As I write from the desk overlooking my Princeton farm, Bluebirds and Tree Swallows have begun to nest. The peeper frogs have serenaded our evening walks. The spring thaw gives us hope, at least a pause, in our intense and dark pandemic world. And in the scarce winter of our lives, imagination takes us out onto the trails of the New.
I interpret the Greek word kainos in 2 Corinthians 5:17 (“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation…”) to be a “New Newness”—akin to a caterpillar becoming a butterfly, but more. It is a transfiguration that redefines what Newness is.
What New Newness is coming out of the pandemic times of 2020-2021?
I have been tracking cryptocurrency’s development since the beginning of 2020. I suspected that such a time of distress would create ideal conditions for the New to arise. Cryptocurrency, as speculative as it is, will lead into that making, I was convinced, but I did not know exactly how that will play out.
When the market shrunk in March, I saw an opportunity and invested part of my advance for Art + Faith into Bitcoin Trust. (I have always advised younger artists to reinvest artistic gains, however small, into the future of making.) In March to May, speculators were predicting the bitcoin market to double by the end of 2020. By February of 2021, the value of bitcoin nearly quadrupled.
Notably, this increase coincided with several major cyberattacks during 2020, which actually vouchsafed that the cryptocurrency is rather secure. Bitcoin withstood the onslaught of manipulations, and proved to be safer and trustworthy than Facebook ads. How? Bitcoin exchanges use blockchain technology, making transactions irreversible and public, which means that they are secure and transparent at the same time. In fact, blockchain exchanges are secure by being transparent. This paradox operating at the heart of supercomputers is the New coming out of our times.
A meteoric rise of cryptocurrency has led to a paradigm shift in the art market through the creation of crypto art. Crypto art utilizes blockchain technology to assign non-fungible tokens (NFTs) to digital art. NFTs make original digital art valuable and irreplaceable, because an NFT can only have one owner at a time.
I have been saying (with many others, such as Daniel Pink) from the mid 2000’s that the creative economy will take over the post-industrial landscapes of utilitarian pragmatism, and that those content makers will be valued highly once again. Now, a compilation of thirteen years of Beeple’s crypto art recently went up on the Christies auction to fetch over 69 million dollars.
I began following Beeple (or Mr. Winklemann of South Carolina) on Instagram some time ago, recommended by a friend, Erica Anderson, who has intrepidly and faithfully posted beautiful GIF images on Instagram (IG) for the last three years. When she started this journey, she was among a handful of IG digital artists who posted a new image, without fail, every day. Upon another friend’s recommendation, I became a first collector of Erica’s NFT offering, navigating the shadowy, and confusing, world of Ethereum (another cryptocurrency) to purchase her digital art using the gains that I made in Bitcoin Trust. Such is the path of a “border stalker,” continuing to explore territories of the New.
Beeple’s art collages and appropriates various pop-culture and game-culture influences. He is masterful in his artistry, and prophetic in his communal vision for how art ought to be rendered in our times. Beeple collages not just iconic images, such as Disney characters, Donald Trump, Jeff Koons sculptures, or Sci Fi dystopic power structures, but, at the same time, reveals underlaying “idols” of the nation reflected in those “icons.” NFT culture is owned (literally) by the younger generations who long for bottom-up expressions in the secure and transparent Blockchain.
Crypto art, connected to cryptocurrency, partly reflects a cultural shift that we have seen during the Pandemic, arising out of what Malcolm Gladwell calls the birth of “Weak Links Society.” Weak Links Society is in contrast with the Strong Links Society of the past. Gladwell compares the former to soccer, and latter to basketball. In Soccer, one weak link in the team can result to loss, whereas in Basketball, if you have a Michael Jordan or LeBron James, you are going to do ok. Strong Links Society builds its institutions with power and prestige; Weak Links Society is egalitarian. People with less obvious power, such as nurses and post office workers, become the “essential workers.” Just like Blockchain technology, it is significant because it is transparent and public rather than manipulated and coerced within the shadows of power.
If such shift, one that took place before the Pandemic and accelerated through the shutdown, has indeed taken place, then culture has become more communally driven. All institutions, businesses, and culture will have to adopt this shift. It is a “new normal.”
But after Beeple’s success, it seems we need a new type of Decalogue for the digital age, or at least guidance for cryptocurrency culture that allows for sustainable growth and stewarding gains into creating beauty and giving mercy in this Weak Links Society. What I perceive to be the New Newness of our time must move beyond elevated expressions of individuals to leadership that actually subsumes itself to causes and communities at large, from education to church to the market, while wisely and carefully maintaining influence. This type of leader does not want to be a power broker, but intentionally avoids visible power and mega spectacle trappings.
Beeple ought to know that he can learn a great deal from Sen no Rikyu of 16th century Japan, whose “art of peace” of tea created enduring impact in the culture, and simultaneously empowered the oppressed Korean artisans, persecuted Christians, and landowner farmers of 16th century. I connect my concept “New Hiddenness” —the idea that God imbeds, or hides, gems into culture that lead into a discovery of the New—to the venerable tradition of Rikyu’s secretive school of tea, and with Kintsugi aesthetic refined by Rikyu school. Rikyu’s art of serving high tea in wartimes took root in a 250-year era of persecution, defining the aesthetics of Japan and eventually challenging and outlasting the dictatorial consolidation of Tokugawa Shogunate. Such historical examples of grace leading to new frontiers of culture under dictatorial pressures proves how effective New Hiddeness can be.
I’ve written in my books that hand-wrought labors of art and Eucharistic practice are fundamental in a Theology of Making, so one might rightly ask how digital art can be somatic. Let me address this at the end.
The sudden rise of value connected with crypto art can be connected with the physicality of digital creation. It created real wealth that made Beeple’s 69-million-dollar auction possible. Those gains translate into real homes (one of teenage digital artist purchased his home in Seattle with NFT sales) and into a physical economy. We used to think of digital art as the residual tail of “real” physical art. What if the paradigm has shifted the other way around to digital art being “real,” and now it can be, should be, turned into the physical?
One of the great criticisms of the cryptocurrency craze (including the recent comment by Bill Gates) notes how energy consuming the transaction of cryptocurrency is. Even if cryptocurrency is digital, one bitcoin transaction will leave more carbon footprints than my travel to Newark to LAX. It directly affects the physical, which further illustrates why digital currency is real and suggests why it will be enduring. The question is not whether cryptocurrencies or crypto art are physical realities (they are). It’s how we steward the New that matters.
Perhaps we will have to get used to a hybrid model of existence, as we have been experiencing during the pandemic, that involves book tours on Zoom. But just because it is digital does not mean it is a gnostic denial of the physical. My somatic knowledge thesis still holds as a central test of the fruit of our labor—what kind of art, what kind of community, does the phenomenon create? Does that fruit taste good?
Makoto Fujimura is an artist whose recent exhibitions in New York and Asia have been featured in the New York Times, the Atlantic, and other leading publications. He is also an award-winning author and the founder of IAMCultureCare and the Fujimura Institute, and co-founder of Kintsugi Academy. He has served on the National Council on the Arts.