Beeple is changing the relationship between the artist and the collector

Beeple’s “Human One” in motion.
Beeple’s “Human One” in motion.
Image: Christie's/Beeple
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The digital artist Beeple made history in March when he sold a nonfungible token (NFT) of his Everydays collage at Christie’s for $69 million. Now he has made a gallant return to the auction house with a piece of art that the buyer can actually touch.

Human One, described in the auction catalog as a “kinetic video sculpture,” is a glass box showing an astronaut walking (but not moonwalking) as digitally programmed backgrounds change around it. The dystopian settings change based on the box’s geographic location and the local time.

The artwork sold for about $29 million to a Swiss buyer at auction on Nov. 10—and, while arguably not integral to the physical piece itself, the buyer received an NFT of it. In this case, the NFT functions more like a certificate of authenticity.

The dynamic nature of Beeple’s art speaks to an emerging paradigm in both art and crypto, where the artist and the buyer are in prolonged conversation—and the transaction is just the start of the deal.

An artist for the internet age

The trollish quality of the artwork is one of its main draws. Beeple can reprogram the background of the work at a moment’s notice. In demonstrating the piece, Beeple even played with the auctioneer.

“When I first encountered Human One not too long ago over Zoom, I told Beeple it reminded me of Alberto Giacometti’s famous L’Homme qui marche I from 1961,” Noah Davis, Christie’s NFT guru, wrote in an essay. “The affinity was so clear, I instinctively read the work as a kind of homage, but I was pleasantly surprised to learn that, in fact, Beeple had never heard of Giacometti.”

Later, when Davis saw Human One in person at Beeple’s South Carolina home, the artist had programmed the background so that it was full of Giacometti’s walking men, along with Andy Warhol’s Campbell soup cans and Salvador Dali’s melting clocks.

Addressing the crypto community

While there’s something endearing about Beeple’s lack of art school fluency, the anecdote points to something indicative of his stature in the art world. Beeple is different, an outsider, an anomaly. He produces digital art—which is often quite good. But he is a household name not because of the art world, but rather because of the crypto community.

NFTs are at once an obvious speculative bubble and one of the more effective motivators for community building the internet has ever seen. Fervent fan bases have developed around different art projects—some of questionable artistic merit—often with an identity, a core set of values, and a purpose beyond speculative trading.

Perhaps what’s ingenious about Beeple’s art is that he knows his audience better than his discipline. Beeple doesn’t need to know about Giacometti to design his art—even if it’s uncanny to a critic’s allegedly discerning eye—but once he learns about it, he is able to respond. He might tweak the work in new ways to respond to news events, cultural moments, or inside jokes with the buyer. That’s the potential of his latest piece.

A “new paradigm of trust” between the artist and collector

Davis remarks that any description he could write about Human One would be inapt considering the nature of the artwork.

“For the rest of his artistic career, Beeple will be able to adjust the visual components of Human One by editing or adding to its digital assets, allowing the artist to comment on world events as they unfold in real time,” Davis wrote. “This radical technical flourish allows for a new paradigm of trust to exist between artist and collector.”

Beeple himself called the artwork an “ongoing conversation.” In essence, he sold a blank canvas to a collector and said “trust me.”

The winning bidder’s $29 million didn’t just buy a jpeg, or a glass box along with a jpeg, but more so a relationship with an artist on the cutting edge. Whether the relationship involves trolling, genuine friendship, artistic rigor, or something else—that’s for Beeple to decide.