Tina Rivers Ryan on NFTs
ON THE AFTERNOON of February 19—immediately after the classic internet meme known as Nyan Cat was auctioned for almost $600,000—digital art abruptly entered the most recent, and perhaps most heated, of its many hype cycles. In the weeks that followed, media outlets from PBS NewsHour to Saturday Night Live reiterated the story of record-breaking prices fueled by an enigmatic technology called the blockchain, which is a system used by techno-libertarians and anarcho-capitalists for encrypting immutable digital records in blocks of data across a decentralized chain of computers. Blockchains can be used to make fungible cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin, and also nonfungible “tokens” that can act as surrogates of specific assets, whether tangible or digital—including files that are freely available online. These tokens, or NFTs, are traded as if they were deeds, but NFTs rarely confer legal title, and most of the assets they point to are not securely archived, effectively divorcing the concept of ownership from the responsibilities of stewardship and reducing it to bragging rights. In other words, most NFTs are literally financial instruments based on an artist’s brand; they are less like your average blue-chip painting than a high-tech version of Marcel Duchamp’s Tzanck Check, a fraudulent handwritten check he gave his dentist in 1919 and later bought back for a greater sum. The first online markets for tokenized digital collectibles emerged in 2018, following earlier attempts to monetize artificial scarcity using the blockchain, such as Kevin McCoy and Anil Dash’s 2014 “Monegraph” project. But it was only when cryptocurrency values skyrocketed at the end of 2020 that a significant new primary and secondary market for tokenized digital art appeared, essentially overnight. Major auction houses and galleries joined the fray this spring, leading to an increasingly polarized debate between those who believe that NFTs will revolutionize the traditional art market and skeptics who counter that NFT platforms are mostly replicating or even intensifying the art market’s worst aspects. At the center of this debate is digital art, which normally circulates in a complex ecosystem that sometimes intersects with the mainstream contemporary art world, and which has much to gain from the advent of NFTs—but also much to lose.
THE GROWING MARKET for tokenized art is often described as a vindication of digital art’s aesthetic value. It is certainly the case that NFTs have allowed some digital artists, and especially those without traditional fine-arts backgrounds, to profit from their work as never before. But most NFT collectors seem motivated more by financial opportunity or fandom than by connoisseurship and appear unaware that digital art is an expansive field with a decades-long history. Its struggle for validation dates back not just five or ten years but to at least 1965, when Bell Labs researchers A. Michael Noll and Béla Julesz argued over whether their computer-generated compositions, which were featured at New York’s Howard Wise Gallery in the first American exhibition of digital art, should be called “art” or merely “pictures.” Much of what now passes as “cryptoart”—a moniker that conflates the exchange and the exchanged, erroneously suggesting that NFTs themselves are an artistic medium—is ahistorical, more in dialogue with the mise en abyme of contemporary online culture than with digital art’s refractive history. Tellingly, most of the conversations happening around NFTs ignore even the artists from just the past decade who have examined the blockchain as a technological, economic, social, and aesthetic system, including Matt Kenyon, Simon Denny, and Aria Dean. They similarly ignore the history of the many galleries (including New York’s Postmasters and Pasadena, California’s and/or) and artists (including Olia Lialina and Rafaël Rozendaal) who for years have pioneered selling digital artworks using only a regular contract and fiat—to say nothing of the history of the markets for photography and conceptual art. One could even argue that the very structure of the NFT nullifies the legacy of the generations of artists who have used computers and the internet to expand how we define the aesthetic “object”: Because it forever points to a single asset, the NFT implicitly privileges the ideal of a stable, unitary artwork over the messy reality of digital projects that are dispersed, interactive, contingent, iterative, or ephemeral.
Despite its presentism, the crypto community does gravitate toward at least one work from art history. Instead of drawing inspiration from a digital artwork or from Duchamp’s Tzanck Check—or, for that matter, from his 1924 Monte Carlo Bond or his hundreds of crafted Boîtes-en-valise, which are functionally nonfungible reproductions—NFT artists and collectors love to cite his 1917 Fountain, which they believe legitimates all “immaterial” forms of art, including digital art. (Immateriality is a recurring theme with blockchain proponents: The most popular currency for tokenized art is called Ether, the name belying the massive amount of energy currently required to power it.) Of course, ideas have been accepted as art since the ’60s, but cryptoart tends to be less conceptual than optical; its most successful artists, in fact, are those who fetishize the virtual materiality of 3D renderings. And the rhetorical emphasis on immateriality points to the true perversity of using NFTs to sell digital art, which is best elucidated neither by Duchamp nor by any digital artist, but by Yves Klein. Debuting at his 1958 exhibition “Le vide” (The Void), which comprised an empty cabinet in an otherwise empty room, Klein’s Zones de sensibilité picturale immaterielle (Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility), 1959–62, transubstantiated the aesthetic object into an immaterial spectacle—suggesting that the true medium of all art is nothing more, or less, than a reorientation of our relationship to the world. When collectors purchased an “edition” of this (infinitely reproducible) “work,” they received only a paper receipt. But Klein claimed that these collectors did not truly own their Zone unless they burned this (literal) token, at which point the work would be incorporated into the collector’s “sensibility” and could not be resold. Comparing Klein’s Zones with tokenized digital art makes clear that the latter is far from “immaterial,” not only because of its dependence on hardware systems and resource extraction, but also because NFTs—in theory, if not in practice—reinscribe digital artworks within the framework of scarcity that derives from the exchange value of physical objects. By asking his collectors to immolate their receipts, Klein took his immaterial works out of circulation, leaving the buyer with nothing but a sensibility; the NFT is the receipt’s revenge, leaving its collector with nothing but an asset. The result is an impoverishment not only of digital art—which, for example, has critiqued the commercialization of the internet and questioned the phenomenology of virtual space—but of art, full stop.
PROPONENTS OF NFTS have invoked Walter Benjamin to argue, to the contrary, that the blockchain lends digital artworks an “aura,” increasing their value in the eyes of the generally dismissive traditional art market. But Benjamin concludes that the effacement of aura through the reproductive technologies of photography and film is precisely what mobilizes aesthetics as an accessory to radical politics. This suggests that instead of appreciating the value of digital artworks, NFTs have sold them short: They reify ownership and platform capitalism at precisely the moment when digital art could be facilitating a conversation about alternatives such as decentralization and self-sovereignty, which are hallmarks of the blockchain-based Web3 now forming on the horizon. It was the artist Mitchell F. Chan—who created a blockchain version of Klein’s Zones in 2017—who reminded me that Rosalind E. Krauss begins her 1998 book The Picasso Papers by linking the birth of modernism to the panic over the loss of the gold standard in the 1910s: Both emerged from the sudden awareness that representation is arbitrary. Having lost faith in mimesis, modernist artists sought other means to motivate their compositions. Arriving a little more than ten years after the 2008 crash, tokenized art echoes less the revolutionary gambits of early abstraction than the “return to order” of the 1920s—not simply because of its obsession with naturalistic figuration, but because of its reactionary attempt to secure signification through the infallibility of the blockchain, backed not by gold or by fiat but by code. Despite what its proponents claim, however, the blockchain is not neutral: All technologies necessarily reflect the ideologies of their creators and are as likely to exacerbate existing social problems as solve them. (As Hito Steyerl warned in her 2016 essay on art and the blockchain, the internet “spawned Uber and Amazon, not the Paris Commune.”) Faced with unregulated NFT marketplaces largely controlled by investors from the finance and tech sectors, we are better off trusting ourselves to shape the future of digital art—and the future of the technologies on which it relies.
To do this, we might look more closely at the alternative models for supporting and distributing digital practices that already have been developed by nonprofit organizations such as Electronic Arts Intermix and Rhizome in New York and Furtherfield in London. We also can look to the wisdom of galleries that have been promoting digital art since before the NFT gold rush and have successfully navigated previous hype cycles, from the dot-com bubble to the VR craze of 2016. This April, TRANSFER and left.gallery collaborated on an online group show called “Pieces of Me,” which consisted of “tokens” representing the practice of over fifty leading digital artists. Collectors could buy these works using a regular contract and either fiat or crypto (NFT optional), with the artists receiving 70 percent of the sale. The certificate for each work stipulated that the artist would additionally receive a 50 percent royalty upon every resale—an amount far exceeding the tenuous 10 percent royalty granted by most NFT platforms. The collectors who chose to “mint” their purchase also had to pay the fees to mint one artist’s proof. But more than simply maximizing individual artists’ incomes, the show upended art-world economies by redistributing 30 percent of every sale to all the artists in the show, as well as to the art workers who made it possible. Implicitly, “Pieces of Me” asked whether it is possible to treat the field of digital art as itself a “distributed network” that redistributes resources instead of concentrating them. But doing so would require that we focus on creating not only profits, but also protocols that support collectivism, activism, and new ways of being—which have been among the core aims of digital art all along.
Tina Rivers Ryan is a curator at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo and a historian of media art.