Art in the Age of Blockchain

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What kind of art can one really get for $450 million nowadays? The painting that sold for that amount at Sotheby’s last year was determined to be enough of a Leonardo to warrant the enormous price tag. In today’s art market, it’s actually the not knowing that can drive up the numbers.

Digital art has little of the aura of a Leonardo, but it has just as much of a problem with provenance: it can be repurposed, copied, or straight-up stolen. It’s a unique problem, and the blockchain might be the solution.

At The Paris Review, Daniel Penny attends the first Rare Digital Art Festival (“aka Rare AF, aka Rare as Fuck”) and finds that limited edition crypto collectibles represent a rare thing in the volatile crypto market: a move towards stability. One of the more popular memes, Cryptokitties, has proven to be more than a joke; its a model for a new kind of art market. “The most successful crypto collectibles will not merely sit on your desktop,”  writes Penny, “they will be unbearably cute, the envy of your friends, able to interact with other digital objects in a digital world, and maintain or go up in value.”

Like the Leonardo at Sotheby’s, the rare Pepe memes are the stars of the Rare Digital Art Festival. The creator of Pepe, Matt Furie, has engaged in his own battle of authenticity, suing the alt-right for copyright infringement for use of his character in racist memes. It’s unclear what Furie thinks of the authenticity of the rare Pepe memes at auction, but perhaps copyright is what people make of it; once determined by a judge in a courtroom, now authenticity is secured through the blockchain’s digital ledger.

The history of digital-art collection has been one of beneficence; institutional collectors typically choose to pay artists because curators deem their work important and want to preserve and archive it, but most digital art has no resale value because it cannot be rigorously authenticated. The advent of blockchain is poised to change that. …

DJ Pepe is a crypto collectible rare Pepe meme certified by the Rare Pepe Foundation. Though Pepe began life as a web comic by artist Matt Furie, users of the online message board 4chan have long traded images of the cartoon frog, producing increasingly obscure and bizarre variations of the character, which users ironically refer to as “rare.” (In 2016, Pepe rose to prominence as a hate symbol of the alt-right, which Furie and the Rare Pepe Foundation disavow.) Despite, or perhaps because of Pepe’s mutability—the frog is practically a metonym for memes—collectors have begun to buy and sell limited-edition cryptographic trading cards of Pepe submitted by artists and issued by the Rare Pepe Foundation, which buyers subsequently store in Rare Pepe Wallets. The content of these Pepes varies. Many are satires of the crypto scene itself, like a froggy version of the twins from The Shining called Winkelpepe, but others feature Pepe smoking fat joints, dabbing, or eating animated flying pizzas. Some are released in editions of thousands; others are limited to single copies. With the help of a Bitcoin-based platform called Counterparty, collectors conduct their sales with their own currency, PepeCash, traded on exchanges in the U.S. and Japan for about $0.08 to 1 Pepe buck (at least at the time of publication).

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