An international art fair to showcase work from established and emerging artists alike, Art Basel is held three times a year in different locales around the world: Basel, Switzerland; Miami Beach, Florida; and Hong Kong. Though galleries primarily flock to the event to sell artwork, art connoisseurs and students also attend to view the latest creations.
This year's gathering in Miami Beach, however, was punctuated by a flurry of blockchain-related activity. Not directly affiliated with Art Basel, these satellite events were "strategically" scheduled to coincide with the famous art show to attract rich, international investors (at least, that was the intention of the Blockchain World Conference, which was held December 2-5 in Hollywood – a Florida city about 30 minutes away from Miami Beach by car).
One major conference that occurred during last week's slew of art shenanigans was The Art of Blockchains, hosted by collector and entrepreneur Adam Lindemann. A wealthy and influential figure in the art investment space, Lindemann is known for selling a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting in 2016 for $57.3 million at Christie's, a prominent British auction house. Now, Lindemann believes that tokenization and fractionalization "are obvious next steps" for the management of art assets, according to culture and entertainment news outlet Vulture.
The Art of Blockchains featured discussions about the nascent technology's role in the art market, including the ability to tokenize works and offer investment into their fractional parts, but some were wary about the concept of fractionalization. Nanne Dekking, former chairman of art broker Sotheby's and founder of the blockchain-based art registry Artory, expressed skepticism about allowing numerous people to own a single work.
"Is it really good for an artwork when all of the sudden there are 2,000 people involved?" he wondered. "I'm leaning towards no."
Folks like Lindemann, though, maintain that the art realm, with its methods of generating value for artwork, already parallels the cryptocurrency investment landscape through such value creation. "Art Basel and all the galleries in it, they've made art an asset class by promoting it jointly into these very expensive things," Lindemann explained. "I mean, art is already a cryptocurrency at this point."
Indeed, various groups have explored the overlap between crypto and art, with platforms such as Maecenas tokenizing Andy Warhols and Pablo Picassos, museums such as the Schinkel Pavillon and the ZKM Center for Art and Media showcasing crypto-themed artwork, and organizations such as the Blockchain Art Collective creating blockchain-based art catalog systems. 2018 is the birth year for many crypto-related art initiatives.
However, even though a handful of projects are dedicated to "democratizing" the art space by purportedly enabling more people – not simply wealthy investors – to participate within it, gatherings like Art Basel (and surrounding events) paint a different portrait of what blockchain means for art. Lindemann considers himself a contrarian in supporting the technology's application within the art realm, but events primarily trafficked by an elite and powerful cross-section of society, including names like Brock Pierce (called a crypto "cult leader" by Rolling Stone) and curatorial superstar Hans-Ulrich Obrist, are not really contrarian in nature.
Crypto-inspired artist Simon Denny, for instance, is not sure he buys into the democratized, utopian future that many evangelists believe the art world can realize with the help of blockchain tech. "I guess part of me is a bit scared to see a securitization of art," he noted. "Is that something we want to accelerate into?"
Along this vein, the forthcoming Maecenas auction of a Picasso painting, including the digitization and tokenization of the artwork, will make the physical masterpiece "perpetually inaccessible." The painting to be auctioned off may "already [be] outside of the public eyes," as Maecenas founder and CEO Marcelo García Casil maintains, but the project seems antithetical to the democratization of art, as fewer people will be able to view the physical work after the auction occurs.
More generally, events such as The Art of Blockchains, the Blockchain World Conference, and similar gatherings (especially considering their prohibitive admission costs) are like blockchain cruises and other exclusive crypto happenings. The recent CoinsBank Blockchain Cruise, for example, drew a comparable crowd of the crypto elite, including the likes of – yet again – Brock Pierce, as well as the colorful John McAfee (who, as it turns out, is also affiliated with the upcoming Maecenas Picasso auction).
The potential of blockchain to redefine the art space is real, but serious consideration needs to be given to how the intersection of these two realms, when pursued a certain way, can easily re-create an existing inequitable system of wealth. Art is already too expensive and inaccessible for many. The value of "democratized" artwork, then, can only appreciably emerge if the tokens that represent such work are affordable. Otherwise, a crypto art market may simply provide another asset class for wealthy investors like Adam Lindemann to diversify their portfolios, while the rest of us who want to invest in art (but could not before) remain excluded.