Last summer, Damien Hirst launched ‘The Currency’, a 10,000-piece- strong art venture. It was a collection of different yet nearly identical spot paintings on special pieces of paper, each with its own signature, number, and hologram seal. The watermarks and identifiers make them hard to forge or copy, just like those old pieces of paper with the shiny silver stamp that could be exchanged for multiple pints back in the day. Each dot painting corresponds to an NFT or non-fungible token, which clearly shows a photo of the front and back of the dot painting. These NFT’s went on sale for £2,000 each over a week in July 2021.
For those who are not sure what an NFT is, don’t worry; I thought it was a rare football foul for a while as well. A non-fungible token is a digital code that is added to a digital file that differentiates it from any other file. Deep breath. It is a signature that is entirely unique and gives us clear ownership over digital items. This can be stored in a digital wallet and transferred via Ethereum platforms.
You may be wondering if NFTs are similar to Bitcoin. They are similar, but different because you will have the same thing if you trade one Bitcoin for another. But the joy of having an NFT is akin to having an original Monet, well, maybe to some people. It works like a signature that artists use to authenticate their work. An NFT can be anything digital ; music, video, or a photo. But just because you own the NFT I can still use the image as my profile picture if I want. That would be like me owning a print of it. Also, unlike owning an original Monet, an NFT allows you to enable a feature that will pay you a percentage when the NFT is sold or traded. This means you are making money without any visible materials being used or time wasted.
NFT’s are valuable because there is normally a limited amount of them, making them ideal for collectors. The age of an NFT is sometimes more important than the aesthetic. Just like one of your first toys from when you were a child, it may not look its best, but it has survived the test of time. The value accretion is much the same for a crudely drawn pixel cat (called Cryptopunks, which are the oldest NFTs). The reason people pay a lot of money for them is not because of their artistic prowess, but the time they have been on the blockchain and the data that keeps them there. For some, it is hard to understand this value system. Still, it isn’t dissimilar to a vase from the Ming dynasty that has survived centuries. It’s all about perceived value.
Last March, Mike Winkelmann – the digital artist known as Beeple – sold an NFT of his collage for £69 million, ranking him somewhere near David Hockney among the wealthiest artists alive today. The ingredients of his success; he has a large fan base of 2.5 million followers, he is a prolific artist who creates and publishes a new artwork every day for 14 years, as well as the legitimizing force of Christie’s auction house, which has sold some of the most well-known household names. This development has pitted traditional canvas against the blockchain NFT in the art marketplace. Or has it?
Damien Hirst’s ‘The Currency’ venture intended to uncover the relationship between money, art, and NFTs. The select few who did purchase one of his NFTs for £2,000 in the week from the 14th-21st of July 2021 when they became available had a decision to make. After a year, the owner has to decide whether to keep the NFT or the original signed dot painting. This choice was not optional, and if you decided to keep the NFT, the painting will be destroyed, and vice versa.
Destroying a piece of art shows the value of an NFT to the world, as it protects the piece’s value from vandals and thieves, who might also destroy it. But some people might still say that an NFT isn’t the same as ownership of the original piece. Hirst made it clear that there are, in fact, two different markets interested in his work by making ‘Currency’ where art is money. Both NFT and art marketplaces have their love of Hirst. If you take the piece away from the community that values it, the value no longer makes sense, just like all art. If you take an antique writing desk replete with ink well and kid leather top to an antique auction house, you will get a lot of interest; however that interest comes from those who already assign value to its age, aesthetic and materials – others might indeed laugh at paying £14,000 for such a piece, and call it old fashioned. But, what about the environmental impact of NFTs compared to the traditional physical art piece?
First, an article on the Renewable Energy Hub UK articulates how much energy is used to make and transfer an NFT. The Ethereum platform, where most of the crypto art and their security comes from, uses 48.14 kWh per transaction. That is roughly the equivalent of the power an average household uses in 1.5 days. Secondly, the security systems use math problems to protect the buyers from theft. These problems are all computer-generated through trial and error over several days. Both of these processes require a significant amount of energy, and thousands of transactions pass through the Ethereum platform every day.
The easy fix is that these transactions and the crypto data mining can run on clean energy, just like everything that requires power. The issue is, in 2020, 75% of all the data mining happened in China. That’s a lot of computer time. It is also a lot of energy, and China fuels 40% of its coin mining energy with coal. The answer to this environmental problem would be some sort of regulation. But as The Renewable Energy Hub explains, “the under-regulation of crypto limits investors abilities to influence energy sourcing.” It is very hard to regulate cryptocurrency, akin to a game of cat and mouse, as the currency is constantly changing and developing like a new species.
In comparison, a piece of traditional art’s carbon footprint is not much cleaner. The materials used in paints like acrylic and oil are hard to recycle and have a significant carbon footprint. After the piece of art is made, it also needs to be transported to exhibitions of remote buyers. The packaging, transport and shipping all add up. There are, of course, ways to reduce arts carbon footprint, many of which you can see in the galleries today.
First off, you can compare the footprint of the paint and materials before you buy them. Paints can contain substances that harm the environment, including toxic metals, solvents, biocides, surfactants, defoamers, Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), and raw materials like titanium oxide that contribute to global warming. However, all of these nasty ingredients can be avoided. The transport miles will be minimal if you buy from a local artist.
For example, Damien Hirst might have decided to use a locally sourced shark rather than a tiger shark from Australia for ‘The physical impossibility of death in the mind of someone living.’ For the everyday painter, it might be useful to research alternatives to acrylic and oil (which has high levels of VOCs); egg tempera is a much more sustainable option and natural inks you can make from vegetables, mushrooms (ink caps), and berries. For those who are less keen on mixing their pigment, here are some brands that are painting with a greener brush; Lakeland, Little Greene, and Earthborn. Farrow and Ball is a brand that is moving in the right direction with little to no VOCs and vegan-friendly paints (not tested on animals).
A really sustainable way of creating art is to use waste or used items. I particularly enjoy multimedia collage pieces that use found and foraged items from beaches and cities. You can turn the colourful threads of plastic clogging the seas into beautiful woven waves. Here are some artists who have pioneered the use of used and recycled materials from Artsper Magazine; Tim Nobel and Sue Webster with their shadow sculptures; Wim Delvoye, who transforms used objects like tyres into beautiful floral pieces; Ptolemy Elrington, a Brighton based artist who created ‘Hubcap Creatures (Shark); that demonstrates how one might create a shark without shipping one from the other side of the world.
In terms of sustainability, crypto art has a long way to go. Still, once we can use clean energy to power their creation and transfer, all we have to worry about is; NFT’s used for tax evasion, investment fraud, and money laundering- essentially another way for people artificially increases the value of original artwork by creating scarcity.
Some people have made a fortune, some people have lost their life savings, and some people are burning Banksy’s art on Instagram and making an NFT out of it. After a year, we might see through the uptake of NFT vs the original art piece of Hirst’s Currency whether the NFT has a bright future. I appreciate how Hirst has cleverly highlighted how our faith- based value systems are accepted- significantly how similar an NFT is to a banknote with its uniques codes and fluctuating value decided by quantity printed.