One of the most prominent figures in contemporary art was German genius Joseph Beuys, a native of the small town of Krefeld (close to Düsseldorf), active between the 1960s and the 1980s. It is commonly accepted that most of his production doesn’t really carry a significant esthetic virtue. We can mention the 1965 creation “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare”, when he wandered around a gallery doing exactly what the title of the performance entails (keeping visitors locked outside); or the 1977 work “Tallow”, when he used a pedestrian underpass as cast to mold 20 tons of beef fat into large cubic shapes.

Joseph Beuys

As such, these creations can be interpreted as political works to criticize the industrial/bourgeois approach to art. Still, they bear a wider value: the art is not in the works, but in the reaction. Beuys invented the term of “Social Sculpture”: he didn’t really want (obviously) to create beauty, but to provoke a reaction in society.

Although Beuys conceptualized this theory, the idea had been influencing art since the early XX Century and cannot be parted from the development of art in the industrial society. As anearly example, in the early 1920s the first Dadaist artists organized a provocative exhibition in the German city of Cologne, where visitors were invited to destroy a wooden sculpture (by artist Max Ernst) with and axe; or to admire a girl declaiming obscene verses – dressed up a in her communion dress.

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By response, the visitors didn’t just destroy the sculpture, but the all the works on display (save the girl, we hope). As such, there was not the minimal intention to communicate beauty of grace, but just to provoke. The violent response was the proof that the organizers had met their aim.

In other words, when we start questioning whether a work is art or not, this means that we are the artwork. We have become tools in the hands of a value creation system consisting of curators, gallerists, critics and – last but not least – artists, whose aim is social sculpture. the efficiency of the system is proven by the fact that succeeded artworks move large capitals. This materialistic aspect shouldn’t come by surprise: in a strictly capitalist logic (and we live in a strictly capitalist system), the amount of capital defines the magnitude of the impact.

“Away from the Flock” by Damien Hirst (1994)

But as art develops, so does the public. The world is full of provocateurs that have tried to shock the observers with all their means – and some still succeeded years and years after the Dada show in Cologne. Take the seminal 1997 group exhibition “Sensation” held at the Royal Academy or Arts in London, showcasing – among the others – sickening specimen of sectioned animals created by Damien Hirst. The artist became thereafter one of the most influential figures in the arts of the XXI Century. “Sensation” was later showcased in Berlin, New York and Australia, attracting praise and critique alike. The taste for dark provocation became a sort of current in the art world: among the thousands of examples, in 2004 brilliant artist-provocateur Davide Cattelan created an artwork in Milan consisting of three hanged children – soon removed by an enraged observer.

Still, such provocation effect largely fails nowadays in its mission to provoke. The works have more or less accepted and digested, and in some cases the only value that remains is that of their (often poor) esthetic purpose. As society changes, so changes its taste and its sensibility to provocation: we are not what we used to be more than two decades ago. The artworks were meant as an attack to a society that was entering the digital era, and was becoming conformed to new bourgeois norms. It is similar to what the Dadaists were doing with society transitioning to the second industrial era.

And now – we have NFTs. These artworks are basically JPEGs secured by an digital certificate that certifies the sole owner of the pieces. ost interestingly, they don’t really have that much of an esthetic value. There is no reason in the world why NFT from cyber artist Beeple (Mike Winkelmann) “Everydays: the first 5000 days” could be sold for 69.3 million USD at a Christie’s auction in March 2021. Analogously, an Avatar from NFT collection “Cryptopunk” (number 7523, depicting some guy with a skullcap) changed hands for 11.7 million USD at Sotheby’s.

Cryptopunks

As such, the value of these jpg is exactly in the prices they command. One shouldn’t looke any urther. It is of course an exercise in the absurd, but as such it becomes a pervasive critique to the Meta-society in development. The fact that some collection of AI-generated cartoons of apes sells for millions is an art performance that makes the original Dadaists look like amateurs.

As such, the form of “social sculpture” that NFTs ignite is a fine masterpiece of artmaking. Traditional art was made precious by the crafting mastery of creators, whereas now the object of the art is more impalpable. One shall not try replicate the success of “50,000 days” because it would be more or less like trying to hit the lottery.

But still, there are important lessons to be learned for the aims of commercial communication. Dadaism and later pop-art deeply influenced advertising (especially starting in the 1970s), and something similar is bound to happen with NFT and contemporary communication. NFTs are changing:

  • The perception of value
  • Brand strategy and user experience
  • The patterns of societal reaction to marketing messages
  • The very production and consumption of marketing messages

NFTs define a system where dispersed people strive for a sense of digital belonging, and that communication oriented at community creation tends to be more successful. Take for example the NFT clubs: they make sense only because people can show them to the others.

On October 17, 1969, a Caravaggio was stolen from a church in Sicily and its disappearance is still a mystery. It might be held in a secret vault and its owners might open it from time to time to admire the painting. Would you do it with “5,000 days”? Probably not: NFT art is nothing without societal impact – or, in other words, bragging about it.

 

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