The other day I was walking through a flood-wrecked neighborhood when I found an interesting work of art on the ground. It was an original, signed and numbered (35/100) print of Theodoros Stamos’ famed Paris Review cover sold at the New York World’s Fair. Kept in near-mint condition since 1965 – probably unthinkingly cast aside with a number of household artifacts touched by the mighty Bronx River during Hurricane Ida’s storm surge – I was surprised to learn it was only worth a couple of hundred dollars. One man’s trash is another’s treasure, but this was clearly a gem.
But that’s less than the least expensive Weird Whale NFT (non-fungible token), or than a “Loot box” for a non-existent blockchain game. My first thought was to burn it, then mint the asset as an NFT to list on OpenSea. Although not a major trend yet, as more people begin to recognize NFTs as a viable (and easy to own) asset class it’s a question many may come to face.
There’s precedent for burning art to create value. Last March, blockchain company Injective Protocol did just the same to a genuine Banksy. The “BurntBanksy collective” removed “the physical piece from existence” to make way for a smart contract that now stands for the memory of the original. (Banksy himself shredded a piece of his own work after it was sold at auction in 2018.)
To some extent, the BurntBanksy NFT is an entirely original work of art. It’s a conceptual piece that asks whether we should prefer physical items over digital, as Paul Dylan-Ennis put it. Plus, it literally has a new signature that lives on the blockchain.
Then there’s Damien Hirst’s “Currency,” a series that offers buyers the opportunity to own either a unique hand-painted sheet covered in colorful dots or one of 10,000 NFTs corresponding to them. In a year’s time, if a collector chooses to own the painting, the matching token will be destroyed and vice versa.
“It’s kind of this cynical choice,” Sarah Meyohas, a Yale-trained artist who broke into the blockchain space in 2015 with “Bitchcoin,” said in an interview. “He’s telling you, like, do you want the physical dollar bill or do you believe in the metaverse, because he doesn’t actually have a position on it.”
Sometimes the choice is destroying an original digital work to make an NFT. A few months ago, the creator of the popular meme “Charlie bit my finger – again!” removed the video from YouTube (where it lived since 2007 and earned more 883 million views) after it was tokenized and auctioned off.
More often than not, the choice to destroy an object in order to monetize it is simply performative, a way of telling the world you were the first to have the idea or apply it to a new context. It can signal to the world that this is something worth paying attention to, but it rarely creates value – especially as time goes on.
“This is basically like a short-term Band-Aid to deal with the complications of having an asset exist both physically and digitally,” Meyohas said.
Could the same be true of my Stamos print? Part of the post-war Abstract Expressionist movement in the U.S., Stamos’ entire body of work was one big question mark. What is art? For him, painting could be reduced to pure colors on canvas. Purposely destroying his work fits the theme, a way to bring his work into a modern context.
But in the end, the gas price is just too damn high.
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