Mar 7, 2021

On art and business and context and mirrors


Jean-Michel Basquiat - Untitled, 1981

Estimated value $300,000-400,000

1/ It used to be that value could be determined by scarcity. The less of something, the harder it was to get, the more it was worth for you to get it. Maybe even the value of a piece of something (art? content?)  was more related to the scarcity of its distribution than it was to any measure of value. In equation form, we could think of this traditionally as: Value (V) = Scarcity (S) * Quality (Q). Q of course, being largely subjective, is impossible to measure. But S is not. Maybe S then acted as a multiplier of value.

Yet, one of the superpowers of connected technologies - networks - is that they will remove scarcity if at all possible. Connected networks by definition make things abundant that were once scarce. They broaden access. Without judgment. Removing scarcity is a way to create new types of value.

2/ What is art? One can think of art as anything - images, music, video, gifs, text, memes. Anything really.

Art also is a mirror. That is, it reflects the world back to us so we can see it more clearly. In that way, art is not simply important, it is indispensable. The Velvet Underground’s first record - The Velvet Underground and Nico - lists the artist Andy Warhol as a producer. That record’s cover art is a Warhol print of a banana. The album contains the song I’ll Be Your Mirror:

I'll be your mirror

Reflect what you are, in case you don't know

This suggests a potential first principle: that more art available to more people more often can only be a good thing.

3/ Maybe digital art and non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are relevant here. A digital file, when intersected with the ubiquity and scale of the internet, can be “seen” by anyone. NFTs push the notion even further. By adding to the ideas of abundance and scale those of passionate distribution, patronage, the day-one fan and, yes, ownership. Concepts associated with scarcity, now distributed out to the abundant world at large.

Yes, there is no limit on the supply. Yet, connected networks make things that were scarce now abundant. 

4/ NFTs and cryptoeconomics (tokens) in general force the ownership issue by allowing for everything to be, and governed by, a market. This is neither good nor bad - it is, though, very different. Worth considering more.

At the same time, I wish Warhol was around to see this. In many ways, he conceived of and predicted it more than 50 years ago. He was explicit that art meant business and business meant art. In an inversion (or provocation) about the notion of artistic creation, he called his studio The Factory. He also said: “You know it’s art when the check clears.” And:

Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art.

Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art

Another artist (Jay-Z) reflected this concept back to us in his 2005 lyric:

I’m not a businessman; I’m a business, man

Artists taking agency over their own economics is not new. Maybe what is new is - again - the scale and abundance, that more people can experiment with this notion of artistic agency. 

5/ I love Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans. I could look at them all day. Not for the brush strokes - these are silkscreen printed - but for the representation of the world they reflect. A Warhol soup can looks exactly like the actual cans. Thus, they mean something different about art by trying to tell us about commerce and ourselves. Warhol himself decried almost any notion of creativity and agency in his works, via technique:

I find it easier to use a screen. This way, I don’t have to work on my objects at all. One of my assistants or anyone else, for that matter, can reproduce the design as well as I could.

Here is a piece of art and associated NFT -  “a PNG file containing 0 bytes of information - the world's smallest NFT” - by the artist shl0ms:

This reminds me of John Cage’s piece 4′33″ - a score that “instructs performers not to play their instruments during the entire duration of the piece.”

Mamet once wrote “a great meal fades in reflection. Everything else gains.” What he meant, I think, was that it’s not the thing that matters, but the thing about the thing. The context of the thing. How you experience the thing. NFTs enhance this by providing for a supercharged way to understand the text and the context (and the money context) all at the same time.  

John Palmer wrote an essay minted as an NFT. He called it the “first community-owned essay, crowdfunded on Ethereum.” The writing - Scissor Labels - is wonderful: thoughtful, quirky, idiosyncratic and long; it covers design and music and cultural theory and software and hyperpop. It is a mirror.

6/ I wrote about this 5 years ago in discussing a company called Mediachain, which asked us some questions. How do you show what is behind a digital thing, understand it, pay for it? This still feels new today: 

We might be able to find out the identity of the photographer, send her a micropayment, see what social network it originated on, see the press the image received, find more images by her and any number of other things.

Back then, there really weren’t tokens or NFTs. So now, when you have a digital thing, powered by an NFT, more new questions arise: shall I own it, display it, port it, trade it or sell it?

Questions that perhaps force us, again, to look into the mirror.

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