In early January, Wikipedia editors voted to exclude NFTs from their list of “most expensive artworks by living artists”. While the internet encyclopaedia is hardly the bastion of modern art, it is a global source of truth for a lot of people – and their vote effectively declared that NFTs weren’t art.
Understandably, it’s causing an uproar between the NFT community and, well, the multitude of people who would agree with the editors on Wiki.
Non-fungible tokens are secure digital receipts that are associated with the ownership of digital assets. Yes, anyone can right click and save the asset itself, but that’s not the point. The important thing here is that someone technically owns that specific digital artifact – whatever it may be.
But the cultural interpretation of an NFT is extremely different from its technical meaning. To their most adamant supporters, they are the cornerstones of vibrant communities where followers wear modified NFT-screening backpacks to cryptocurrency conventions, use them as Twitter profile pictures to flex their status, and chat in exclusive Discord forums accessible only through their NFT purchase.
Then there’s the naysayers, who just can’t get past how, well, ugly most of them are.
It only takes a scroll through an NFT marketplace like Nifty Gateway or OpenSea to see that the cynics may have a point. Take the sold-out CryptoSharks for example, which are literally comprised of a photo from the Shark Tale promotional poster with gaudy accessories and backdrops slapped on it.
Even the most mainstream NFTs in the public consciousness – like CryptoPunks, CryptoKitties, The Bored Ape Yacht Club and Lazy Lions – have a pretty underwhelming aesthetic. Each of these projects consists of 10,000 NFTs that are slight variations on a single face, usually created by putting them through a programme that algorithmically randomises layers with different accessories, expressions and skin colours. It’s not a difficult process. In fact, you don’t even need any coding knowledge to make one – they’re just being pumped out by machines.
But is this just down to subjective taste? Does looking down our noses at popular NFT aesthetics make us no better than the gatekeeping, elitist art world?
When talking about NFTs, people fixate on blockchains, markets, communities, decentralisation, collectors and, of course, how much money people are making from them. Few talk about what the NFT they’re buying looks like. Even Beeple’s Everydays: The First 5,000 Days, the “first purely digital work of art” acquired by major auction house Christie’s, was sold to a company whose representative supposedly said, “We didn’t need a preview” before shelling out $69 million for it. Instead, simply knowing it was going to appreciate in value was apparently enough for them to part with a ludicrous sum of money.
According to J.J Charlesworth, an art critic and senior editor at ArtReview, the art world is confused with what they’re taking issue with. “Trying to apply art world standards to some NFTs is missing the point. A lot of the NFT market is based on collectables and there’s always been a visual culture in collecting – from comics, to trainers, baseball cards – that is very mainstream.”
Instead, NFTs reflect the interests and the cultural outlook of the people collecting them. Successful projects are rooted in a community of people with a similar mindset, the CV of its creators and their long-term vision (i.e. will they be integrated into video games, for example) – not typical artistic qualities like composition, colour palette or subject matter.
“‘The reality of it is that lots of NFTs are fairly dumb, let’s be honest about it,” Charlesworth says. “Bored Apes is a collector aesthetic – it’s not really that interesting visually. But a lot of it isn’t aspiring to be great art.” With a collaboration with Adidas and talk of Bored Ape characters getting turned into films, books and other media projects, this NFT project operates more like a global IP brand than a piece of artwork.
Let’s also not forget the history of popular NFT collectables, either. The culture that underpins the explosion of NFT collectables has roots that date back to 2016 when the very online, mostly male early adopters would collect and trade Rare Pepes memes with Good Boy Points on CounterParty, a Bitcoin-backed platform that allowed the creation of digital assets.
This served as the foundation of the meme economy that – once propped up by the Ethereum blockchain, the technology that now facilitates most NFT transactions – would accelerate the mechanics of shitposting, hype driving and late-stage capitalism traditionally seen in this space. Considering the core group of people involved have also probably been stockpiling cryptocurrencies long before they shot to the moon, you start to see where the appetite for a meme-y, gimmicky and artistically famished aesthetic comes from.
“What we’re seeing now is the different class of the very rich and the crypto billionaires [who] haven’t got anything to express their position and wealth,” says Charlesworth. “Someone with a billion in Bitcoin would probably not go and transfer it into traditional artwork, as they wouldn’t be interested in keeping them, storing them, moving them around – [they] want something that expresses their lifestyle better.”
Still, it’s important not to generalise; or rather, confuse two completely separate entities.
“It’s like saying Pokemon cards are destroying artwork – they’re entirely different things,” says Diana Sinclair, the co-founder of Herstory DAO, a crypto collective dedicated to supporting marginalised crypto creators. Though a growing body of research has found that the NFT economy is just as unequal as the real one, artists like Sinclair say that it’s opened up opportunities for herself and other traditionally excluded artists. She believes it’s important to make a distinction between collectables and art in the digital space, just like we do in the physical world.
Thanks to NFTs, the 17-year-old has had the opportunity to curate a digital exhibition featuring artists all over the world, work with the Whitney Houston estate on digital art and attend Art Basel in Miami. She also credits NFTs with enabling her to expand her pool of potential collectors, while also providing a pathway to eschew the traditional, elitist art world.
Today, Sinclair says she’s made enough money and can swerve college and focus on art as her full-time job – but adds that making money isn’t the most defining aspect of her work.
“One of my buyers fell in love with one of my pieces because the blue light on the face reminded him of something from his childhood that got him into graffiti. He was ready to drop $30,000 because of that connection, not because he thought he could flip it for more money,” says Sinclair. “I found that to be really beautiful.”
The conversation around Paris Hilton and Jimmy Fallon insipidly swapping pictures of apes obscures the fact there’s actually more than just one kind of NFT out there. Some even display inspired applications of this new technology, including video performance art that unpacks women’s bodily autonomy from artists such as Katherine Frazer, and beautiful digital artworks generated from elaborate code from artists like IX Shells. The headlines around these artists aren’t based on how much they sold for, but their complex, intriguing themes and aesthetics.
What makes art “art”? It’s a long-running, historical debate that predates NFTs. Critics screamed till their cheeks went red when Marcel Duchamp called his Fountain sculpture art; now it’s studied in art history university courses. Maybe one day it’s how we’ll look at CryptoPunks or Bored Apes.
Yes, there are NFTs that truly move people and should be counted as art – just as there are NFTs that make people extremely rich. Yes, a lot can be shockingly bad – and don’t even get started on the number of scammers and hustlers out there (see: the developer behind Evolved Apes disappearing with $2.7m).
But, as Sinclair points out, the more we focus on the ugliest parts, “the less likely it is for the infrastructure to be built around artists who will do something quite beautiful with this new tool” – and isn’t that what art is all about?
Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly named Jimmy Kimmel instead of Jimmy Fallon.