How A Christie’s sale of a Digital work broke records!
That is when a digital graphic artist, sold an art work at Christie’s on March 11 for $69 million, making it the third highest sale by a living artist in history. (following artists Jeff Koons and David Hockney.)
This was the 255-year-old auction house’s first-ever sale of a nonfungible token (NFT) artwork.
Furthermore, this graphic artist is a man who has no gallery representation or foothold in the traditional art-world, so it is surprising to find him achieving this incredible pinnacle for individual sales.
And he is known as Beeple, but he is really Mike Winklemann, originally from Wisconsin, who lives with his family in South Carolina.
Shock and Awe?
This was a shocking event to many in the general public, or even more sophisticated individuals in the traditional art world. And to many, there were the new terms like NFT, or nonfungible token, which needed clarification. So now the publications had to seek experts to explain the entanglements of blockchain and cryptocurrency and how they got wrapped around this digital sale.
And Christie’s even accepted the transaction that is not for a physical work of art, but a digital JPEG image, the kind you or I can obtain or save by a right click of the mouse on a computer. And furthermore, the auction house transaction was through cryptocurrency.
Of course, such an event would attract all kinds of news coverage, both from within the art world and from all kinds of general coverage. So as a way of introducing many related facets of this story, let us review some of the press coverage and the issues and details which are portrayed. And more details will unfold as we take excerpts from a lot of the media coverage.
What Was This Artwork About?
Well, actually it was a giant digital representation of 13 years of his daily artworks which had been published on Instagram, where he had achieved a very sizeable following. At one point, years ago he read about an artist producing a piece a day. And he liked the idea. So, he started off the series with a simple sketch of the face of his uncle. From that modest start the ideas developed and became an extensive project.
The work at Christie’s was really a digital compilation of 5,000 Days of individual works, characterized as “Everydays 2020 Edition.”
Before the Christie’s sale had finalized, on March 11, there was a very extensive article in Esquire which tracks his earlier history before the Christie’s event.
He makes digital art—pixels on screens depicting bizarre, hilarious, disturbing, and sometimes grotesque images. He smashes together pop culture, technology, and postapocalyptic terror into blistering commentaries on the way we live.
In terms of the content, Beeple has come to a relevant summary of the particular nature of his art as it has evolved.
He says “I most look at it now as though I’m a political cartoonist,’ Beeple explains. ‘Except instead of doing sketches, I’m using the most advanced 3D tools to make comments on current events, almost in real time.”
HOW HAS THE TRADITIONAL ART MARKET RESPONDED?
And the traditional art market has been responding. A January 2021 article in The Art Newspaper, the art-world paper of record, noted the October 2020 Robert Alice sale at Christie’s and asked the question: Are NFTs “a new disruptor in the art market?” Georgina Adam wrote the piece, saying of NFTs: “Those from a more traditional art background will be horrified by most of the ‘art’ offered as NFTs.” There was a perception that NFTs were “garish, jaggedly drawn faces, cartoonish figures, cute kittens,” she wrote. The artist and prognosticator Kenny Schachter piled on, dismissing much of the work as something you’d see “on the back of a van,” though he did admit NFTs were attracting a new audience of art collectors.
Duncan Cock Foster predicts crypto art’s acceptance will follow a similar arc to that of bitcoin. “Bitcoin started as an asset collected by nerds,” he said. “Now it’s hedge funds and insurance companies. You’ll see art institutions collect NFTs as people get more familiar with the concept.” Or, as Beeple’s website proudly proclaims: “Not stopping until I’m in the MoMA… then not stopping until I’m kicked out of the MoMA, lol.”
The following article from NPR reveals some of the back story of how Mike Winklemann became introduced to the world of NFT’s.
NPR (3/10) Beeple Digital Art NFT EVERYDAYS Selling at Christie’s Auction : The Indicator from Planet Money : NPR
Over the last several years, Mike Winkelmann, also known as “Beeple”, has become internet famous for his Everydays project, where he creates and posts an original piece of art every single day. Recently, his entries have taken the form of these disturbingly realistic, often grotesque, sci-fi scenes inspired by the news. Mike has now been making and posting one image a day like this for over 13 years, which means his body of work totals more than 5000 images.
But for most of his working life, Mike hasn’t made money directly off this art. He’s been a web designer and worked as a freelance digital artist for music video and concert visuals for performers like Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber. Digital art hasn’t really been able to find purchase in the broader art market.
That is, until about four months ago. That’s when Mike found out about a new kind of blockchain technology that has been rippling through the digital economy: NFTs, or non-fungible tokens. NFTs are like certificates of ownership — unique barcodes that can’t be duplicated — that can be attached to all sorts of digital files and make them into exchangeable assets. Mike’s story offers a window into how NFTs are on track to dramatically reshape the art market. On The Indicator, we tell the story of how Mike Winkelmann dipped his toes into the NFT art market and started making huge sums of money there.
Beeple has 1.8 million Instagram followers. His work has been shown at two Super Bowl halftime shows and at least one Justin Bieber concert, but he has no gallery representation or foothold in the traditional art world.
And yet in December the first extensive auction of his art grossed $3.5 million in a single weekend.
Ten pieces sold that day, and another eleven on Sunday, including the grand finale: one long, continuous digital loop of every single piece auctioned off that weekend. A stunning bid came in with one second remaining on the clock. “The Complete MF Collection,” as Beeple dubbed the work, sold for $777,777. . . . .
Despite the impressive receipts, Winkelmann couldn’t quite shake the feeling—however fleeting—that without some physical object to go along with the NFT, he was kinda maybe selling “magic beans.” …….
Within days, Beeple had an idea to quiet skeptics and juice bidding. Inspired by collectibles like the vinyl toy market, Winkelmann and his wife set about designing a high-end physical object to go along with each sale. What they came up with was a marvel; picture a small LCD screen with a titanium back that displays the piece you just bought on a slow-moving loop. It’s like someone had asked Steve Jobs to redesign the Lucite box typically used to display baseball cards, but make it electric. Each one costs $500 to produce and is numbered and authenticated, with a front-facing QR code that takes you to a website that lists the provenance of that piece of art—who owned it before, and who owns it now.
In October of last year, Mike Winkelmann, a digital artist who goes by the name Beeple, noticed increasing talk in his online circles about a technology called “non-fungible tokens,” or N.F.T.s. Broadly speaking, N.F.T.s are a tool for providing proof of ownership of a digital asset. Using the same blockchain technology as cryptocurrencies like bitcoin—strings of data made permanent and unalterable by a decentralized computer network—N.F.T.s can be attached to anything from an MP3 to a single JPEG image, a tweet, or a video clip of a basketball game. N.F.T.s have existed in various forms for the better part of a decade. In 2017, an early iteration called CryptoKitties offered a marketplace of cartoon cat images, some of which traded hands for upward of a hundred thousand dollars.
Imagine digital Beanie Babies, but with only one existing copy of each. For art works, the N.F.T. format functions a little like a museum label noting the piece’s provenance—a proprietary stamp, attached to digital pieces that can still circulate freely across the Internet. In new online marketplaces such as Nifty Gateway, SuperRare, and Foundation, artists can upload, or “mint,” their works as unique N.F.T.s, then sell them.
Winkelmann sought advice on the burgeoning field from friends like Pak, a pseudonymous artist whose intricate geometric renderings were already selling as N.F.T.s for thousands of dollars. ……
On October 30th, Winkelmann launched his first “drop” of three art works on the N.F.T. marketplace Nifty Gateway, to test his salability. One was a piece called “Politics Is Bullshit,” featuring a diarrheic bull half-daubed in an American flag pattern amid a rain of dollar bills. The work came in an edition of a hundred, at a cost of one dollar each. A core feature of blockchain technology is “immutability”: all transactions recorded are permanent and transparent, which means that any N.F.T. purchase or sale is visible to the public. As of March, 2021, the editions had resold for as much as six hundred thousand dollars. (In N.F.T. marketplaces, artists receive a percentage of resale prices, typically around ten per cent.) In December, Winkelmann put together another drop, which included “The Complete MF Collection,” a selection of “Everydays” images—skinless corpses and gigantic Nintendo characters—in a single N.F.T., which came with physical accessories, including a digital picture frame and, as further evidence of authenticity, a purported sample of Beeple’s hair. The winning bid was $777,777.
What about reactions from the traditional art world critics? The New Yorker article refers to some critical assessments.
The historic sale, and the accelerating market for N.F.T.s, is causing a bout of soul-searching within the traditional art world: Could such vulgar Internet kitsch really be worth as much as masterpieces that have been carefully anointed by critics and curators? (Koons may be a divisive figure among critics, but even his detractors recognize his innovations in scale and craft.) In the Times, under the headline “Beeple Has Won. Here’s What We’ve Lost,” Jason Farago was unfazed by the N.F.T.’s ultimate price tag. As the adage goes, art is worth whatever someone is willing to pay for it. But Farago decried the work itself for its “violent erasure of human values” and reliance on “puerile amusements.” At Artnet, Ben Davis placed the crude political imagery of the “Everydays” within the “Trump-is-a-Poopy-Head/Cheeto Mussolini genre” that has flourished in recent years. Davis estimated that such work will “have the shelf life of Taco Bell leftovers.” . . .
Critics are not alone in struggling to make sense of the artist’s sudden status. Winkelmann himself is unschooled in modern art. When I asked him about the inspiration for one of his early “Everydays,” he replied,
“I’m going to be honest, when you say, ‘Abstract Expressionism,’ literally, I have no idea what the hell that is.” Yet Winkelmann is now fielding offers from some of the largest galleries in the world.
A LOOK AT THE FINAL MOMENTS OF BIDDING AT THE CHRISTIE’S AUCTION
After a flurry of more than 180 bids in the final hour, a JPG file made by Mike Winkelmann, the digital artist known as Beeple, was sold on Thursday by Christie’s in an online auction for $69.3 million with fees. The price was a new high for an artwork that exists only digitally, beating auction records for physical paintings by museum-valorized greats like J.M.W. Turner, Georges Seurat and Francisco Goya. Bidding at the two-week Beeple sale, consisting of just one lot, began at $100.
With seconds remaining, the work was set to sell for less than $30 million, but a last-moment cascade of bids prompted a two-minute extension of the auction and pushed the final price over $60 million. Rebecca Riegelhaupt, a Christie’s spokeswoman, said 33 active bidders had contested the work, adding that the result was the third-highest auction price achieved for a living artist, after Jeff Koons and David Hockney.
Billed by the auction house as “a unique work in the history of digital art,” “Everydays — The First 5000 Days” is a collage of all the images that Beeple has been posting online each day since 2007. The artist, who has collaborated with Louis Vuitton and pop stars like Justin Bieber and Katy Perry, uses software to create an irreverent visual commentary on 21st century life.
The aforementioned critic from Artnet, Ben Davis, took a deep dive into the 5,000 images and made the following report, which is excerpted below:
Screenshot of the archive of Beeple’s “Everydays” at his website.
‘Everydays: The First 5,000 Days’ is the third-most expensive work ever by a living artist. Not many people have actually looked at it.
“We didn’t need a preview.” So said Twobadour, one of the players behind the purchase of the all-digital work by artist Beeple (aka Charleston-based digital artist Mike Winkelmann) at Christie’s last week, when asked if he had actually looked at the lot before his company paid $69 million for it. . . . .
You can zoom in a bit to the tiled image of Everydays on the Christie’s site—but not that much. To really see the works and get a sense of Beeple’s vision, you have to go to his website. I went and clicked through all 13 years of work. Going through it all took about a day.
Here’s what I found. Essentially, there are four different Beeples at play in Everydays. None is likely to age well.
In reverse chronological order, the most recent, most well-known, and most successful Beeple is the digital satirist, making what amount to gross-out cartoons commenting on incipient tech dystopia and political outrages. The Christie’s preview of individual images from the work all hail from this era.
But it’s a surprisingly recent persona. Beeple’s only been working consistently in this mode for the last few years, and it’s very much a product of the climate of nonstop social media outrage that defined the Trump years. . . .
Before the political satirist Beeple, there’s sci-fi illustrator Beeple. There’s lots of DeviantArt-esque dreamy landscapes with big robotic structures in them or small figures gazing at portals of light or worshipping spheres. This period lasts from 2015 to 2018.
Before sci-fi illustrator Beeple, there’s digital striver Beeple. This long period of abstract, semi-abstract, or awkwardly rendered images, where Beeple is just using his daily exercises to try out tools, lasts from 2011 to 2014. They have garish colors and are frenzied mishmashes of textures and patterns, with names like Synthetic Bubblegum Tittyfux.
And then we arrive at the earliest period, from 2007 to 2011, when Winkelmann was in his late 20s and early 30s—before he even became a pixel-based artist, when he was just playing around with cartoons and uploading them to the web. (This period of work is clustered in the top left corner of the digital mosaic sold by Christie’s.)
It’s mildly interesting to see what Beeple’s early art influences were: punk drawer Zak Smith, cartoon painter Victor Castillo, and, interestingly, Martín Ramírez, the self-taught former janitor who made most of his work while institutionalized in a California mental hospital, and developed his own private, haunting lexicon of images. . . . .
When Twobadour, whose company bought the Beeple, talked to my colleague Eileen Kinsella, he said proudly that the plan was to create “a massive monument for this particular work of art which exists only in the virtual world.” In this online cathedral, web surfers from all over will be able to come to “experience the grandeur of this work.”