Questions about the nature and value of art are not new: a century has passed since Marcel Duchamp turned a urinal upside down, signed it R Mutt and presented it as Fountain to the Society of Independent Artists, in response to its promise that it would accept any work of art so long as the artist paid the application fee.
New times need new questions, and one was flamboyantly posed last week by the artist Damien Hirst, when he started to burn hundreds of his own spot paintings after offering buyers the choice of purchasing them as original artworks or as £2,000 non-fungible tokens (NFTs). To destroy the originals where buyers chose NFTs has a certain logic; the issue is whether this amounts to more than selling a title deed and bulldozing the house.
The showmanship of Hirst might appear to have little in common with another recent transaction: the $100m sale of the UK-based Secret Cinema to an American digital ticketing firm. However, there are similarities. Secret Cinema is an immersive experience that repackages cult films and television series as a live experience, recreating worlds from Dirty Dancing to Bridgerton for fans prepared to pay up to £139 a ticket for a glorified fancy dress party with themed cocktails. Just as Hirst’s NFTs are an untried commodity, the TodayTix Group has paid top dollar for a business that has been running for 15 years but has yet to turn a profit. Both are playing the futures market, with no guarantee that it will pay out. The more interesting question, however, is whether posterity will judge either to have any lasting cultural value beyond the opportunity to boast about owning a theoretical Hirst, or to post an Instagram selfie.
Secret Cinema at least employs actors and even scriptwriters to craft bespoke scenes for revellers to discover as they mingle with their favourite characters. The same cannot be said of immersive art exhibitions, such as the Van Gogh experience. Its London incarnation promises a 360-degree light and sound spectacular featuring some of his most famous works, with an animated simulation of his brushstrokes. In Dubai, visitors were invited to pose beneath a sign reading “Here, Best Selfie Ever”. What is missing are original paintings.
There is a difference between these exercises in marketing and repackaging, and artist-led immersive works such as Punchdrunk’s The Burnt City, a theatrical reimagining of the siege of Troy, which involves an old-fashioned contract between artist and viewer – one makes work for the other to experience.
But one should not assume that different sorts of contracts will not catch on, at a time when so much is changing, technologically, economically and culturally. In 1917, another moment of convulsive change, Duchamp’s Fountain was rejected as a joke. It was a joke, but it was also the future. Today there are many Fountains, though the original urinal was lost long ago. It’s a precedent we’d be foolish to ignore.