If Andy Warhol — the most famous artist of the 20th century — were alive today, he would make NFTs. The reasoning is simple: because for Warhol, business was art. So, I decided to do some digging and speak to Warhol experts to see if there is a case.
But Warhol was an artist who defies easy definitions, and not everyone was keen to explore the highly speculative nature of the hypothesis. Professor Golan Levin, professor of electronic art at Carnegie Mellon University, said he couldn’t help and instead suggested that I “ask a Warhol biographer or a psychic medium.”
Fair enough. So, I messaged Warhol’s renowned biographer, Blake Gopnik, author of Warhol.
And then I found a Warhol psychic.
Gopnik is an art critic and a regular contributor to The New York Times. He’s the author of Warhol, a definitive biography of the pop artist.
An internet search determined it was also possible to arrange a seance with Andy Warhol, as part of a Los Angeles tourist experience.
I put the seance on hold for later. I wouldn’t dare dispute the medium’s direct line to Warhol — my concern was the psychic might struggle to explain NFTs to Warhol.
Andy Warhol’s legacy is a nod to NFTs
Warhol, by Blake Gopnik
Gopnik’s biography of Warhol seemed to posit that money was a means, but provocation was always Warhol’s end goal. Warhol enjoyed making money to fund all his creative pursuits, but he always sought to be provocative. So, NFTs – which can be both provocative and lucrative – seem like a medium he would’ve embraced.
For a start, Warhol’s later film and photographic works certainly became increasingly provocative, bordering on pornographic. The Warhol Diaries provide a fascinating insight into pre-woke times and Warhol’s artistic motivations in the 1980s.
Secondly, “what is art” and whether NFTs are art is not the right question. That’s a minefield. Colborn Bell, founder of the Crypto Museum of Modern Art, tells me — mostly, they’re not. “Out of the gate, a lot of NFTs aren’t art. They are really not.”
A key argument in favor of my pet theory is how Warhol immediately used a new artistic medium whenever available for commercial success.
And his work was also not considered art by much of the establishment — he was forced to embrace that reality. That’s a similar position to NFTs in popular culture today. Acclaimed collections from Fidenza call into question the very concept of art and artists. If a computer produces the work, is it even art? they question.
There are many historical parallels.
Warhol transformed the mundane into art
Warhol was a pioneer in transforming commercial and mundane items like Campbell’s soup cans into art. He made films, produced early music clips, and even had a TV talk show that ran on MTV in the 1980s.
He also produced hundreds of pieces in a well-staffed studio known as “The Factory.”
Shunned by art critics — the Museum of Modern Art in New York refused his free donation of a work called “Shoe” in 1956 — Warhol then realized that portraits of people could be very lucrative.
Lots of different patrons sat for him, but each portrait might exist as only one or two paintings, according to Gopnik. His biggest editions of the Marilyn Monroe prints were of 200 images, and they were never cheap, explains Gopnik.
For comparison, while NFTs can be wholly unique one-of-ones, mints typically number 10,000.
Warhol painted political leaders, such as Mao and Lenin, (Che Guevara was attributed to him but was a fake painted by his assistant). And he painted celebrities, such as Elvis, Marylin Monroe and Mick Jagger.
Reigning Queens was a 1985 series of 16 silkscreen portraits.
Clearly, it’s easy to presume that Warhol would love NFTs: easily reproduced mass collections on a theme or a widely recognizable person.
And here’s the kicker: Those images were Warhol’s “f— you” to the establishment. He was saying, My work is commercial and I’m going to sell them.
Crypto is, to varying degrees, a “big f— you” to the established financial order and the art world. NFTs are a new business model for creators — a speculative one, sure — but a new model for scaling art sales.
Some highly successful NFT businesses are a modern scalable version of older business models. For example, Moonbirds sought to create a proof mechanism, and it’s emerging into a kind of studio for creatives. And Bored Yacht Ape Club is arguably a spin on the country club model. They aim to overcome scale limitations faced by those IRL business models, in which NFTs represent a form of club membership and grant owners free entry to events, for example, or the ability to simply hobnob with other club members by virtue of their shared exclusive golden tickets.
For Warhol, business was art
“Perhaps Warhol’s art foreshadowed NFTs because he proved that business itself could be an art form.
So, Warhol’s art proved that business could be an art form. Jon Ippolito, professor of new media at the University of Maine, drew the link to NFTs in his blog, writing:
“Good business is the best art,” Warhol claimed. He once insisted that he wanted to sell shares of his company on Wall Street. While Warhol pushed the boundaries of what art is, he also said: “Don’t think about making art, just get it done.”
To an extent, Warhol sought to scale the art industry — and that’s exactly what NFTs do. So, it’s easy to imagine Warhol would enjoy pumping out NFTs on a larger scale than Damien Hirst.
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Gopnik disputes this idea. “The Factory was an ironic nickname for his art studio — he only had one to two assistants. He was playing at factory production. Warhol’s output was no more than any other contemporary artist,” Gopnik explains to Magazine.
Gopnik should know, as he is currently curating an exhibition on Warhol’s idea of “business art.” This turn of phrase refers to business as an ironic medium for art making. He says Warhol was simply playing with the idea. He always wanted to be taken seriously as an artist.
NFTs would bore Warhol, thinks Gopnik. “He would find it a tired concept by now and be into something else.” As evidence, Gopnik notes that in 1962, Warhol painted the 32 Campbell’s Soup cans as the first steps of a young pop art movement. By 1965, he said he would never do another painting.
“Warhol would play with business as an art supply, as a way of pretending to be part of that non-art world of commerce: ‘Just watch me. I am a great artist, I can do whatever I want, I can take art to this other domain.’
NFTs too commercial for Warhol
While he’s a fan of Warhol, Gopnik is not a big fan of NFTs and wrote in a March 2021 feature in The New York Times that “NFT art simply does not exist.” The art is in flipping the NFT for a profit, he wrote. The way NFTs are bought and sold automatically raises issues over the meaning of “ownership.” He noted that Damien Hirst, one of the first major artists to get into NFTs in 2021, ironically called his NFT release “The Currency.”
But isn’t that the point? NFTs are a cultural business currency. The ability to scale offers artists the ability to meet consumer demands at many price points.
In this experimental phase, there is some emerging artistry in the business models derived from NFTs. Establish a community, create some exclusivity, and the buyers will come. NFTs have transcended crypto as a pop culture movement. In 2021, NFTs became crypto’s mainstream moment.
Still, Ippolito also believes that NFTs might now be too mainstream for Warhol’s provocations:
“It’s also conceivable that Warhol would be happy to see more people making art in general, and I am, too. But I don’t think he would have touched NFTs himself. I see his ‘business-like’ initiatives as pushing the boundaries of art, not reinforcing a hierarchy.”
So, if NFTs are not about art but creating an audience for scalable sales, perhaps they are too commercial for Warhol to embrace. “I think most NFTs serve a dual purpose: overtly to support those who make art, and covertly to validate cryptocurrencies,” Argues Ippolito.
NFTs were arguably designed as a crypto onboarding mechanism, even before they exploded to speculative investors in 2021. As I noted when I tried to value NFT clones or “derivative” NFT projects, the art is in the code for the open-source advocates, as well as the curation of the collection.
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And NFTs do reinforce business hierarchies. Nike has already made $200 million on NFT sneaker royalties and sales. Warhol likely would not like to be a tool of a corporation, but perhaps Warhol would’ve taken on Crypto.com or Coinbase as a patron sponsor of his art.
“He might be interested in the resistance inherent in cryptocurrencies, as a kind of primitive capitalism,” says Gopnik, who notes that Warhol was very left-wing and anti-elitist. Perhaps he would have been taken with “resistance NFTs” used to fundraise the UkraineDAO then.
Warhol loved to experiment
Regardless of whether business success was secondary to Warhol’s goal of pushing artistic boundaries, Gopnik believes the immutable tech would certainly have fascinated Warhol.
Gopnik notes that as NFTs preserve deeds, not art history and the celebration of art, Warhol might be interested in that part of the transactional side and playing around with the underlying technology.
“I hate guessing what Warhol would do, but NFTs are terribly naïve artistically, so it’s more credible he would be interested in blockchains.
It’s true, most people can’t conceive of a long-term price or value for most NFTs. They’re also so generic in their style, it’s often hard to remember them, so longevity for particular series or mints is not yet assured. But the tokens’ immutability (subject to some tech caveats) is assured. That is, after all, the whole idea behind pushing the boundaries of the art and creative industries through NFTs.
There are hints that Warhol may have loved that blockchains could, in theory, render proof of ownership for eternity. Warhol famously said, “The idea is not to live forever; it is to create something that will.”
Warhol was always a futurist looking for the next new medium.
Andy Warhol, Untitled (Self-Portrait) minted as an NFT in 2021. Source: ©The Andy Warhol Foundation.
Warhol and computer-generated art
In May 2021, the Warhol Foundation auctioned some undiscovered computer-based Warhol originals as NFTs — but not without controversy. The archivist who found the file was outraged as they had “recreated original files.”
Professor Levin, who worked on creating the collection, did not consider them “original works” by Warhol but were more of a tribute to his experiments. According to Levin, Warhol had been given the second such Amiga computer in existence.
The story of Warhol and the early computer is curious, though. Alana Kushnir, an art lawyer and curator, tells Magazine that the first mover for a medium is part of the artistry.
“Warhol using an early personal computer to create digital artworks — this is an important historical precursor to artists working with NFTs. Warhol had a connection to NFTs without knowing it.
She suggests Warhol’s “overtly commercial focus was way ahead of its time,” and he was also happy to form brand partnerships in the 1980s. “Art and commerce can intersect in interesting ways, and Warhol knew that. Think about his screen prints of dollar signs from the early 80s – he combined wealth and art in a light-hearted, simplistic way – to attract the masses.”
Kushnir explains, “Some artists have a good sense of what’s to come and can tune their art practice to address that.” Warhol did, for example, have a prophecy that in the future, everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. That came true in the case of reality TV and became even briefer with the advent of social media.
Yet she also posits that where the “Warhol would love NFTs argument” fails is that “good artists, like Warhol, are social commentators — they pull back the curtains on the inner workings of contemporary society. Most NFTs don’t bother to do that.”
That’s three strikes against my theory from the experts. And there’s a final problem in this theoretical discussion…
Art still needs a connection to the artist…
Returning to the “business is art” argument, it may be true that crypto has created a new experimental mechanism for commercializing and trading art, including new royalty mechanisms. Warhol wanted to IPO his company, so he may have loved the idea of artists being paid fractional royalties.
But art needs an identifiable artist, and that doesn’t always exist with generative art like CryptoPunks or the works of Fidenza.
Ippolito doubts any artistic merit of “code art.” “The fundamental difference between pop art and an ERC-721 smart contract is the connection to the artist,” he says.
“It’s tempting to say algorithmically generated PFP-style images can’t have personality, but I do believe the personalities of many artists who use code show up in their work.”
It’s only fitting that Warhol biographer Gopnik gets the last word:
“Warhol might be interested in the most ridiculous NFTs — but only once they crashed to $0.99. He liked to undermine the notion of valuable art. He loved anything that was problematic and troublesome. NFTs are that: a problem for the art world and the financial world and the journalistic world.
But on the other hand, Warhol’s work required tremendous novelty and subtlety.
“The thing most people don’t understand is that he was completely dedicated to the notion of Avant-Garde art. What matters about Warhol is his exceptional complexity and ambiguity. And that makes it very hard to imagine that he would like NFTs now.”
“For me, NFTs, for now, are like trading cards, but I’m waiting for an NFT collection so specific to NFTs that it blows my socks off.”
And maybe that’s the point. Who knows what Warhol could have done with NFTs?
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Max Parasol is a RMIT Blockchain Innovation Hub researcher. He has worked as a lawyer, in private equity and was part of an early-stage crypto start up that was overly ambitious.