In 2019, the Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan duct-taped a banana from a local supermarket to a gallery wall at Miami’s Art Basel festival. He called it Comedian and sold it for $120,000. The buyers didn’t need to worry about the banana rotting, because it wasn’t included in the purchase. What they had really paid for was a certificate of authenticity, which included instructions on the correct angle and height at which to affix fruit to a wall.
Since Cattelan’s triumph in South Florida, Miami has fashioned itself into an incubator for a different kind of gimmicky art. The city is now a crypto epicenter, with a mayor who took his paycheck in bitcoin. It’s also the birthplace of the Bored Ape Yacht Club, a collection of non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, launched by a startup called Yuga Labs in spring 2021. Each NFT corresponds to a cartoon ape customized with unique color schemes, facial expressions, and outfits. (One ape, for example, is brown, clean-shaven, wearing sunglasses; another is leopard-print, with a rainbow-colored grill in its grinning mouth.) In its initial run, the BAYC made around $2 million. From there, prices went up. Auction house Sotheby’s recently sold a set of 107 apes for over $24 million. Gwyneth Paltrow, Eminem, Shaquille O'Neal, Post Malone, Snoop Dogg, Mark Cuban, and Steph Curry belong to a growing group of celebrity boosters. During a recent Tonight Show interview, Jimmy Fallon and Paris Hilton hyped ape ownership in a conversation with the stiff, cheery cadence of a bad infomercial. Between the two of them, they’d paid more half a million dollars to join the club.
The Fallon-Hilton ape segment went viral, fueled by people making fun of how off-putting it was. As NFTs go mainstream, they continue to repulse and irk their critics, who have several compelling reasons to loathe them. For starters, the majority of these tokens are traded on the Ethereum blockchain, which uses a tremendous amount of energy; buying and selling NFTs can make private-jetting around the globe to pick up Picassos look positively green in comparison. The major marketplaces are also rife with fraud, with one leading market recently admitting that more than 80 percent of the NFTs minted using its free option were spam, fakes, or plagiarized work. But even “real” NFT projects can stink like multi-level marketing, as collectors push others to get in on the action with the disconcerting fervor of a formerly normal acquaintance now incessantly promoting oils on Instagram. After all, the only way to get rich off a certificate of authenticity for a digital image of an ape is if someone else wants to buy it off you for way more than you paid. Then, of course, there’s another salient critique, which boils down to this: They look stupid.
Obligatory caveat: Yes, yes, the NFT marketplace is vast, and there are some visually interesting projects gaining traction amid the corny cartoon animals. But there is a thick thread connecting many of the most well-known NFTs, from Beeple’s grotesques to cutesy CryptoKitties to the Bored Ape Yacht Club. Above all else, they’re gimmicky.
What does it mean to be gimmicky? “Our very concept of a gimmick implies awareness that, in capitalism, misprized things are bought and sold constantly,” cultural theorist Sianne Ngai writes in her 2020 book Theory of the Gimmick. She applies the label to all sorts of stunts, from a kitchen gizmo sold on late-night television to a too-flashy narrative device in a short story. For Ngai, gimmicks aren’t always exclusively repellant; she believes cheap tricks can be enjoyable if executed with panache. (By her estimation, Henry James is a gimmick master in his later fiction.) A pleasant gimmick amuses as much as it confounds. The unpleasant kind? Ngai notes how often we find gimmicks “comically irritating” if they’ve managed to hoodwink others despite their glaringly obvious overvaluation.
Two of the founders of the Bored Ape Yacht Club are self-described “literary bros” who go by the pseudonyms “Gargamel” and “Gordon Goner.” One has an MFA, the other dropped out. They told The New Yorker they had initially bonded by arguing about the work of David Foster Wallace; in an interview with cryptocurrency news website Coindesk, they evoked Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s idea of the unutterable to describe their apes. So, basically, they’re exactly the type of guys who might pick up a copy of Theory of the Gimmick. And they’ve clearly pulled a gimmick off. The apes are generating more than a billion dollars (yes, billion) in sales, they’ve attracted a potential investment from Andreessen Horowitz, they’re on the cover of magazines, they have a partnership with Adidas. And while many reports on the social phenomenon of the Bored Ape Yacht Club try to set aside the artistic merit of its images when discussing its trajectory, its lack of artistic merit does matter. There are plenty of prominent art pieces that fall squarely within Ngai’s idea of the gimmick, from the urinal Marcel Duchamp submitted to the Society of Independent Artists in 1917 to Andres Serrano’s 1987 photograph “Piss Christ” to, more recently, much of Maurizio Cattelan’s work.
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Cattelan’s wall banana was obnoxious, but it was part of an absurdist artistic lineage, a joke about art and commerce. What’s more, it was a funny joke! The Bored Ape Yacht Club, in contrast, is a grimmer kind of gimmick, one that parodies nothing. It uses certificates of authenticity, too, but with a crucial difference in intent. The certificate points back to a commodity, not an idea. It doesn’t mock or even question the art world; instead it simply cashes in on it. The project’s sense of humor is akin to a decal of Calvin from Calvin & Hobbes taking a piss. The crudeness is the point. Each ape is a misprized thing, bought and sold constantly.
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