2 December 2022

Mondrian and the Metaverse

By Amalyah Keshet

Over the last couple of months, the news has been strewn with articles situated at opposite ends of the art historical continuum. One item was the unexpectedly headline-grabbing discovery that a much-visited and deeply scrutinized painting by Mondrian has been displayed upside down in a German museum for the last 75 years. The press loves stories like this. Only the copyright geeks amongst us could read about the Mondrian and think, “is this an infringement of the artist’s moral right to decide how his/her work is displayed?  Probably. Does anyone care?  Probably not.”   

However, the curators and conservators amongst us will sympathize with the decision to retain the upside-downness so that the delicate masking-tape-based work doesn’t suffer damage from gravitational stress. The archivists among us will appreciate that it was a photograph in a 1944 issue of the American magazine Town & Country showing “the work resting on an easel in Mondrian’s studio shortly after his death” that was convincing evidence. 

Nevertheless, “…some Mondrian experts are skeptical that the evidence is definitive, especially considering that the piece was unfinished and without a signature. Mondrian was even known to flip his pieces while working on them… Even though it might have been put on an easel at some point, that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t have been worked on further. A different decision about its orientation could have been made.”

The point being the amount of attention previous-century abstract art and an almost Newtonian principle of startling simplicity — which way is up? — can provoke in the age of the decentralized and fluidly oriented.   

Mischief in the respectable art world

At the other end of the continuum, Meta (the erstwhile Facebook) has been in the news along with cryptocurrency and NFT platforms, all descending the seven circles of the Metaverse with  numerous Dantes (some in headsets) providing guidance and commentary. Promises of lucrative secondary-market NFT profits for digital artists as well as collectors have been, it seems, allegorical at best.

In a previous post, we visited the enfant terrible artists’ collaborative called MSCHF, which created its own Damien Hirst “project,”  Severed Spots Manifesto. This consisted of purchasing a Damien Hirst Spot print for $30,000 and carefully cutting out the 88 individual spots, which were then sold $480 each. The original print, transformed into a piece of paper enhanced by 88 holes and Hirst’s signature, was put up for auction with a $126,500 minimum; it sold for much more.  

One can’t outdo the master at his own game, though. In October we witnessed the final act of Damien Hirst’s colorful mint, burn, and profit NFT project — more than appropriately entitled The Currency —  flamingly performed at Newport Street Gallery in London.   

A year ago, Hirst launched his own project in which the buyers of 10,000 NFTs were forced to choose between keeping the digital token (priced at $2,000 each) or swapping it for the corresponding work on paper by the given deadline. 5,149 people traded their NFT for an enamel dot painting, meaning 4,851 NFTs remained in existence. The physical works that were not claimed were ceremoniously burned by the silver-colored-protective-gear-wearing artist. 

In October, the resale price of one of Hirst’s NFTs was around $6,354; one of the painted works sold for $26,000 at Phillips London back in January. The highest price achieved at auction for one of the physical works has been $30,642 (at Sotheby’s, in June); however, one sold more recently for $13,723 at Bonhams. As a compensating afterthought, apparently, those who kept the NFTs are being offered some additional goodies: a Hirst spot umbrella, an additional NFT, and access to the artist via a studio visit.

“A lot of people think I’m burning millions of dollars of art but I’m not,” Hirst said. “I’m completing the transformation of these physical artworks into NFTs by burning the physical versions. The value of art, digital or physical, which is hard to define at the best of times will not be lost; it will be transferred to the NFT as soon as they are burnt.”  However, if the NFT no longer points to an actual work of art (digital or physical), but points to something that has been destroyed, then it is worth …what? 

According to curator and art critic Kolja Reichert, “Even with his NFT project, Damien Hirst gets stuck in the ownership criteria of analog art.”  Not entirely wrongly, it turns out, as the Legislative Commission has confirmed that NFTs can legally be treated as property – if, one would assume, the executable code in the “token” actually points to something. 

The future may be now

AI generated art is currently replacing NFTs as the hot issue du jour, raising new legal questions, keeping copyright experts scrambling and artists, illustrators, and graphic designers wondering if they are out of a job.  The Metaverse, whatever it may be, looms on the horizon. Art historians and legal experts find themselves diving into even more abstract technical analysis. “Code is law,” Prof. Lawrence Lessig wrote twenty years ago.  

At the same time, Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. v. Goldsmith, an entirely analog cliff-hanger, is before the U.S. Supreme Court. Although this is a fair use case in a jurisdiction that actually hasfair use, its impact is potentially significant for cultural institutions and creative industries outside the U.S. The nine judges’ decision could come down at any time up until the court recesses in June 2023. 

Much more to come, as things develop, in our first posts of the new year.


Further reading (and watching):

Adam Gopnik’s musings on the flipped Mondrian:  https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/the-case-of-the-upside-down-mondrian

Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Code_and_Other_Laws_of_Cyberspace

“Had they thought about it more deeply, the protesters could have gained something more than attention. Museums use too much energy.”  https://www.theartnewspaper.com/2022/11/04/protestors-took-too-much-risk-throwing-soup-on-the-sunflowersand-missed-an-opportunity   

Revealing the poetry in Law:  https://dicta.icaad.ngo/

John Oliver, on “Last Week Tonight,” tackles the history of colonial museum collecting practices and their  cultural impact. 

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