NFT Radar Presents – How the Mona Lisa inspired PickHeads?

In the beginning of 2021, the CryptoPunks market was heating up. An increasing institutionalization of the collection was taking place. We could see venture capitalists, influencers, Silicon Valley’s CEOs roaring to acquire a piece. Traditional gatekeepers such as Christie’s started to offer Cryptopunks. Later this year, we also witnessed traditional companies like VISA acquiring one. How can we make sense of this sudden rise in interest? 

In the book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (1984), the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argues that social classes set themselves apart precisely thanks to their contrasting attitudes towards aesthetics, that “taste is not innocent”. In other words, in contradiction to the apparently highly subjective nature of aesthetics judgment, there seems to be more of a normative social marker than a supposedly happiness and satisfaction derived from the art. Importantly, Bourdieu pointed to the crucial role of “cultural intermediaries”, these “taste makers” at the crossroad between economies and culture who comment on art and vehicule new aesthetics standards. In a nutshell, they mediate how goods are perceived by the masses and thereby construct the symbolic value of it.

The avid NFT collector spending time on Twitter or Discord would recognize behind this lens, the cultural intermediaries (influencers, venture capitalists, corporations, auction houses, “Blue-check” providers) that have been at play in the Cryptopunks, but also other NFT collections. Behind the narrative of “paradigm shifts”, “technological revolution”, “wealth creation” and “decentralization”, compounded by anonymization, we witnessed the classical apparatus of cultural intermediaries being deployed. Indeed, what we saw projected in the headlines was the symbolic value of Cryptopunks being pumped and diffused by cultural intermediaries.

(Pick Heads no 43 and 89 available from the OpenSea collection)

There is absolutely no denying that NFTs are of technological relevance especially in the art scene. Blockchain provides a decentralized means to validate provenance and ownership, distribute royalties, and build communities. In a world of decentralization, however, what is at stake is the reproduction of institutions. In that spirit, we deployed political humour to offer an experimental critique of the process of institutionalization. We made a meme out of CryptoPunks. We drew balls and necks below their pixelated faces. We drew dicks. 

History repeating itself

There are various historical precedents from this kind of initiative. Perhaps the most famous one is L.H.O.O.Q by Marcel Duchamps which represents the Mona Lisa with a moustache, a goatee, and a provocative title. Read out loud, in French, the title translates to “She is constantly horny”. .

(Top right: L.H.O.Q.Q by DuChamps; Top right: Mona Lisa by DaVinci Bottom left: PickHeads #69; Bottom right: CryptoPunks #8348 by LarvaLabs)

Marcel Duchamps’s goal was clear: a middle-finger to the French bourgeoisie who created a cult (“Jocondisme”) around the Mona Lisa. Christie’s put it eloquently in the lot essay:

 “An iconic remix of the world’s most recognizable painting, Marcel Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q. serves as the definitive act of Dadaist defiance. Pencilling a mustache and goatee over a reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s revered masterpiece, the Mona Lisa, Duchamp’s desecration of the Renaissance work is considered the ultimate gesture of iconoclasm—symbolically and effectively terminating the modern era’s attachment to the conservative aesthetic of the past” (https://www.christies.com/en/lot/lot-5994817)

The critique was not targeted at the execution of Mona Lisa, nor at Leonardo DaVinci, but at the cult by the French bourgeoisie. We don’t have the pretension to elevate PickHeads to DuChamps’s work, but to merely reiterate his critique in the age of NFTs.  As such, PickHeads does not target the (technological) opportunities afforded by NFTs nor LarvaLabs. Instead, it is the very institutionalization process surrounding the cryptopunks and the growing cult that we critique.  We do it by “blaspheming” the punks with Fun and Laughs. 

We launched PickHeads (Punk + Dick Heads) as a collection of 100 NFTs on OpenSea. We kept on experimenting with Ballin’ PickHeads as an ERC-1155 collection with 9 editions of 5-69 pieces. We then fractionalized Ballin’ PickHeads thanks to NFT20 which yielded the Pick20 token. This allows collectors to swap their Ballin’PickHeads, and brings liquidity to the market. What the future holds is unsure, but the dicks are now on the Ethereum blockchain, and we continue experimenting with the tools available.

(Ballin’ Picheads no 5 & no 1 from the latest collection)

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