Opinion | For $800, You Too Can Sort of Be In On This Joke

A few weeks ago, while browsing the internet, I came across a dark-blue rectangle for sale: “Monochrome Bleu Numérique.” I zoomed in, then out. I stared for long enough that I wondered whether it might have been a photograph of a photograph. A moment later it appeared to have a grainy texture, suggesting brush strokes on a canvas. But mostly it simply looked like a saturated, unnatural-seeming blue. This digital artwork, stored as a digital file, was for sale online when I first stumbled upon it for 0.3 Ether — the cryptocurrency for the blockchain platform Ethereum — worth more than $800, as of Tuesday night.

“Monochrome Bleu Numérique,” which was made by a Vienna-based artist who goes by the name Demian Thirst (he declined to provide his real name), is being sold as a “non-fungible token,” or NFT. NFTs are unique virtual certificates of sole ownership that serve as financial assets and can be attached to everything from famous online videos to a virtual three-course meal. Like an autograph on an otherwise one-in-a-million sports jersey, an NFT offers an assurance of authenticity.

This certificate of ownership is verified by blockchain technology — the decentralized public ledgers that record all the financial transactions of participants in the network, somewhat like a massive Google Doc or Google spreadsheet. In 2021, fueled by rising cryptocurrency prices, NFTs have captured the imagination — and bemused ire — of both the art world and the general public.

Somewhat puzzlingly, owning an NFT doesn’t mean that you own the given image or thing to which it’s connected, or own the copyright to it. Many NFTs can be downloaded, duplicated, “screenshotted” or simply found elsewhere on the internet.

Buying an NFT, then, is not so much about buying something as it is buying the concept of owning a thing — which feels like the logical endpoint of a society obsessed with property rights, and finding new ways to buy and sell almost anything.

So it’s natural that online opinion and news headlines have been incredulous: Someone paid more than $69 million at auction for a JPG image that you could simply download on the internet? A New York Times column that was turned into an NFT sold for more than half a million dollars? Why would someone pay $500,000 for a digital house? (There is a special absurdity to a house you can’t inhabit that’s worth more than most houses).

But some genuinely interesting, even profound, art has emerged from the weirdness of this NFT bubble — or boom, if you’re being more generous. Digital artworks that, like “Monochrome Bleu Numérique,” directly engage with the strange conditions of their production.

The piece riffs on — or perhaps rips off — a set of monochrome blue paintings made by the French conceptual artist Yves Klein in the late 1950s and early ’60s. Mr. Klein was best known for attention-grabbing works that bordered on stunts. Around 1957, he registered a distinctive ultramarine blue as a trademark color, which he described as “a Blue in itself, disengaged from all functional justification.” (He named it, a bit amusingly, International Klein Blue.)

Mr. Klein was seeking to cordon off a color he believed to be commercially valuable, which many observers saw as absurd. However, some critics read this as a kind of extreme performance — that perhaps Mr. Klein was critiquing the whole idea of ownership in the art world. He was most likely trying to do a little of both: In much of his work, Mr. Klein was toeing a line between critiquing commercialism and reaping its benefits.

Some of the NFT mania reminded me of Mr. Klein: people laying claim to things that are immaterial, widely available or both, generating a false scarcity in service of profit.

Demian Thirst, the artist, told me that he was intentionally borrowing from Mr. Klein and that by copycatting his style with “Monochrome Blue Numérique,” he was attempting to connect this cultural craze to the history of conceptual art and rehash some of Mr. Klein’s enduring questions for the digital era.

“I think so much of this NFT conversation has been ahistoric,” Demian Thirst told me in a recent telephone interview. “I wanted to open up a bit these discussions about authorship, about originality in NFTs.”

If his commitment to metaphysical cheekiness is in any doubt, then check out his pseudonym, a play on the name of another commercially successful artist-slash-stunt master, Damien Hirst. “It’s a bit reflective,” he said. “And it’s also a bit of an elaborate joke, putting a mirror up to the medium.”

While blockchain technology is newfangled, convoluted ideas of originality aren’t. We insist that the “Mona Lisa” in the Louvre is the one and only true “Mona Lisa,” despite the plethora of mugs and umbrellas and fancy posters printed with her image.

Even if I screenshot “Monchrome Bleu Numérique” — as I already have — I don’t own it because I don’t own the NFT. But what happens, for instance, if someone mints my tweet about this story on “Monochrome Bleu Numérique” as an NFT — a collectible on its own? Demian Thirst has, more or less, taken an idea from Mr. Klein, slapped it on the internet and put it up for sale.

“Of course, this is an original work,” he said. “But on the other hand, it isn’t really.”

So despite the fad, it seems there’s little that’s fundamentally fresh in the NFT-art space — just a new iteration of the anxieties and ambitions that have defined the art world for at least a century.

In one of Mr. Klein’s most elaborate projects, he sold certificates of ownership for an empty space he called immaterial zones, or more precisely, “Zones de Sensibilité Picturale Immatérielle.” In exchange for some grams of gold, Mr. Klein would give buyers documents that certified they owned a portion of the emptiness. Then a buyer could burn the certificate and Mr. Klein would throw a portion of the gold into the Seine. The concept of purchase literally going up in flames — then into a communal river.

As for “Monochrome Bleu Numérique,” no buyer has come along yet, and it remains for sale on the NFT platform Rarible.

Sophie Haigney is a critic and journalist who writes about visual art, books and technology. A frequent contributor to The Times, she has also written for The New Yorker, New York magazine, The Guardian and Slate.

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