Non-fungible tokens: Vanguard of Destruction (

What would Walter Benjamin say about this? Artist Damien Hirst burned some paintings he made in October last year after previously selling them as NFT.

Photo: Isabel INFANTES / AFP

Shortly before Christmas, Donald Trump, the popular leader of gang capitalism, delighted his followers with a series of photos. His head portraits were mounted on superhero bodies in the iconic style of the American culture industry. The aesthetics of these atrocities recall the murals of fairgrounds. And yet it also has something of the populist avant-garde: the images were offered for sale as non-fungible tokens (NFTs, unique digital data sets often intended to represent works of art), each one unique priced at US$99 each.

Will Superdonald fill the war chest for his next coup attempt with the four and a half million that the sale of the atrocity images brought in in no time? Be that as it may, the politics of kitschy images was just a banal cultural appropriation of the NFT art hype of the past two years, which brought in good sales at Christie’s and Sotheby’s auction houses. The question of how to deal with the loss of exchange value of images which can be reproduced infinitely thanks to digital technologies without their utility value suffering in the least is of paramount importance. for the art market. According to the NFT strategy, digital artworks should escape reproducibility via blockchain techniques and be able to change exclusive owners like analog artworks.

The foundations were laid almost ten years ago. Entrepreneur Anil Dash and artist Kevin McCoy received the 2022 Webby Lifetime Achievement Award for adapting cryptocurrency techniques to the art market to address the digital art marketing deficit. According to the laudatory speech, your initiative of 2014 allows the protection of intellectual property rights and real profit opportunities for artists producing digitally.

Hype or avant-garde?

On the occasion of the exhibition “Proof of Art. A short history of NFTs, from the beginning of digital art to the metaverse”, presented in Linz in 2021, art historian and museum director Alfred Weidinger said the artistic turn to NFT technology was not hype, but avant-garde. In doing so, he puts them on an equal footing with the committed artistic avant-gardes of the beginning of the 20th century, and this is a paradox.

With regard to the media aspects of the avant-garde, Walter Benjamin worked on a transformation of the concept of art in the mid-1930s. His theses: New techniques from the field of industrial productive forces create new aesthetic techniques of representation and expression, which in turn create new devices of perception and articulation. Benjamin used his categories of ritual “cult value” and bourgeois “exhibition value” to distinguish between archaic, religious, feudal, and bourgeois artistic practices. In its early days, art was part of magico-religious ritual. In bourgeois society, the work of art is valued according to its uniqueness. Worship value had drawn its legitimacy from the supposed participation in the sacred. Now it is replaced by exposure value, which is still characterized by aura. Certified authenticity and spatio-temporal presence in a place determined artistic experience and appreciation of artistic production.

According to Benjamin, the criterion of “exhibition value” loses its meaning in the modern artistic genres of photography and cinema. Technical reproducibility does not appear here as something secondary, as in other pictorial arts and in music, it is an essential characteristic of form. It is characteristic of the reception of contemporary works of art that the aura degrades. The revolutionization of art through mass technical reproduction, Benjamin argues, contributes to social revolution.

Benjamin’s hopes did not materialize. Whether his conception of art does justice to photography and cinema as a whole should be discussed again today, from the perspective of the auratic decadence inherent in media. Nonetheless, it feels like a farce when the art of reproduction par excellence, digital art, strives for a technically generated reappropriation of auratic originality and is celebrated as avant-garde for it. Digital artworks become, as NFTs, ghostly ghosts of the era of display value and exchange value. However, the proprietary economy of privatized value no longer has an objective aesthetic sense since works of art have entered the age of their technical reproducibility.

The reproducibility of digital works exchanged as NFTs has in no way been abolished. In most cases, the digital production format is still available; it can be used to generate other NFTs with modified metadata. All types of digital artwork appropriation are also still possible (but without the coveted cryptographic seal). The hope of a reversal of the trend concerning the casualization of art producers is therefore unfounded.

Dhe returns of cult value

The NFT bubble is the sign of a renewed rediscovery of the cult value of art. “Damien Hirst wants to burn thousands of his photos”, reported the “Süddeutsche Zeitung” in July 2022; in october, the magazine “Monopol” announced that the fires had finally been carried out on the occasion of the Frieze art fair. An artist recognizes the triviality of his production and throws it away instead of disturbing the public? Wasn’t that good news? But of course that was not the goal, but one of those acts of “productive destruction” in the sense of Joseph Schumpeter’s theory of capitalism, where “productive” means profitable.

At best, Hirst’s “Currency” show of destruction is an indicator of reversals in the art market. Value comes not from artistic skill, but from speculation fueled by publicity. A year before the cremation, Hirst was selling brightly dotted paper works as decorative as any confetti-strewn table, with the options of NFT conversion or material preservation. Since around half of the buyers have opted for the creation of a digital “original” – provided that the material object is destroyed – the Hirst confetti can now be viewed, for example, via the NFT trading platform OpenSea with the title assigned by the creator will. The constant color is sometimes called “As long as the sun shines”, sometimes “That it would die”, sometimes “Where we live”. The continuous list of simple, attention-seeking subject-predicate constructions, without any reference to confetti, reinforces the arbitrariness of the objects. Ultimately, what characterizes the series entitled “currency” can only be its monetary value.

This confirms the dubious argument of British art expert and gallery owner Michael Findlay that the value of art derives from monetary value. According to its inside story, The Value of Art, the record amount raised at Christie’s for Beeple’s digital collage, Everydays/The First 5000 Days, transformed this ordinary, internet-enabled collectible into a work of art. At the same time, Hirst’s “money” campaign still follows Schumpeter’s well-known logic: prices (of coins that remain analog) rise by artificially creating scarcity. Hirst stays true to his reputation as a “sensational” artist: the burns that took place in the gallery space, in appropriate costumes, and which can now be traced on the internet, primarily created “show value” (in the sense of Georg Seeßlen and Markus Metz), which has “collective value”. the token increases.

hardware attack

The destruction of a Banksy print by a group close to the Injective Protocol blockchain platform and posing as Banksy fans was also staged as a spectacle, as was the burning of a page from Frida Kahlo’s diary by crypto entrepreneur Martin Mobarak (Ursula Scheer has 2021 and spoke about it in the »FAZ« in 2022). In addition to a speculative practice with an affinity for staging, we observe here a fundamental and destructive attack on matter.

In a series of almost unknown art destruction from 2021, which can be found on YouTube and whose notoriety should remain low according to the wishes of writers here, they are mainly prints and works on paper by artists now little known deceased who are diverted. The video recordings document the protagonist’s sadistic lust as it struggles for attention. He rips off the works of art that are attached to the wall with adhesive strips, briefly presents their signatures and other traces of authenticity in front of the camera. He then brings the works in grinder format to his hand so he can breathe a sigh of relief after they are destroyed. A cult object that we thought was forgotten is placed in the center of the video extract: the annihilation device.

2021 and 2022 have been years of booming releases around NFT and Metaverse, often with the addition of “for beginners”. The cryptocurrency and seal of authenticity were linked to speculation about a future three-dimensional parallel world. First the subject of science fiction literature and computer games, the metaverse was popularized by Mark Zuckerberg’s version”Horizon Worldsto the changing scope of the reality of commercial and economic transactions. This indicates a rapidly growing influence of virtually generated values.

Speculation is in any case linked to the possible destruction of material goods. However, the loss of material-sensual contact is further increased by a shift from central life contexts to the Internet, which is termed three-dimensional. The NFT hype manifests private desires to shred tactilely tangible things or let them go up in smoke on the altar of internet realities as scorched victims. It is both an expression of alienation from the physical and the desire for immediate physical destruction. The relapse of the art world, which has declared itself avant-garde, into the value of spectacle and worship also has a fascist component.

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