On certain developments in the content of NFT art as we enter 2021
Non-Fungible Token art associates digital art to blockchain identifiers as metadata, producing a saleable ownership proxy similar in concept and usage to a certificate of authenticity for conceptual or video art. In itself this makes no demands on the artwork other than that it ideally be minimally problematic (legally and technologically) for any services or platforms the artist uses to create and sell it. But that art still exists within a technonomic milieu that holds very specific promise and appeal for those who might be interested in it as an environment in which to produce and experience art.
Early NFT art that was not simply existing illustration art registered onchain became steeped in blockchain promotional imagery – project logos and figureheads. These were soon joined by easily consumed attentional lures appealing to viewers(/potential purchasers) pre-existing sensibilities such as naked human bodies and technological glitches. Where the problem of their technical production and content intruded, it was when an artist or a buyer did not understand the source of a library image or of a filter’s stylistic flourish. This was a problem because of the imported concept of ownership as transcendental possession and control, seen in NFTs as “true digital ownership”. Blockchains exist to establish ownership of digital assets with mathematical certainty. To own a piece of NFT art is to possess something unique with cryptographic certainty backed by a sizeable percentage of the Earth’s computing power. It is to possess it more securely than if it was stored in a vault (en-crypt-ed) at a maximum security freeport facility, and for the object of that possession to be more uniquely identified object than the Mona Lisa. Where the thing that you possess is a copy, a fake, or misrepresents its production or its materials in some way either intentionally or unintentionally, the unspoken contract of ownership is broken offchain. Or at least ironised and degraded in the hodler’s eyes.
Discussions of authenticity (as opposed to authentication) in “authentic digital art” emerge as a panic from this encounter between onchain mathematical certainty and the messy nature of human understanding offchain. To secure authenticity offchain in response to this is to destroy the value of onchain security – you might as well have a paper certificate of authenticity. A cypherpunk dark forest of aesthetics, completely disjoint from meatspace concerns of identity, reputation and career, would firewall artistic value from authenticity – a liberation that would upset art historians as much as any existing market. But security thinking can be a cold, lonely, corrosive lifestyle and is not for everyone. Or even for most.
A different approach is required within the slow recuperation of the cypherpunk imaginary that is wider society’s encounter with it, and one which engages more with the affordances and resonances of blockchain technology. This is not an ideological prescription, it is recognition of the factors that drive every artist and collector/purchaser’s attraction to NFT art and that must show returns if NFT art is to be coherent. Neither pre-established iconography nor discrete stylistic flourishes sufficiently establish aesthetic value worth securing and owning on a blockchain as blockchain art as transaction fees rise ever higher. Art is proof of work, whether Whistler’s “Nocturne” or an Abstract Expressionist act of heroism. There must be something to own, a parsable product of labour that represents the potential to exponentially multiply the value of an investment of time by the artist and cryptocurrency of the collector. Strategically, to achieve this, the artwork has very few moves it can make. One, modernist/post-modernist one, is to dramatize and reflexively intensify this experience of possession of something that lives in a world of dicscrete technological time. The more vivid this experience of ownership can be made – the more parsable, although absolutely not the more easily digested – the better.
This has led to accumulation of significant form in various registers for excess/surfeit, materiality/presence, and presentation/encounter in NFT art. The in-frame agglomeration of this is reminiscent of the bricolage of Post-Internet Art, its careful leading of the viewer is remeniscent of motion graphics in advertisements, cut scenes, and other liminal moments of guided significance. Where assets and shaders being from libraries would be an impediment to true ownership when presented in a two dimensional artwork consisting of the mere conjugation one or two of them, their composition and animation in time – the work that they do and represent – within the current wave of NFT art performs the requisite alchemy to make it clar that it makes the unownable ownable. Materials, interactions, choreography, assembled into brief microworlds with an aesthetic surfeit that makes very little sense as anything other than an answer to the problem of NFT art at this point in its development, and make very much sense as that.
There are limits to this (and any) strategy, but we are not there yet. Intensification or finding lines of flight from the elements of this strategy, in sum or individually, can take us very far beyond the current state of the market now we have broken this resistance level. Capitalism loves challenges to its property regime, they are how it expands it. True digital ownership requires something to own. Unproblematic commodities, consisting either of artistic originality or of commercially manufactured aesthetic swatches, do not provide a sufficient challenge or object to hang the predicates of desire for an ever-intensifying experience of possession on. The fact of the digital aside, this dynamic was as true of paintings of fruit or of music and dance based on peasant forms as it is of GPU-accelerated aesthetic flights of value.
High culture is a strategy of enclosure, of proprietisation, of the transubstantiation of kitsch/low forms in an affirmation of the wider economy’s transsubstantion of resources into value. It is also a heatsink – symbolic resolution or closure for the untenable claims or other moments of a given (property) regime. You can see much more of the former than of the latter in the current state of NFT art, but the latter is present precisely in its engagement with the psychological requirements of ownership. How far the latter goes will depend on how blockchain technology engages with wider society over the next few years.
True digital ownership as a memeplex collapsed into aesthetics by assembling materials and competences to deploy in an intensive experience that can be owned onchain has produced an experience of moments of post-digital surfeit as an answer to the demands of artificial digital scarcity.
This is the world as it exists today.