The Guardian’s take on Damien Hirst’s NFTs: asking a burning question | Editorial

QNotions about the nature and value of art are not new: a century has passed since Marcel Duchamp turned a urinal upside down, signed it R Mutt and presented it as the Fountain for the Society of Independent Artists, in response to its promise that it would accept any artwork as long as the artist paid the application fee.

New times need new questions, and one was flamboyantly posed last week by the artist Damien Hirst, when he began burning hundreds of his own spot paintings after offering buyers the choice of buying them as original artwork or as £2,000 non-fungible tokens (NFTs). Destroying the originals where buyers chose NFTs has some logic; The question is whether it is more than selling a deed and shooting the house.

Hirst’s showmanship may seem to have little in common with another recent transaction: sales of $100 million of the UK-based Secret Cinema to a US digital ticketing company. However, there are similarities. Secret Cinema is an immersive experience that repackages cult films and TV series as a live experience that recreates worlds from Sexy dance to Bridgerton for fans prepared to pay up to £139 a ticket for a glorified fancy dress party with themed cocktails. Just as Hirst’s NFTs are an unproven commodity, TodayTix Group has paid top dollar for a business that has been running for 15 years but has yet to turn a profit. Both play the futures market with no guarantee that it will pay off. The more interesting question, however, is whether posterity will judge either to have any lasting cultural value beyond the ability to brag about owning a theoretical Hirst, or posting an Instagram selfie.

At least Secret Cinema employs actors and even screenwriters to create custom scenes for revelers to discover as they mingle with their favorite characters. The same cannot be said for immersive art exhibits such as the Van Gogh Experience. Its London incarnation promises a 360-degree light and sound spectacular featuring some of his most famous works, with an animated simulation of his brushstrokes. In Dubai, visitors were invited to pose under a sign reading “Here, Best Selfie Ever”. What is missing are original paintings.

There is a difference between these exercises in marketing and repackaging, and artist-led immersive works such as Punchdrunk’s The Burnt City, a theatrical reenactment of the siege of Troy, which involves an old-fashioned contract between artist and viewer – one creates works for the other to experience.

But one should not assume that various types of contracts will not be successful at a time when so much is changing, technologically, economically and culturally. In 1917, another moment of convulsive change, Duchamp’s fountain was dismissed as a joke. It was a joke, but it was also the future. Today there are many fountains, although the original urinal was lost long ago. It’s a precedent we’d be foolish to ignore.

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