When he’s not preserving dead animals in formaldehyde or covering skulls with diamonds, Damien Hirst is known for his spots.
On the face of it, it appears to be a more innocent affair, clusters of rainbow leaves simply making the viewer feel happy, rather than provoking the outrage that a pickled shark or the middle cow and her calf might, say, or a photo of the artist posing and grinning next to a severed human head.
It was until Hirst announced that his spots would become part of an NFT experiment, The Currency, a project that was met with joy and admiration by some in the art world and fans of his work – but also a fair amount of skepticism and criticism.
First, for those who have managed to avoid the explosion in the last few years, an NFT is a non-floatable token, a unique digital asset. NFTs can be anything digital – music, video clips, art, even a tweet.
In 2021, Collins Dictionary made NFT its word of the yearand an NFT created by digital artist Beeple was sold for $69.3m (£50.3m at the time) by Christie’s – the first ever sale by a major auction house of a work of art that does not exist in physical form not.
For a short period of time, NFTs were a safe way for artists and investors to make money. After the initial boom, the market crashed somewhat, but does it matter to those who simply want to enjoy their digital art? It’s a concept that many find hard to wrap their heads around.
Enter the industry’s enfant terrible Hirst, who began working on a conceptual art project in 2016, creating 10,000 unique but visually similar A4-sized spot paintings. In July 2021, he revealed that it would form the basis of The Currency, his first NFT collection.
Prospective 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 see the physical painting burned, or exchange it for the original, erasing the digital version.
They had a year to make up their minds and the split was tighter even than that 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, but due to the fact that Hirst supported the new art form he adopted, keeping 1,000 pieces as NFTs for himself. But still, there is also a lot of trust in digital among fans of the project.
Some decided quickly, others waited until the end. In September 2021, the buyer of number 2,604, titled Revocation, sold it for $172,239 (now around £150,000). This was the NFT version. According to Hirst’s book about the project, The Currency has generated $89m (£78.9m) in sales to date.
Boundary shifting 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 may not be until you see the show in real life that you can appreciate the scale of the project. (Sorry, NFT lovers, the digital realm just doesn’t capture the magnitude 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 an AI-generated title using some of his favorite song lyrics. No color is repeated on each piece.
All 10,000 paintings are represented at the gallery, hung in perspex. The 5,149 works whose owners have chosen for the physical are grey, the pieces no doubt now cheering up walls around the world; the remaining 4,851 are palpably there, ready for their multimillion-pound bonfire, due to begin in October. The painting fires await them above.
Hirst says he views The Currency as a work of art in which people participate by buying, holding, selling and exchanging the pieces.
So, is his testing of the value of digital art versus physical a genius, boundary-pushing effort—or just another publicity and money-making ploy?
Writing for the i-newspaper, art critic Florence Hallett describes The Currency as “rather like a small child hanging teddy over the toilet in an attempt to get the upper hand – only with considerably less sincerity and vast sums 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 previous work – described NFTs as something “invented by the Devil is to lure fools into 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 enjoyment. And he has more than enough admirers of his work.
‘I don’t think appreciating art personally is better or worse’
Molly Jane Zuckerman, who is head of content for 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 chosen the physical painting as an NFT version would have felt like a “pale imitation” of a Hirst original.
However, she believes it all depends on personal preference.
“Some of the NFT digital art is so cool. I own a few NFTs that I think are fascinating. Most of them cost me less than $3 and I just love 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’s painted, versus being created online. I just think each person has different ways in which aesthetics please them.
“I would love to have 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 blame them for wanting not, you know, a $2 million picture of a monkey on their profile picture. That’s totally 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 figurines, often using other creators’ themes – including Banksy, Keith Haring and Hirst – as backgrounds 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 like the way he pushes the boundaries and doesn’t answer to anybody, doesn’t really stick to any old-fashioned rules of the art world,” says Tyson. “My original thought when it came out was, ‘wow, an original Damien Hirst for £1,500’. It’s unheard of, no brainer.”
But seeing some NFT versions sell for high sums early on made him temporarily reevaluate.
“You start thinking, what could it be worth? It was such a journey… in the end I decided to go with my original thinking. I don’t know if it’s the right thing or the wrong thing, but it was quite a rollercoaster.”
Tyson has only created physical artwork himself, but says the same rules apply when it comes to purchasing digital art.
“With art collecting for investment rather than collecting art for art’s sake, you need to know what you are buying.
“It 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, essentially, we just see numbers on us on our screens. But I know I don’t think physical art will ever disappear.”
What would be worth more?
The destruction of art is of course nothing new. In the case of Banksy’s Love Is In The Bin – the artwork that shredded itself after being sold in 2018 – this only added to its value, sold again for £18.5m in October 2021a record for the artist at auction.
Hirst himself claims to have struggled with deciding what to do with his own 1,000 pieces from the collection, saying he was “over the f****** shop with my decision-making, working out what I have 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 f****** exciting and the one I know the least about and I love this NFT community, it blows my mind.”
While she doesn’t necessarily see NFTs as entirely the future of art, Zuckerman believes Hirst’s project is an interesting exploration of what consumers consider valuable.
“Artists do experiment,” she says. “I think that a lot of what [Hirst] do with dots and with his [physical] artwork, you know, 100, 200 years ago wouldn’t be considered art either. And now it is, once people have gone 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 a lot of cool things that NFTs can do and bring. NFTs can change over time, they can evolve. They can be 3D rotating figures, something that a pencil is. , a paintbrush 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 fast track to making money.
“If you’re buying an NFT for a specific reason — for example, you want to be part of an exclusive club. The Bored Ape Yacht Club, people who own those NFTs, they do get the benefits of being in this community; there’s events, there are encounters, there is the influence that comes with it on social media and sometimes in real life, it makes sense to own an NFT.
“If you want to support an artist, certainly, buying their art in any form is supporting that particular artist. If you want to make a quick buck, that’s not really the case anymore. The hype in terms of flipping NFTs for making a significant amount of money, it can certainly still be done, but it is not the [case of] to take candy from a baby that 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 the NFTs or physical things will be more valuable or less. But this is art! The fun, part of the journey and maybe the point of the whole project. Even after one year, I feel the journey is just beginning.”
The Currency exhibition is now open at Newport Street Gallery and runs until 30 October 2022