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Crypto Histories
November 6, 2023

Art After NFTs

To dismiss NFTs is to discount the communities that rely on them, argues Alex Estorick
Credit: Xelda Jara, (Still from) Roboto Factory, 2021. Courtesy of the artist
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Art After NFTs
This essay is included in Algorithmic Imaginary: Art on the Blockchain and in the Metaverse (2023) edited by Sabine Himmelsbach and Boris Magrini.

The art world loves the blockchain, NFTs not so much. Blockchain means permanence, means provenance, means transparency. Blockchain is safe. NFTs are murky, speculative, corrupt. Few NFTs are even on the blockchain. In recent months, a common refrain has emerged among a certain class of crypto-intellectual: “Can we please stop talking about NFTs and just get back to talking about art?!” 

But why would we want to do that? For NFTs have done something remarkable — they’ve rendered transparent the relationship between art and money for the very first time. But more than that, they’ve unlocked the financial potential of a generation of digital creators historically ignored by the art world. 

To dismiss the NFT is therefore to discount the contribution of a class of digital outsider that has had a taste of freedom, and isn’t about to give it up. 
PAMILO CEIRONE®, P4MLOK®, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

Of course, the natural impulse of any elite is to redefine the terms of high culture in order to control who gets to participate. For this elite, NFTs are bad enough, but NFT art is beyond the pale — a budget bucket of ill-conceived JPEGs hanging hopelessly “off-chain.” Likewise, crypto art (or “CryptoArt” as the OGs have it) isn’t “real” art, but rather the digital detritus of a new creative underclass incapable of engaging with technologies as artistic media in their own right. Under these strict conditions, any digital creator who seeks to use NFTs as a mere sales mechanism is somehow deemed less of an artist. But as Joe Looney, the founder of Rare Pepe Wallet, reminds us:

NFTs are more than signed receipts with media links. They are the token and the media. They are the date and blockchain on which they were minted. They are digital objects that exist in time and cannot be replicated. They are rare!

Rare Pepe Wallet is a particular challenge to the elite because it represents both the prototype NFT marketplace and the product of a grassroots community that sought to turn Pepe’s viral meme into a digital trading card game. What makes NFTs so intoxicating is that by marketizing digital art for the first time on a mass scale, they also destabilized pre-existing categories of art. By reducing the motif to the level of a meme, works like HOMERPEPE (2016) not only appeal to a mass audience, they also manifest a realist movement.

Anonymous (“ICQ”), HOMER PEPE, 2016

CryptoPunks (2017) further complicates the canon, as both the prototype PFP (profile picture) and therefore a “collectible” (not art!) and a prime example of generative art. Indeed, generative artists — those who use autonomous systems — are some of the principal beneficiaries of NFTs, which have opened the door for creative coders to monetize their algorithms and therefore imagine new digital futures. In the process, NFTs have also unlocked buried histories, enabling generations of computer artists to emerge from the shadows.

Shows like LACMA’s “Coded: Art Enters the Computer Age, 1952-1982,” which give parity to computer artists and conceptual artists alike, acknowledge that art has always been an expanded field. Web3 establishes that field as not simply the latest iteration of the internet but the future of the cultural economy — a creative union of art and technology. 

Sonya Rapoport, page 4 from Anasazi Series II, 1977. Photography courtesy of Museum Associates/LACMA. Courtesy of the Estate of Sonya Rapoport

Ongoing attempts to celebrate conceptual approaches to technology as the highest form of art only repeat historical habit, while privileging artists from a narrow corner of the Global North. Of course, capitalism does the same, and the reality of Web3 is that while it challenges the conceit of art as a world apart from mass culture, it also forces artists to accept financialization. Because NFTs aren’t simply an art movement, they’re also a financial technology that imposes new obligations. 

To succeed as an artist in Web3 requires engaging with the crypto community and supporting one’s fellow creators. In other words, it requires artists to behave like collectors. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the consequences of this new collector economy is the decline of resale royalties as a means of automating equity for artists. 

Mitchell F. Chan, The Boys of Summer — Marcus Robinson, 2023. Courtesy of the artist
The paradox of Web3 is that while technologies now exist to liberate artists from a dependence on traditional mediators and centralized structures, art itself has been replaced by a form of creative entrepreneurship that elevates money above creativity. 

Mitchell F. Chan prophesied as much back in 2021 when he argued that “non-fungible tokens separate [...] an artwork’s expressive, or artistic [sic] form, from its commodity form.” Given that the “commodity form” is usually rather more secure on the blockchain, NFTs would seem to privilege art’s transactability over its display, which makes sense in a natively digital context where liquidity is everything. 

The pay-off of course is the creation of new markets for art — from AI art to pixel art to blockchain poetry — that turn Web3 into a world of emergent possibility as well as a test bed for human-machine creativity. Before NFTs, the industries of art and technology existed independently. By forcing them together, they not only create a market for digital culture, they also invite artists to design new infrastructure. Web3 may augur the end of art as we know it, but NFTs offer a glimpse at a different future. 

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Alex Estorick is Editor-in-Chief at Right Click Save.