Making NFTs Great Again

Non-fungible tokens are so passé. The initial furor prompted in March 2021 by Christie’s sale of Beeple’s opus for the princely sum of $69,346,250 has long since subsided. Damien Hirst has had enough time to wrap up his year-long Currency project—an experiment which pitted unique physical paintings against their blockchain inscriptions. Donald J. Trump is a conspicuous latecomer to this party, a fact that he was oddly eager to emphasize when he announced his initial drop of NFT trading cards in December, 2022. Trump admitted that NFTs were no longer a “hot category. … Everyone said ‘what’s he doing it for—that’s so cold.’” Normally, Trump presents himself as a leader not a follower, so what could have led him to jump into this game so late, and even to boast about his tardiness? More perplexing still, why would he issue a second series of NFTs in mid-April of this year, thereby causing the value of the initial collection to promptly collapse?

In the aftermath of the original drop, Trump claimed that his motives were purely aesthetic, a point he reiterated in a Truth Social post on April 19th: “My New Trump Digital Trading Cards Series 2 is the Number One Collection in the World. It must be that people love the art.” From its purported triumph, Trump deduced that this “really incredible artwork” must be “very beautiful and interesting.” Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, of course, but the cards are certainly interesting. The first collection of 45,000 NFTs comprised extravagantly camp and heroic portraits of Trump as a musclebound cowboy, a rockstar, and even an astronaut—quintessentially American images. In sharp contrast, a number of images in Series 2 have a distinctly monarchical flavor.

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Who is afraid of risqué art?

A lifetime ago, Gore Vidal published two searing essays about sexual morality in the respective contexts of law and politics. Vidal lobbed his critical grenades from publications whose very existence was a testament to the efficacy of the First Amendment. In 1965, “Sex and the Law” appeared in the Partisan Review, a journal started by the Communist Party USA-affiliated John Reed Club.

The hedonistic Playboy magazine, which printed “Sex is Politics” in 1979, aimed to undo mainstream mores. In these two essays, Vidal argued that sex, including pornography, was the “hottest of buttons” in politics, and that the prudery of “dead-letter laws,” then still on the books, was rooted in outdated religious prejudice. “When the Cromwells fell,” he wrote, “the disgruntled Puritans left England for Holland (not because they were persecuted for their religious beliefs but because they were forbidden to persecute others for theirbeliefs).” Once in North America, the Puritans fulfilled their goal of creating a “quasi-theocratic society,” the morality of which had distinctly Old Testament origins.

We are nearly a quarter of the way into the 21st century, but despite most people’s tolerant self-image, moral censorship of the visual arts remains a problem. Neither the conservative Right nor the progressive Left are ready to embrace Playboy’s proposition that morality is a matter for the individual conscience. Across the political spectrum, accusations of indecency provoked by the alleged overexposure of human flesh can still lead to furious controversy and even suppression of the offending material. In a 1996 Vanity Fair essay about The People vs. Larry Flynt, Christopher Hitchens correctly observed that “the ‘righteous and violent’ American culture war is for real.” But two recent instances of moral uproar (from the Right on one occasion, and from the Left on another) confirm that the opposing sides can at least concur on the topic of risqué art. Both want it hidden from view to avoid traumatizing the audience and wider society.

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Evan Holloway “Scry if you want to” exhibition interview

Xavier Hufkens gallery (Brussels) recently published a clip of an interview I conducted with Los Angeles-based artist Evan Holloway. The interview was conducted on the occasion of his upcoming exhibition Scry if you want to which runs February 10 through April 1, 2023. We discussed work which ranges from abstract relief paintings Enochian Tablets based in on the writings of 16th century occultists John Dee and Edward Kelley, to large-scale Automatic Drawings, to assemblage sculpture. There is a musical element to the show that will take shape as an LP Holloway is currently recording with the gallery.

Why the Boston MLK memorial misses the mark

Good sculptures make the ideas they represent self-evident. “The Embrace” by Hank Willis Thomas is a muddled mess, and my latest article in Quillette aims to explain how what was meant as a celebration of the civil rights icon turned into an obscene meme.

Is Hirst’s Currency ‘community art’?

Our third article on Damien Hirst’s ongoing NFT project The Currency (co-authored with David Hawkes) is out in Whitehot Magazine one year after it published ‘The Currency’ referendum in November 2021, and four months following the second article that addressed the aftermath of July vote that pitted physical artworks against their digital avatars. Part three focuses on the role of the community, and the shift away from the outmoded omnipotent artist paradigm. We argue that The Currency turns the consumers of the artwork into full-fledged participants of the project, breaking down the wall between the creator and their audience. On the face of it, The Currency fits the definition of “community art.” It also fits the paradigm of what anthropologist David Graeber called “human economies,” which operate through collective social practices, rather than through the mind of an individual genius. 

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Smackdown 101

Quillette just published my article about Ben Sakoguchi’s spectacular smackdown of literalist curators.

Sakoguchi was invited to participate in the revived California Biennial, to be held at the Orange County Museum of Art, which was reopening with great fanfare in a brand new $94 million Morphosis-designed building. The curators had selected a his 16-panel polyptych titled Comparative Religions 101, but But with all the paperwork completed and the artwork ready to ship, Sakoguchi was informed that OCMA’s Education Department had “raised questions about the content of his submission.” The painting contained images of swastikas. Sakoguchi was handed a list of 17 questions the museum wanted him to answer.  Three days after submitting his written responses, Sakoguchi was informed that Comparative Religions 101 would not be included in the show “because the museum will not show any work that depicts a swastika.” Having accused an 85-year-old survivor of a Japanese internment camp of hate speech, the curators’ ensuing scramble to save face was tragicomic.

Matt Stromberg’s comprehensive account of the exchanges between the Biennial curators, museum staff, the artist’s studio and his dealers reconstructs the drama that played out between the September 12th rejection and the opening of the Biennial two weeks later. Stromberg recounts the predictable shifting of blame between museum administrators and exhibition curators, the bid to secure a different work by Sakoguchi (declined), the attempts to go behind his back to obtain work from his dealers (unsuccessful), and finally a groveling email imploring the artist to re-enter the offending painting into the exhibition (denied). The California Biennial debacle was a face-off between pedants and poets, and this time the poet won.

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On the limitations of A.I.-generated art

A gonzo, and now veteran (established in 1992), art journal Coagula seemed like a perfect venue to throw well-deserved shade on the newly fashionable A.I.-generated art. In this short essay, I contrast the limited capabilities of computer algorithm with the emotional nuance of analogue human-made art. To read the full article, click on the image below.