“It’s hard to be like, ‘Oh man, I hope it doesn’t flop!’” artist Mike Winkelmann aka Beeple chortled at the kickoff of his “Christie’s Closing Party” Clubhouse session this morning, about an hour before his Christie’s sale would close with the staggering bid of $69,346,250—making it the third-most valuable sale by a living artist. In the final minutes leading up to the sale, as the price jumped in $10 million increments, Beeple’s oh mans sounded almost embarrassed through overlapping shouts and horn noises.
Two things were sold, technically. One was a digital collage of 5,000 pieces created in 5,000 days. Presumably, as two giant screens—one silently tuned to Fox News and one to CNN—shone over the now 38-year-old artist, Beeple dutifully rendered various visual salads of techno-dystopian, political, and pop-culture references: bloody half-Michael Jackson, half-Kim Jong-un heads; Titan versions of robo-Yodas; various grotesque Trumps; and, forgive me as I hurriedly type this but yes, Cronenbergian pink innards gooping out of a Pikachu.
Even more notably to the armies of crypto-Evangelists and hopeful, historically underpaid digital artists in the wings, the non-fungible token (ID: 40913) would now be transferred by Christie’s ever-powerful auction house. The token, minted on the blockchain ledger Ethereum, guarantees a sort of digital provenance—a smart contract declaring both authenticity and transferable ownership of the piece. For payment, Christie’s offered to accept Ether, the first major auction house to accept cryptocurrency to the delight of everyone hoping this whole thing will catch on.
Recent relatively stratospheric NFT sales of memes, sports clips, and a ton of digital art brought up concerns of the blockchain transactions’ contribution to the environmental damage by fossil fuel use.
In an interview with Earther, Beeple argued that NFTs “absolutely must be done in a sustainable way.” In an email, Beeple went on to personally promise to offset past and future sales:
“I can assure you that moving forward that all of my drops will not just be carbon neutral but carbon NEGATIVE. I will also be buying carbon credits for my past drops to not only completely offset those but also make them carbon negative as well.”
Working with Open Earth Foundation and Creol, Beeple’s offset plan currently focuses specifically on a reforestation project in Peru. Other efforts to lessen cryptocurrency and blockchain activity’s contribution to the ecological crisis include ever-evolving proposed energy-related regulations, as well as Ethereum’s promised but so far delayed transition from “proof of work” to the more energy-efficient “proof of stake” model, and crowdsourced efforts to audit leading NFT marketplaces and create eco-friendlier models.
While tired arguments about whether or not digital art is “real” (it is) flooded the disjointed discourse, some, like self-described crypto-evangelist Jehan Chu inflated the novelty of these types of sales a bit, even proposing (in Clubhouse) that “there was no way to collect [this art] before and now there is a way to collect it!”
Meanwhile, some members of the digital art community have said there have been incidents of harassment of artists who have participated in the sale of NFTs. Some argued that the eco-costs are being used disingenuously to target individuals. While the most powerful celebrities and artists hopping onto the hype should be held to, at the very least, use their substantial power to make an effort to offset environmental costs of their high-profile antics popularizing NFT sales, focusing the responsibility of systematic failures on previously underpaid and underrepresented artists would be a misfire. Even without stories of this unwarranted aggression, solutions would function better if focused on reforming NFT marketplaces and encouraging active participation in the power structures, forcing them to incorporate offsetting efforts and actually address climate issues. This could be a bubble or an unstoppable boom, but the timing is too good to ignore an opportunity to correct the course.