Silly, cartoonish, offensive...and sold for millions.  Is it time to take digital art seriously?

Silly, cartoonish, offensive…and sold for millions. Is it time to take digital art seriously?

High in the hills of Piedmont, in a castle west of Turin, an astronaut in a skin-tight silver suit surveys an empty landscape. Projected onto four screens simultaneously, each forming one side of a slowly rotating box, this lonely androgynous individual, walking towards a destination perpetually out of reach, is the subject of Human One, a 2021 work by a 40-year-old digital . Wisconsin artist known as Beeple.

Placed inside the 17th-century picture gallery of the Castello di Rivoli, as the centerpiece of a new exhibition, Human One is displayed alongside a painting by Francis Bacon of another solitary figure in a sort of de cage – provocatively granting Beeple, and the digital art movement it represents, the imprimatur of both an internationally respected institution and premier art. For museum director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, Beeple – whose pieces often satirize the likes of Donald Trump, Mark Zuckerberg, Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un – is a kind of Andy Warhol of our modern age. “collective intelligence” or stupidity. ”. Like Warhol, Beeple turns popular culture (from Winnie-the-Pooh to Pikachu) into art, but for the age of social media. For others, Mike Winkelmann, to give Beeple his real name, is pretty much the Antichrist of art, his digitally created dystopian images presaging the demise of Western culture itself.

Just two years ago, no one in what Beeple calls the “mainstream” art world paid him the slightest attention. His ongoing “Everyday” series — mostly scatological, sci-fi illustration images he creates and posts online at the rate of one a day — was so far removed from the kind of stuff that popped up in galleries and museums there may have also existed on another planet. Moreover, even if Beeple – which takes its name from a soft toy from the 1980s, and whose Instagram account @beeple_crap now has 2.5 million followers – had been producing his Everydays since 2007, he did not yet call himself an artist, because , as he recently told The New Yorker that people had “ruined” that “label” by “being pretentious assholes.” Instead, he made a living as a designer, producing, for example, concert visuals for clients such as One Direction and Justin Bieber.

In 2020, however, he became interested in a new technology known as “non-fungible tokens” or NFTs. Essentially, an NFT, which can be linked to any digital file, from a tweet to a photo to one of Beeple’s images, provides a clever way to impart rarity or uniqueness to something. which can otherwise be reproduced endlessly. Think of it as a kind of negotiable certificate providing proof of ownership of a digital property.

For Beeple, NFTs have been a game-changer: a way, finally, to monetize his art. In October 2020, it “dropped” three NFTs – the cheapest of an edition of 100, costing $1 each – on the Nifty Gateway online marketplace. The following March, Christie’s held its first sale of a purely digital work of art, a vast composition, designed by Beeple, tesselating each of its first 5,000 Everydays – and the NFT associated with the collage sold for more than £55million. Out of nowhere, Beeple had become the third most expensive living artist at auction, behind only Jeff Koons and David Hockney.

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