“The Currency,” the latest project by English artist Damien Hirst, is a work in two parts. Its actual form consists of 10,000 hand-painted A4 pages with bright dots. Each sheet features a holographic image of Hirst, a signature, a microdot, and a little individual message in place of a serial number, similar to paper money.
The artwork’s second component is that each of these hand-painted sheets is accompanied by an NFT (non-fungible token). NFTs are digital certificates of ownership that reside on blockchains, which are secure online ledgers.
Collectors will not be buying tangible artwork right now because of the way “The Currency” works. They will instead pay USD 2,000 for the NFT and have a year to select whether they want the digital or physical version. The other will be destroyed once the collector has chosen one.
So, what exactly is going on here, and what does it mean for art and money?
What exactly is money?
Hirst has effectively developed a different kind of money, based on the idea that money is primarily a social phenomenon based on faith and trust. In doing so, he brings up a fascinating dilemma. The term “non-fungible” refers to a token that exists just once. This contrasts with fungible commodities like dollars, which are all the same and can be traded like-for-like — just like many cryptocurrencies like ether or dogecoin. Traditional economics considers fungibility to be one of the most important characteristics of any currency.
Is it, however, everything that it appears to be? Hirst is exposing the non-fungible features of even fungible currencies with the distinct markings of each piece by generating 10,000 individual units that replicate real currencies. For example, most currencies will have different serial numbers and issuance dates on each note. This emphasizes the fact that money is a concept that becomes increasingly more difficult to define as you examine it more deeply.
The work further challenges our understanding of money by raising concerns about one of its most fundamental properties: that of a means of exchange. A work by a well-known artist is rarely considered a medium of exchange. Rather, it would be viewed as a scarce store of value, similar to gold.
Hirst wonders if things have to be this way. He is definitely having fun by generating 10,000 works in the manner of a currency, demonstrating how money is pliable and can shapeshift depending on the setting.
What is the definition of art?
Is it more important to have real or digital art? Hirst isn’t the first person to ask this question about NFTs. A business named Injective Protocol just paid USD 95,000 for a Banksy painting called Morons from 2006, which satirizes an art auction. The item was then destroyed live on Twitter, leaving just a digital version on an NFT. The NFT was later sold for USD 380,000.
I recently explored how Injective had cleverly chosen to capitalize on our preference for the physical over the digital. It brought attention to the benefit that an NFT cannot be destroyed by vandals such as themselves by destroying the physical form and then claiming the NFT signature would stand-in for the artwork.
This was a statement on the recurrent subject of whether NFTs truly imply ownership at a time when there had been a boom in demand for NFT art and other collectibles, with some selling for millions of dollars. Many people are perplexed as to why someone would believe that holding a digital replica of an “actual” artwork indicates ownership.
Hirst clearly understands. He approaches the issue of ownership by reducing it to its most basic economic and commercial form — the artwork as money. When individuals say they’re perplexed by NFTs, what they’re really saying is, “How can you spend money on something so worthless?” The majority of people still reject the notion that digital ownership is equivalent to physical possession.
Hirst is emphasizing how the “problem” may be readily solved by recognizing that his artwork is valued by two communities: those who value his traditional physical pieces and those who value his NFT works. He does this, I believe, to demonstrate how value has no meaning outside of the cultural context in which it was assigned. To the other, each town is a mystery. Zoom out, though, and they’re closer than they think, eventually bonding as Hirst fans.
The NFT community remains the most perplexing aspect of the conundrum for the majority of people. Passionate blockchain aficionados and crypto-natives, or young people who grew up with cryptocurrency, make up this culture. A blockchain wallet is where they keep their money. This can include fungible currency such as bitcoin or ether, as well as, increasingly, their art collection. These collections reflect their preferences and interests, providing insight into who they are and what they value.
Someone who, after a year has passed, decides to claim the NFT of Hirst’s work and reject the physical form is a particularly evident illustration of this. What better way to show that you’re serious about the blockchain future? When the year is up and we see how many people opted to preserve the NFT, it will be interesting to see how much of this new digital generation has become the dominant one.