art

Marilyn and Punks and Art, Oh My!

The TL;DR that you need to know before I get into this is that CryptoPunks is a “digital collectable experiment” from 2017 which predates but is also credited with kicking off the whole NFT craze, in fact helping define the standard. I wrote about the different versions of them earlier this year. One could argue, and I do, that most of the biggest and most popular NFTs are derivatives in one way or another of CryptoPunks. Randomly generated from a collection of traits, there are 10K individual CryptoPunks which people often use as avatars. Separately, CryptoPhunks is a 2021 derivative project which literally copied the entire CryptoPunks collection and flipped it horizontally (in either a cash grab or protest, depending on who you talk to and at what point in the story you are referring to – I plan to write more about this in the future), creating a mirror image and kicking off a huge debate about appropriation, fair use and IP rights in this wild west of digital art.

The CryptoPunks collection is incredibly influential, having spawned hundreds/thousands of derivative projects as well as millions of nasty replies from haters on Twitter with accusations of being a “crypto bro” for anyone who dares use one as their avatar. They get referenced all the time in clickbait articles proclaiming shock and awe about how much one of them sold for recently. Point being, people know about them. As a connoisseur of culture with impeccable taste I’ve really enjoyed seeing the creativity they inspire and I’ve collected some of my favorite derivative works in this little virtual gallery if you want to look around. I’ll be expanding that in the near future but it’s still pretty interesting at the moment if you want to follow the thread of inspiration a bit.

Recently I discovered an artist called PIV who has been doing studies of CryptoPunks in relation to fine art, namely Abstract Modernism and work in that orbit. I picked up a piece called “Pablo Picasso” which references the famous 1953 photo of Picasso by André Villers. 

l: Villers 1953 / r: PIV 2022

For the less visual and more musically inclined this is like Johnny Cash covering Nine Inch Nails “Hurt” or Guns N Roses covering Wings “Live And Let Die” or Redman referencing Cypress Hill with “Sawed Off Shotgun, Hand On The Pump.” It’s one artist giving a nod to another artist. If you know the reference it’s an immediate reward, if you don’t and you are curious it’s an invitation to discover work you might have missed. I love this kind of thing so fucking hard. So in this “Punkism” series PIV is very intentional with their work, limiting their palette to colors and pieces of CryptoPunks.

Putting CryptoPunks in this context of Pop Art is kind of brilliant especially when you consider the influence that Pop Art has on contemporary culture it’s hard to argue that CryptoPunks don’t have that same influence on digital art and culture right now. So it’s a fitting comparison. Obvious as it may be, you can’t talk about Pop Art without acknowledging Andy Warhol and indeed PIV did that directly but also almost in passing with an earlier work entitled “Six Marilyns.” This piece inspired a larger collaboration with Tom Lehman (former CEO of Genius.com which itself was previously Rap Genius and focused on annotating song lyrics to help people understand the references artists were making – just to bring that around even further). The pair teamed up to create a collection of “Marilyn Diptychs” which, using code most often used to create generative art like the CryptoPunks themselves, they made endless variations on a single CryptoPunk which itself looks a lot like Warhol’s Marilyn drawing a direct reference to Warhol’s diptych. 

Foundation Supports Him” PIV & Lehman, Generative 2022
A collection of “OC Marilyn Diptychs” by PIV & Lehman, 2022
Marilyn Diptych, Warhol, 1962

Let’s talk about Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych for a second – did you know this was not initially intended to be a diptych? Art collectors Burton and Emily Tremaine were visiting and saw the two pieces displayed next to each other and suggested that they should be paired, which immediately seemed like the obvious choice. But Warhol’s Marilyn image itself is worth spending some time with. I really like Tina Rivers Ryan’s description of the work, she writes:

“Warhol’s use of the silkscreen technique further “flattens” the star’s face. By screening broad planes of unmodulated color, the artist removes the gradual shading that creates a sense of three-dimensional volume, and suspends the actress in an abstract void. Through these choices, Warhol transforms the literal flatness of the paper-thin publicity photo into an emotional “flatness,” and the actress into a kind of automaton. In this way, the painting suggests that “Marilyn Monroe,” a manufactured star with a made-up name, is merely a one-dimensional (sex) symbol—perhaps not the most appropriate object of our almost religious devotion.”

“Shot Sage Blue Marilyn” Warhol, 1962

Like most of Warhol’s portraits he didn’t ask permission which occasionally caused legal issues, but also directly relates to the issues of appropriation and fair use that surround the CryptoPunks and many of their derivative works, and in fact one might say much of the entire NFT market. Warhol’s intentional repetition of his images, which would degrade over time as screens were used slightly changing each one, were meant to both desensitize people to the image, but also reclassify the icons already present in his audience’s cultural awareness. In many ways, a 10k avatar collection does much of the same things, though I’d argue that wasn’t the initial intent.

Coming back to these new Marilyn Diptychs and to play with the tech even further, if you own one of the diptych NFTs you can extract any of the individual Marilyns from the piece into its own profile picture/avatar which is now not only a derivative of Warhol but of the CryptoPunks as well. Again, I love this.

9 examples of “OC Marilyn PFP” by PIV & Lehman, 2022

But as I said before, this is conscious. It’s intentional. It’s humans seeing one thing and taking something else and bending it to look similar to the other thing. Which is the art of it all, but it also got me thinking about the generative aspect more.

As many of you know last year I collaborated with my longtime friend, artist Shepard Fairey, on a generative NFT project called DEGENERATE/REGENERATE where we used scans and elements and details from his previous work as well as some of his better known iconography and using this kind of generative tech came up with 7400 individual pieces that are randomly generated but true to his aesthetic. They looked great, which we expected, but what we didn’t expect was that they would combine some of his work in ways he hadn’t previously considered sparking new inspiration which he’s taking back to his physical work. So you have this cycle of inspiration – human inspiring the computer, the computer then inspiring the human. The ever evolving body of work now has DNA from both going forward. It’s pretty exciting and I expect you’ll hear more directly from him about that in the future. But I’m getting off the point, which is about the ghost in the machine, so to speak.

PIV’s work is intentional. They consciously decided to make art that references other art. But CryptoPunks are not intentionally referencing other art. They are just a collection of individual traits – hair color, style, eyes, mouth, glasses, etc thrown into a generator which was told to spit out a 100×100 grid with 10,000 individual combinations (This is a little known fun fact, unlike most avatar NFT collections today which generate 10,000 individual images, CryptoPunks is just one single image with a grid of the individual punks). It was an art experiment – no one knew how it would work out or where it would lead.

CryptoPunks, LarvaLabs, 2017

This got me curious, without the human hand and intention – could I find a similar but unintentional reference? I narrowed down the traits to sort through and began hunting, eventually landing on CryptoPunk #3725 which is, to my eye, damn close to Warhol’s Marilyn. The only real discrepancy being the green eye shadow. Blue would have been better and there is a blue eye shadow trait but it doesn’t appear with the rest of these traits – the mole, the blond hair, pale skin, etc anywhere in the original 10k CryptoPunks collection. But there was something about it that still wasn’t right. It was facing the wrong way. I immediately thought of CryptoPhunk #3725.

l: CryptoPunk 3725 (2017) / c: Warhol’s Marilyn (1962) / r: CryptoPhunk 3725 (2021)

It’s perfect right?

I get so excited thinking about the randomness that led to its creation. A script blindly and emotionlessly assembles a hodgepodge of traits – essentially a realization of the infinite monkey theorem –  and makes an almost perfect match. Years later a reactionary protest act puts on the finishing touch. Neither of these two actions intend on this result, but we end up here nonetheless.

I knew it was a crazy long shot but I reached out to the owner of Phunk 3725 and made an offer. To my surprise and delight, they accepted and I am now the owner of Phunk 3725. This piece draws a direct, yet accidental, connection between these two eras of art. It’s incredibly important, and I’m psyched to be its caretaker.

The Floor Is A Myth

Let’s talk about NFT projects and “the floor.” As you likely know “the floor” is the absolute lowest price at which you can buy a piece from an artist or from a collection right this very second. This comes from the “price floor” idea in the Law of Supply and Demand where there is a minimum viable price that something must be sold for in order to cover the costs of supplying it. With digital artwork you have different production concerns so “price floor” became “floor price” and is now just called “the floor.” Let’s unpack this a bit more.

First and foremost it’s important to understand that the value of anything is decided by two people. The buyer, and the seller. Other people might have an opinion about it but that doesn’t matter. If I want to sell you something and you agree to the price, it irrelevant if your neighbor thinks that’s a good price. With retail prices of various products a significant amount of work is done to decide what the public will accept as a reasonable price. With used, secondary, etc sales it is more hands on. Craigslists, eBay, your local farmers market, a yard sale, whatever – all of this commerce depends on just two people agreeing on a price and it’s understood that sale stands alone and it’s indicative of an entire market. This is why people walk away from a yard sale saying “I got such a good deal on this lamp!” rather than “I can’t believe the floor price on hammers is crashing.”

I should take a moment to give some context as to why I think I’m qualified to run my mouth about shit like this. Between 1999 and 2007 I co-owned and operated an art gallery called sixspace, originally in Chicago and then later in Los Angeles. We produced monthly exhibitions by many artists including some that we directly managed as well. In addition to our in-house exhibitions we also collaborated with other galleries on events and participated in global art fairs. After the gallery closed I maintained relationships with both artists and collectors which have turned into multi-decade friendships. An art collector myself, I began buying work from artists and galleries in the mid 90’s and nearing 30 years later almost every inch of my living space (and probably too much storage space) is filled with art. So while I agree that the NFT space is too new to have experts about any of it, I have a lifetime of experience buying and selling art.

Like all art, most NFTs are illiquid. This means just because someone wants to buy something doesn’t mean there is anything available at a price they are willing to pay. Similarly just because someone wants to sell something doesn’t mean there is anyone willing to pay the price they are asking. I own pieces by world famous artists and if I wanted to sell them It would take weeks/months of working with dealers and/or other collectors to find someone who wanted to buy them at a price I’d be comfortable taking. That’s illiquidity. If it was liquid I would just snap and they would be sold but that’s not how most art works.

With stocks or other investments it’s less of an issue as all shares are equal, with artwork there are more details to consider. Not the least of which is aesthetics, that is what does this piece of art actually look like? Not everyone buys or sells art for the same reason. Not every single piece created by an artist is the same. In the physical art world there are artists I love with pieces I’ve chosen not to buy because they just didn’t work for me personally. Maybe the color or the theme or something was just not to my taste, but another piece by the same artist was a direct hit. With NFTs, especially with larger collections how it looks plays into what someone is planning to do with it, as does various functions or rarities – so trying to project the demand for any one piece onto an entire body of work is a mistake. 

Additionally, “the floor” lacks any context. It is ignorant of what other sales might be happening in an artists body of work (or in this case an NFT collection), it is ignorant of what personal, medical or business issues might be going on in the sellers life. The assertion that “the floor” says anything about anything other than what one person is willing to sell a piece for is absolute ignorance. And because these works are largely illiquid, if someone needs to get liquid fast – perhaps they have another opportunity they’d rather pursue or an emergency medical expense or any number of millions of reasons they might want to sell, this often means they are going to have to sell something below it’s potential value. Because again, lack of context. If a work is offered for sale for $1000 and someone buys it for $1000, all anyone knows is that it sold for $1000. Maybe the buyer would have paid $1500. Maybe the seller was willing to go down to $500. Who knows? Conversely, the very fact that a piece is available to be purchased at a “floor” price means currently, at this moment, no one is willing to pay that price being asked. If they were, it wouldn’t be for sale, it would be sold. So at any given moment “the floor” can be above or below the actual value of the work. Sometimes both at the same time.

Much more useful metrics for gauging current demand for a project are average sale price over some period of time (24h, 7d, 30d, etc which takes into account all the mid and higher end sales missed in “floor” discussions), what % of the collection is for sale and how that is changing over time (a decreasing % shows increasing demand), and how distributed the collection is. Do a few people own all of them (bad) or do lots of people own a few of them (good)? There are tools like Nansen, Icy and others which are helpful for a more comprehensive understanding.

Traders, flippers and speculators would have you believe otherwise. In any given project community would-be investors try to convince everyone listening that the “floor” is the end all be all metric for determining success or failure. The same people obsessing about “the floor” are the ones demanding roadmaps and asking about utility. Could you imagine anything more absurd than walking into an art gallery, walking up to an artist and demanding they tell you about their roadmap? Or saying “This is a lovely painting, I know exactly the place I want to hang it in my living room – but first can you tell me what the utility of this is?” Or, more egregious of all, contacting an artist and saying “I bought a piece from your gallery exhibition last year, what are you doing today to increase the value of it?”

If someone came into my gallery asking something like that I’d throw them out on the street.

An artist’s job is to make art. Making more art is the only roadmap they need. End of story. The work they made yesterday benefits and is complimented by the work they make tomorrow. Demand for work they made yesterday is increased by the work they make tomorrow. If you are worried about or trying increase the value of art work you own, hounding the artist is a waste of your time. You are distracting them from doing the one thing they are best suited to do, making art. What you can and should be doing is finding a way to increase demand for that artists work. Tell your friends, talk about why you love it, what attracted you to the work in the first place, why did you decide to buy it? As a collector, I love hearing these things from other collectors, and I’ve bought a lot of work because another collector tipped me off to something incredible. This is good for the artist, the collectors, the market and valuations.

You know what isn’t good for the artist, the collectors, the market or valuations? Crying about “the floor.” When I’m looking into a project if I see people throwing a fit about “the floor” I know that a lot of the owners bought in for the wrong reason and will be dumping soon so I would be stupid to buy in at whatever prices are offered today, rest assured they will be lower tomorrow. On the other hand when I discover something see collectors talking about how much they love the work, love the artist, love the project, I kick myself for not learning about it earlier. And because I know this, when I do see someone having a panic attack about “the floor” I know only one of two things can be true – either they are purposely trying to sabotage the valuations to drive prices down (potentially so they can buy in at a lower price) or they are an idiot. In either case, I know right away to ignore anything they say.

This all holds true in the regular art world where sales take days, weeks, sometimes months to complete. In the Digital/NFT space where sales happen in minutes, sometimes in seconds it’s even more true. Manipulation is real, and so are idiots. It’s best to avoid both. Buy art you love, by artists you respect. Do that, and you’ll never be disappointed.

OpenSea And The Problem With Verification

Yesterday I was talking about a cute new digital collectable collection on OpenSea that I was considering buying into, noting that there were 10k which had recently sold out and the cheapest ones were getting more expensive by the minute. Tara was sitting across from me at the breakfast table checking it out as well. We talked about how cute they were and sent a few back and forth to look at. As Tara was getting ready to buy one she asked “wait, why are there only 800 of these, are they still minting them?” We quickly realized that she was looking at a fraudulent collection that had been named almost identically with only one extra letter, but was coming up first in the search results. I immediately sent a tweet to Nate Chastain who is Head of Product at OpenSea and he pulled down the fraudulent account right away. Unfortunately it looked like 30 or 40 people had already fallen for the scam while it was active, and for those people there’s no way recourse or way to get their money back. Had the real account been verified it’s probably safe to say that none of those people would have been scammed, it was only because Tara happened to notice the difference that we didn’t fall for it ourselves. And how long would it have stayed up if someone who knew who to reach out to on Twitter didn’t spot it?

Sadly, this isn’t the first time this has happened with OpenSea, in fact it happens regularly – and much of that can be blamed on how OpenSea handles verification. And because transactions happen instantly, even if a scam is found pretty quickly the money has already been transferred to the scammer with no way to get it back. Essentially they have created a situation with high reward and low risk for scammers to just keep setting up fake accounts and collecting Ξ every single day.

But let’s step back for moment and look at how we got into this mess. Verification as we think of it today both began with and is the fault of Twitter. In 2009 Twitter was sued by Tony La Russa relating to a fake account in his name, and while the suit was eventually dropped Twitter instituted Verified Accounts in the wake of that suit to give them a solution for the future. Years earlier Friendster had gone to war with the so called Fakesters by just banning accounts left and right, which is arguably what caused people to flee that site in favor of MySpace. Following that lead, Twitter had been applauded for taking a more permissive approach to free speech / parody and in theory this step allowed them to keep doing that. You might think this was a good move and had it been rolled out as promised it might have been, but rather than being used to, you know, actually verify an account was who it was claiming to be, Twitter decided to monetize the feature. I wrote about this back in 2015 as one of the big problems on the site at the time, but essentially they gave verifications away to famous people to make it desirable and they would use a few verifications as a lure to companies to get them to buy ads. They also began threatening to remove verification for accounts they deemed to be in violation of their TOS. This had a terrible impact on the public perception of “verified” and instead of seeing it as “this account is who is who it is claiming to be” people began to see it as a kind of endorsement. It took many years of very loud objection to this by many people before eventually Twitter came around and stopped using it as a prize and published a clear set of criteria which allowed non-celebrities or paying customers to get the prized blue checkmark. Anyone can now apply to be verified and Twitter’s official position is that it is not an endorsement but rather confirms they have seen evidence that proves the account is or represents who it claims to. This is a good thing.

Conversely Instagram is still very much doing the “We verify accounts on a case by case basis, but we won’t tell you what our criteria is” thing which leads to incredibly high profile people unable to get verified and regular scams taking place on the app. I’ll skip the breakdown about how every other site handles this and get right to the obvious point – Verified should mean exactly that. The account has been verified. It is who it claims to be. That the site has seen enough evidence to confirm identity. End of story. It should not be seen as an endorsement, or used in an editorial manor. It shouldn’t be weaponized. And to be very clear, when a site decides to have a vague policy that is enforced on a case by case basis, that’s what they are doing – and it directly harms the community. Ironically, almost every site doing this claims to be doing it to protect their users. I know because I’ve talked with most of them. They care, but they are misdirected.

Which brings us back to OpenSea. I’ve written about different issues on OpenSea many times this year but if you are new to this let me quickly summarize that they are the absolute largest NFT marketplace by user base and have raised more venture capitol than any of the other competing site. Unfortunately from an outside view, teams appear to have a fraction of the resources they need to get anything done. I will say that this has taken a significant step in the right direction with the addition of Nate Chastain who I mentioned above. Prior to his hiring the only way I could get any comment or issue addressed was to DM with one of several anonymous team members on Twitter who would promise me they would try to get the person “in charge” to do something and then cross my fingers and hope that it would work out. It did about 50% of the time. Now with Nate I can tweet publicly with a real person and get a comment or an issue addressed 100% of the time. That’s a wonderful step forward, but still incredibly problematic. OpenSea recently raised $100 Million on a $1.5 Billion valuation–that the Head of Product has to personally handle support requests sent to him on his personal Twitter is fucking ridiculous. I appreciate the personal touch of course, but come on–It’s not fair to him, and it’s not fair to the community. With that said, I truly believe Nate is trying to do the right thing, but I also think OpenSea’s policies are misdirected. And while misdirected policies on social media sites can lead to difficult social situations, misdirected policies on market places also end up costing people real money.

So what are those policies? Thats a good question and it seems to be somewhat fluid. To begin with, OpenSea has 2 different and separate kinds of verification. Account level – are you who you say you are, and Collection level – Is this a legitimate project or not? (To sell an NFT on OpenSea you have to make a Collection for it to live in). I’m verified on Twitter, and after connecting my OpenSea account to my Twitter account and tweeting out something OpenSea was able to confirm I was who I said I was and verified my account there as well. You might think that if OpenSea is confident enough in what they know about who I am that they can verify my account that they would use that information to automatically verify my collections. That would make sense, but that is not the case. Collections are verified separately and somewhat arbitrarily. Earlier this year only verified collections turned up in search results. Documents on OpenSea’s site recommended after you create your collection you tweet the link to them or post it in their discord and they would then verify it. That got overwhelming quickly and the backlog became insane, so they changed to allow all collections in the search results, but buying from an unverified collection gives you a popup saying that OpenSea hasn’t had a chance to verify it yet. But due to the sheer numbers of listings being added every day you are much more likely to see that popup than not, so it’s become easily ignorable noise – just enough for OpenSea to waive responsibility for people who get scammed.

These verifications before seemed to be based on someone looking at the collection and seeing if it looked on the up and up and then hitting OK. But that’s changed and OpenSea is now treating Collection verification as an endorsement. Officially, you can no longer request that your collection be verified. Instead, collections are supposedly verified after hitting a completely arbitrary bar of 100Ξ in sales volume, but there are “other ways” to get verified as well. Like being a celebrity (but not a famous artist). Or asking on Twitter. (And that doesn’t even begin to address the problem that tying authenticity to a sales number disadvantages lower priced work made in smaller numbers, in favor of higher priced work made in bulk – which suggests OpenSea is more concerned with how much money they are going to make and less about protecting people from scams.) In addition to having a verified account, other things that will not get you a verified collection include having other verified collections (every new collection has to start from 0), having impersonators actively scamming people by pretending to be you, or making what they consider to be an homage or derivative art. That last one is most troubling because all art is derivative, so this means someone has to make call about what they think is too derivative which means individual people are projecting their personal biases onto a system that is designed to protect people. This means if you like a project that individual employees at OpenSea don’t, they are less concerned with protecting you. I’m sure OpenSea doesn’t see it that way because they don’t want to think that their policies are hurting people, but thats exactly what is going on.

I’ve written before about the issues OpenSea has been dealing with in relation to struggles over IP, so their concern is fair, but all the more reason why they shouldn’t be getting involved with editorial decisions and stick to separating scams from legitimate projects. Let’s look at some cats as an example. Stoner Cats is a high profile celebrity backed project that received a mixed reception from the NFT community, including a competing parody project conceived and launched in 24 hours called Blazed Cats. Both projects are algorithmically generated collections of 10,000 images. On the Blazed Cats website they make many references to Stoner Cats, proudly declare their project as reactionary one-upsmanship and repeatedly refer to themselves as a parody. OpenSea did not rule this as an homage and verified it. Conversely, PunkCats is a collection of original hand made illustrations with the concept of being the matching pet to arguably the most famous NFT project ever, CryptoPunks. In fact several CryptoPunk owners reached out to the artist while they were being drawn and commissioned a cat to match their punk. OpenSea initially declined to verify the collection because it hadn’t hit the 100Ξ bar, but once it did (currently over 300Ξ in volume) they decided it was not transformative enough, too much of an homage and refused to verify it. In this case it’s clear that the decisions are both arbitrary and also reflective of individual biases. According to OpenSea, a pixel human head and neck and a full body of a cat are the same thing, but two full body cartoon cats standing on their hind legs and holding (or not holding) similar accessories in the same way are totally different.

Makes you wonder what other art OpenSea would deem too much of an homage and not worthy of verification?

The truth is I could nit-pick this for hours. I have hundreds of screenshots and links to support my argument that OpenSea is not uniformly applying their policy across all projects and instead making personal judgement calls on a case by case basis. Which is literally the only thing they can do to enforce editorial policies like that. This is unscalable and it’s not what they should be doing anyway. OpenSea should not be making judgement calls about IP, or deciding what is or isn’t a homage or is or isn’t derivative enough. That’s not their business and they shouldn’t be getting mixed up in it. They are a market place and their responsibility is to their customers who they should be trying to protect by verifying what is a legitimate project run by a known individual or company and sussing out the frauds and scammers. By creating these arbitrary rules and moving goal posts around, they are creating the absolute perfect environment for scammers to prey on their customers, and they are only able to react after the fact – after people have been scammed and money has been lost.

Make no mistake: The way OpenSea currently looks at verification makes it very easy for people to be scammed, and every single day they continue in that direction they are allowing those scams to persist, and people to be harmed because of it.

I’ve said this on Twitter but I’ll say it again here: OpenSea needs to immediately drop the 100Ξ barrier to verification and make collection verification a subset of account verification. Once someone meets the reasonable requirements for account verification, any collection they create should be automatically verified. This way new collections by known creators are verified the first second they make something available, and there’s no window for scammer to sneak in. Funds from the first 24 hours of sales on unverified accounts or collections should be held in escrow so that if a scam is detected people can get their money back. Anyone caught intentionally posting fraudulent work or scamming people should have their entire account banned. OpenSea should defer all IP claims to existing copyright law, they should let people files notices and appeals and respond accordingly, but they should not be responding to “requests” from people who may or may not have legal grounds to make those requests, nor be making judgement calls on their own. They should recognize that as an art market, all art is derivative and they should immediately stop acting like they are in a position to decide who’s ideas are original enough. They should also use some of those massive piles of cash they have to hire a proper staff to manage all this so that individual employees are not expected to deal with issues brought to them over Twitter.

Collectors + Investors

I woke up this morning to messages from several friends directing me to this tweet, asking my thoughts. Unsurprising, as anyone who knows me probably knows I’d have more than a few thoughts on something like this. I started thinking of snarky replies or gotchas that I could cleverly post and trust me dear reader, there were many that came to mind. But the more I thought about it, and read the replies from artists who seem to be bending over backwards to agree in hopes that the tweets author might check out and buy their work, I thought it would be better served with a more thoughtful response to illustrate why this is so problematic. Also, I would like credit for my display of maturity and restraint in not just posting a snarky reply. Sean from 20 years ago is wondering who the hell has hijacked his blog right now.

As an art dealer, I would refuse to sell art to someone who came in to my gallery and made a statement like this. I don’t say that hyperbolically – when I had a gallery this was a topic that came up from time to time and we were unapologetic about refusing to sell work to anyone who asked questions like “how soon will I be able to sell this and double my money?” or “do you have anything that will match my couch?” Additionally I’d actively and vocally advise artists to avoid selling work to someone with this approach because while a sale might be nice today, in the long run buyers like this will most likely make decisions later that will negatively impact the artist. And if you think of art as a long term thing, as I do, selling to a buyer like this is basically failing the marshmallow test. This is investing in the art and not in the artist. To me, the artist is always more important than the art. As an art dealer, I wanted to develop long term relationships with artists and watch them grow, and help out where I could. I wanted to look back on my life and the careers of artists I worked with and be proud of what we did together. This artist-first approach wasn’t always the best decision for the profit margin of the business but it allowed me to sleep well at night, and that 15 years after the gallery closed I still count many of the artists I worked with as close friends tells me I made the right decisions. As a dealer, I worked for the artists not the collectors. I wanted the value of the art to go up just as much as anyone else (and it has) but I deeply believe that this happens much more reliably by making decisions that are in the best interest of the artist, and selling to someone who only sees art as an investment simply isn’t.

As an artist, I would be disappointed to know that someone bought my work and didn’t want to be thanked for it. I would be sad to learn that they didn’t have any interest in supporting me or my efforts. This statement is both hurtful and dehumanizing. It says that this person sees artists as nothing but a factory to crank out things which will make them money. Amusingly this is one of the reasons I eventually got out of the technology start up world, which I wrote more about in The Interest Driven Life, but I couldn’t stomach having meetings with venture capitalists who didn’t give a shit about me or my dreams or my goals and only wanted to know how much money I was going to make them, and how fast. Now, I’m not knocking this kind of investing approach – I just think there are ways to do it which don’t hurt people. Invest in shitcoins or flip some Bored Apes. That doesn’t hurt anyones feelings, or make anyone second guess their life choices. I guarantee you no one at LavaLabs is going to be suicidal because someone is rage tweeting that their Meebit hasn’t doubled in value yet. Pure investors don’t understand (or care about) the difference between artwork and a collectable, between individual artist and for profit company.

For most artists I know, just admitting you are an artist is unspeakably hard. It’s a position filled with self doubt, insecurity and questioning choices, but deep down we do believe in our work and our vision and have to trust that somewhere out in the world someone recognizes and connects with that. I make art to tell stories, and find connections, and find communities, and build relationships. Not to make some investor money. I do recognize that I’m in a position of privilege to be able to turn down sales that I don’t think are a good fit, to people who I don’t like. Not everyone can do that, but that’s also why I try to forge the path so that it’s easier for the next group of artists. And I’m pretty sure I can confidently say that standing here at 46 years old, everyone who has bought my work in the last 20 years has done so because they either wanted to support me personally or because my work meant something to them personally – and I’m deeply thankful for that. I would sell my work to someone who loved it and planned to keep it forever over someone who was hoping to sell it at a profit any day.

As an art collector, I despised buyers with this kind of an attitude. Selfishly, because they usually had more money than me and would buy things I loved and it pained me knowing they didn’t actually care about them. I much prefer the Vincent Price / Dennis Hopper approach which comes from recognizing the value that the artists bring to the world, to culture, to society and trying to support that. I forget where but I saw Hopper speaking once and he said something like “If you do it right, being an art collector means you are just a care taker” going on to say that he saw his job as protecting the art he bought until the “real art” world recognized it and made space in museums for it. He says something similar at the end of this short video. He viewed collecting art as documenting a culture and a community. I visited his house in Venice Beach once and and stepped over carefully rolled up Basquiats in order to get a better look at framed photographs by artists I’d never heard of hanging on the walls. His love for the art and for his friends was unquestionable, and it made me feel so much better about my own collection which is almost entirely work by friends. Some of whom I knew before I bought the work, some of whom I became friends with after buying the work. To me, those relationships are so much more valuable than any individual piece of art, but often the art is a physical representation of that relationship. The context is different but I’m reminded of the lyrics to Softcore by Jawbreaker which accuses “They just want the wrapping, They throw away the prize.” As a collector who values and appreciates the culture and the community, it pains me to know that work is sold to people who don’t care about any of that. I understand why it happens, but I don’t have to like it.

To be clear, I don’t think this is a zero sum topic. You don’t have to care about the artist, or your investment. Someone can care about both the value of their investment and in the artist that created the art, and I’d wager to say most people buying art fit into that category. But a comment like the one above represents a hard far end of a spectrum which I can only sum up as “bad.”

When we’re talking about NFTs, which we often are these days, there is a tendency for investors to lump everything together. They see no difference between something created by hand or something created by an algorithm. This illustrates their deep misunderstanding of both art and NFTs. I think this is actually a dangerous mindset which can actually harm artists and communities, and would recommend steering clear of buyers with this approach. This is a brand new world and the collectors who love the art and want to build the community are still showing up every day. Let’s embrace the people who want to build something together with us. We don’t need to make sacrifices to make people who don’t care about us rich.

Announcing my Collaboration with Shepard Fairey

I’m beyond excited to announce this collaboration with my old friend Shepard Fairey. As some of you know I built the first version of obeygiant.com way back when and have spent countless late night hours with Shepard in various cities climbing on rooftops for [reasons]. I’ve shown his work in my gallery, he’s shown my work in his gallery, but this is the first time we’ve collaborated on a piece of work together. This is my original photo the work is inspired by:

My work is observational, not documentarian. I try to capture moments, feelings – less how things are, more how I experience them. Years ago, while in Paris, I came upon several heavily armored cops standing over a kid in a t-shirt who they were detaining, forcefully, aggressively. A blatant and grotesque display of the imbalance of power which reminded me of similar situations my friends and I have experienced first hand all too often. Of course, sadly that isn’t a unique experience. Shepard wields his art like weapon, relentlessly fighting for for a better tomorrow. With this image, I’m honored to have the chance to provide some ammo for that fight. Shepard’s voice has always been thoughtful and poignant, as an artist and as a friend. This collaboration gives an amplified voice to a silent image, injecting an enduring message into a fleeting moment.

Shepard adds:
Punk rock ignited a lot of creative and philosophical things for me, and punk principles continuously remind me that speaking truth to power and questioning authority is paramount in life. The Dead Kennedys, The Clash, Black Flag, and the Circle Jerks are just a few of the groups that referenced injustices such as police brutality and abuse of power in their songs, inspiring me to speak out about the same subjects through my art. I have made a lot of lasting friendships through punk rock and its cultural offshoots. One of those friends is Sean Bonner, who began ordering my prints in the ’90s while he was art director for punk label Victory Records. Sean designed the package for the Bad Brains “Omega Sessions,” among others. Sean is a great designer, writer, activist, and photographer. Sean and I have worked on many projects together over the years, but this is our first art collaboration. I love Sean’s photography, and he said a while back, “if you see anything you dig on my Instagram, you are welcome to make an illustration based on it.” After the protests for racial justice and against police brutality this past summer, I remembered a pic of Sean’s I liked. It turns out the photo was taken in Paris but could be from any city where the police do whatever they want to people – NY, LA, Minneapolis, Moscow, London, Berlin, etc. To me, Sean’s image conveys the fairly universal problem that those who speak up for justice are often beaten down by the police for standing up. We need to demand accountability from those with power and demand consequences when that power is abused.

There have been consistent protests in France over the mistreatment of refugees and the erosion of the social safety net for low-income people. Since Sean’s shot is actually from Paris and those French protests have been met with a lot of police brutality, we thought the poster should raise some money for a French charity called Les Restos du Coeur which provides services for the most marginalized populations. Thanks for caring!

The High Cost Of Free Speech. 24 x 24 inches. Screen print on thick cream Speckletone paper. Original photo by Sean Bonner. Signed by Shepard Fairey. Numbered edition of 575. $80. Proceeds go to Les Restos du Coeur. Available on Tuesday, March 9th @ 10 AM PT at https://store.obeygiant.com/collections/prints.

I’m going to do a one time 12″x12″ printing of my original photo and I’m taking preorders for that now. Order at https://shop.seanbonner.photos/product/busted-paris