“If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”Obi Wan Kenobi, Star Wars
Navigating the intricacies of 21st century life, we find ourselves wedged between the tangible and intangible. This delicate interplay, threading through all aspects of our lives, resonates most significantly in the realm of art. The convergence of physical artworks and their digital counterparts, alongside the rise of novel, purely digital art forms, prompts a reexamination of our deep-seated notions of creativity, ownership, and value.
Burning, a process of sending digital artwork to an inaccessible wallet address, presents an intriguing paradox. The work becomes both present and absent; observable by all, yet owned by none. Destroying a physical artwork is destructive and sometimes an act of violence, but burning an NFT is different as the work isn’t destroyed so much as made immortal. Over the past few years, this duality has come into focus with the burning of several Cryptopunks.
For those unfamiliar, Cryptopunks is a genre-defining generative art collection from 2017 consisting of 10,000 individual characters which acted as a catalyst for the Non-Fungible Token (NFT) boom witnessed in 2021. It has spawned innumerable derivatives, causing a cascade of influence across the current artistic vista. Yet, Cryptopunks transcend the realm of mere collectables having been adopted as a form of digital self-expression.
At one point utilizing a Cryptopunk as a profile picture bore resemblance to wearing a T-shirt from an obscure band–more than a mere fashionable statement, it became a conduit for conveying one’s identity and personal interests, a form of digital street cred. The emotional bond established with certain Cryptopunks is as profound, if not more so, as the deepest reverence we feel for any emotionally charged piece of art. Consider Cryptopunk #3831, now part of the LACMA permanent collection, is this a piece of digital art of a portrait of a famous collector? Depending on your perspective, perhaps both.
Within such a framework, a burned Cryptopunk echoes the poignant loss of other momentous artworks lost throughout history. Picasso’s “Le Peintre” was destroyed in a plane crash; Freud’s “Untitled Oil Painting” fell victim to an accidental garbage crush at Sotheby’s. Many artists have also destroyed their own work intentionally. Both Monet and Richter slashed several of their own canvases, with Richter later expressing regret. Notably, Banksy’s “Girl With Balloon” was transformed into “Love is in the Bin” after the artist intentionally shredded the piece post-auction. Even more pertinently, the BurntBanksy project sold a video of Banksy’s original 2006 screenprint “Morons” being set on fire as a fractional NFT in early 2021.
The loss of these important art pieces strikes a painful blow to our collective consciousness, as they are irreplaceable fragments of our cultural tapestry. However, unlike these lost treasures, burned Cryptopunks are not compromised in the visual sense. Rather, they transition into a form of digital ‘commons,’ disrupting conventional perceptions of ownership and value. Should financial potential alone dictate value, thereby rendering a non-sellable entity worthless? Contrarily, I would argue that such a shift positions cultural value squarely in the spotlight.
When an NFT, symbolizing some collection of exclusive ‘property rights’ to a digital artifact, is burned, it propels us into a complex discourse on ownership, copyright, reproduction rights, and the overarching legal structure of digital assets. Artist Dmitri Cherniak, for instance, played with this paradox in his “Dead Ringers” collection, where each piece was dispatched to a randomly generated wallet address, rendering the NFT effectively ownerless, and at the same time allowing everyone to view and even print out a copy for themselves. The artist stated he considered this a celebration of “birth, life and death” and we can contextualize this duality of owned/unowned by everyone/no one similarly to Schrodinger’s Cat, simultaneously occupying both states.
Digital ownership, as exemplified with NFTs, lacks a clear historical parallel. Unlike museums that possess certain rights to their displayed works, the digital realm operates under a nuanced, distinct set of rules. With no recognized ‘owner,’ the rights attached to these burned Cryptopunks come into question.
The motives behind burning these Cryptopunks, like physical art, vary: accidental—through erroneous address copying or incomplete transaction submissions; deliberate—as a publicity stunt or conceptual commentary. As these digital assets appreciate in value, so does the weight of these actions, amplifying past actions and errors.
As collectors, we are custodians of this art and we should consider the responsibility of safeguarding our possessions for future generations. While traditionally, destruction signifies loss and cultural regression, the implications of such ‘loss’ in the digital space are more open to interpretation. What constitutes ownership and possession in the digital realm, and how do these intersect with monetary and cultural value?
Burned Cryptopunks serve as a potent reminder, a warning, and perhaps a promise. As we traverse digital landscapes, we don’t discard the societal and cultural dynamics rooted in the physical world. Instead, these dynamics transform and amplify, their full implications still unfolding before us.
[this article is cross posted from my new site focused on documenting this – burnedpunks.com]