Early January, Wikipedia editors voted to exclude NFTs from their list of the “Most Expensive Works of Art by Living Artists”. While the Internet Encyclopedia isn’t the bastion of modern art, it’s a global source of truth for many people — and their vote effectively declared NFTs to be no art.
Naturally, this causes an uproar between the NFT community and, well, the multitude of people who would agree with the editors on Wiki.
Non-fungible tokens are secure digital receipts associated with ownership of digital assets. Yes, anyone can right-click and save the asset itself, but that’s not the point. The important thing here is that someone technically owns this specific digital artifact, whatever it is.
But the cultural interpretation of an NFT is vastly different from its technical meaning. For their most ardent supporters, they are the cornerstones of vibrant communities where supporters carry modified NFT scouting backpacks to cryptocurrency conventions, use them as Twitter Profile Pictures to adjust their status and chat in exclusive Discord forums accessible only through their NFT purchase.
Then there are the naysayers, who just can’t get over how, well, ugly most of them are.
Just browse an NFT marketplace like Nifty Gateway or OpenSea to see that the cynics may be right. Take the sold-out CryptoSharks for example, which are literally composed of a photo of the shark story promo poster with flashy props and backdrops slapped on it.
Even the most common NFTs in the public consciousness – like CryptoPunksCryptoKitties, The Bored Ape Yacht Club and lazy lions – have a rather disappointing aesthetic. Each of these projects consists of 10,000 NFTs which are slight variations on a single face, usually created by subjecting them to a program that Algorithmically randomize layers with different accessories, expressions and skin colors. It is not a difficult process. In fact, you don’t even need any coding knowledge to create one – they’re just machine-pumped.
But is it just a matter of subjective taste? Doesn’t looking down on popular NFT aesthetics make us better than the elitist, guardian art world?
When talking about NFT, people focus on blockchains, marketplaces, communities, decentralization, collectors, and of course how much money people make from them. Few talk about what the NFT they buy looks like. Even Beeple’s Daily: first 5,000 daysthe “first purely digital work of artacquired by the major auction house Christie’s, was sold to a company whose representative reportedly said: “We didn’t need a preview” before shelling out $69 million for it. Instead, just knowing his value was going to go up in value was apparently enough for them to part with a ridiculous amount of money.
According to JJ Charlesworth, art critic and editor of ArtReview, the art world is confused with what it is challenging. “To try to apply art world standards to some NFT is to miss the point. Much of the NFT market is based on collectibles and there has always been a visual culture in the collection – from comics to sneakers to baseball cards – which is very common.
Instead, NFTs reflect the interests and cultural perspectives of the people who collect them. Successful projects are rooted in a community of like-minded people, the CV of its creators, and their long-term vision (i.e. will they be incorporated into video games, for example) – not typical artistic qualities like composition, color palette or subject matter.
“‘The reality is that a lot of NFTs are pretty dumb, let’s be honest about that,’ Charlesworth says. “Bored Apes is a collector’s aesthetic – it’s not really visually interesting. great art. With a collaboration with Adidas and talking about Bored Ape characters turned into movies, books, and other media projects, this NFT project works more like a global IP brand than a work of art.
Let’s also not forget the history of popular NFT collectibles. The culture behind the explosion of NFT collectibles has roots that date back to 2016, when the first very online users, mostly men, collected and traded Rare Pepes memes with Good Boy Points on CounterParty, a Bitcoin-backed platform that enabled the creation of digital assets.
This served as the foundation for the meme economy which – once backed by the Ethereum blockchain, the technology that now facilitates most NFT transactions – would accelerate the mechanics of shitposting, hype and late-stage capitalism traditionally seen in this space. Considering that the core group of people involved likely also stockpiled cryptocurrency long before they got to the moon, you’re starting to see where the appetite for a meme-y, whimsical, and artistically hungry aesthetic comes from.
“What we are seeing now is the different class of super-rich and crypto-billionaires [who] have nothing to express their position and wealth,” says Charlesworth. “Someone with a billion in Bitcoin probably wouldn’t transfer it into traditional works of art, because they wouldn’t be interested in keeping it, storing it, moving it – [they] want something that better expresses their lifestyle.
Yet, it is important not to generalize; or rather confuse two totally distinct entities.
“It’s like saying that Pokémon cards destroy works of art – they’re completely different things,” says Diana Sinclair, co-founder of CAD History, a crypto collective dedicated to supporting marginalized crypto creators. Although a growing body of research has found the NFT economy to be just as unequal as the real thing, artists like Sinclair say it has opened up opportunities for herself and other traditionally excluded artists. She thinks it’s important to distinguish between collectibles and art in the digital space, just like we do in the physical world.
Through NFTs, the 17-year-old had the opportunity to curate a digital exhibition featuring artists from around the world, work with the Whitney Houston estate on digital art, and attend Art Basel at Miami. She also credits NFTs for allowing her to broaden her pool of potential collectors, while providing a route to avoid the mainstream, elite art world.
Today Sinclair says she’s made enough money that she can deviate from college and focus on art as a full-time job – but adds that making money is not the most defining aspect of his work.
“One of my buyers fell in love with one of my pieces because the blue light on his face reminded him of something from his childhood that brought him to graffiti. He was willing to drop $30,000 because of that connection, not because he thought he could flip it for more money,” Sinclair explains. “I found it really beautiful.”
The conversation around Paris Hilton and Jimmy Fallon insipidly swapping photos of monkeys obscures the fact that there is actually more than one type of NFT. Some even feature applications inspired by this new technology, including video performance art that unveils women’s bodily autonomy from artists such as Catherine Fraserand stunning digital artwork generated from elaborate code by artists like IX Shells. The headlines around these artists aren’t based on their selling price, but on their complex and intriguing themes and aesthetics.
What makes art “art”? This is a long-standing historical debate that predates NFTs. Critics screamed until their cheeks turned red when Marcel Duchamp called his Fountain carving art; now it is studied in university art history courses. Maybe one day that’s how we’ll look at CryptoPunks or Bored Apes.
Yes, there are NFTs that really move people and should be considered art – just like there are NFTs that make people extremely rich. Yes, a lot of things can be horribly wrong – and don’t even get into the number of scammers and scammers (see: the developer behind Evolved Apes disappears with $2.7 million).
But, as Sinclair points out, the more we focus on the ugly parts, “the less likely it is that the infrastructure will be built around artists who will do something very beautiful with this new tool” – and is isn’t that what art is all about?
Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly named Jimmy Kimmel instead of Jimmy Fallon.