NFTS ARE STILL relatively new thing in the art system. It is important to understand that they are not really an art thing. They are a means of assigning value to digital as well as physical assets, outside of traditional markets where value is tied to state-backed currencies. What they have already achieved in this sector is to bring a new kind of artist—the online native, net-based, digital artist who has not previously been welcomed by the fine art system—into the game, resulting in the cultures of the poor image and the exclusive fine art original uncomfortably rubbing shoulders. And, the non-fungible token has cut into the history of artistic value with unexpected rapidity, and with such loud volume, that art spaces are now roiling in discussions about the technology that have similarly consumed multiple sectors and platforms
The hype isn’t helpful. The claims of both supporters and detractors are overblown and disproportionate, and debates about NFTs’ artistic and aesthetic qualities are rudimentary if non-existent. For my part, when it comes to form and content, I’m an NFT cynic. I don’t think the technology is going to revolutionise art as we know it any time soon. Though if I’m wrong, I eagerly await your theses nailed to my door. The launch of a platform like Glorious is interesting in that it heralds the arrival of the art NFT as an accessible and collectible commodity in Aotearoa. And if we’re about to mainstream the art NFT in this country, it’s important to be thinking about these fascinating, complicated, and deeply contradictory things. For me, the really interesting dimension of the debate is how, more than any Marvel film or HD Instagram filter, NFTs are both the opposite of the poor image, and perhaps the inevitable conclusion of its promise.
Steyerl’s poor image is degraded because it belongs to everyone, and belongs to everyone because it’s degraded. It has been zipped and compressed and thundered across the internet so many times that it barely registers as it’s ‘original’ referent. As she put it, their aura ‘is no longer based on the permanence of the “original,” but on the transience of the copy.’ The poor image has gone beyond the reach of hierarchies and gatekeepers. It is post-original, post-quality, and post-ownership.
The NFT is the perfect antithesis of these ideas. And yet it has been packaged in a very similar way, and with very similar language. At their most evangelical, supporters see the technology as a harbinger of an artist-led revolution that will sweep away the old cultural arbiters of galleries and museums, ushering in a new era of decentralised, democratised art managed by self-regulating blockchain communities. But isn’t there a paradox here? The essential characteristic of an NFT is that it confers ownership and originality—it is quite literally a token designed for that purpose. And, for the most part, NFT art is an art of high-definition. At the Glorious end of the spectrum, these works are intended for display on high-resolution monitors in high-resolution homes. How is this world of individual property and exclusive originality more democratic than an art gallery?
One answer is simply that capital can encroach upon even the most alternative of enclaves. The internet is as open to capitalisation as any art gallery—the old hierarchies have just been technologically expanded. Let’s go back to the bang that started this conversation in earnest, the March sale of Beeple’s Instagram collage, ‘Everydays: The First 5000 Days’ for US $69 million at Christie’s. The work itself—a subject that is tellingly rarely discussed in the NFT conversation—is a JPG of all the images the artist had posted online since 2007. It looks like a jigsaw I had as a child, except all the little tiles in mine came together to look like the Mona Lisa when you were finished. Looking at Beeple’s image now, it really does seems so much like ‘just a hurried blur, one even doubts whether it could be called an image at all.’ Oh, wait a minute.
What makes Beeple’s work worth that eye-watering sum and not the identical screenshot that sits on my desktop, or Steyerl’s true poor images? The answer is that originality is a market fetish, and in the world of digital images, originals are back baby. And this time, we can make them, assign them value, and exchange them without a single unit of traditional currency ever getting involved. Beeple’s work was purchased for 42,329.453 Ether, the dominant cryptocurrency used in NFT trades, which had an exchange value of US $69 million at the time of sale. The Beeple auction was about value in a world where state-backed currencies are not the only form of exchange or means of wealth generation. This has enormous social and political consequences if the technology truly makes it into the mainstream. For art and the world of images, however, it was a reminder that this new system of exchange is caught up in some much older ideas about the relationship between an artwork’s status as a unique artefact and its worth.