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Bitcoin as conceptual art

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Bitcoin as conceptual art

There are some things of which near-perfect copies can be made, and yet the value of these copies will be negligible compared to the value of the original.

One example are those artefacts whose value is determined mainly by provenance and history, for example well-known works of art. The copy of one of Van Gogh’s sunflower paintings, no matter how well executed it might be, will never be worth more than a very small fraction of the original. Another example are things whose value stems from a network effect. Compared to the market value of Facebook, its various imitators are worth trifling amounts.

Bitcoin also belongs to this category, as none of its clones even remotely approaches 1% of bitcoin’s market capitalisation. It derives its value as much from being a work of art as it does from the network effect it has managed to create.


In 1917, Marcel Duchamp purchased a white urinal at the J.L. Mott Iron Works showroom on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. He wrote "R. Mutt 1917" on it, gave it the title Fountain and submitted it for the first annual exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists1. The submission was rejected, the Fountain was never exhibited and was subsequently lost – probably discarded as garbage. Only a single black-and-white photograph remains of the original. Years later, between 1950 and 1964, Duchamp authorised a total of 16 replicas, one of which sold for $1.7 million in 19992.

In 2004, Duchamp’s Fountain was voted "the most influential modern art work of all time" by 500 British art experts3, coming ahead of works by Picasso and Andy Warhol.

The reason for this is simple: Fountain was revolutionary as it marked the birth of conceptual art.


In 2008, a paper entitled "Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System"4 was published under the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto. The paper describes the concept for a decentralized digital currency, without central authority and without the necessity of mutual trust between users. The invention was released as open source software in 2009.

People quickly saw that Nakamoto had created something that no-one had done before. They admired the strange beauty of the concept and decided that it was very valuable.

Thus Bitcoin became the greatest work of conceptual art of the 21st century, its importance arguably comparable to Duchamp's Fountain. And with an overall value exceeding EUR 10 billion5, it is certainly one of the most expensive works of art in history.

Bitcoin is also history's greatest experiment in performance art, requiring many thousands of people running untold millions of powerful processors, spending terawatts of energy per year in the process 6. Billions have been invested in bitcoin-related startups. No day goes by without a bitcoin meetup in one of the world’s major cities and bitcoin- and blockchain-related articles are flooding the media.

Finally, Bitcoin is the first massively subdivisible artwork in history. Before Bitcoin, only very few people could afford to own the original of a major work of art, and buying a small piece of a Van Gogh or a Picasso is obviously not possible. But with over 16 million bitcoins already issued as of late 2016, and each bitcoin divisible into 100 million satoshis, there are more than 200,000 satoshis for every inhabitant of our planet. And because a single cent will buy over 1,000 satoshis, everyone can easily obtain an actual piece of Bitcoin.

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  1. in another version, Duchamp did not create the work, but only assisted in submitting it to the exhibition! 

  2. there was no noticeable effect on the price of other urinals  



  5. USD 12.5 bn on 12 December 2016 

  6. not to mention $ billions invested in bitcoin-related startups, regular bitcoin meetups in most of the world's major cities, a flood of bitcoin-related articles in the media etc.