Famed contemporary artist Damien Hirst told CNBC on Wednesday he believes in the staying power of nonfungible tokens, or NFTs, the blockchain-based digital collectibles that soared, then sank, in popularity this year.
“You look at what’s happening in NFTs, and you can kind of see the galleries disappearing before you see the NFTs disappearing,” Hirst said on “Squawk Box,” where the British artist appeared to discuss his NFT collection called “The Currency.”
That project features 10,000 NFTs, with each corresponding to their own distinct works of physical art. The NFTs cost $2,000 apiece. But the twist: Their eventual owners have one year to choose between holding onto the NFT or exchanging it for its physical creation. The one owners don’t pick will be destroyed.
“They’re both art, and they’re both equal. I had to buy into that first, and I have to buy into the idea that I’m happy with destroying physical art and destroying the NFTs,” Hirst said. “I’ve got absolutely no idea what people will do.”
Applications to buy one of Hirst’s NFTs closed Wednesday after opening a week ago.
The NFT craze took off early this year, coinciding with the surging interest in and the surging value of cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin and ether; both NFTs and cryptocurrencies are based on blockchains, which are decentralized digital ledgers. High-class auction houses Christie’s and later Sotheby’s jumped into the NFT action. In March, the digital artist Beeple sold an NFT for $69 million at a Christie’s auction.
NFTs are unique by design, and proponents say that scarcity supports their value over the long term. However, just as bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies hit a rough patch this year, the amount of money spent on NFTs suffered a noticeable decline in May and into June, according to weekly sales data from the website nonfungible.com. Total money spent on NFTs has started to trend upward again in recent weeks.
Critics of NFTs say they’re just a fad, destined to fade in value over time. Believers in cryptocurrencies and blockchains broadly herald NFTs as a crucial innovation that can prove ownership of assets in an increasingly digital world.
Hirst, a prominent figure in the Young British Artists phase that began in the late 1980s, said he sees a tension between the people in the worlds of physical and digital art. At the same time, Hirst tried to blur the distinction in some ways.
“I think that digital art is probably going to last a lot longer than galleries. I mean, you probably won’t be going into galleries. We’ll be sitting in bars showing each other what we’ve recently bought on our phones, and that’s kind of what we do now. I just think anything that looks good and feels good, and makes you feel good, you know, it’s good art. It doesn’t have to be in a gallery.”
Skeptics also have criticized the fact that ownership of an NFT-based artwork doesn’t prevent other people from easily being able to view the image online. Because copies of the artwork can appear in various digital places, some question what the value proposition of NFT ownership really is.
Addressing that criticism, Hirst said, “It’s not a new thing that artists want to reproduce things.”
“I’ve often thought about it like, in terms of the Mona Lisa. Which would I rather own? The Mona Lisa itself, with all the difficulties with looking at it because of the tourists and the bullet proof glass, or the merchandising possibilities? The t-shirts and the postcards and the earrings and the mugs,” Hirst said.
“It’s like, I love both. Art exists, in the world we live in today, in both those areas. As an artist, I want to reach people, and I think the postcard is really appealing. So NFTs create that for an artist. I guess the worst thing for an artist is being ignored or disappearing without a trace,” he said.