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Digital Art's New Frontier
With the upcoming Christie’s auction and his $3.5 digital art sale in December, Beeple has officially made the crypto art market a big deal.
Thirteen years ago, graphic designer Mike Winkelmann (AKA Beeple) committed himself to making a new digital artwork to post online every day and—even when he really didn’t feel like it—he did it anyway, believing that the effort would help him become a better artist. He also wanted to become more adept at a wide array of software, particularly Cinema 4D.
He had a recurring thought in the back of his mind that if he kept the Everydays going for fifteen, maybe twenty years, his art would improve and—eventually—somebody might take note of what he’d done on all of those consecutive days.
And then it happened—and much sooner than in his wildest dreams.
In December of 2020, Winkelmann made history when he sold a selection of his Everydays for $3.5 million during a digital art auction that lasted just 48 hours.
The sale was notable not only because it helped smash the perception that digital art is not valuable and collectible; it also brought the world of NFTs (non-fungible tokens) and crypto art out into the mainstream. Without going into too much detail, digital art is considered crypto art when it includes proof of verified ownership.
While a signed Van Gogh painting can be authenticated and traced to its rightful owner by conventional means, crypto art is verified using an NFT, a unique token linked to a specific file. Tokens are stored on what’s called a blockchain, a sort of ledger that can be accessed by anyone. Crypto art has its own blockchain, Ethereum, so called because it involves the use of a specific type of cryptocurrency known as Ether (ETH).
There’s a whole lot to know about how the whole crypto art world works, so once you’re finished reading this story, check out a more in-depth School of Motion article.
Here’s what Winkelmann had to say when we asked him about the December auction, the upcoming Christie’s sale, and what the rise of the crypto art market could mean for motions graphics artists.
Tell us about the Christie’s auction that’s coming up
Christie’s will be auctioning a digital collage called “Everydays — The First 5000 Days.” Bidding starts on February 25 and goes to March 11, so it’s a two-week auction, which is unusual in the crypto art space where most auctions are just a day. This is the first time Christie’s has auctioned something completely virtual. They are literally auctioning off a jpeg that includes all the images from the first 5,000 days of my Everydays.
They recognize that this is the beginning of people collecting digital art. It’s the start of a new chapter in art history where people take digital art very seriously, like they would any other art form that is collected and valued at very high levels. It’s a really good time to get into crypto art because things are going to change very quickly. I’m thinking about how to approach this in a purposeful way. Like by releasing a spring and fall collection. The whole scene is being built around collections and drops, which makes more sense than just being like, ‘Hey, here’s some shit for sale.’
How did you hear about crypto art?
I didn’t really look into it until October, but people have been bugging me about it since the summer. I took a look at that time, but I didn’t know anyone in the space, and I didn’t really get it, though I thought it was interesting. I took another look in October and I thought, ‘holy shit, I recognize a lot of people here and they’re making shitloads of money. There IS something to this.”
I started talking to anyone who would talk to me about it—artists, people who run the sites, collectors. I wanted to know why people were paying so much money for crypto art and what had been tried and what hadn’t. I just wanted to understand what in the hell it all was. The more I learned, the more it felt like this could be something really huge, people could really start taking digital art seriously and collecting it in a real way.
Right now, hundreds of thousands of people create digital art every day and it is literally completely ignored. Many of those people have loads of followers and no way to monetize their art. So digital artists mostly make money freelancing, not from their art. This would allow some people to make whatever the fuck they want and put it out there. That’s why you can see how this space is going to get very competitive. As more people get involved, the term “starving artist” is very much going to apply to digital artists too. But at least it could be possible to make some money from your art.
Did the success of the auction surprise you?
I did not think I was going to make so much fucking money. I mean, I’ve always thought that eventually people would pay more attention to the Everydays, but I thought it would be like when I hit 20 years or something. You know, I still sit down and think, ‘Wow, that picture you put out last night was a pile of shit.’ People will say it’s great and I’ll be like ‘your standards are too low or you’re just blinded by whatever you think I am.’ Honestly, I am always practicing, trying to get better at what I do.
Do you think of yourself as leading the crypto art movement?
Crypto art has been around for about three years, so I didn’t start it. I’ve just made a lot more people aware of it. I’d really like to see more people get involved, but as more people come into the space, we’ll all be feeding off the same collector base, which is going to drive prices right down. I wanted to use my drop in December to bring in more collectors and educate people about how the system works.
But how do you get people to see JPEGs as collectible art?
People need to see that it has real value, and I do think that Christie’s, an auction house that’s been around forever, saying, ‘Yes, we also believe this is a thing,’ will make a difference. Graffiti wasn’t considered art for a long time and now it’s in museums because that’s how we look at it. Too many people think art that’s made on a computer isn’t art. They just think, ‘Oh, I could do that. Beep. Beep. Boop. Boop. See, it’s done.’ I guess that’s fair in some ways because how would they know what we do unless we educate them. I think people will come around.
What will collectors do with the jpegs they buy? How can they show them off?
Yeah, this is a great question and there’s still a lot of thinking to do about that. A jpeg is kind of an abstract concept that can take many different forms. What do you do if you want to display it in the real world somehow? My plan is to offer physical pieces with most things I sell.
Right now, I’m using digital screens but, eventually, those will die and then what? I figure if someone buys something for $100,000 and, years later, the screen dies and they want to know how to display it, I’ll get them whatever new crazy shit thing I’m using to display stuff. I’m not going to fuck people over. I’m excited about the physical forms crypto art will take in the future, and I think collectors are too.
My wife and I make the screens that display the art. They’re made with a really nice acrylic and are signed and numbered, just like a print you’d buy. We send them in detailed boxes that feel premium, so they’re fun and exciting to open. Prior to NFTs, if you won an auction, that was it. You didn’t actually get anything except the file. I thought that was a little lame. Like you have your friends over to crowd around the computer so you can pull up the jpeg and go, ‘Hey, that’s mine. I bought that.’
Describe how you augment the Everydays that you put up for auction.
I wanted to make sure that the pictures look like something you would collect, not just stick up on Instagram. I put labels on the pictures, which turn them into videos that slowly zoom through the piece. There is also some information at the bottom; kind of like a baseball card. There are a bunch of stats, more than what I say online, and if you scan the QR code, it goes to Beeple-Collect.com (https://www.beeple-collect.com/about) where people can upload pictures of the tokens in their home.
I want to do fun things to encourage people to participate and build a community around crypto art. Eventually, I’d like it to be so easy that wherever you are, when you see a physical representation of one of these artworks, you can just pull out your phone and get more information about it, including videos, C4D screenshots, and an explanation about how it was made. People really haven’t done a lot of that, but I think that if I can find ways to make these physical objects feel very digital and connected to the blockchain, people will go apeshit.
Artists who sell crypto art retain the copyright. How does that work?
The terms of service are set by the various platforms, so the wording is slightly different depending on who you work with. Artists do retain the copyright, so buyers couldn’t put the art on T-shirts and sell them or anything. Honestly, I think more work needs to be done around this whole topic. For me, if I sell someone a one-of-one piece of art, I look at it like we own it together.
Like, even though I would technically own the copyright, I wouldn’t just do whatever I wanted. I’d go to the collector and say, ‘Hey, so Justin Bieber wants to use the art for his album cover, is that something we want to do?’ As sellers, our interests are aligned with our collectors. If we become more popular as artists, the art goes up in value, so we all benefit. I think we need to see collectors as being on our team.
Any advice for artists who are excited about getting into the crypto art market?
I think you need to be patient. This is a completely new paradigm shift for our industry, and there is a lot of hype behind it. That hype will eventually die down but this will still be a very viable technology to sell digital art in a way that was not possible before. I would recommend to artists who want to be a part of this that they start making as much personal work as possible, and start thinking of their work in terms of collecting. We’re just at the beginning of this, so if you can’t get onto a platform or your work isn’t selling right away, please do not give up!!!
In my opinion, you’ve got to think about the long term. I’ve always thought about the long term. I’m very fortunate that I’ve been able to turn that personal work into money much sooner than I ever thought I would—and for much more money than I ever even dreamed. But don’t get discouraged. If you haven’t built up a big audience or taken the time to make your own art, start now. It’s never too late to start.
Meleah Maynard is a writer and editor in Minneapolis, Minnesota.