Digital artist known as Beeple: ‘I’m just trying to expand people’s idea of what art is’
Let’s start with your NFT journey – from how you recently heard about NFTs only to sell one 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 need to check this NFT stuff out.” It seemed very complicated at first because I was not a crypto person. It was like, “I don’t think it’s for me; it’s something crypto weird. Then I started recognizing names of artists that I knew that, to be quite honest, I was more popular than. And they were selling things where it was like, ‘Well, that’s a surprising amount of money for something that I didn’t think was worth the money.’ That’s when I understood that there would be a time when digital art would be respected. Other art forms had gone through the same process where they had been around for a long time and no one really considered them art, and then they became art. Banksy with graffiti: “It’s not art, it’s vandalism”, then “Oh yeah, I guess it’s art.” Kaws with vinyl collectibles. That this could be that time for digital art where people fully consider this material as another art form, like sculpture or photography. Just another medium.
Over the past 20, 30 years, every time you go to the movies, every time you turn on a TV, what Facebook looks like, what TikTok looks like, digital artists have been designing these kinds of things; Digital artists have a massive influence on today’s visual language. And so I think it’s very interesting that there’s been so many negative reactions like, ‘That’s not art’. I’ve been drawing pictures for 20 years, and if that’s not art, what is? I don’t even know what they could be if they weren’t art. I just thought everyone was in the same art world. I didn’t realize that people would look at what I was doing and say it wasn’t art. Because at the end of the day, art is just, I don’t know, creative communication, and it can take a lot of different forms.
Can you talk about some of those pushbacks?
I think what was difficult for a lot of people was that I seemed to come out of nowhere then sold this thing for a ridiculous amount of money. Like, “We haven’t screened this person; we had no say in whether that person should be allowed to sell something for that amount of money. Because to enter the world of traditional art, you have to be controlled by a very small number of guardians. You really only had to convince maybe, I don’t know, 50 to 100 people that your work was valuable, and if all of those people agreed, the sky’s the limit. Versus, I convinced 2 million people who don’t really have much power, somehow, that my work was valuable. I had millions of followers before this happened, so social media and word of mouth saying “Oh this guy is doing something interesting” – that’s what caused this.
Do you feel like pioneers?
In a way, I would say. But we’ve been doing this for a while, so it feels like everyone’s waking up a bit more to this thing that we were already doing and looking at it in a different context. And I think I’m watching it in a different context than I was too. So we kind of feel like we’re on the cutting edge here. But I don’t know where it’s going either. So it’s a bit of a good and a bad thing.
I’m just trying to expand people’s idea of what art is a little bit because I think if you look at artists who have stood the test of time, there are people who broadened the idea of what art is. Look at Jackson Pollock. It was like “It’s not art – it’s just splashes”, and then it expanded people’s idea of what art is. Warhol with serigraphs and Picasso with his way of drawing. So the people who stood the test of time expanded our idea of what art could be.
Can you tell us about your daily series?
In early 2007, I saw another artist named Tom Judd, who is an illustrator in the UK, and he was sketching a day in a notebook. It looked more like a personal sketchbook, but it was really cool. He had already completed the full year, so I could see all the progress and I could see, okay, you’ve definitely improved. Really, the only secret, the real thing, for this everyday thing is that it allows you to work a lot more. There’s no secret beyond that – just work more. My vision of a successful day is to post a JPEG on the internet. That’s it. Post any photo of literally anything.
So go with a realistic expectation that every day you’re not going to produce a masterpiece. Every day you’re not going to be inspired; most days I am not. I’m a normal person and I’ve been working all day on other shit and now I’m coming home and I’m 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, that momentum really helps you get through those days, like, “Okay, man, sit here, we gotta do something.”
Do you ever think: I succeeded, this is exactly what I wanted to convey?
Very rarely. I would say that I am almost always below, if not far from what I was trying to do. There are very few times I’m like, ‘Oh man, I just nailed it. It’s a masterpiece,” because I’m often not satisfied with my work. And those like that, I almost feel like I got lucky. Like, “Oh, that turned out better than I think I deserve.”
You call your website “Beeple-shit” – is that how you think of most of your work?
Part of that is kind of ironic because I feel like the level of pretension in the art world is so high that I literally wouldn’t even want to be called an artist. That he feels so stupid, it just feels like he has so much weight.
I would like people to see art as a daily practice. Like exercise, where it’s just something you do and there’s no pressure and you’re just having a little fun. That’s what it is with my children with everyday life. It’s like “Go get the iPad”, and they have 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 burdened with so many things: “What does this say about me, and what are people going to think?” Art doesn’t have to be that.
Much of your recent work is somewhat dystopian, with a heavy dose of political satire and satire of consumerism. How conscious is it?
I would say it’s quite conscious. But most of the time I don’t try to say “You should think that” or “That’s how it should be”. Lots of images that I deliberately try to make a bit ambiguous. Some of Trump’s stuff was pretty sharp. But most of the time I try to create something that asks more questions than it answers because I think there are plenty of people who [think they’ve] got the answer. We’ve lost all sense of nuance, and it’s like everything has to be hyper-polarized. I try to do deliberately weird and deliberately a little ambiguous work that sometimes even after I’m done, it’s like, “Yeah, I don’t know what that was about; this one escaped me. It’s almost therapeutic in terms of processing and trying to understand some of these topics as well.
What’s so interesting about your story, and where we’re at right now, is this interaction between the digital world and the physical world. Can you talk about your work, “Human ONE”, which connects the two?
That’s what I wanted to do with “Human ONE”. Doing work that felt very digital – but was obviously physical work. “Human ONE” is this almost refrigerator-sized metal box that has four screens, and the screens are synchronized so that when you look at it, it almost looks like a hologram in a way. That you look and there’s this person walking through space, and he’s continuously walking through space as he evolves. And so I think you’ll see more of this mix of digital and physical work in the future.
You said that NFTs are potentially a bit of a bubble.
People really clung to that and didn’t listen to the nuance. One hundred percent it’s very speculative, and a lot of things right now are going to fall to zero because if you look at the art over the course of history, that’s exactly what happens. If you look at it over a long enough period, like a period of 100 to 200 years, literally most of it will end up in the trash. It will be something that someone had, and then it will be passed on, then maybe it will end up in a garage sale, and then it will literally be thrown away.
So I try to look at long-term stuff, like: What can last 50 years in the future, 500 years in the future? I want to do 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 early days of the internet, all about dot-coms was, “Whoa, is it dot-com now? Alright, here’s my money. But the Internet has not disappeared; we just figured out the things that had real value and had real connections to people and really brought utility or pleasure to our lives, and those things survived and everything else kind of died out. That’s what it’s going to be, because ultimately NFTs are just about proving ownership of something virtual or physical. And it can be applied to so many different things. We are really only at the very beginning.
This interview has been edited and condensed.