 10,000 works are distinguished by their scarcity and scarcity index through overlap, droplets, texture, density, colour, text, symbols, title themes and weight.

The application period is one week and all interested buyers are drawn into the HENI Discord community from the outset of their participation; those who are allocated an NFT have one year from the time of successful payment of $2,000 to consider whether they wish to keep the actual painting or destroy it and keep the NFT version of the painting, or vice versa. This clause was repeatedly reiterated when the buyer paid. Until the end of the exchange period on July 27th, 2022, according to the official statistics of HENI, 4,851 physical works of art will be destroyed in Newport Street Gallery, London on September 9th, 2022. These destroyed physical works include 1,000 physical paintings held by Hirst, the creator of this project.

In this way, out of 9,000 NFT copies sold, almost 51% of the buyers finally chose the original. Under the influence of the dull market, the recent deals are not satisfactory, but accumulated to the latest auction on July 28, 2022, the total sales of “Money” amounted to USD 89.33 million. The number may be nothing compared with the PFP projects in the NFT field in the past year, but compared with the similar projects released by artists, it can definitely be regarded as the double whammy of fame and fortune. Because no official account or personal remarks have questioned the artistry of this project, and a large number of previous articles from and beyond the art circle have invariably admitted that this project is a challenge to values and beliefs. Is this the influence of Hirst or the public’s firm consensus on the original intention of this project?

This works out to almost 51% of the buyers of all 9,000 NFTs sold, who ended up with the original artwork. And even though the last few sales of Currency have been less than satisfactory due to the dull market, the cumulative total of $89.33 million sold at the most recent auction until 28 July 2022 compares favourably with the NFT While the PFP project, which has been a huge hit in the field over the past year, maybe nothing compared to the NFT projects released by similar traditional artists, it is definitely a ‘double whammy’. The reason for this is that no official account or personal statement has so far questioned the artistry of the project, and the numerous articles that have been written about it (both inside and outside the art world) have almost invariably acknowledged that it is a challenge to values and beliefs. Is this a function of Damien Hirst’s influence, or is it a matter of public consensus on the ‘original intent of the project?

In any case, it is undoubtedly brilliant to throw out Hirst, who questioned the position between the consensus of value and trust, from the very beginning of the project’s release. It is this position and the abdication of the right to choose that makes “currency” succeeds in establishing an aesthetic logic of art on top of its financial properties.

As Hirst put it: “The whole project is a work of art, and anyone who buys’ currency’ is not only the owner of the work but also a participant in it”. That is to say, the artistry of this project lies not in the unique drawing, let alone whether mint has become NFT, but in the inner workings of the year-long process of all the successful NFT purchasers, the choices they make afterwards, the participation, the feedback on their actions, the circulation and change of hands during the project’s duration, and the final decisions that make the “currency” complete the practice of a relational aesthetic with NFT’s genetic properties.

This is the way of this project’s virtuality, but it is not the core value. After all, we already have the sufficient rebellion of Henri-Robert-Marcel Duchamp or Yves Klein’s series of practices on void and existence. Pitifully, the determination of cultural and artistic attributes is not the key to the success of the project, nor is it the fundamental reason to be turned into NFT by minting. So what determines the final success of the project? It’s hard to have a clear answer to this question, but another question in my mind is that NFT, as a technology other than art, has nothing to do with artistic content, and the establishment of a work’s artistry doesn’t rely on NFT for confirmation. What is it that makes it the most successful art project in terms of linking art and NFT?

The underlying foundation of NFT art is digital art and social genes. NFT, as a tool and technology for validation, is essentially based on digital art, i.e. the artistic logic of NFT art is derived from the artistic nature of the digital artworks that it encrypts, and based on the establishment and development of the community ecology of social and consensus, which is a quality of the art itself. The difference is that NFT’s community ecosystem has transformed this social and consensus building from a weak output approach to a strong social + financial “consensus building” model. This consensus-building breaks the traditional perception of the value system, and explicitly, profit-oriented is the underlying logic of socialization in the NFT world.

In this regard, “currency” forced buyers to choose NFT or physical objects from the beginning, meanwhile, it forced buyers to consider a cognitive system of physical and virtual objects. Buyers have to choose whether to recognize and how to recognize the value of virtual assets. in a similar vein to Duchamp’s move of the urinal into the gallery, it forces the viewer to consider the value of something that is contrary to their beliefs. However, not all urinals are art. Duchamp’s rebellion against the contemporary art world was a firm, sober, and brilliant touch. “Fountain” broke the cognition of “what art is”, and extended the boundary of art. What’s more, “Fountain” finally dissolved everything, including itself. Hirst tried to establish a consensus of “art = currency”, and defined “currency” as an experiment in a complete project.

“Currency”, pointing to the heart of what constitutes value — consensus building and trust — forces buyers to make the choice, it highlights the eagerness for possession. Over the following year or so, the establishment of value perceptions was continually reinforced through ongoing social events and transactions. As a result, whatever the final choice of the buyer, the ‘currency’ has been confirmed from real to virtual value. As the project continues to unfold — with the burning of physical paintings and the production of its videos, a special exhibition of A History of Painting, the publication of The Chronicles of The Currency, and so on, make collectors involved become witnesses to the events through the NFT’s holdings. Thus, the consensus on value including both financial and emotional value will be confirmed once again.

Back to the point made earlier, what problem does “currency” solve between technology and artistic content? I think the “currency” first tries to solve the problem of non-web3 users’ recognition of virtual assets. Then, the project has built a value perception that can coexist in two ecological environments. This is something that many projects of the same period have failed. Because artists who have transformed from traditional art to web3 tend to focus more on the artistic content of the work itself, they may neglect the importance of value consensus in the NFT field that is dominated by profit, followed by aesthetic logic based on blockchain technology.

This is the fundamental reason why Hirst’s experimental behaviour, which contains all elements of the PFP project, can truly link art with NFT successfully.

However, no matter how strong the reaction of “currency” can stand in terms of art, logic or aesthetics, as an NFT project with the purpose of the transaction, the actual turnover and market reaction are the final chips to convince collectors.

Unfortunately, Hirst may still not have bridged the gap of value consensus between traditional collections and NFT collections: according to figures on the OpenSea website, the Currency project generated $47 million in sales in its first month of release from 14 July 2021 to 31 August 2021. However, over the next 11 months, after four consecutive months of low prices, the price fluctuated in a steady trend of $10K-$8.8K, with the most recent trade on August 10. Be Too Young was sold for $5.19WETH ($9,700.21), and the latest bid is currently $4.5025WETH ($8.438.99). Correspondingly, from early this year, the Currency began to appear on the traditional secondary market — according to the Phillips auction house, between January 2022 and July 2022, eight physical prints from the Currency series appeared at Phillips London and New York auctions, with the highest price paid for 4101 Like Dreams, sold in January 2022 in Phillips London Evening and Day Editions, for £18,900 (approx. $26,000). Dreams, which sold for £18,900 (approx. $26,000), and a recent sale of 2081 Do you think I am wrong for £8,820 (approx. $10,657).

From the data collected, buyers’ market confidence in Hirst depends on his influence in the traditional art field to a great extent. This seems reasonable, given that, as an artist who led the development of the British art movement in the 1990s and was a major player in the international contemporary art scene alongside Jeff Koons, Hirst’s appeal is self-evident. I’m actually even more interested in finding out how many of the 3,851 NFT edition owners have switched from traditional art collecting to encrypted art collecting, as well as how many of them still live in the original NFT art ecosphere. More questions might be resolved if these two facts were made available to the general audience.

It is unknown if the decision to hold onto 1,000 currency NFT at the last minute was made to show confidence and interest in this emerging NFT art community or to continue with the project’s initial stance. The debate about “real worth and virtual value” in currency will be over by July 27th, 2022. Future responses to the question of whether art can be equal to money will only come from the market. Do you first explore how to make the worth of the works for the current NFT encryption art so that it is not just based on the empowerment of the specific cultural community to which they belong, before making the grandiose assertion that it will rewrite the history of art?

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