Bed enthusiast Tracey Emin has very publicly called for the removal of her neon artwork, More Passion,
to be removed from 10 Downing Street, after gifting it to the Government Art Collection while David Cameron was Prime Minister. As part of the fallout from the ever-growing existential crisis gripping the country, as we debate the fine line between work event and social gathering, the controversial artist has claimed that the government needs to be showing 'more compassion instead of more passion'.
It seems like after you've given the ownership rights of a physical piece of art to someone else, you can still feel confident in your ability to insist on what they do with it. If that's the case, then all my portrait commissioners should expect a strongly worded email from me asking for an update on where they've hung my work so I can make sure I'm happy with the surrounding interior design. Just another thing they don't teach you in art school apparently.
This request comes at a strange time for Emin, as she has recently been in the press talking about her plans to launch her own art school in Margate. The studio rent will apparently be so low people will be discouraged from having part-time jobs so that they will have time to come into the studio to work. I guess that if you don't sell your paintings, you'll just have to forgo basic necessities like food and socialising that month. As we're faced with an unprecedented cost-of-living crisis, surely this is just the proverbial kick that young artists need to get their act together and start earning money. I just hope that they don't sell any of their work to anyone in Europe because, and I speak from personal experience, those import costs are a doozy.
As a working-class artist who still needs a part-time job to sustain himself, this approach leaves me bemused and looking in from afar, similar to the way you might look at a relative over Christmas Dinner as their paper crown slips further over their eyes while they rant about their plan to 'sort this whole sorry mess out'.
I also wonder why, if Emin was so worried about young artists and their financial ability to study at art school, she threw her weight behind David Cameron and Nick Clegg and their tripling of tuition fees, which it's interesting to note happened prior to her gift to them.
Indeed, Emin's support for the Conservative Party and their time in power has endured many scandals. Against the backdrop of Windrush, Grenfell, the refugee crisis, there have been no insistences that More Passion
be removed from Number 10, and no outcry against the fact that during the pandemic, Rishi Sunak thought it was acceptable to tell people whose careers had been devastated to simply retrain and find other jobs.
This is a government who has described courses like music, art and design, and dance as 'dead-end' and 'not strategic priorities'. It has slashed funding for them wholesale across the board. As the world burns this time, it looks like we won't even have a contemporary version of Nero to play us a chipper tune.
That's not to belittle the outrage over partygate, and as I write this on a cold and drizzly Saturday morning, news has just broken that Boris Johnson himself has allegedly been photographed at one of his work events sharing the frame with alcohol. I am as outraged as anyone. I too missed funerals, shielded and didn't see anyone I didn't live with for almost an entire year. And then, almost more bizarrely, I spent the rest of the enduring pandemic working in a patient facing role in the local hospital, putting my health and safety at risk for my day-job, before heading home to sit in a darkened room because everything around me was still shuttered.
The only light in the metaphorical dark room I found myself in ended up being a phone or a computer screen. I watched with an emotional detachment as the internet whipped itself into its latest frenzy over the rise of Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs), as I tried to strategise ways to turn my art and writing pursuits into my full-time job.
This pursuit of financial stability means that I spend a lot of time making things with no clearly defined purpose. In today's age of the ubiquitous and inescapable algorithm, Twitter and Instagram are more concerned with how often you post and how people interact with your posts, rather than what
you post. It's incredibly stressful and exhausting to try to keep up with, and leads to burnout in most other professional artists I know who depend on social media for work.
I have images in my head of hundreds of illustrators and artists desperately trying to pull together something to capture the latest cultural zeitgeist, whether that be a Tiger King
fanart, or a Squid Game
cosplay, all for a crumb of engagement from the social media sphere at large. I remain guilty of this very activity to this day.
It's a part of my job that absolutely baffles my parents.
'But who's this drawing for?' My beleaguered mum will ask as I snatch her phone, open Instagram, scroll to my page and tap out a like, a comment and a share-to-story in a perfectly rehearsed motion. (I've started taking it upon myself to perform these actions, as my parents can't always be trusted to do it themselves.)
I once again start my explanation of how it all works, and how engagement leads to views, which might lead to someone buying something from my store. I can see her eyes glazing over again as she takes back her phone.
The creative arts as an industry are not immune from the digital creep which is infecting the world at large. Despite there being more roles and opportunities for artists, than any other time in our history I can think of, the industry remains adrift from cementing an agreed upon approach to how our creatives are reimbursed and how copyright and ownership are managed in this brave new world.
These NFTs are essentially proof of ownership tokens, stored on the blockchain, the backbone of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum. Like previous attempts at addressing the messy relationship between artists, their audiences and ownership, it is not without its downsides and detractors. Many point to the obscene amounts of energy required, not only to produce the tokens themselves, but the ongoing costs of maintaining the blockchain.
In a world where each day brings another story about how the ongoing cumulative damage of climate change is putting all of our futures at risk, seeing huge industrial units filled with cutting edge computer equipment and air conditioning units running 24/7 leaves a sour taste in many mouths.
There is also a huge class divide when it comes to access to the blockchain, giving the wider public perception that the new networks are the playgrounds of the super rich who can afford the speculation that seems embedded in the very code they are built on. Reddit and Twitter are awash with stories of people losing life savings, or evidence of people moving ownership of tokens from one of their accounts to another, to build a non-existent hype around the product and inflate its value.
It remains mystifying to many why Paris Hilton and Jimmy Fallon would fawn over their tokens and their worth in what surely is one of the more grotesque minutes of television to be endured recently. Mystifying, indeed, until a shady network of company ownership and investors was discovered, with links between the celebrities involved and the companies poised to make billions in the 'Metaverse Boom'.
This, along with the atmospheric rise of fraud, stolen work being minted, and even people accidentally selling their expensive digital 'receipts' for a fraction of their perceived value, shows that for what it's proponents claim is the future of ownership and investment, there are still a fair few kinks to work out.
One of the largest websites involved in the trade of NFTs – OpenSea – leaves creators who have had their work stolen and listed for sale the recourse of providing their address, telephone number and email address to the person who has stolen their work, with no promise that the offending work will be removed. For many freelance artists working today, this is their home contact information and their personal mobile number. Creators who have found stolen work on the platform have been left with no choice but to contact Google, who provide web hosting for the marketplace, and have the listing removed from the internet completely.
You might even find yourself falling foul of this new technology if you're on the inside.
Yuga Labs, the company behind some of the most successful NFTs, the Bored Ape Yacht Club, have made millions, and are currently in talks with venture capital fund Andreessen Horowitz for a stake in their company, which would see them being valued between $4-5bn.
The images themselves are algorithmically generated pictures of apes with different assets used, and the lead artist for BAYC, Seneca, is responsible for designing most of those assets. Seneca has recently spoken to Rolling Stone
in an interview and although she was paid for her work, she described the settlement as 'definitely not ideal'. She spoke about the fact that a lot of people don't know that she was responsible for the ubiquitous designs – a nightmare for any artist trying to forge a career and make a living today, especially while the company selling the work is making millions.
As the whirlpool of Web3 pulls in more and more creatives, and those of us who have pinned our colours to the anti-NFT mast fight endlessly against being pulled under and swept away by this hugely damaging and frankly ridiculous industry, I wonder what the future of ownership rights looks like. Would I take the opportunity to leave the stressful stability of my hospital day job if I was presented with a million dollar NFT opportunity? I honestly can't say. Probably not.
The negatives vastly outweigh any positives to be found, and I'm not a strong enough swimmer to survive in the increasingly inevitable Waterworld
spin off we seem to be heading for. But what I can tell you is that I'd make sure my contract was made out in money, as opposed to tokens that could disappear with the pulling of a plug.
John Moir is an artist and writer based in Dundee. His work mainly deals with self-identity, lived experience and modern life, and can be viewed here