What's wrong with this picture?
Non-fungible tokens are useful, innovative—and frothy
"Equivalent VIII" by Carl Andre was a minimalist sculpture bought by Britain's Tate Gallery in 1972. The Tate described the work as "a rectangular arrangement of 120 firebricks...altering the viewer's relationship to the surrounding space". The public called it a pile of bricks. A few years later newspapers execrated the gallery for having wasted brick-shaped wads of cash on the avant-garde work.
Once again, a famous institution is embracing a controversial new genre. On March 11th Christie's sold a digital collage of images called "Everydays—The First 5,000 Days" for a cool $69.3m. The sale elevated the work's creator, Mike Winkelmann, aka Beeple, to the august company of David Hockney and Jeff Koons, the only two living painters to sell at such prices.
Christie's sold the artwork as a "non-fungible token" (NFT), a craze for which has gripped Silicon Valley's elite. An NFT is a secure, blockchain-based record that represents pieces of digital media. Invented a few years ago, it can link not only to digital art but also to text, videos or bits of code.
The pile-of-bricks criticism of digital artworks is that, in contrast to physical collectibles, they can be copied with perfect fidelity and consumed infinitely online. They thus have limited inherent value. A token brings bragging rights to a unique, authenticated version of a digital artwork, song or cute image of a cat (which first earned NFTS their popularity). Another attraction for the creative world is that NFTS make it easy to build in payments to artists when their works are sold on.
Since almost anything can be tokenised and sold if punters are willing, the craze stretches beyond pictures. Kings of Leon, a rock band, is selling a new album as an NFT and the National Basketball Association is selling clips of famous dunks. Creators can turn to a growing collection of marketplaces, such as OpenSea and Nifty Gateway. Even individual tweets are going for big sums (leading some to wonder if the former tweeter-in-chief, Donald Trump, could flog bits of his oeuvre).