WTF NFTs?

NFTs. It is time to face this new revolution. It is not only me trying to catch on the hype of a sort of controversial theme in the artworld right now, but I am also genuinely curious about what NFT is, how it works, why it has pissed off the arts, and whether it is a new digital bubble or something that could potentially be the answer for those of us who believe in new technologies to create art away from the fixed, old-fashion standards of the traditional artistic sphere. This might be seen as an “informal” (long) essay on NFTs and the artworld in general, but also what is in there for photography. As you may know, if you read my essays, I of course consider photography an art form, both analog and digital, and I employ photography as a mode of artistic expression, it becoming my preferred medium to create an aesthetic artwork.

Enough with the small talk, let’s dive into the madness.

FYI: this is not a real NFT (I did it for your entertainment)

Let’s start from the beginning. If you have no idea what I am talking about, I’ll give you a definition first. NFT is the acronym for Non-Fungible Token. Still no clue? Bear with me. What this really means is that digital artists have now a way to authentically sell their digital works of art by using NFTs as they incorporate in their metadata a certificate of ownership through the blockchain network, with all transactions getting permanently imprinted in the digital file¹. So basically, NFTs guarantee the owner’s rights derived from the purchase of a digital work that is still publicly available to everyone, allowing that owner to authentically demonstrate its provenance in the case he or she would like to sell it again for more profit². Not so different from traditional art in this sense.

Now that we know, more or less, what we are talking about when we say NFT, it’s time to get me in the mud. Because “Houston, we have a problem”. And that problem is the same we have had since artists embraced new media technologies to create art back in the XX Century. I am talking about the artworld, that elitist club formed by art experts, collectors (or rich speculators if you prefer), auction houses, curators, “cultural gatekeepers” as they are called by many articles I have researched for this essay, critics, magazine and museums directors. For them, these new “digital artifacts [have] no real-world value, […] nor is it a piece of art, let alone a famous piece of art with a reputation as an object of beauty or historical interest” as written by business reporter Sam Dean for the Los Angeles Times¹.

Well, that was some business opinion, which I obviously disagree with. But it seems that it is also the opinion of the so-called “cultural gatekeepers”. As art critic and editor of ArtReview J. J. Charlesworth wrote in a recent article about NFTs, Charlesworth praises contemporary art as a “refuge from the apparent iniquities and stupidities of ‘popular culture’”³. Funny enough, the artworld doesn’t seem that concerned about pop(ular) artists like Andy Warhol or Roy Lichtenstein and their artworks. It might be good to remind everyone that the “traditional” artworld has always rejected new forms of art: they hated Impressionism when it first exhibited, Van Gogh died in misery because nobody liked his painting style, Cubism was utterly rejected at first, they didn’t understand Minimalism not the post-dramatic theatre of the European Avant-Garde from Dadaism or Antonin Artaud. If you know a bit of Art History, it seems that the artworld has always feared innovation in the arts, even if it sounds contradictory.

So, by putting NFTs in that category of “popular culture”, it is not viewed as contemporary art because, well, it’s popular. No wonder why the term is that weird acronym with no mention of art whatsoever. Why call it NFT when it is actually digital art? Why the interest in excluding it from the general concept of art by removing this from its name and definition? Would NFTs be called art and have access to the art club if they were not made digitally but painted on a canvas, as if having skills in digital illustration, design, composition, and aesthetic knowledge don’t count? Maybe the answer is because, according to Charlesworth, “the artworld is torn by the spectacle of these pop-cultural baubles suddenly transforming what had until now been considered aesthetically thin air into millions”³, emphasizing his preoccupation of the turn to the digital world in the commercial artworld to keep monetizing art as a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic.

It seems quite clear to me that this is not a matter of the art objects themselves and their inherent aesthetics, but an issue of who gets to profit from the sales of those artistic objects. Aha! Now that those within the established artworld have to share the money cake with the rest of us mortals (or those who have cryptocurrency to buy the NFTs), they are angry and throwing a tantrum, using old-fashion and empty arguments to diminish this type of digital art. For me, this feels like a clear sign of the victimization of purists and traditionalists now that they have seen what happens when they deliberately decided to exclude digital artists from participating in the millionaires’ frenzy by asserting their vanity, plus their aesthetics and intellectual elitism. If we know something about art, is that, like life, uh, finds a way (wink to Jeff Goldblum fans).

And even though, at least for Charlesworth, there is a glimpse of realization of contemporary art’s “relationship with the oligarchical rich, and with the exclusivity and elitism that comes with it”³, this has made some contemporary artists, especially digital, grow wary and disenchanted from the artworld, rejecting its capitalistic practices to determine value, both in the aesthetic and commercial sense, just for an irrational amount of profit. As Sam Dean writes, “many art buyers buy art because it is valuable, not because it is art, and then store it in warehouses until they see fit to liquidate it as an asset on their books and sell it to a new buyer who also values it as a financial asset”¹. Art is no longer art under capitalistic modes of production, art is a commodity, something with which to speculate for profit, using aesthetics and exclusivity as an excuse to establish its value. The worst thing is what Dean says in the second part of that sentence which is absolutely true: works of art are sold to be stored away from the public until the art market will be willing to buy it again at a higher price, generating profit in that speculative operation, depriving people of viewing and experiencing art. Something that does not occur with digital art or with NFTs.

I see NFTs as a rebel response from digital artists to the impenetrability of and rejection from the “traditional” artworld. What did the artworld think was going to happen when artists got sick and tired of getting “paid” with mentions, promises of free exposure, retweets, Instagram likes? Twitter fame doesn’t pay the bills. So, when their legitimate work stopped being recognized and paid for, digital artists had to come up with alternatives that could render a wage, this time through NFTs as a form of exchange. And, as I already said, NFTs are meant to be sold, kept (only their ownership), and sold again for profit (not for the artist though, but for the buyer). We basically have a new contemporary and digital way of speculating with art, only this time employing cryptocurrency and not real money, even though it can be sold later as a real currency, similar to holding stocks. I don’t see a rebellious act against the system (capitalism) that allows not only this new digital speculation but the more traditional one, so I would say this is the same idea just wrapped in a paper with ones and zeros.

Charlesworth writes that “the emergence of NFTs is a tale of late capitalism”³, and I couldn’t agree more, pointing out that these emerging NFT platforms are eventually only interested in one thing: “the adoption of cryptocurrency as an alternative to the old system of fiat money”³. Even if covered by the promise of catapulting the sales of the digital underdogs, these platforms are a business, using the same capitalistic rules for the same capitalistic result, only this time employing terms most of us had no clue what they meant: blockchain, cryptocurrency, metaverse and the like. However, we have seen the creation of new, complex terms like this from brokers, bankers, and stock markets, so I feel it is the same dog with a different collar.

Even though I think the structure around NFTs lacks the revolutionary element of destroying the system that I, as a Marxist, dream about; I am not naïve and I believe we, artists of all styles, have a right to make a living out of what we love to do, so I, of course, defend NFTs as a form of earning a wage as a wrote above. Now, how much “make a living” is in real money depends on your opinion and your life circumstances. I will not argue about the amount (but clearly $6 million is just plain ridiculous). Having said this, I agree with one of the NFT platforms I have researched that “culture can only evolve when groundbreaking creators have space and support to try new things”⁴. That has been part of art’s essence all of its history, so I have no arguments against this and I believe it could be a way for emerging and established artists working with digital media to grow, experiment, evolve, and reach new audiences. Because that is eventually art’s work.

However, I have a concern, besides my anti-capitalist position. Because, obviously, nothing is too good to be true. And unfortunately, NFTs come at a cost. An environmental one. That, I don’t like one bit. I am an environmentalist, having been a Greenpeace activist for more than two years while I lived in Denmark. So I am troubled by the amount of pollution NFTs carry as I have found out during my research¹. This is also one of the arguments used against NFTs by the artworld, which I see as a sort of greenwashing. I am very skeptical of the real environmental concerns the artworld might have and I sort of see this critique more as an extra piece in their rejection of a market they can’t participate in nor monopolize. Although I will be very glad if their intentions were real as it is an issue that affects us all, they don’t seem too worried about the environment when they sell artworks to billionaires who are the biggest polluters through their businesses and companies.

So, what is it in NFTs for photography, my artistic medium? A new chance. As for any digital artist, it opens up the opportunity to have an alternative platform for those who don’t sell their work printed, as I started doing, or that want to also embrace the digital medium as a showcase of their work to people around the world, without physical restrictions or availability for those lucky enough to exhibit in a gallery or museum, while being able to earn money for their photographs. I think it is especially relevant for digital photography, the ugly duckling. As I defended in my essay Why is photography an art form? Part II, digital photography is art, because it holds aesthetic value in its content and artist’s intentionality and skillful knowledge. If NFTs are the way for digital photography to finally get recognized as art, they have my support. But I think it is as important that we, artists, NFT platforms, and NFT collectors; don’t forget that, even though we are not calling them art by their name, there are and they will be, no matter whether it is printed on paper or showed on a screen.

The art purists will argue that digital art lacks the essence of “real” art because of its ability to be copied infinitely, thus losing its authenticity and aura. This idea of the “aura” of an artwork was conceived in 1935 by German philosopher Walter Benjamin in his essay The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction⁵. Essentially, Benjamin argued that through the copying of original art, that artwork would lose its soul, which is the soul of the artist and the part of him/herself in the conception, production, and execution of the work, alongside its place and time. Those elements, Benjamin said, disappeared in the reproduction of the original, which he thought to be the worst. Even though this was written almost 100 years ago, 86 to be exact, this argument still resonates in the artworld as the excuse to reject digital works. Because, how can we sell the aura of the work if we don’t have the assurance of authenticity and, more importantly, uniqueness (understood as exclusivity)?

Luckily, we have evolved. We are not in 1935 anymore, even if the artworld doesn’t seem to have got the memo. Because, in 1995, Douglas Davis said, in his essay The work of art in the age of digital reproduction⁶, that the doom of the aura that Benjamin predicted has not happened. In fact, thanks to digital reproduction, “the aura, supple and elastic, has stretched far beyond the boundaries of Benjamin’s prophecy into the rich realm of reproduction itself”⁶ (p. 381). The line between original and copy has become invisible, keeping the digital work always perfect without degrading it⁶. Davis acknowledged that we, artists and audience; have come to pay attention and embrace “the individuating mark, not the erasure of presence that accompanies replication”⁶ (p. 385), putting emphasis on the artists’ personal touch on their work as an intrinsic characteristic of the final artwork, visible whether it is the original or not. For Davis, “the aura resides-not in the thing itself but in the originality of the moment when we see, hear, read, repeat, revise”⁶ (p. 386).

To conclude this, sorry about that, long essay on NFTs, the artworld, capitalism, and photography; I have exposed my pros and cons on the matter. My Marxist self would say hell yeah to NFTs just to piss off the all-powerful, elitist artworld. But I am a reasonable woman. And that’s not the (only) thing that makes me turn more towards the side of NFTs, even though I am yet not sure if I would join the craze myself, mainly because of the environmental issues discussed above and my cautious approach to cryptocurrency itself at this point in time. I do believe in the capability of NFTs to shake consciousness about what art is and its intention to reach more common people, making art more accessible while permitting artists to keep creating instead of working at McDonald’s (nothing wrong if that’s what you want, as far as you are not forced to do it because nobody pays for your art). As Davis said, back in 1995 remember, the digital age empowers “imagination rather than reason, as new tools placed in the hands of people with open minds always have”⁶ (p. 382). Art has always been the human way to show its will to be free, without rejecting any possibilities that could get us closer to the sun. Davis firmly believed in the ability of digital art to do so. “Let anarchy thrive. Let our voices be freed from control, so that in interaction with each other, new modes of thinking, art-making, and deep personal touching can occur”⁶ (p. 385).

But again, I don’t think it is all unicorns and rainbows with NFTs. Unfortunately, I see it as a capitalist tool putting profit over art, just like the traditional artworld does. So maybe the solution is not to create yet another bubble market that would explode in our faces again but to modify and modernize the artworld so it finally recognizes digital art and artists, letting them be part of the club if they so wish to do, acknowledging the specificities of digital mediums and adapting themselves to their showcase and, if wanted by artists; its eventual commercialization at the same level as traditional art. Because by having a different name, different rules, different currency, we are increasing the division between digital and traditional, keeping one above the other instead of recognizing its equal aesthetic value while sending a message to the general public, those who are not part of the intellectual elite, that they too can understand, access and admire art without it being constrained into the hands of a few.

¹Source: What are NFTs? Who is Beeple? A digital art craze explained — Los Angeles Times

²Source: NFTs are transforming the digital world — Foundation

³Source: Why the Artworld Loves to Hate NFT Art — ArtReview

⁴Source: Why collect digital art NFTs? — Foundation

⁵Source: Benjamin, W. (1935). The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction

⁶Source: Davis, D. (1995). The work of art in the age of digital reproduction. An evolving thesis: 1991–1995. Leonardo, Vol. 28, №5, pp. 381–386

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Photographer, writer, and artist trying to understand the world

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Ana F. Martín

Ana F. Martín

Photographer, writer, and artist trying to understand the world

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