In 1935, when Walter Benjamin analysed the theoretical implications of reproducing a work of art in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, he would not have believed what the next 85 years would bring.
Benjamin’s work is a rumination on the nature of value; a social analysis of objects, and the power with which society imbues them. Written just as photography was establishing itself as an independent art form, its central premise is that the reproduction of a work devalues it, since value lies in an object’s presence in time and space – in its ‘aura’, as Benjamin called it.
This concept of value is rooted in the belief that art is a physical object, something that you touch, pick up, move around or hang on a wall. In other words, its existence in the physical realm defines its authenticity. Following Benjamin’s theory, objects that are easily reproducible are inherently less valuable because they are less original. This theory, however, keeps evolving.
The Pop Art movement, that most notorious manifestation of the Postmodern, broke with the pre-war thought of Benjamin and recast value in different terms, as markets for mass-produced art started to emerge. Pop Art challenged what was traditionally considered Fine Art, by instilling value in objects that were produced mechanically, including imagery of the mundane derived or directly copied from the new mass culture. The case for value—that ambiguous quality which constitutes an object’s ‘aura’—thus became less concerned with an object’s scarcity, and more with its relevance to contemporary culture, and its conceptual ‘originality’ with regards to the artistic canon.
On March 11th this year, an event took place which thrust this shift firmly into the 21st Century, and has again forced us to reconsider our understanding of value. Christie’s auction house successfully sold a digital image for nearly $70m. The first sale of its kind, the image in question—a compilation of 5000 individual images titled EVERYDAYS—created by the digital artist Mike Winkelmann, aka ‘Beeple’ does not physically exist. Known as a non-fungible token, or ‘NFT’, this work is considered a unique digital asset, represented by code recorded on a blockchain (a decentralised digital ledger that documents transactions). NFTs, like any other piece of property, can be bought and sold, despite not having any tangible form of their own.
As his prize, the buyer of Beeple’s work received a digital image as a jpeg file, essentially indistinguishable from any other image of it found on the internet. Though he would have received a digital certificate of ownership proving his right to buy and sell the original image, the fact remains that by its very nature, Beeple’s work, like practically all digital art, is intrinsically reproducible. It can be viewed, downloaded and consumed by anyone with a computer.
NFTs have been around for some years now, first created by internet entrepreneurs seeking to capitalise on digital potential. What has changed since then is that legitimate markets, reacting to the exponential rise in NFTs’ financial and theoretical value, have sprung up to accommodate them. In general, a market is only as strong as the public’s belief in it, so for an NFT like Beeple’s EVERYDAYS to be achieving such a lofty sum suggests yet another shift in our collective idea of value. Clearly, we do not now put the same emphasis on an object’s exclusivity as we did in Benjamin’s time. The concept of ‘aura’, originally linked to the physical presence of an object, has all but been destroyed. So, where does the ‘aura’ live now? It would seem that when devoid of physical manifestations, it is forced to occupy the theoretical space within the concept of originality.
In turn, this development requires a re-thinking of how we define originality itself. Despite its potential for immediate reproduction, the theme of Christie’s sales pitch for EVERYDAYS focused on the ‘originality’ of the work, both as a piece of art and as a representation of a new, ‘original’ art market. Crossing a new frontier, the auction house—as tastemakers seeking to create new market opportunities for themselves—knew that they had to sell this work as a moment in history, a new chapter in the canon, and something entirely original.
Christie’s bet on the public’s belief in the value of originality, to such a degree that they took the risk of selling something that doesn’t even physically exist. And it worked. They succeeded in convincing buyers to abandon all of their traditional conceptions of value, in place of a new one, where the pure lure of originality reigns supreme.
What’s clear in the fallout from the sale is that not everyone is happy with this renunciation of tradition. Many argue that this is an example of a market bubble; that the price paid for Beeple’s work represents an anomaly created by nothing more than intelligent marketing, and that such prices cannot be sustained. These people see Christie’s as treacherous for their role in the affair, highlighting the hypocrisy of their pretension to be a bastion of artistic integrity, rather than a commodity trader concerned with profit.
Ultimately, time will tell which side of the coin will be vindicated; whether the market for NFTs continues to grow, or if it bursts and goes up in smoke. Either way, the sale has been both controversial and important in equal measure, simply because it has forced us to re-evaluate what we deem to be valuable. Understanding that value doesn’t exclusively exist in the physical, as Benjamin once advocated, is at first undeniably uncomfortable, and new to many people.
But as far as Christie’s is concerned, their purpose is straight-forward: it is to sell things of value. In order to achieve this, they have to persuade buyers to believe in the originality of the art, as this is what ensures its value. You can bet they will be laughing all the way to the bank.