The digital artist known as Beeple: ‘I’m just trying to expand people’s idea of what art is’

Janice K. Johnson


Let’s start with your NFT journey — from how you recently first heard about NFTs to then selling one just a few months later for tens of millions of dollars.

In the summer and early fall of 2020, my fans kept messaging me saying, “You got to check out this NFT thing.” It seemed very complicated at first because I wasn’t a crypto person. It was like, “I don’t think this is for me; this is some weird crypto thing.” Then I started to recognize names of artists that I knew and that, to be quite honest, I was more popular than. And they were selling things where it’s like:” Well, that is a surprising amount of money for something that I didn’t think was worth any money.” This is when it clicked to me that there would be a moment where digital art was respected. Other art forms had gone through the same process where they existed for a long time and nobody really thought of them as art, and then they became art. Banksy with graffiti: “That’s not art, it’s vandalism,” and then, “Oh, yeah, I guess it is art.” Kaws with vinyl collectibles. That this could be that moment for digital art where people fully look at this stuff as just another art form, like sculpture or photography. Just another medium.

For the last 20, 30 years, anytime you go to a movie, anytime you turn on a TV, how Facebook looks, how TikTok looks, digital artists designed that stuff; digital artists have a massive influence on the visual language of today. And so I think it’s very interesting that there was so much pushback like: “This is not art.” I’ve drawn pictures for 20 years, and if they’re not art, what are they? I don’t even know what they could be if they’re not art. I just thought that everybody was in the same art world. I didn’t realize that people would look at what I was doing and say it was not art. Because really, at the end of the day, art is just, I don’t know, creative communication, and that can take a lot of different forms.

Can you talk about some of that pushback?

I think what was tough for a lot of people is I seemed to come out of nowhere and then sold this thing for a ridiculous sum of money. Like: “We didn’t vet this person; we didn’t have any say in whether this person should be allowed to sell something for this amount of money.” Because to come up in the traditional art world, you have to be vetted by a very small number of gatekeepers. You really only had to convince maybe, I don’t know, 50 to a hundred people that your work was valuable, and if all those people agreed, the sky is the limit. Versus I convinced 2 million people that don’t really have that much power, in a way, that my work was valuable. I had millions of followers before this happened, so social media and word of mouth of, “Oh, this, guy is doing something interesting” — that’s what caused it to happen.

Do you feel like pioneers?

In a way, I would say. But we were doing this for a while, so it feels like everybody else is waking up a little bit more to this thing that we were already doing and looking at it in a different context. And I think I’m looking at it in a different context than I was, too. So it does feel a little like we’re on the forefront here. But I also don’t know where it’s going. So that’s kind of the good and bad.

I’m just trying to expand people’s idea of what art is a little bit because I think if you look at the artists who have stood the test of time, there are people who expanded the idea of what art is. Look at Jackson Pollock. It was like, “That’s not art — that’s just some splatters,” and then it expanded people’s idea of what art is. Warhol with screen prints and Picasso with the way he was drawing. So the people who have stood the test of time expanded our idea of what art could be.

Can you talk about your everyday series?

In early 2007 I saw another artist named Tom Judd, who is an illustrator in the United Kingdom, and he was doing a sketch-a-day in a notebook. It felt like more of a personal sketchbook, but it was really cool. He had already finished the full year, so I could see the full kind of progression and I could see, okay, you definitely got better. Really the only secret, the real trick, to this everyday thing is it just gets you to work way more. There’s no secret beyond that — just working more. My view of a successful day is posting a JPEG on the Internet. That’s it. Posting any picture of literally anything.

So going in with a realistic expectation that every day you are not going to produce some masterpiece. Every day you are not going to be inspired; most days I’m not. I’m a normal person and I worked all day on other crap and now I come home and it’s like, “Do I really want to spend two or three more hours on the computer?” Not really. But when you have this project where you have this momentum built up, that momentum really helps carry you through those days, like, “Okay, guy, sit down here, we’ve got to do something.”

Do you have times you think: I nailed it, that’s exactly what I wanted to convey?

Very rarely. I would say I almost always fall short, if not far short of what I was trying to do. There’s very few times where I’m like, “Oh man, I’ve just nailed it. This is a masterpiece,” because I’m just not often happy with my work. And the ones like that, I almost feel like I got lucky. Like, “Oh, that turned out better than I feel like I deserve credit for.”

You call your website “Beeple-crap” — is that how you feel about most of your work?

Some of that is a little bit tongue-in-cheek because I feel like the pretentiousness level in the art world is so high that I literally would not even want to be called an artist. That it feels so douche-y, just feels like it has so much weight.

I would love for people to look at art as more like this daily practice. Like exercise, where it is just something that you do and there’s no pressure and you just have fun for a little bit. That’s what it is with my kids with the everydays. It’s just like, “Go take the iPad,” and they’ve got their little pencil with the iPad and they just draw something, and they spend five minutes, 10 minutes or whatever; they just have fun for two seconds and then that’s it. It doesn’t need to be loaded with so much: “What does this say about me, and what are people going to think?” Art doesn’t need to be that.

A lot of your recent work is sort of dystopian, with a heavy dose of political satire and satire of consumerism. How conscious is that?

I would say it’s fairly conscious. But most of the time, I’m not trying to be like, “You should think this,” or “This is how it should be.” A lot of the pictures I’m purposely trying to make a bit ambiguous. Some of the Trump stuff was pretty pointed. But most of the time I’m trying to make something that asks more questions than provides answers because I think there’s plenty of people out there who [think they’ve] got the answer. We’ve lost any sense of nuance, and it’s like everything has to be just hyper-polarized. I’m trying to make work that is very purposefully weird and purposefully a bit ambiguous that sometimes even after I finish, it’s like: “Yeah, I don’t know what that was about; that one got away from me.” It’s almost therapeutic in terms of me processing and trying to understand some of these topics as well.

What’s so interesting about your story, and where we are at this moment of time, is this interplay between the digital and the physical world. Can you talk about your work, “Human ONE,” which kind of bridges the two?

That’s what I wanted to do with “Human ONE.” To make a work that felt very digital — but was obviously a physical work. “Human ONE” is this almost refrigerator-sized metal box that has four screens on it, and the screens are synced so that when you’re looking at it, it almost looks like a hologram in a way. That you’re looking and there’s this person walking through the space, and he is just continually walking through the space as it evolves. And so I think you’ll see in the future more of this mix of digital and physical work.

You have said that NFTs are potentially a bit of a bubble.

People have really latched onto that and not listened to the nuance. One hundred percent it is very speculative, and a lot of the stuff right now is going to go down to zero because if you look at art over the course of history, that’s just what happens. If you look at it on a long enough timeline, like a hundred-, 200-year period, literally most of it will just end up in the trash. It will be something that somebody had and then it will get passed down and then maybe it ends up in a garage sale, and then it literally just gets thrown away.

So I’m trying to look at long-term stuff, like: What is something that will hold up 50 years in the future, 500 years in the future? I want to make something that feels like it’s going to last. But I think people are excited about NFTs right now, and I think very similar to the beginning of the Internet anything with dot-com was, “Whoa, it’s dot-com now? Okay, here’s my money.” But the Internet didn’t go away; we just figured out the things that had true value and had real connections with people and really brought utility or enjoyment to our life, and those things survived and everything else kind of just went away. That’s what this is going to be, because at the end of the day NFTs, it’s really just about proving ownership of something virtual or physical. And that can be applied to so many different things. We’re really just at the absolute beginning.

This interview has been edited and condensed.



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