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The Million Dollar JPEG

A Comprehensive Investigation into the NFT And Its Dividing Presence Within the Art World.

On the morning of March 11th, Christie’s sacred auction house was left rather flustered following the closing bid of their largest purely digital art sale to date. Crypto creative Beeple’s monolithic collage, ‘The First 5000 Days’, had fetched an eye watering $69.3 million, or the equivalent to 42,329 Ether. In wake of this single lot sale that jolted a seismic shift across the art world, it is certainly worth delving further into the trajectory of the elusive NFT. Where this phenomenon has caught the attention of both art folk and the keen investors, prophesying its vitality has become a hot topic. Its inherent controversy has also conjured a split reception due to its tendency toward kitschy aesthetics and shameless indulgence in pop culture and memetics.

Beeple, EVERYDAYS: THE FIRST 5000 DAYS, 2021. Token Id 40913. Non-Fungible Token
(JPEG). Minted on February 2021. Christie’s lot.

While its raison d’etre may be causing alarm, the alternative must be considered, with the digitizing of most goods, was this path inevitable in the art world? If we were to neglect the natural course of contemporaneity when it goes against our normative ideas of art, we are in danger of revisiting past behaviour. When the nihilistic movement of Dadaism mocked the art world with a urinal, the controversy sent critics into frenzy, yet where would we be without it?  A similar effect incurred when Warhol rejected the binaries of high and low art with his iconographic collages of soup cans, celebrities and other symbols borrowed from pop culture. Now such artworks are amongst the most sought after and acclaimed works within the canon of art history, under the bracket of the almighty ‘blue chip’. Following this logic, it would seem there is a pattern of contemporary art seeking to adjoin the distant realms of art and life, particularly through tropes of shock and controversy. So, perhaps in our digital age this path was inevitable and maybe we need taboo as a tool for laying the groundwork of contemporaneity. The NFT has not only abridged art and life in content and subject matter, but also the audience reached, it has combined online and offline communities. With this being said, it would be prudent to explore both sides of the coveted NFT debate.

So, what is the NFT if not simply a glorified JPEG?

It is first worth visiting the new buzzword that has encroached into the vocabulary of even the most technologically opposed: Blockchain. In short, blockchain is a chronological database that is not attached to any centralised server, but rather made up of different individuals (called nodes), that are connected all over the world. These chains of data that build and grow over time are also attached to various cryptocurrencies. Furthermore, a cryptocurrency like bitcoin is not a unique asset in that every bitcoin is alike, hence it is fungible. The non-fungible asset is non-interchangeable, it is a one-off, a digital collectable. It could hence be assigned to a plethora of commodities, but has sent the largest shockwaves through its attachment to art.  The NFT intertwines with digital art through tokenized ownership that, whenever changed in hands, is logged permanently on the blockchain. This is a major benefit in an industry of fakes, forgeries and multiplicity. Therefore, for the sceptical collector, the infallible blockchain structure is incredibly appealing.  Additionally, the NFT supplies a perpetual process of ownership as it also never loses the protection of the artist, whose digital signature remains embedded in the work permanently. With this added assurance of entrenched scarcity, the value can soar to dizzying heights in comparison to other digital artworks. The resale of a token is also a gateway to endless royalties due to being a minted asset, a fiscal benefit that the auction house cannot guarantee. It additionally provides the perfect slippage of the art world into ecommerce, a gateway that companies have yearned for as there are no overheads, provenance or shipping logistics involved. The NFT is also incredibly efficient and liquid as a method for transferring assets, hence the wide appeal to the art investor who does not necessarily frequent the Sotheby’s for their next investment.

Nakamoto Pepe Series 1, 2016. Non-Fungible Token. Minted on OpenSea.

Another benefit of this structure is that it opens up the possibility of limitless asset creation through decentralised exchanges, allowing anyone to throw their hat in the ring. This explains why the volume of NFT output has skyrocketed. Around 2016, this phenomenon took an irreversible delve into the overlap of art and finance when a meme took on the world of blockchain. When “Rare Pepes”, a frog themed meme upgraded from a digital collectible token to being reconfigured to run on Ethereum blockchain, the possibility of ‘rare’ digital images was suddenly realised. Today various NFT platforms such as ‘CryptoPunk’ have seen various copies of the “Rare Pepe” fetch around $500,000, a dizzying value for something totally intangible. Nevertheless, this was in the early days of the NFT, when it belonged to only those in the know. The reigning duopoly houses, Sotheby’s and Christie’s, quickly regained control of this growing cash cow by becoming mainstream brokers this year, as exhibited by Beeple’s sale. If we were to drop a pinpoint in where the NFT became a universally known and legitimised art form, the Christie’s sale in March would be it.  The elusive medium truly cemented itself within the discourse of art history as a legitimised contemporary practice.

Ry David Bradley, Once Twice, 2021. Acrylic tapestry. 63 x 55 in, 160 x 140 cm. The Hole, NYC.

Identifying the Crypto Creative Versus the NFT Artist: RY DAVID BRADLEY and the “Digitally Born Tapestry

There is a discernible difference between the crypto creative and the non-digital artist who occasionally dabbles in NFT creations. So, in zooming out of the purely online sphere of asset creation, we can also examine how this art form functions in a physical environment. The insurgence of mainstream exposure has opened up a new creative portal for many artists who have been forced to adjust during the pandemic. Where digitized forms of commercialisation and communication have been somewhat thrusted upon contemporary artists, there has been an insurgence of cross medium works. An artist inclined to this hybridity and diversification of practice is Australian born is Ry David Bradley. His work has gained momentum as of late where it uniquely unifies a digital and physical aesthetic experience. Both his intricate tapestries and software-based creations channel the appearance of digitally generated file, confronting our assumptions of locating the original versus the copy.

At first glance, Bradley’s aesthetic is inherently two dimensional as a result of the screen-like appearance yet, upon closer inspection, he actually mimics a digitally manipulated greyscale pallet. This is achieved in his physical tapestries where he works in RGB coloured thread. As a result, the contorted figure emerges abstracted through considered dysmorphic fragmentation and layering over the canvas. Unlike Beeple’s work or the memetic inspired NFT’s, Bradley confuses the binary between photography and painting. In the same way Lichtenstein would conceal the painterly texture of his brushstroke, Bradley’s tapestries preclude any assumptions on what a medium should perform as. His work contests any systematically imposed predisposition on how and where art should exist. With the insurgence of popularity, the NFT is grappling between on and offline locations effectively decentralising the normative viewing experience. Bradley has often worked in conjunction with other artists, whether through sculpture or painting, in order to draw attention to the temporality and dynamic of medium within the gallery space. Where his work translates well both in and out of the digital arena, he challenges what makes an original artwork but also questions what reality is. Where his abstract tapestries distort people, Bradley renders questions of identity in a world of biometric surfaces.

Questions of Curation

Bradley’s practice and consideration of medium within the physical milieu does not speak for the entire NFT field, however. Video and virtual art has long been a trying curatorial task. Often installation works that involve video art are placed in contention with various material forms that force the viewer to grapple with their senses. Bradley has indeed presented how specifically catered curatorial temporalities can bind virtual and non-virtual domains together, however this may not be the case for the purely software-based artist.  One may speculate that a virtual piece cannot carry the same weight as a physical artwork, as the two-dimensionality is less responsive to real time space. Where traditional works function in cohesion with each other; inducing highs and lows, loud and quiet positional agencies on and off the wall, the NFT is restricted. Hence why the fast pace and freely moving market underpinning the NFT network has seen swift ascendency in the investment sphere but not necessarily the gallery setting.

The Black-Love Art & Crypto Gallery (B.L.A.C. Gallery), the Art Place in Denver. Courtesy of IRL Art.

Above shows B.L.A.C. Gallery, showcasing how some institutes are giving life to the digital works. Yet the physical staggering of the screens can only provide so much depth and range to our experience. When exploring a gallery, we often relish the inspection of tactility, and being forced to acknowledge what medium we are dealing with. Bradley’s two-fold practice also takes into consideration the role of the curator. He does not infringe upon their agency, which may be under threat in the virtual environment. Most of which is largely controlled by a brokerage and operated directly by the viewer.  Meaning the ever-growing role of the ‘super curator’ would be deemed futile in the case of a purely digitized platform.

Another concern is the preservation of digital artwork in deep time. Attempting to ground a specific NFT piece into the contemporary canon amongst the sheer volume of data comes with risk of the medium itself becoming standardised. Safeguarding the work against tech related failures is also a hazard especially when considering a work has been valued at millions. As technology progresses the million-dollar NFT must keep up.

Ezra Miller, Solvency 223. Non-Fungible Token. Minted on OpenSea.

Purist NFT Aesthetics

Nonetheless, it is not all doom and gloom in the NFT dominion. Although there is a common misconception that crypto subject matter is majoritively juvenile and in abundance, there is another layer to unravel. Whilst Bradley’s work cross contaminates materialised and dematerialised practice, we must also consider the purist NFT artist’ who are redefining the scope for two-dimensional creations.

The fascinating complex structures of graphic artist Ezra Miller offers an apt example. As shown above, his mesmerizing fluid and fleeting swathes of colour are constantly generating abstract loops that dissolve and diffuse into infinite sequence. The defining feature that results in a satisfying reel-like spectacle is owed to his tailored algorithm that mimics a marbleized surface in constant hypnotic motion. This glitched abstract imaging parallels to Bradley’s digitally inspired tapestries, perhaps implying that there is a new desired space for this emerging digital aesthetic. In Miller’s ‘Solvency’ series, each NFT is a real time simulation created using a pseudo random hash value, simply meaning every work is unique but fits into a series. The simulations are also written in code that adopt various textures from photos and then diffuse colours infinitely with invariable dimensions. His practice truly considers software visuals in using a creative hybrid of computer graphics and generative formulae. He thus separates himself from the digital art that “has trapped artists inside a limbo of gamified feedback loops of likes, views, advertisements, and influence,”[1] Miller.

What is also really striking about Miller’s ethic is his refreshed concept of objecthood within the digital territory. We cannot consider the NFT in the same light to any physical art that came before it because when you turn off your device the artwork is gone. As a result, we get an artefact that must be able to seamlessly reproduce its performance. In this sense it becomes a simulation of artistic practice; a virtualisation of culture and economy, fielded by cryptocurrency. The perpetual visuals created by Miller thus become much more potent when considering they are constantly regenerating as an independent medium. The objects performance is transient, forging a new relationship between viewer and artwork. In the same way that 60s conceptualists encouraged a new dynamic by redefining objecthood, the shifting connection is again being pulled into question with software art. The viewer’s role has transformed where the artefact is built on files existing in another paradigm, forcing us to actively build a connection with it. The NFT consequently reminds us that to look at something solely aesthetically, is to assume it holds autonomy and ultimately leads to cataloguing the qualities of the experience. This pastiche is where the overlap between art and mass culture in NFT’s is fascinating, as we are forced to consider our relationship to images and how they circulate our network and intertwine in everyday life.  Ultimately, contemporary art is built on the premise of questioning and redefining our approach to images and objects. The NFT does precisely this where it points toward the immutable presence of the varying symbols, visual languages and queues that constantly enter our consciousness. What’s more is they also highlight our habitual desire to value them monetarily.

Artistic Differences Amongst Crypto Creators

Within the oeuvre of crypto creatives, we are also witnessing a rise in subcultures forming based on varying particular motivations. Minting platforms and brokerages are all inherently different depending on their currencies and ethics. Where some may be climate concerned (such as minting platform CarbonDrop that aims to compensate for its underlying emissions) others may be more viewer experience orientated. For Ezra Miller, working on platforms specifically catered to safeguarding artwork from currency failures is a priority. So, in the case of Ethereum no longer being in circulation, his work is disconnected from in-built wallet platforms. Hence there is more guarantee of longevity with his creations. This prioritization of durability and control is crucial to those who aren’t banking on a 69-million-dollar sale. Again, we are seeing parallels to the ‘anti system’ artist aiming to steer clear of the mainstream art world institutions. For the purist creator, solidifying the artwork for the sake of a sale at Christies jeopardises its ability to evolve, it forces its containment and neutralises its individuality. The freedom of decentralised platforms also provides the benefit of anonymity for artists who prefer to disassociate their identity from their practice. The online gallery can be utilised as a space of equal opportunity through the integral removal of discursive bias relating to body, gender or racial politics. It is arguably one of the safest spaces for work to exist freely without embedded context. Contemporary art can so often be weighed down by geo-political agendas, segregation or othering, and so such anonymity is certainly a positive attribute. Having such an overwhelming economic force driving an autonomous artform is certainly refreshing.  

Steve Aoki x Antoni Tudisco,Hairy, 2021. Non-Fungible Token. Minted on Nifty Gateway.

NFT In Pop Culture and Surrounding Scepticism  

However, this anonymity is not necessarily consistent across the whole NFT spectrum. There is a less savoury dimension to the practice where the exponential wealth opportunity has naturally summoned a global investment frenzy. The ‘NFT bubble’ has overnight invited a mass rebranding of crypto creatives; art dealers; art investors, and new stakeholders into the art market. Where the NFT can take shape as a collectable token linked to brands, pop culture icons and even virtual real estate, they entice speculative investment. If we consider that the nature of economics is effectively abstract, and that investments are almost always intangible, the concept of a unique token achieving such value is not actually surprising at all. Of all the diminutive derivatives that often build an investment portfolio, the ephemeral NFT is relatively substantial. This financial dystopia that has currently taken root in the art market can aptly be summarised by the sales craftily coordinated by ever-elusive street artist Banksy. His ‘Burnt Banksy’ work that caught fire was live streamed and the video then sold on for $380,000. This derives from our propensity to find value in spectacle and is also a common trope in past contemporary isms. As when conceptual artist Carl Andre sold his everyday bricks for $1.6 million. It equally stems from the paradigmatic shift in art consumption where we are prioritizing the intangible ownership of non-canonical non-objects.

Furthermore, where we have established our escalating desire for non-objects, we must also acknowledge the ‘non-artist’. The accessibility of the NFT has meant that the opportunist investor is not the only intruder into the artworld. Where we once perhaps worried of the super curator encroaching on the artists role, we now also must be wary of celebrity figures who have carved out intersectional careers through their own NFT creations. As shown above, superstar DJ Steve Aoki has thrown his hat in the ring with this NFT creation available on Nifty Gateway.

Theoretical Parallels

The injection of celebrity and pop culture into the oeuvre of contemporary art is by no means a novel occurrence. The circulation of kitschy imagery slots seamlessly into the framework of digital collectables and the pace of the internet keeps the phenomenon churning along. Any symbol, tweet or meme that would typically be a transitory trend, can suddenly find immediate value. Where some may contend this ably democratises art, it also elicits our habitual tendency toward conspicuous consumption.

Paris Hilton, Chelsea Evenstar, Aquarius, Keeper of the Amethyst Star, 2021. Non-Fungible Token. Minted on Sotheby’s Metaverse.

Another strong contender to contribute as a self-proclaimed, celebrity crypto creator is Paris Hilton, see above for her NFT.   

To gage how the NFT has slotted into the canon of art history, a brief reminder of some key texts and notable theorists may reveal how we have nudged back into a familiar cycle. In Distinction and Taste, Pierre Bourdieu noted that those more affluent had influence on mainstream taste, and that cultural capital was available through measured purchases.  So, this ephemeral medium bound up by social, cultural and economic components driven by celebrity culture, is effectively as much an asset as it is an artform. If we momentarily turn away from the purist creators, the NFT boom is largely carried by the influence of popular media. Hence a majority of our understanding is rooted from ubiquitous memes and internet fads. Polemic philosopher Walter Benjamin would alternatively voice his concern here in arguing that the overstimulation and mass production of imagery diminishes an artwork’s aura. He contended that the consumption of art becomes an absent-minded endeavour when the viewer becomes more passive and insusceptible to the captivating effects of a work. This is relevant within the NFT debate as it may foreground the longevity of the phenomena where incessant output may equate in the loss of intrinsic sensibility within each work. So much of our digital online presence is so fleeting that meaning and impact becomes diluted by data and our hankering for fast fads.

A contemporary artist who truly understands the threat of this phenomena is American artist Trevor Paglen. His practice draws concern on not only the injection of pop culture in digital art, but also the entire spectrum of art production becoming an automated experience. In his most recent project ‘Bloom’, Paglen draws attention to the role of the algorithm and shift in human behaviour. He reveals how the human condition has become accustomed to digitizing all experience, down to the most natural organisms.

Trevor Paglen, Bloom (#9b746d), 2020, dye sublimation print, 40½ by 54 inches.

Here Paglen is drawing attention to the notion that algorithms cannot automate beauty.

Flowers have long been a perennial feature in art history, dense with symbolism, various values and interpretations of the ephemeral nature of life. Paglen proves that these emotive values cannot be translated into the digital realm, algorithms cannot comprehend symbolism. The colours are mathematically composed and bring light to the coldness of coded artwork and the gaze of the machine. The rise of AI, automated interpretations of images, data mining and facial recognition all render this question of how much we rely on a removed reality. Typically, art offers a vortex away from reality, but can the inherent escapism found in arts ‘aura’ be sourced from pixelated graphics? The emotive experience is somewhat lost when we turn to a two-dimensional isolated medium. The gallery experience becomes mundane as we become desingularised spectators to a totally independent material. Drawing on some of the ideas from Ezra Miller’s concepts of objecthood, software artwork is an existing entity with or without out our presence. Turning his philosophy on its head, perhaps we are jeopardizing the integrity of digitized art for the sake of status and financial profit. Paglen’s practice effectively reminds us of the intimacy and sense of sharing integral to the art experience. A part of his Bloom project is the built-in feature where the viewer is able to be present in the space through live streaming cameras, to further bring light to the fundamental need for bodily presence. He consequently reminds us of the overwhelming necessity of aura and the yearning for temporal tactility both in the artwork and ourselves.

What Does This Mean for The Future of NFT’s?

The narrative of art history has long proven to be an unending self-investigation into arts self-purpose and performative essence. So, this burst of digital content is merely a chapter within the broader discourse, where consumerism has taken heed of our behaviour. However, after considering both the positive and negative implications of this curious art form, it seems the phenomenon will diverge into two directions: the kitsch creator (largely financially and socially motivated), and the purist crypto creative.

Finding the difference between the meme-inclined and software savvy NFT artist is in itself an aim to centralise the movement, but it will help us to gage the varying subcultures and ultimately officialise the phenomena. What’s interesting in dividing the good and bad NFT’s is how we locate the qualitative value. We must effectively re-educate ourselves to the varying factors that define an artist and their work, without canonising their industry through generalisations and socially taught structures. This will allow for the online creative space to grow uninhibited by the conditions of the art market (or meme culture) thrust upon it. Crypto creatives are mutually aware they are not conforming to typical standards of beauty, they’re practice is concerned with exploring technological innovation. Much like the burgeoning ‘New Aesthetic’ movement that avows digitized art is not superficial but simply indifferent to surface texture. Their standpoint bares much weight here, as they state that NFT art is “deeply engaged with the politics and politicization of networked technology, and seeks to explore, catalogue, categorise, connect, and interrogate these things. Where many seem to read only incoherence and illegibility, the NFT actually articulates the deep coherence and multiplicity of connections and influences of the network itself”[1]. This refreshed viewpoint also rejigs the routinely altering consensus as to whether a works meaning is located within its pictorial illusion or its temporal objectness. Similar to when we dealt with the abstract expressionists versus the minimalists, we repeatedly find ourselves attempting to locate the art.

This ethos is where the software specialist proceeds the kitschier collectable realm of NFT output. With regards to the future of NFT’s bound up by pop culture and valued on prestige, it is likely they will lose velocity. The nature of markets and media suggest that in years to come, paying upward of $100,000 for ownership of a meme or tweet may seem utterly ludicrous.  Naturally however, we will continue to endorse those mainstream celebrity artists that invite speculative investment. With little effort, the likes of Koons, Hirst and other art world tycoons will seamlessly slip into the NFT world immediately fetching eye watering prices. Although in the long term, ardent collectors will be most secure in sticking by shrewd creators who take caution in choosing their minting platforms and truly understand their medium. Where they’re output isn’t haphazard or wholly driven by investment, it will stand the test of time. Their considered practice will propel the art form into the future and give it longevity.  And so, in the same way that exhibiting physical artworks on an online gallery is a seemingly contradictory affair, the NFT will remain most effective within the cyber realm. The movement to crypto transactions in the physical space will likely be only accepted in certain institutions, limiting its scope in commercial galleries. Meaning that overall, the NFT and the physical art world will come to live in harmony, but one will not infringe upon the other.

Imogen Haisman

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