“I used to give a lot of art away to people,” reflects Damien Hirst at one of his sprawling west London studios. “And they’d always sell it after a lot less time than I thought they would. You know, they wouldn’t sell it for leukaemia treatment for their children or mother or something, they’d sell it to buy handbags. And I’d be like, ‘Damn, I hate that!’”
Hirst is not on a quest to make a few bucks from a collectible NFT. He’s not particularly interested in celebrating career highlights, or even attracting a younger, richer, snazzier audience.
He wants to know where the line between art and money is drawn. And if it can be drawn at all.
“And I suppose this whole project is like a test of that sort of area, right? I came to terms with it — it’s like, you know, when you walk downstairs in your house if you got a painting and it’s not long before the spots represent dollar signs. I’ve been thinking about that for a long time.”
Instead of allowing it to lurk in the background, his latest work brings the tension between money and art to the fore. The Currency is the name for his drop of 10,000 NFTs, each tied to a physical painting created in 2016. After the $2,000 purchase of a “Tender”, as Hirst calls them, collectors will have to choose whether to keep the NFT, which will be a high-resolution photo of the painting, or turn the NFT in for the physical painting.
The Currency blurs the line between fungibility and non-fungibility, between money and art, and the project’s core choice will force each collector to make a value judgement between paintings in meatspace and NFTs. By nature The Currency raises a number of philosophical questions: for starters, what is the value of the art versus the dollar value of selling it on the secondary market? What is the value of displaying it on the wall, versus on a monitor? What is the value of portability versus permanence?
These complex, perhaps unanswerable queries may obscuring a more intimate one he’s ultimately posing to his audience, however: what am I worth to you?
It’s like Newton getting bopped on the head with an apple: as Hirst was first learning about art, he was simultaneously learning about the art market.
Hirst often cites an early art teacher as a foundational influence — a “really great guy, a theatrical guy” who recruited him as Bottom in a school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; who fought valiantly to secure him a spot in the sixth form; and perhaps most importantly, who kept the classroom stocked with art auction catalogues.
“From very early on, I was looking at all the items on auction, which is a good way in […] and I’d look at the prices, and I remember you could do like 10 grand, 20 grand for a Picasso or something,” Hirst told Cointelegraph. “It wasn’t a lot of money, but to me it was a lot of money at the time. Just seeing art and money in that catalogue was good.”
In much the same way a happy accident helped Newton apprehend a fundamental law of physics, Hirst grasped early on that the attainment of fame in his field meant accepting and adapting to the reality that fine art and money are inextricably linked.
Today, his remunerative wizardry is widely renowned — even occasionally taking the spotlight from his work. He’s a master and a trailblazer when it comes to what crypto aficionados might call “pumpanomics” — the slurry of marketing, conceptual or visionary heft, and simple supply/demand mechanics inherent in scarcity that can make a project’s value soar to stratospheric heights.
Highlights include the 2008 sale of Always Beautiful Inside My Head Forever — a complete exhibition of 223 works that, in an unprecedented move, bypassed galleries to sell directly at auction for a staggering $200 million — and For the Love of God, a diamond-encrusted platinum cast of a skull that sold for $100 million to a consortium of owners that…