Wandering virtually through the hypertext links that host Pieces of Me 1 (a new exhibition from Los Angeles-based TRANSFER Gallery), you encounter an animated simulation of Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne created by an avatar-artist; 2 a GIF that reinterprets Prometheus Bound for the 21st century; 3 and a 3D sculpture that remixes the tale of the Stygian witches. 4 The allusions to mythology and antiquity that run throughout the exhibit seem to stand in contrast to its futuristic aesthetics. Yet, considering Pieces of Me’s implementation of the non-fungible token (NFT) protocol, the pairing feels all too right. Amid the current crypto-art craze, the NFT has achieved an almost mythical presence in popular imagination, a status that leaves the digital artist to reckon with its aesthetic and economic implications.
An NFT is a unique, non-transferrable code that lives on the Ethereum blockchain and can be attached to virtually anything (a gif of a dog taking a shit, the domain name of your arch nemsis’s travel blog, or your high school boyfriend’s math rock band’s latest single). Buyers can purchase this token to claim sole ownership over that unique code. Even then, anyone can download, visit, view, or listen to the actual content to which the token is attached. Set against the backdrop of an economic ecosystem that trades in memetic weirdness (recall the all-too-recent GameStop short squeeze), crypto-art marketplaces like Foundation, Zora, OpenSea, Superrare, and Nifty Gateway have recently opened a floodgate of minting tokenized digital assets.
The selling, buying, and trading of NFTs may seem like a degradation of art, or a form of financialization that turns digital ephemera into a cousin of the mortgage-backed security. Yet, speculative investments in art are not a new phenomenon; the contemporary art market has served as an asset source and tax haven for elites for years. So much of creative output becomes the object of market economies, a vehicle for speculative investment, or the precious trophies of the wealthy.
Even so, decoupling the arts and money would be an imperfect solution. A vision of the arts entirely divorced from the marketplace envisions artists as lone geniuses creating out of some deep, vocational calling to produce art—l’art pour l’art. This romantic view, which regards art’s relationship to the market as a corruptive stain, obscures the labor involved in arts production and its requisite compensation. Given the gutting of public funding for the arts, artists certainly aren’t receiving significant state support. If they don’t “sell out” to the gallery system, then, artists will go unpaid and undervalued.
The re-examination of the close ties between art and capital is not unique to the current crypto craze. Rather, the ascendance of the NFT continues a history of artists challenging art as an ownable commodity and the ways in which money mediates arts exchange and exhibition. Seeing beyond the startup world’s inflated marketing bubble requires us to unearth prior artworks that engage similar questions about the relationship between arts and the economy. By drawing out the connection between 1960s conceptual artwork and crypto-art, we discover a lineage of artists who, through the non-traditional medium of their artwork, challenge prevailing notions of art valuation, ownership, and exhibition.
The Art Has Left the Building: 1960s Challenges to Art as a Commodity
On January 24, 1969, the kinetic artist Takis walked into the New York Museum of Modern Art where his sculpture was on exhibit, unplugged his own piece, and carried it out of the building as security guards and visitors stood by in utter confusion. 5 Takis’s act constituted a protest against the museum’s failure to meaningfully engage with works of art that defied the traditions of medium—Takis’s Télésculputre, a moving, mobile-looking sculpture involving wires rotating around an electromagnet, was relegated to a meager pedestal in the corner of a white-walled gallery room.
The art historical milieu to which we can attach Takis’s work was concerned with “dematerializing the art object,” or creating works that defied the bounds of complete objects that remain constant across space and time. 6 These artists produced time-based installations or experiences that did not fit neatly into the traditional picture of ownable, sellable, collectible objects held within museum collections or hung on the walls of wealthy patrons’ homes. The MoMA’s inability to properly engage with this kind of formal experimentation, which prompted Takis to remove his piece in defiance, exposed the institution’s allegiance to an art world logic rooted in the exchange of commodities, rather than to the artist.
Those involved in the events of January 24 soon coalesced to form the Art Workers’ Coalition (AWC), a contingency of avant-garde artists who called into question the market-mediated movement of art from artist to institutions. One fascinating piece of ephemera included in the AWC’s archive is a plain-text flyer boasting the question “DOES MONEY MANIPULATE ART?” as its title. The answer provided is a list of still further questions that elucidate the unhappy marriage between art and money. “Is the artist’s final goal money? If not, what is it?” the document asks. “Should art be free? Can artists be free?”
With pieces that exit the object paradigm, we see glimmers of an art form that, in its ephemerality, is truly free—art that cannot be owned by a wealthy collector or hidden away in museum collections. This ideal of free art, however, rubs up against the reality that, in the most immediate sense, artists need to get paid. The question prompted by non-object art, then, is how to define the value of something that cannot be owned, in such a way that supports the artist.
Some fifty years later, the crypto-art boom re-animates these questions of ownership and compensation. Here lies the utopian bet some hedge on NFTs: that they might allow artists to retain some return on the increasing value of their work and exercise a greater stake in the terms of their work’s circulation, exhibition and ownership.
Reimagining Value, Ownership, and Exhibition through Crypto-art
Fast forward to the dawn of the Internet and the new creative tool it offers artists. Works that live on a digital file or a chunk of code that can be shared between computers are endlessly reproducible and remixable. Much like the dematerialized works of the 1960s neo-avant-garde, art that is native to cyberspace defies the traditional logics of art valuation, ownership, and exhibition, even as it remains intimately tied to traditional notions of art as commodity.
Firstly, crypto-art platforms take up the issue of valuation by promising to democratize the power to differentiate between good and bad art. In the context of Western civilization, the aesthetic value of art has been assigned by wealthy bidders at fine art auctions and the institutions that collect (or steal) works of art. NFTs, their evangelists proclaim, put the power of determining value into the hands of the people by removing the institutional barriers between art and the public. In theory, anyone savvy enough to open up an Ethereum wallet can bid on a token attached to a Rare Pepe 7 or a Crypto Kitty. 8 The populist optimism buoying this new paradigm seems to answer some of the Art Workers’ Coalition’s questions around how to wrest the power of valuation away from the hands of gallerists.
The rollout of NFT marketplaces, however, has done little to deliver on that democratic promise. While one person might be in the crypto-art game to support their favorite creators, another might treat tokens like stocks to someday resell for an expected return on investment; and yet another may view the NFT as a kind of collector’s item. It’s great that, in a postmodern, post-truth world where God and the American dollar are dead, people can assign whatever value they please to an artwork. However, considering that the vast amount of people who own the requisite crypto-cash belong to a largely esoteric group of crypto-rich techerati and hypebeast prospectors, this group wields an exorbitant amount of power in determining both the aesthetic and monetary value of art—dictating what is good art and what is bad art, and thus, which artists get paid and which don’t. Many of the popular crypto-art markets also take a hefty cut on token transactions, making the difference between something like Superrare and the Gagosian Gallery a little less clear. Though the players may be different, the game has largely stayed the same.
Putting the question of value aside, crypto-art picks up on another key question posed by the artists of the 1960s: how does one “own” non-object art (works that exist for a finite period of time, involve audience participation, or are site-specific)? Takis’ piece, in particular, illustrated how deeply MoMA’s definition of art was rooted in the view of objects that remain constant across space and time. With digital art, the questions become: How does one own a jpeg that anyone in the world can save to their camera roll and send to everyone in their contact list? Why would anyone want to own something that everyone else can have for free?
The NFT protocol devises a method by which physically unownable artworks can be symbolically owned in the form of the unique token. But is this just a 21st century reboot of the classic model of art as commodity? Are NFTs violently imposing the logic of ownership onto a medium that holds the promise of abolishing such paradigms for the circulation of art? Why would we want to detract from digital art’s fundamental ubiquity, its ability to be produced and then reproduced ad infinitum by anyone with an Internet connection? Can’t we devise an interdependent protocol for substantively and materially recognizing the value of art and the labor of artists that doesn’t replicate the language of private property? Much like the Art Workers’ Coalition, I have more questions than I do answers.
Further still, crypto-art complicates our traditional practices of exhibition. Just as the non-object art of the 1960s forced museums to reflect on their inability to properly showcase avant-garde work, crypto-art compels us to ask: How might we exhibit a GIF? How can we design a platform for a piece of generative art that uses the web browser as its medium? This problem of exhibition is what motivated artist-technologist Fisher Adelakin to list their pieces on the NFT market Zora. For Fisher, having their art live on the blockchain functions much like a personal gallery, a collection of their work that does not require institutional middlemen. “There’s no permanence to my work,” Fisher explained to me in a Zoom call, “because the computer generates a version, and the next time I run it, it will generate a new version. So [with NFTs] it’s like I’m taking bits [of my work] and cementing them in time to keep a record.”
One of the major features of the traditional museum model is its curatorial function, wherein individual works are brought together to speak to some larger idea, medium, event, movement, or phenomenon. The added meaning that comes with assembling the works of different artists within the same exhibition or platform adds another vector by which value is added to a work of art—the value that arises from an artwork’s formal or thematic relation to other works. Currently, the most popular sites for listing and buying NFTs adopt the same timeline interface as your standard social media platform: an endless scroll of content without any unifying context or relationality. While artists like Fisher have played with possibilities for (self-)curation on NFT platforms, this vector of value is largely outshone by the strictly monetary ones.
The Promise and Peril of the NFT
The exhibition from which Takis removed his own piece was titled The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age. 9 This landmark show held up a mirror to a society on the precipice of an age of information, asking it to reflect on the relevance of technology for art-making. Many artists, critics, and so-called humanists decried the creative use of technologies as a glorification of tools initially created for warfare. Other artists, however, sought to reappropriate the technical devices produced within the military-industrial complex, endowing them with alternative aesthetic meaning.
The use of crypto-technologies as a creative medium sets up a similar dialectic: it at once gestures toward a decentralized (and thereby liberated) arts future, while also threatening to legitimize the deeper extension of financialized products into our lives. Can artists utilize the NFT as a tool to explore and actualize the radical implications of the blockchain, or are they doomed to advancing the bottom line of Silicon Valley’s latest venture?
The main vibe dominating the crypto-art scene today is that attaching digital art to NFTs serves a marketing agenda for crypto evangelists. The late anthropologist David Graeber and artist Nika Dubrovsky have pointed out that, historically, when artists demand new channels of cultural production, they inevitably rely on politicians to realize these new roads by which art enters the public. 10 Politicians then warp the demands of artists to serve their own agendas. In a world where techno-libertarians often wield more power over civil society than politicians, it makes sense that Silicon Valley crypto-nauts like the Winklevoss twins have latched onto the digital crypto-art medium as a thin veneer for their own technocratic visions. 11
Still, there may be cause to hope. Aside from crypto-art’s status as the cyberpunk version of the stock market bet, the NFT protocol retains some promise for doing away with the traditional gallery system and returning agency to the artist. With the Pieces of Me exhibition, for instance, TRANSFER Gallery has implemented the NFT without a bidding function, placing the emphasis on art appreciation and artists’ compensation rather than on speculative investment. Additionally, Feral File 12 focuses on meaningful collaboration with artists who want to exhibit and monetize their native-digital pieces in a way that allows them to retain a voice in the future sale of tokens attached to their work. Hic et Nunc, 13 which runs on the more “sustainable” cryptocurrency Tezos, also centers digital rights in its adoption of a decentralized framework which disallow permissions and terms of service that obfuscate the rights of the artist.
In these use-cases, the value of crypto-technology — as a vehicle for critically experimenting with new models for art distribution — shines through. What these conceptually rigorous and formally experimental implementations have in common is a mode of speculation rooted not in quick-flips or crypto marketing schemes, but in possible futures for art and its economy. The pharmakon of the NFT, whether or not the blockchain ultimately ushers in a utopia for digital art, is forcing us all to re-engage questions around the purpose and value of art, which feels like something of a conceptual success.