Invisible art

The French artist Yves Klein sold empty space – an invisible “zone of immaterial pictorial sensibility.” Buyers paid in gold, half of which Klein would throw into the Seine River.

4net, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) of art are all the rage right at the moment. For the right price (sometimes millions of dollars!) you can acquire a record of ownership of a digital asset like an image or video. Your ownership is recorded in a blockchain. You’re not even buying the copyright to this image, you’re just buying the concept of owning it. Does that explanation make sense to you? Because it barely makes sense to me.

It may help to think a little about the economics of art. Why is art expensive when the materials and labour that went into its production are (often) so cheap? Well, the Wikipedia article on this topic (the second link below) summarises three types of value for art:

  1. Social value (the owner’s prestige; what owning art says about you)
  2. Artistic value (the artistry of the piece; what the art says about Art)
  3. Future value (given the price history of the art and the state of the market, what you think you’ll be able to sell it for later)

NFTs at least give you boasting rights (social value) and the prospect of profit if the value continues to rise (future value). The artistic value… I suppose we’re finding out now whether NFTs are the next big thing or another weird investment bubble. But a surprisingly similar concept was kicking around sixty years ago: Yves Klein’s Zone de Sensibilité Picturale Immatérielle.

Now, I would love to go on a rant about Yves Klein’s artistic obsession with absence and abstraction, but I’ve already spent too long talking about NFTs so I’ll save that for another time. Suffice it to say that Klein was fascinated with the ways that ritual could give shape and meaning to the intangible. This artwork was one proof.

Klein offered a “zone of immaterial pictorial sensibility.” This was an invisible work of art, imbued with the prestige of the artist. You could buy it, but only if you paid in gold. Klein gave a receipt, a cheque that he stamped and signed. At this stage, you could keep the receipt and call it a day… or you could make the transaction even more authentic.

To really seal the deal and elevate this art to its highest form, Klein offered a little ritual. Burn the receipt in the presence of him and some witnesses. (The witnesses, by the way, were supposed to include people of some prestige in the art world.) By giving up your only tangible proof of ownership, you would somehow gain genuine ownership of the art’s intangibility. The art is invisible, and now so too is your ownership!

In exchange for this final step, Klein would take half of the gold payment and cast it into the Seine River in Paris. The art is invisible, the proof is gone, and the payment is gone too! He only threw away half because Yves Klein was not a dupe. The Zone de Sensibilité Picturale Immatérielle is also a canny critique of the concept of artistic ownership and the commerce of art.

To me, NFTs carry the same air of artistic ritual. What is being bought and sold is the perception of value. It’s a ritual shared by investors, speculators, and devotees, and perhaps that will be enough to keep the bubble aloft forever.

But I doubt it.

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