Cryptnotized: My Thoughts on the NFT and CryptoArt Trend

I’ll admit it: I’ve been avoiding writing this blog post. Partly because, frankly, I still don’t 100% understand CryptoArt, and I wasn’t sure I should weigh in on the topic until I had a better grasp of it. But no matter how much I read about it, there are still some head-scratching aspects of this new art/economic frontier. But perhaps the best way to work through my own incomprehension is to talk it out right here.

And I’ll also admit, part of the reason I’ve avoided publicly talking about CryptoArt is that it forces a difficult conversation of what is “good” and “bad” art, or just what qualifies as art–a meta question that has been debated among philosophers for millenia. While I don’t like openly disparaging certain artists or genres, as an art expert, in this case critique will be unavoidable. I recognize that, to some readers, I will sound curmudgeonly, maybe even snobbish, and technologically short-sighted–I must own it. Only time will tell if this is truly the future of art, or a fad that will go the way of Beanie Babies. Either way, I do apologize in advance for any sensibilities I may offend, and I welcome any comments that may elucidate some of my issues with CryptoArt (keep it respectful, please).

CryptoPunks, a limited edition collection of characters created by Larva Labs and minted as NFTs in 2017. According to Larva Labs website, as of writing, the lowest asking price for a CryptoPunk is over $32,000. (Image courtesy of Larva Labs.)

First, let’s just define “NFTs.” For its largely uninitiated audience, Christie’s actually provides a helpful “NFT 101” page where they define NFTs, or non-fungible tokens:

An NFT, or ‘non-fungible token’, is a unique, digital certificate that is stored on a blockchain and provides certain ownership rights in an asset, typically a digital one, such as a digital work of art. NFTs provide a powerful tool to establish and demonstrate ownership rights in the digital asset space where it is often hard to demonstrate such rights given how quickly and easily digital works can be replicated. NFTs are described as ‘non-fungible’ because each one is unique and of different value. This is in contrast to ‘fungible’ assets such as dollars or Bitcoin, which are identical and interchangeable.

Of course, the obvious, immediate benefit of NFT technology, then, is the function of the NFT as a digital “Certificate of Authenticity” and ownership. After decades of exhibiting their art on the unruly and unregulated internet, artists can now “mint” their digital art–ie create an NFT on the blockchain, certifying a unique and protected work. Additionally, artists can attach a stipulation of royalties to the NFT, so they make money on any subsequent resale of it–the absolute best outcome of blockchain technology, in my opinion.

But how unique and protected is the artwork? Herein is my first point of confusion: I took a screenshot of all the NFT works you see in this blog post. In what I thought was a remarkably ironic gesture, Sotheby’s even had a download button so anyone can save an mp4 file of Kevin McCoy’s Op art gif Quantum, which sold in their “Natively Digital”: curated NFT sale for a staggering $1,472,000 (below). Is there, to use Walter Benjamin’s phrase, an “aura of the original” in the metaverse (a crypto neologism I had to add to my vocabulary) if anyone can save an identical digital version online?

I have read some articles which liken the NFT artwork to an original painting, and any non-NFT copies are like posters of that painting that you see in dorm rooms. But this is not an accurate analogy: what differentiates an original painting from reproductions is the medium–the painting is a completely unique oil on canvas. The posters are glossy prints based on a photograph of that painting, churned out by the thousands–and the respective visual experience of the painting and poster is vastly different. With the digital artwork, the medium is pixels on a screen–whether an “original” or a screenshot of it (ie “reproduction”). The visual experience is essentially the same.

In reading more about the NFTs offered at Christie’s and Sotheby’s, I also learned that the digital artworks themselves often do not exist on the blockchain, but rather are hosted on servers “off-chain,” and the NFTs “point” to their offsite location. (This is to say nothing of physical assets, for which some claim NFTs can still be applied for “authentication.” But I think any art appraiser would tell you, that’s as uncertain a claim as a physical piece of paper that says “Certificate of Authenticity.”)

Kevin McCoy, Quantum, originally minted on May 3, 2014 on Namecoin blockchain, and preserved on a token minted on May 28, 2021 by the artist. 9 MB tiff. (Video courtesy of Sotheby’s.)

In the case of Kevin McCoy’s Quantum, the condition report noted that “to avoid domain squatting, Namecoin [where he originally minted the NFT in 2014] was designed to include removal of pointers after 36,000 blocks. Accordingly, this specific Namecoin entry was removed from the system after not being renewed, and was effectively burned from the chain.” This concept alone was surprising, as I thought the appeal of blockchain technology was that it was full-proof and lasted forever.

It seems to me, then, that the blockchain doesn’t actually protect the artwork–it protects the certificate of authenticity and ownership (ie the NFT itself). And the utility and relevance of the NFT doesn’t actually come into play until a transaction is required–ie someone wants to sell the artwork. So I can enjoy my download of Kevin McCoy’s Quantum just as much as the guy who paid $1,472,000 for it. I just can’t sell it.

Beeple, Everydays: The First 5000 Days, a collection of digital drawings drawn over 5,000 days, and minted as an NFT that sold at Christie’s in March of 2021 for over $69 million. (Image courtesy of Christie’s.)

Or can I? If anyone can register NFTs, what’s to stop me from creating an NFT for the McCoy file I downloaded from Sotheby’s website? I can claim that undulating octagon as an original Emily Casden, and sell it with an NFT certifying it as my own–like a digital Sherrie Levine. Is there a blockchain police that cross-checks NFT artwork for fakes and forgeries? Sure, I’d be breaking copyright laws, but so far I can’t see how an NFT can prevent copyright laws from being broken.

Now before you think I must truly be some close-minded and conservative old hag, I want to make it clear that I have absolutely nothing against digital art itself. I think every medium of art–whether it is oil on a canvas, notes of a song, or pixels on a screen–can convey powerful meaning. I have seen digital artworks on my laptop that have moved me as much as any painting in a museum. And it’s worth noting that it is possible to sell limited edition digital works, and many galleries have been doing so long before NFTs existed. But, as with painting, or music, or any medium of art, there is a spectrum of quality: the good, the bad, and the stuff that just isn’t art. Which brings me to my next general “issue” with the NFT market…

The first NFT sold at auction–Beeple’s Everydays: The First 5000 Days, which sold at Christie’s in March for a jaw-dropping $69.3 million–was admittedly cool in its scope: a digital drawing every day for 5,000 days (from May 2007 to January 2021). The full collection allows one to see his evolution as an artist in a way that has never been documented and collated quite like this. But upon closer inspection, the digital illustrations were, let’s say, underwhelming. On the one hand, given the pressure of his daily output, the mediocrity is understandable; the famously prolific Picasso painted an average of two paintings a day, and certainly not all them are masterpieces. But largely, Beeple’s art is a product and paradigm of the Instagram age: easily digestible, pop culture pictures that have enough cynical wit to make you “like” them in your feed, and then keep on scrolling.

A digital drawing included in Beeple’s Everydays: The First 5000 Days. Meh. (Image courtesy of Christie’s.)

In a wildly over-the-top catalogue essay for Kevin McCoy’s five-second gif video Quantum (above), recently sold in Sotheby’s curated NFT sale “Natively Digital,” the Sotheby’s specialist says that Quantum is as historically significant as the modern masterworks that changed the course of art history. I will quote it at length, because it is so hilariously ridiculous:

In the long timeline of art, there are few works that serve as genesis blocks to their own chain of history. They are seismic forks in direction; forks that usher in new movements that block by block, mint by mint, usher in new art histories. These works close chapters on the art histories that came before, while anchoring a new flowering of human creativity. These prime movers occupy a singular position in art history. They came first...Pulsing with color, a riotously raw beacon to a new era, McCoy minted Quantum – unwittingly placing it within this vaulted pantheon of firsts. Timestamped July 1907, Picasso’s Les Demoiselles ushered in the chain of Cubism. December 1917, Malevich’s Black Square stands as the genesis block of Abstraction. April 1917, Duchamp timestamps the era of the idea [ie birth of Conceptualism]. 2nd May 2014 21:27:34, Quantum stands alone in the precision of its timestamp – immutably, verifiably, trustlessly pure. [Trustlessly?]

Mind you, there is absolutely nothing creatively innovative about Quantum as a work of art: all of its points of reference–Minimalism/Op art, animation art, video art–existed for decades before it was created. So why does the Sotheby’s specialist include McCoy in the pantheon of the creative geniuses Picasso, Malevich and Duchamp? Because Quantum was the first NFT artwork added to the blockchain. Was this a significant technological event? Sure. So was the company that bought the first website domain name in 1985. Do you know who it is? Do you care? Didn’t think so.

CryptoPunk 7523, by Larva Labs. It sold in Sotheby’s “Natively Digital” auction for $11,754,000. (Image courtesy of Sotheby’s.)

Lastly, there’s CryptoPunks, Larva Labs’s digital collection of 10,000 8-bit style “punks” that was minted (ie added to the blockchain) in 2017. It was a smart entrepreneurial endeavor: their pixelated style appeals to a nostalgic generation raised on Atari video games, and the distinguishing attributes of each unique character–men, women, zombies, aliens and apes with various combinations of hats, glasses, cigarettes, facial hair, etc–feed the “collect-them-all” mentality. But I would argue these definitely fall in the collectibles category, not art.

There is certainly nothing wrong with collectibles; they can have legitimate appeal and value. Exchanging coveted assets within a subculture of likeminded fans can be exciting; the hunt to acquire the rarest of your treasures can be a lifelong thrill. But that does not art make. I’ve been staring at these CryptoPunk avatars for several hours, and I’m just not detecting a heartbeat. Art has to have something to say. Are they cool? Yes. Fun? For sure. But these are the digital equivalents of trading cards, dare I say Beanie Babies (which would be bad news for whoever bought CryptoPunk 7523 for $11,754,000 in Sotheby’s “Natively Digital” sale last month).

Ultimately, my point is this: I think the mania over NFT technology is hyping up some absolutely mediocre art and collectibles. To be sure, there have been some really interesting digital works that have been minted as NFTs, but they did not need to be minted to be interesting, and could have just as easily been sold as limited editions without blockchain technology. And much of what I am seeing minted and traded as NFTs are just not that interesting. I think M.H. Miller said it well in his recent New York Times piece:

Creating absurd neologisms and claiming that something fairly unremarkable (an NFT artwork generally amounts to a mediocre digital illustration that comes with a certificate of authenticity) is in fact — to borrow a phrase from Sotheby’s, a “complex, groundbreaking technology” — is the way of both the tech and art industries, and this ugly symbiosis is one of the reasons it’s frightening to see the former so successfully manipulate the latter. If this is the future, what a bummer for all of us.

The good news is, I don’t think this is the future for all of us. I do firmly understand and believe that blockchain is a groundbreaking technology that has major implications for our future technological landscape–I think it will inevitably be part of our lives the same way the internet did. But I do not think that art is going to go purely NFT on us. Digital art is merely one of many mediums of expression; we still live and exist in a physical plane, and so does much of our art. And as of now, NFTs really can’t do much for physical artwork.

So, before you jump onto the NFT bandwagon, ask yourself a few questions: first and foremost, do you like the art? Does the price reflect the quality of the art? Or possibly the hype of NFTs? If you’re not sure, do some research (or hire me to help you!) to better contextualize the piece within the artist’s market.

As always, peace, love, and art.

One Reply to “Cryptnotized: My Thoughts on the NFT and CryptoArt Trend”

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