March 21, 2022

Nobody Works at the Canvas Museum

So why can’t crypto art escape the influence of its medium, asks Max Cohen
Credit: Jenisu, Girls & Love #14 (detail), 2020. Courtesy of Museum of Crypto Art Genesis Collection
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Nobody Works at the Canvas Museum

I have stared at this piece for hours, and I’m still enchanted by its quite curious composition. Often GAN art appears rather obviously machine-influenced. But not so in Anne Spalter’s Escaping Horse (2020), where GAN-graphics take the form of pencil lines, graphite shadings, 3D windmills, and cartoonishly animated flames. The effect of all these varying styles together? Spalter has us wondering which of these choices were hers and which were the computer’s, and what does it mean when we can’t tell the difference? 

Unlike Spalter’s work, the artistic choices in Jenisu’s Girls & Love #14 (2020) are quirky, calculated, and brazenly human. If Spalter hides herself behind artful obfuscation, Jenisu is open-palmed and revealing. Here are her choices. Here, here, and, here, like in this psychedelic Tokyo-daydream’s rainbow row of vending machine bottles, each colored carefully, deliberately. Or the semi-hidden cat. Or the advertisement for strawberries. Everything in Jenisu’s piece follows the same technicolor logic. It’s a wildly cogent product of a wholly human mind.

And now FEWOCiOUS’s Victor and Victoria (2021), an eye-catching work which highlights the artist’s playful interdisciplinarity. From the cubistic faces, to the subtle Disneyfication of the right-hand figure, to the undertone of American Gothic, there’s an unimpeachably zany, Gen-Z collage of ideas here that would be impossible to replicate (and how he captures texture is stunning!). Victor and Victoria is a triumph of color and of composition, at once hilarious and tragic. I think it’s one of FEWOCiOUS’s best works.

Anne Spalter, Escaping Horse, 2020. Courtesy of Museum of Crypto Art Genesis Collection

Jenisu, Girls & Love #14, 2020. Courtesy of Museum of Crypto Art Genesis Collection

FEWOCiOUS, Victor and Victoria, 2021. Courtesy of Museum of Crypto Art Genesis Collection

All three works display a marksman’s mastery of style. All clearly created by thoughtful, visionary artists. And yet, they have almost nothing else in common. 

Okay, sure, Jerry Saltz might find parallels between their color palettes or whatever, but, I’ve artificially juxtaposed these pieces precisely because they seem to have been born of unlike minds with distinct sensibilities. The products of different generations, designed to do different things.

Nevertheless, all fall under the gangly overhead of “crypto art,” the blanket term for art imprinted on the blockchain and distributed as NFTs. But “crypto art” as a term doesn’t deign to elaborate further. Nor does it honor the abundance of artistic approaches, styles, and sensibilities within its purview. It’s a tidy way of identifying (indeed hybridizing) art made in a certain epoch with a certain method of distribution. And it tacitly communicates that the art itself is secondary to the NFT mechanism which underlies it. 

Which is fine when working within the crypto art community, where aesthetic and compositional differences are noted, celebrated, and communicated. But a disconcerting, and exceedingly vocal, portion of the population doesn’t share that perspective. For many, these artworks were minted as NFTs, which makes them NFTs above all and art as an afterthought.

Nor does it seem to matter how hard the crypto art community tries to dispel this notion, nor how nuanced its arguments are. Every day in the Twittersphere, on sites like Right Click Save and Outland, and through institutions like the Museum of Crypto Art (M○C△), thoughtful and progressive conversation about crypto art proliferates — the kind of conversation which attests incontrovertibly that the works of Spalter, Jenisu, and FEWOCiOUS are as rooted in their own unique traditions and experiences as those of Rembrandt, Pollock, and Basquiat. 

Pak, The Argument, 2020. Courtesy of Museum of Crypto Art Genesis Collection

The question now is: Does it even matter? Crypto artists and thinkers can hoist themselves onto the highest metaversal mountaintop and shout how, “Nobody works at the Canvas Museum!” But I fear their voices will grow hoarse as the multitudes refuse to listen. 

A case in point is the decision of Wikipedia’s editorial board to put NFTs in a category separate to “Art,” justifying their choice with the claim that “Wikipedia really can’t be in the business of deciding what counts as art or not, which is why putting NFTs, art or not, in their own list makes things a lot simpler.”

Does it now? Even Forbes — that bastion of normie financial insight — found Wikipedia’s decision odd. In her article, “How Wikipedia’s Classification Of NFTs As ‘Not Art’ Impacts Equity In The Art World,” Forbes’s contributor Rebekah Bastian reminds us that “There have been countless examples of non-traditional mediums being created and appreciated as art.” She cites Piero Manzoni, “a revolutionary, highly conceptual artist who mocked the systems that pretended to say what was true art,” singling out the Artist’s Shit (1961) — comprising 90 cans of faeces — as a case in point. Yet Artist’s Shit is still considered legitimate enough to warrant its own Wikipedia page. And in what category is it found? “Abstract art.”

Piero Manzoni, Artist’s Shit, 1961. Courtesy of Jens Cederskjold

Manzoni’s literal shit gets to be art. Dead dogs, and furry teacups, and a vagina phone charger, too. So if literally everything else gets to be art, then why not NFTs?

Nobody works at the Canvas Museum, after all. 

And nowhere else do we deride an artistic tradition for the extramarital affairs of its medium. A Banksy is considered “art” whether it was carved into concrete or spray-painted on paper. You don’t hear about the politics of wood-pulp production there. Yet when crypto art is confined to the technology on which it is printed, the art itself is devalued, reduced to a mere sideshow in an NFT circus. 

Which, when one lives among the crypto art community, is inestimably frustrating. To anyone paying attention, crypto art is obviously far more than a quirk of the NFT technology. One need only think back to 2017, when DADA’s pioneering “Creeps & Weirdos” collection first encoded artist royalties on-chain — challenging the historical paradigm for artist reimbursement — to see that crypto art exists at the bleeding edge of cultural production. Or when ROBNESS, Eric P. Rhodes and Max Osiris’s Trash Art movement communicated that art can be, in the words of M○C△’s founder, Colborn Bell, “about speed and responsiveness to culture in the moment.” Art wasn’t capable of that before, to be created and shared as an event occurs! This is a completely new phenomenon, and it radically alters how “art” can come to reflect human experience.

Max Osiris, [re:Surrection] -of- N,N-EverDie(Mt.)³, 2020. Courtesy of Museum of Crypto Art Genesis Collection

This is what so many crypto artists, and those inside the crypto art world, see every day. 

But outside of that bubble, forgetting all one knows about crypto art, about Web3, and about NFTs, one’s exposure to the NFT phenomenon is limited to banality and sensationalism. Take this January 24th clip of Jimmy Fallon and Paris Hilton for example, broadcast to 345,000 nightly viewers and another 400,000 on YouTube (discounting the clip’s many shares). After an interview nominally designated for Hilton to shill her own NFT collection, there followed this real-life, unedited exchange between the two:

Jimmy: “This is your ape.” [pulls out a picture of Bored Ape #1294 (2021)]
Paris: “Yeah, it’s really cool. Look at the hat, the shades.”
Jimmy: “How did you pick — because you can pick your ape?”
Paris: “Yes. I was going through a lot of them. And I was like ‘I kind of want something that reminds me of me.’ But this one…it does.”
Jimmy: [...] “Here is my ape. This is my ape.” [pulls out a picture of Bored Ape #599 (2021)]
Paris: “Yours is so cool. I love the red heart sunglasses. I love the captain hat.”
Jimmy: “It reminded me of me a little bit because I wear striped shirts.”

Imagine coming across this clip without any prior knowledge of NFTs, or having only heard the term in passing, going home to research these so-called “Apes,” only to find out that, whatever they are, these celebrities each paid six figures or more for theirs. Such bizarre pictures: “They sure don’t seem like art, at least not any kind of art I’ve seen before. And besides, how can someone actually own a digital image?”

Or perhaps your research leads you to articles from mainstream publications like this, or this, or this, or worst of all this, whose lead intones:

“If it looks like a scam, it’s probably a scam.” Cryptocurrency and its ugly art spin-off, non-fungible tokens (NFTs), are perhaps the 21st century’s greatest example of that eternal principle. But don’t try saying that to anyone who’s been sucked into the Cult of Crypto, because the next hour — or five! — of your life is about to be spent buried in technobabble jargon...

I think it’s important we all accept what’s happening IRL.

Because this is how most people learn about NFTs. People who are not in the crypto art world. Who are not on crypto art Twitter. People who see Kevin Roose’s article: “Crypto is Cool. Now Get on the Yacht.” Who see FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) in their favorite publications; who see the announcement of a sale for $23 million of an 8-bit alien CryptoPunk, and without proper context as to its history and why it might be valuable, envision an entire market ruled by ridiculous commercial manipulations, environmental destruction, and ubiquitous criminality. A bubble. A scam. A casino. 

Apes, Punks, Beeple, Pak: All are reduced to their prices — art filtered through the monochrome of money. Every communication about NFTs seems preoccupied with their commercialism. Nor is it a commercialism many can make sense of, but rather one tied to excess and luxury and speculation — the scary, high-risk world of the elite, or the amoral, or the outright idiotic.

And in place of actual understanding, the kind of understanding that comes from adequate exposure, many people form that worst of things: An uninformed opinion. 

Larva Labs, CryptoPunk #9474, 2017. Courtesy of the artists

In his tremendous compendium, World of Art: Movements in Art Since 1945 (2001), Edward Lucie-Smith recalls how “Frank O’Hara, the poet and art critic, once remarked that much Pop Art was essentially a ‘put-on’, a poker-faced attempt to discover exactly how much the art world would swallow.” From our 21st-century perch, that’s a ridiculous assertion. Pop Art was one of the 20th-century’s most important artistic innovations and a huge influence upon every movement which came after, crypto art chiefly among them. But Warhol was selling multicolored prints of soup cans for exorbitant sums, and I can see how, in the moment, without the context afforded by hindsight, that would have seemed weird and shady, and why people were dubious. 

Because newness lacks the nuance of experience, it is always met with skepticism, one which may indeed be rooted in rationality, but which is not necessarily unique to crypto art itself. When crypto art gets wrapped up in all the NFT FUD, it’s not really a reflection of crypto art at all. Rather, it’s a reflection of crypto art’s environment, or its localization on Twitter, or how its frighteningly-complex medium appears to the public as late-stage-capitalist lunacy.

Of course, there’s historical precedent for all this. Almost every new technological advancement, when turned to artistic ends, has been met with dismissal and disdain.

Photography, for example, was regarded for most of the 19th-century as a technically-opaque practice best suited to scientific documentation or portraiture. It existed for nearly 60 years before the first mass-market camera, the Kodak Brownie, was released to the public, whereafter the idea of photography as an art form began to take hold.

Eastman Kodak, Kodak Brownie camera, 1900.

In “When Photography Wasn’t Art,” Jordan G. Teicher chronicles how:

When critics weren’t wringing their hands about photography, they were deriding it…[Photography] lacked, “that refined feeling and sentiment which animate the productions of a man of genius”… “As long as invention and feeling constitute essential qualities in a work of Art…Photography can never assume a higher rank than engraving.”

It’s not clear whether this derisive attitude was founded on fear or ignorance. Though the artist Henrietta Clopath noted in a 1901 issue of Brush and Pencil that, “The fear has sometimes been expressed that…when the process of taking photographs in colors has been perfected and made common enough, the painter will have nothing more to do.”

Obviously, there was nothing to fear, and today photography is regarded as a perfectly legitimate art form, built on centuries of tradition, though it still lacks the prestige of traditional painting or sculpture. The most expensive photograph ever sold, Andreas Gursky’s Rhein II (1999) went for $4.3 million in 2011, which, though an incredible sum, is still a few-hundred-million below the most expensive works by Leonardo, De Kooning and Koons, which have reached nine-figures.

Digital art is another example. Though some of its earliest iterations, like Leon Harmon and Ken Knowlton’s Computer Nude (Studies in Perception I) (1967), were created over 50 years ago, the debate over whether digital art is “real art,” wages hotly even today. See for yourself. Type “Is digital art real art” into Google, and you’ll find dozens of articles like this:

Clearly, enough doubt remains over whether digital art “counts” as “real” art that many have sought a second opinion. In “There is no Difference Between Computer Art and Human Art,” Oliver Roeder argues that, “When we view computer art, the pestering, creepy worry is: who’s on the other end of the line? Is it human [sic]? We might, then, worry that it’s not art at all.” 

While I understand the temptation toward that fear, we must understand that the differences between painting, sculpture, and digital art are, on some level, arbitrary: All are simply different ways that humans use tools to express themselves. But think back to your own school days. I presume you were shown the vaunted Mona Lisa (1503-19). But did you study Hito Steyerl? Of course not. You were given Monet, Picasso, and Michaelangelo, and told not only that this is art, but that this is the apex of art. And how could that not seep into your psyche?

Julia Margaret Cameron, I Wait (Rachel Gurney), 1872. First owned by Virginia Woolf

In photography and digital art, and video art too, the underlying technology not only began as a commercial instrument, but had a long commercial lifespan before its wholesale adoption by artists. And while there do exist important exceptions — like Julia Margaret Cameron’s mid-19th-century religious photography — the first photographs were either daguerreotypes or pocket-sized carte-de-visites: PFP prototypes peddled door-to-door by traveling salesmen. Computers were databases, tools for business and warfare, before they were exploited artistically.

Such commercialist preconceptions, which hamstrung photography and still nip at digital art’s heels, are the same crusty heart from which pumps so much NFT FUD. It took time for cameras and computers to be seen as more than commercial instruments. And even though the NFT space was pioneered by artists, grown by artists, and continuously innovated by artists, a perception of commercialism still haunts crypto art today. Until NFTs are widely seen as more than vehicles for oversexed commerce, crypto art will not be seen at all.

They say there are three kinds of knowledge: What you know you know, what you know you don’t know, and what you don’t know you don’t know. Right now, NFTs are stuck in a place where very few people know just how much they don’t know. Most are fumbling around in the proverbial dark, or otherwise clinging to a single swinging chandelier. 

I’m not here today to offer solutions, but simply to say: It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. New forms of art and technology take time to establish themselves, to gain legitimacy, and build tradition. This one may simply need more time, too.

For some time, artists have been crying out en masse for crypto art to be seen in some kind of larger context. Well, this may not be the context anyone wanted, but it may be the truest. And if not that, then perhaps the most timely. 

🎴🎴🎴

Max Cohen is Lead Writer at the Museum of Crypto Art (M○C△).