Chic vs Tradition: Are NFTs Really Art?

Monday, 14 June, 2021

NFTs, NFTs, NFTs. It is hard to look at the newspaper these days without a story that relates to them. Some praise them and others ridicule them. As with anything that has such a seismic effect on the art world, they have generated a lot of controversy. There is another article on the Axerian website which is an in-depth investigation into this murky issue, and warrants reading for those who wish to understand the problems that NFTs pose, both to the environment and the artists themselves. The purpose of this piece is to assess the controversy from a cultural standpoint, that is to say, whether NFTs are “real” art.

Bárbara Abbês for Quartz / Photo by Reuters

        Art is inherently subjective. There are probably those of a delusional nature that consider Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa as overrated, and Tracy Emin’s My Bed to be a work of genius. The beauty of any artwork is always within the eye of the beholder, they may be awestruck or disgusted by it. To place emotional or financial value on any artwork is then, arguably, near impossible to achieve, but there is a whole industry built upon such a practice. When anything new is served up to the table of art there is always a backlash. Artists such as Van Gogh, El Greco and Monet were initially dismissed as too unorthodox or just plain bad, yet their works are now held in the highest esteem. Therefore it could be argued that the reputation of NFTs could exponentially increase in the years to come. The opinion on this is, of course, down to personal taste but the factor that inspires either hope or despair is the ramifications of them on the integrity of art itself. Should a JPG file be considered within the same field as a Rembrandt painting?

The digital artist Jazmine Boykins (aka blacksneakers) says that it should. “You have the whole stigma against digital art” they state. Addressing the argument that digital art is not as hard or complex as traditional means, she retorts that “both mediums can be pretty intense.” Effectively the stance is one against the inherent snobbery within the artworld, that pieces composed on a computer can be just as labour intensive as those crafted in a workshop. For Boykins the recent exposure to digital art has been long overdue, proclaiming “regardless of how it’s done, these artists get to be acknowledged for their work, recognised for their skill and their ability.” It is an assessment echoed by other artists in the digital field. Much has been made about NFTs that are gimmicky images of cats, but the artist Beeple took thirteen years to make Everydays: The First 5000 Days. A collage of thousands of Instagram pictures, this is the artwork that sold at Christie’s for $69.3 million dollars and secured NFTs a place in the history books. There are labour intensive digital artworks out there, and it can be appreciated that some feel angry about the disdain they have received regarding their talents.

© Mike Winkelmann, also known as Beeple

        Of course, the seemingly ludicrous price tag of Beeple’s work has elicited the response that NFTs are just another medium that caters to the established, and any such returns will be shut off to those attempting to break into the market. It is an opinion that is not shared by the CEO of Perfect Channel Garry Jones. He argues that the whole enterprise of NFTs is not a “bubble” whose sustainability is assured by one record-record breaking auction. Instead he makes the case that they have “demonstrated desire for greater accessibility in an industry famed for its inclusivity.” There is no denying that the artworld is infamous for its approach. As mentioned previously, history has a bounty of examples where artists have been shut off from the market due to the relatively few who control the auctions around the world.

        Those that champion NFTs as genuine art not only regard them for the aesthetics of the works, but for the opportunities they potentially afford the artists themselves. The idea being that in having a direct link between the creator and the buyer, the financial interests of the creative are not subjected to the machinations of a third party, thus the money goes directly into their pocket. As the demand for NFTs grows, and it seems that it is doing just that, it is hoped that it will inspire a myriad of opportunities as to how art is created sold and collected. The advantage digital artworks afford over physical artworks, it is contended, is that the latter requires transport, storage and the money to insure it, thus maintaining the artworld within the grasp of the wealthy.

        A common argument against NFTs as legitimate art is that of their value, not only in financial terms but in the emotional weight they carry. For those inclined against them, it seems ludicrous to conceive that an NFT, displayed on a computer or digital frame, could inspire the same reverence and spectacle of a Turner landscape. In the opinion of Deborah Fairchild, the president of VEVA Sound, they can. Not only can they be deemed aesthetically pleasing, she writes, but also the appeal can be traced to “an entirely new way of owning pieces of history- something by which humankind has always been enthralled.” It comes down to provenance, a word that anyone acquainted with the artworld will have encountered frequently.

        Another counter to NFTs value is that by being a digital asset they cannot be deemed as unique enough to warrant the same fascination and adoration of more conventional methods. This is countered by the claim that, due to the digital nature of their provenance, it is easier to trace and thus prove the authenticity of any piece. Fairchild spoke to The Times on this issue. “Imagine being able to say irrefutably that you own one of the first releases of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On?” she says. “It’s a digital asset that can have the same authenticity as handwritten lyrics signed by John Lennon.” All of the above mentioned can help to, potentially, explain how the buyer of Everydays: The First 5000 Days justified his purchase. Metakovan, the pseudonym of Vingesh Sudaresan, described his spending of $69.3 million as a total bargain, claiming it was “the most valuable piece of art for this generation” that is actually worth “$1 billion.”

        NFTs certainly have crusaders willing to champion their right to be considered authentic art, but there is sufficient evidence to check and counteract their adulations. To begin, the notion that they bring inclusivity to an exclusive market warrants scrutiny. The other article I have written on NFTs for Axerian goes into great detail on this, but there are other views not shown in that piece that can contribute to the debate presented within this article. The very essence of them, being digital that is, can work against up-and-coming artists. Because they can only be purchased with cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin and Ethereum, they must be stored on a blockchain, a network which is a secure cloud store for financial assets. They are phenomenally energy intensive, but they also mean that those without financial means cannot hold a stake within them. Uploaders and buyers have to pay upfront, and non-refundable, “gas fees” to offset the carbon emissions this process incurs. As such Ezra Konvitz, the director at Founders Intelligence, argues that NFTs are, “likely to remain on the fringes for collectors, institutions and investors.” Therefore, rather than opening up an already niche market, NFTs look set to add another level of exclusivity.

        The artworld is currently within a craze over this issue which has the potential to inflict detrimental effects. They are dependent upon cryptocurrencies and recent history has shown how temperamental their sustainability as an asset is. Because of this it is crucial that more and more people keep investing in them to keep the market profitable. At the risk of this article swerving into one of technological, rather than cultural, discussion the whole process can be abridged by the fact that NFTs exclude those without previous stakes and prestige, and they are simultaneously dependent on investors continued interest in them. For Phillip Mould, known for the BBC programme Fake of Fortune, this is a cause for concern. Speaking to The Times he quipped, “what happens after the circle of supporters move on? An artefact of tangible craft and beauty can partly sell itself, but a digital certificate, however ingeniously argued, has got its job cut out.”  Such information, it can be deduced, means that NFTs are not only environmentally unsustainable, but also culturally unsustainable. Were the craze to dissipate there is the very dangerous prospect of energy draining artworks festering on a blockchain with no one to buy them.

        It is important to register the potential deficits that digital art can have on the artists themselves because it contradicts the main argument of its proponents. Without its use as a shield then they become another form of exploitation which the artworld has, quite frankly, got enough of. While digital artists such as blacksneakers have asked to have their work taken as seriously as traditional forms, due to the creative process of their making, they still fall short of inspiring the same level of emotion humanity is accustomed to in the artworld. Blake Gopnik is a former art critic for The Washington Post and is of the opinion that it is within the museums, many of which are free to enter, that separates traditional art from digital art. He writes:

“Remember, a lot of the greatest art exists in museums. And what’s wonderful about that is that it completely pulls you out of that world. And you go into a museum, you can’t really talk about how much something is worth, because it’s in a sense not worth anything anymore. It’s not on the market. And that’s what’s so great about museums.”

        This is a sentiment that has been echoed around the naysayers of NFTs. That this is a fad in which people are buying more into the process of, rather than for the enjoyment of art itself. Konvitz has elaborated upon this notion when writing that the medium “steers away from ‘virtual art’ to ‘virtual collectables.’” When looking at some of the NFTs that have been sold it really is hard to argue with this sentiment. Examples such as Space Cat and Kim Catdasrshian diminish my already diminishing faith in the modern world. Not all NFTs are like this, but the fact of the matter is that it looks as if they will become increasingly common. Both the BBC and The Guardian have delved into the possibility of such cultural degradation. While it perhaps unfair to judge the likes of Beeple and blacksneakers amongst these, they are calling for their medium to be taken seriously; and odious, repugnant travesties such as Space Cat are within their medium.

© NYAN Space Cat

The craze of NFTs, particularly recently, has gripped the artworld by the horns and ignited furious debate. To those that drape them in laurels they are the champion of artists. They foster and nurture talent by allowing artists to create and sell their artwork with autonomy, thus receiving their due payments. As well as this there is the argument that they should be accepted as authentic, legitimate works of art. It is a case that has been railed against on both an ethical and cultural level. While this article has attempted to focus as much as possible on the cultural discourse NFTs have created, the ethical factors will always creep into any debate concerning them. The environmental issues have been touched upon, but readers should view the other article on the website titled NFTs and the Controversy they have Fostered for a more comprehensive analysis on this issue. The argument against NFTs and the ethics of protecting and nurturing artists is paramount to consider, in any situation regarding them, because those that believe in them always make a point of how they, supposedly, ensure this. Evidence can be attained however that disputes this. The technology they use shuts off many via its inherent exclusivity. This coupled with the reality that in order to maintain its longevity, and thus providing a stable income for artists, the craze the world is currently experiencing over them must be maintained. Trends with physical artworks come and go, but there is always a real, not virtual, artifact that can gain value over time.

        Then there is the most important counter argument to NFTs as a legitimate form of art, the lack of emotional weight they carry. While there is no doubt there are digital artists that have worked hard and created some nice work, and I am in no way denying the talents of many, it is difficult to be moved by them.

        Perhaps it is the heart of a romantic that stirs these fingers to write this but, to be totally honest, gazing at a Monet will always be the preferred option to looking at a digital piece. When in a museum one can see the individual brushstrokes, the subtle textures of light and be taken aback by the skill and dexterity of the artist.  While wandering through the National Portrait Gallery there are many pieces I do not enjoy. Yet I can appreciate the effort and love the challenge of finding something within it that I can connect with. Then there is the debate to be had with someone who loves that piece. To stand in its presence and talk for and against it. Such an action has meaning because it is physically there. To be near it is to be influenced by it and that is why art is such an important part of what it is to be human. It makes us question, it makes us cry, and often it transports us away to forget about life for a while. I have been in the presence of digital art before and none of these swirling sensations came to me. Perhaps, at the age of 27, I wear an archaic head on a youthful body. But in researching this article I was pleased to see that others share my convictions that NFTs are more like collectables than true and pure art.

        For all my attempts to try and convey the emotions, both positive and negative, of being in the presence of a physical work of art, it really can be brought down to this sentiment. We spend the majority of our lives looking at computer screens. Art is one of the few ways to escape this unfortunate necessity, to be whisked away to the sanctuary of our inner thoughts, and just be happy that beauty still exists in the world.

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