GameStop-start: Notva, NFTrees, and the deconstruction of value (1/2)

There has been a range of developments in the art world already this year that have seismic implications for concepts as fundamental as scarcity, value, and meaning. Avant Arte has been focussed for a number of years on using technology to connect artists with new audiences and collector communities, an area now receiving a huge amount of energy and attention. These two posts outline our perspective on some of the questions, as well as the opportunities, recently uncovered. We believe technology is best used to make culture more accessible rather than shallowed, helping many more people discover the arts, whilst maintaining the potential depth of artistic expression and engagement. These two linked posts seek to express those beliefs in both form and content. I’d love to hear your thoughts if you make it to the end of part 2 :) thanks for reading!

The value of signs

“To pretend, I actually do the thing: I have therefore only pretended to pretend” Jacques Derrida

Many of Derrida’s critics derided this type of linguistic turn as evidence of an esoteric self-satisfaction that compounded the inaccessibility of theoretical expression and understanding. Yet it is precisely within the terms of such paradoxical play, interweaving multiple definitions and realities within a sentence, that Derrida flippantly deconstructs the traditional oppositions that language and meaning are constructed around. Ontology studies these relationships based on the premise of an origin from which any destination must naturally emerge and a Self securely defined in relation to its Other. Derrida, as the posterboy of post-structuralist thought, was concerned with destabilising these tightly held either/or constructs by revealing the contradictions within them. He argued that, from Socrates and Plato through to the structuralist movement of the 20th Century, Western metaphysics had sought to simplify, binarise, and smooth out the surplus of paradox, in search of convenient categorisations and a solidity of definition.

Saussure’s semiology, his personal branch of the study of signs, codified a set of binary oppositions around the understanding of different realities — one base reality being the conceptual or material existence of a tree (the “signified”), and a referent reality where this fundamental existence is represented by an image, textual symbol, or phonic utterance (the “signifier”). This hierarchical system, which posits ultimate value in the originality of the signified base, was the stable structure around which language, and the conceptual reality it referred to, could be built. Suffice to say, Derrida and Saussure didn’t see eye to eye. But if they had both been able to follow the contemporary art landscape in the initial months of 2021, there is no doubt they would have coalesced in their fascination at some of the developments of this nascent year.

Avant Arte first worked with the contemporary painter, Robert Nava, back in 2017. Having been accepted into Yale School of Art’s highly competitive graduate programme where he trained in fine art, Robert’s career had not taken off commercially: he struggled to sell paintings for $500 and was unable even to dedicate enough time to his practice, working almost full time as a truck driver in order to sustain himself. We were lucky enough to discover Robert through Instagram and to watch his remarkable ascent over an incredibly short period of time.

Robert’s work mimics the imaginative free rotation of a child’s fantasy world. The pieces bristle with a surplus of narrative and spin around multitudes of concurrent realities, like listening to an excitable stream of consciousness about a series of young daydreams. His practice polarises critics, collectors and audiences, including within our community, catalysing centuries-old debates around whether a piece is, or is DEFINITELY NOT, in fact “art”. Back in 2017, there was more consensus. But Robert has since achieved extraordinary success, is now in the permanent collection of major museums, is represented by PACE Gallery, and has works selling at auction for hundreds of thousands of dollars. These signs of his success have precipitated a situation which would have no doubt intrigued our philosophical friends, Ferdinand and Jacques.

Last month, an anonymous artist, operating under the moniker Robert Notva (“Not Nava”), began publishing images of paintings and works on paper s/he was making directly in Nava’s style. On one level, this is simply the work of a highly committed and creative internet troll. However, fascinatingly, a commercial market has developed around these imitative works, to the point that Notva’s paintings are now selling for multiples of the price that Nava’s were remaining unsold for only a few years ago.

These pieces are not genuine fakes, in the great canon of traditional forgery: Robert Notva is indeed pretending to pretend. And the ontological stack of cards rises ever higher when considering that, in its original form, Nava’s practice is always already in simile — as if painting with the fantastical imagination and untrained brushstrokes of a child. Notva therefore layers referent upon simulacrum in a Ponzi scheme of meaning, pretending to pretend to be someone already pretending to pretend; blurring the lines between signifying and being, between pretending and doing. With the development of demand around Notva’s fake fakes, there is a potential destabilisation of some of the foundations of market valuation in the art world. Could value be dissociated from originality to the extent that Notva’s primary market surpasses Nava’s? And where, then, does the game stop? Temporarily perhaps at Derrida 1, Saussure 0.

Yet this anecdotal passage of play sits within a wider contemporary environment that feels eerily like the postmodern Olympics: faster, higher, [stronger?]. We are currently in the middle of what has been coined “The Second Surge” of the NYSE-listed retailer, GameStop. GameStop had been a company in commercial decline for a number of years, primarily because it was tethered too tightly to the historical physical reality of the gaming industry: material copies of games and retail stores with considerable operating costs required to distribute them. Its revenues had softened and its share price followed in parallel, reflecting the natural laws of the market. Many investors predicted a further decline in the value of GameStop, accelerated by the restrictions aimed at controlling the spread of COVID-19, and so short positions were taken at unusually high rates — with put options over 68 million shares and a public free float of only 45 million. Nothing materially changed from a commercial perspective for GameStop’s business in 2021, but January saw the online community, WallStreetBets, coordinate on Reddit to pump the stock, triggering a short squeeze on the investors who had bet complacently on GameStop’s decline. Its share price surged over 1,500% and more than $70bn was lost against short positions, primarily by thousands of US-based hedge funds, which was further fuelled by a celebrity endorsement of the stonk against institutional investors from Elon Musk.

This extraordinary market spike was not driven by the irrational exuberance of a group who believed that the present value of GameStop’s future cashflows was multiples greater than the market had afforded. Calculations by some certainly centred around finding a greater fool subsequently willing to pay a higher price but neither the initial position nor the future expectation was ever tethered to a belief in the market price being supported by the intrinsic value of the company. Other companies saw their stocks experience similarly untethered volatility and something that connects many of them, from GameStop and AMC Theatres to Blackberry and Nokia Corporation, is that they nostalgically symbolise a simpler, more analogue world that has been disrupted and lost. And, while there is no doubt that there was an anti-authoritarianism redolent of the Occupy movement pervasive in some of its discourse, to perceive this moment as some have, as a simple instance of reckoning in which Main Street coordinated digitally to seek vengeance for short selling’s role in the 2007-8 financial crash, is reductive. What was also executed was a deconstruction of the value system within which GameStop is priced and traded. By consciously disaggregating GameStop the company from GameStop the tradable share, the floating signifier of its stock market ticker became a symbol of a post-structuralist revelation: there can be no axiomatic meaning or truth in value because everything is a GME. Perhaps more surprising than this disruption to the enduring Platonic objectivity of the market was how shallow the liquidity was that it all rested on and how easy therefore to coordinate its manipulation, once the codes of market conduct that are assumed to be natural laws were disregarded even temporarily. Markets may not lie per se but they certainly channel human hearsay.

Recognition that markets or value systems are structured symmetrically to systems of belief, and that financial capital is a tool for evangelism within a plurality of truths, was also clearly driving the art market’s headline transaction of the year: Beeple’s NFT, EVERYDAYS: THE FIRST 5000 DAYS, selling this month at Christie’s for more than $69m. Metakovan, the pseudonymous winning bidder, gave an interview in which he described a decentralization of power and truth that both enabled and motivated his purchase: “Now the world has changed because there are many world views and people have money to support their own world view… Now I have money, if I have to effectively deploy my capital in this world, I am thinking that the best way I could do this is by encouraging more people who share my own philosophy.” The focus on world views and philosophy draws the dialogue away from both the intrinsic or artistic value of the work and also away from the value system of the market itself. Metakovan’s purchase was a performative gesture of support for a digital plane of reality and the creative mediums that it has begun to support. It also placed Beeple behind only Hockney and Koons in the value ranking of pieces sold by living artists across any medium. But he also separately commented that the piece “represents 13 years of everyday work. Techniques are replicable and skill is surpassable, but the only thing you can’t hack digitally is time.” For Metakovan, the value of this digital work is secured by the fact that its content traverses two realities — an irreducibly physical reality of time spent making and the digital reality in which the creations are manifested — and that it is a non-fungible signifier of the enduring and universal scarcity of time.

On the 3rd March, an original Banksy screenprint commenting on the idiocy of the art market, and perhaps presciently entitled Morons (White), was minted as an NFT by the blockchain platform Injective Protocol. A video was released showing a man setting fire to the physical work, with its destruction rationalised by the arsonist as being so that the NFT “is the true piece that exists in the world” and “the value of the physical piece will then be moved onto the NFT”. Indeed the NFT was then sold for $380,000 or 4 times the value paid for the physical work. The stunt positions physical and digital worlds as a zero-sum equation, with transfers between them enabled only by creating scarcity through incineration, and with semantic echoes of truth and value continuing to reverberate around considerations of these two realities.

And while subversive to the status quo of an art world focussed on the preservation of a work’s physical originality, it seems profoundly less utopian in outlook than much of the foundational philosophical ideals of blockchain technologists. As consumer internet penetration in geographies and communities where capital is most highly concentrated approaches ubiquity, the capitalistic drive for perpetual growth made technology’s continued expansion through surfaces of potential engagement built vertically on top of each other almost inevitable. It follows logically that these planes of reality evolve, or perhaps evolve from, distinct currencies and financial systems. But a number of questions that Saussure and Derrida would be contesting keenly are left: what are the relationships between originality, materiality and value? What influences the premia attached to different realities and the arbitrage between their discretely constituted assets or currencies? And what do these convulsive explorations of truth and meaning signify about the state of contemporary art and its attendant systems of belief and value?

Thanks for reading :) would love to hear your thoughts! And for more, see here for part 2 — The signs of value

Avant Arte | @avantarte

Avant Arte grew from a simple blog into the largest and most engaged online community of young art lovers in the world, with more than 2m of our followers under 35. We collaborate with iconic contemporary artists like Jenny Holzer, Cai Guo-Qiang, Hank Willis Thomas and the Chapman brothers, making their work accessible to younger collectors through exclusive sculpture editions, limited edition prints & unique works on paper. We’ve built a passionate community of next-generation art collectors, which means our artist launches typically sell out in minutes. And we’re now building digital products and experiences around their holistic engagement with art. The purpose of our business is to make discovering and collecting great art radically more accessible.

Founder & CEO, Avant Arte; Trustee, National Youth Orchestra & London Contemporary Orchestra; ex-Boiler Room, Rothschild, horn player & theory nerd