Damien Hirst Asks, "What Is The Value of Physical Art vs. Digital Art?"

Over a year ago, famous artist Damien Hirst sold an NFT collection that asked a fundamental (and controversial) question of physical and digital art.

Damien Hirst Asks, "What Is The Value of Physical Art vs. Digital Art?"

Over a year ago, famous artist Damien Hirst sold an NFT collection that asked a fundamental (and controversial) question of physical and digital art. In July 2021, Hirst’s project “The Currency” offered 10,000 NFT digital art pieces and 10,000 corresponding physical art pieces. Each of these art pieces were variations on Damien Hirst’s multi-colored ‘spot paintings’ that look very similar, but were arranged differently, and had unique titles.

To buy the pieces, you had to enter a lottery and if successfully chosen, you would pay $2000 to buy one of the pieces. However, buying the piece meant that you would get the choice to either keep the digital NFT painting and have its corresponding physical piece destroyed, or keep the physical painting and have its corresponding NFT destroyed. This put a whole new, almost cannibalistic meaning to the word ‘phygital.’

Buyers were given some time to decide whether to keep their physical or digital NFT piece. Hirst was inspired to call the collection “The Currency” in order to explore the idea of when art becomes currency and when currency becomes art. The collection came out as NFT hype, particularly around digital art, was beginning to explode in mid-2021. Damien Hirst’s career comes from the traditional art world, but most of his previous pieces have been considered controversial, surreal, and oftentimes absurd by mainstream art critics.

Perhaps more than any other artist in the world, Damien Hirst was well positioned to pose conceptual questions to art and NFT collectors. In addition to the $89 Million in sales that “The Currency” has supposedly generated, Hirst managed to spark a conversation around what value society puts on digital vs. physical art. Based on how many owners of “The Currency” decided to keep the physical art vs. the NFT art, we could gauge the appetite for physical vs. digital.

Owners of “The Currency” had to consider a variety of different factors. Paying $2,000 for a physical piece from Damien Hirst is a really good price considering that many of his famous pieces have sold for millions of dollars. With Hirst’s reputation, it’s a fairly solid bet that owning one of his physical pieces today would eventually increase in value. At the same time, you can also look at the hyper growth around the NFT market as an indication that keeping a Damien Hirst NFT may be even more valuable.

Last year, some people were able to sell their NFT pieces from “The Currency” for prices well into the six figures. Though for people skeptical about NFTs, you could also say that these prices are unsustainable and it’s safer in the long term to hold physical artwork. Currently, the floor price of “The Currency” NFTs on OpenSea is 4.44 ETH, which is around $5,600 at the time of this writing, October 21, 2022.

Deciding whether to keep a physical piece or a digital piece is a complicated decision. Many factors are involved and there’s no clear ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer for each person who owns a piece of “The Currency.”

And that brings us to today. After months of deliberation, 5,149 people decided to keep the physical painting and 4,851 people decided to keep the NFTs. Depending on how you want to interpret these results, you could say that the desire for traditional art still outweighs the desire for digital NFT art since more people wanted to keep the physical vs. the digital. However, this is also merely a specific snapshot in time focused on a very small group of people. How could this number change over time? How would the results be different if Damien Hirst released the collection today? And how should other artists be thinking about this?

From September 23 to October 30, the Newport Gallery in London is hosting an exhibit for Damien Hirst’s “The Currency” that is the culmination of the entire project. At the beginning of this exhibition period, visitors could see a display of the different physical and digital pieces in the gallery. Towards the end of the exhibition period, Damien Hirst would start to literally set on fire the physical pieces in the gallery. Visitors could witness the artist burning the physical pieces that people decided to forego instead of the digital pieces. Many traditional art critics have actually criticized the exhibit as a meaningless spectacle masquerading as profound social commentary. Well, that’s how people have been viewing Damien Hirst’s work for decades now.

At Neustreet, we think deeply about what it means to see the blurring between our physical and digital worlds. Whether you buy digital assets to express yourself online, to connect closer to a community, or to make a savvy investment, we observe that all these types of behaviors are becoming more common. Older generations, not always but on average, tend to spend less time and money on digital experience vs. younger generations. It’s the youth buying Fortnite skins, playing Roblox, and watching Twitch streams who are most keenly aware of what the digital economy means to them.

Traditional art collectors, the kind of people who generally buy Damien Hirst’s work, come from a completely different world. And to many of them, “The Currency” is a wild experiment. Ten years from now, we will surely look back on this experiment as an interesting moment where we began to more consciously think about the value of digital assets.