Crypto art is an odd moniker. Art tends to be labeled by medium or style. But this new term defines art in relation to the technology of the distributed ledger where it’s tracked and traded. It says this art’s most salient feature is that its uniqueness is established by a record on the blockchain. An individual piece of crypto art is called an NFT, or non-fungible token, distinguished from other, interchangeable crypto assets, including currencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum, by its singularity.
To make an NFT, a digital file—a JPEG, a GIF, an MP4—must be minted, a computational process that registers it on the blockchain. A work of crypto art is therefore a hybrid thing. It’s the record on the blockchain that encodes its provenance, a smart contract that defines the conditions of its transfer. While it’s possible to store media in this record too, it’s prohibitively expensive, and so the on-chain token usually just points to the file’s address on an off-chain storage site, such as the distributed server known as the InterPlanetary File System. An authenticated display of the NFT—in the owner’s crypto wallet, on a gallery wall in the virtual world of CryptoVoxels—calls the file up from the IPFS. Lastly, the work continues to exist in its pre-tokenization form, as a file that can circulate in the promiscuous, unauthenticated way that any other file does. The NFT is a version that claims primacy because its identity is stabilized while the original remains impossible to identify as original. How you understand the chimera of crypto art depends on your point of view. You can see the NFT as an expanded form of art that manifests concepts of value, ownership, and networked community. Or you can see it as an assertion of crypto’s worth, a financial asset valuable because of its uniqueness—a property it signals with a façade of art.
Most people look at NFTs in this latter way. They were created as blockchain assets first. Art came later. Art is the rear guard of a movement led by Garbage Pail Kids and Pepe the Frog. Tokens bearing that kind of imagery are called collectibles, which are not quite the same as artworks. “Work”—and more specific terms like “painting” and “sculpture”—refer to what the artist does. “Collectible” tells you what a consumer can do with the product. Imagine if Hauser & Wirth announced a new drop of rare Nicole Eisenman collectibles. That’s the environment that digital art is stepping into.
The loads of cash swarming around NFTs flaunt their status as fintech. It’s hard to see sums like the $580,000 paid for Nyan Cat or the $777,777 paid for Beeple’s “Complete MF Collection” as anything but the cost of marketing crypto to mass audiences. Crypto’s value depends in part on the volume of transactions on the blockchain. But crypto’s applications are still relatively limited. You can’t buy groceries with Bitcoin. (This hermetic quality is the basis for the criticism most often at leveled at crypto: enough electricity to power a mid-size country is spent on a system’s constant verification of its own integrity.) NFTs are something you can buy with crypto. They make the investments needed to grow the blockchain feel visible and tangible.
Uniqueness has been the main selling point for NFTs. “Rare” is common in names of thesemarketplaces (Rarible, SuperRare) and goods (Rare Pepes). But the way collecting is talked about in the crypto world sounds more like what the art world calls flipping—probably because the two fundamental functions of an NFT are ownership and transfer. The resale royalties that can be programmed into smart contracts are touted as a benefit to artists, who get squat when IRL art is flipped. But even then, any sales entail fees for the Ethereum network. It’s still an investment in tech with a veneer of supporting the arts.
“Buying is the new liking,” crow the crypto evangelists. On the blockchain-powered Web3 to come, they say, creators will get paid for their content, unlike our current Web 2.0, where creative energy invested in Spotify, YouTube, or Instagram usually yields meager rewards, if any. It’s good if money can match exposure. But it’s still a little jarring to see how crypto displaces cultural capital. NFT artists tweet their sales and prices the way MFA artists announce solo shows.
The NFT market has attracted a lot more buzz and investment than other uses of the blockchain to authenticate art. Startups like Verisart, Artory, and Codex offer digital certificates of authenticity for paintings and sculptures, supposedly more reliable than the usual paper trail of provenance because of the immutability of the distributed ledger. Monegraph, launched at the 2014 edition of Rhizome’s art hackathon Seven on Seven, invited artists to submit the URL of an image file to be converted into a blockchain address to verify its uniqueness and make it sellable. Monegraph preceded the inventions of Ethereum, tokens, and the other technologies that make today’s NFT market possible. It no longer exists. So you might say it failed because it was ahead of its time. But Monegraph—like the other, still-running startups that specialize in certification—maintain a separation between the artwork and its on-chain representation. The NFT blurs those distinctions. I suspect that hybridity is what makes it so sexy.
What can make NFTs interesting as art? A gimlet-eyed approach would see crypto art as the heir to trends of the early 2010s that folded an artwork’s market potential into its conception: Zombie Formalism—the mass production of flippable, disposable paintings that wink at art history and look cool on Instagram—and Post-Internet art, where a makeshift sculpture serves as a sellable souvenir for a multiversioned work that circulates online. But other approaches, the ones actively researched by London new media art organization Furtherfield, ask how the radical ideas about ownership, authorship, and collectivity associated with net art of the ’90s can be etched in blockchain protocols.
I like digital art. I’m happy that the artists who make it have found a source of monetary support for their work. I like sifting through the derivative dross on SuperRare and happening upon some wildly inventive, imaginative work by self-trained artists. I’m excited by the possibility of what might happen on these platforms, as the people who have taken part in net art and new media scenes for years mingle with artists coming from entirely different backgrounds. I’m heartened by the ad hoc support networks, like the Mint Fund, which covers fees for artists minting their first tokens, because they suggest that artists are building social bonds stronger than the blockchain. But it would be naïve to focus on crypto art’s utopian potentials while ignoring the pyramidal structures of tech money that are driving it now. Best to keep an eye on both.