Non-fungible tokens — the images and multimedia attached to strings of Ethereum blockchain code that the art world has recently become obsessed with — function on scarcity. The format imposes a sense of scarcity on what was once an environment of relative abundance, the internet. A few years ago, for example, the Nyan Cat meme, a Pop Tart-enclosed kitten flying through space emitting a rainbow, was available for everyone to post, share, and remix at will. But now, a single GIF of Nyan Cat “remastered” by its original artist was sold for around $500,000 to an anonymous collector on the NFT platform Foundation.
That version of Nyan Cat has value because it is scarce: There is only one of it, a fact ensured by that attendant Ethereum chain, which lays somewhere between a proof of purchase and the edition number that a more traditional artist might write on a screenprint alongside their signature, number one out of 100. Only one person can own that Nyan Cat, which gives it in some aspect the same irreplaceable status as Michelangelo’s Pieta or the Mona Lisa. The GIF can be copied over and over again, but the NFT art-object is limited: It could move to the possession of other collectors or a museum, where it might be put on display to awe viewers with its perceived status as the ur-Nyan Cat, the single official version.
Yet as the hype has mounted, with multi-million-dollar auction sales and famous artists jumping into the arena, NFTs have also brought into question the relationship between art and scarcity. Is singularity what gives art its value? When we look at the Pieta, carved out of marble by the artist’s hands in 1498, what we marvel at is the graceful drama of the clothing folds and the grief portrayed by the figures, the stone made soft. Encountering it in person, we can examine its intricate detail and feel the weight of its presence with our bodies, what Walter Benjamin called the aura of the work of art. What we marvel at when looking at a NFT artwork — versus a downloaded copy, say, which is otherwise identical — is the chain that’s attached, the proof of ownership. In essence, we gawp at its price tag.
The price tag isn’t everything. Some artists are using NFTs not as an end in themselves, a monetization method, but a new kind of material and a way to get pieces produced that otherwise wouldn’t be. Nicolas Sassoon has previously turned his digital animations into physical sculptures and prints on paper, but the format of the NFT is a more natural outgrowth of the work — like the one-of-a-kind hazy, rotating silhouettes of suburban houses he has been creating on the NFT platform Super Rare. “I definitely think of them as different works than prints or other editions,” Sassoon said. “99 percent of the time, my work starts as a digital animation or sketch, so it feels much more fluid to distribute my work within that realm, rather than print it.” I asked him if he kept any equivalent of artist proofs for NFTs, but he didn’t see any need for it: “The work can be simultaneously posted on my website and also for sale on a NFT platform. The concept of ownership and scarcity is very different in that regard.”
When you buy a NFT, what you are buying is more of a deed of ownership than the artwork itself, since it can continue to freely circulate without any loss in quality. That deed will continue to be monetarily valuable as long as there is demand on a platform that supports it and the Ethereum blockchain remains viable. (In that case, even if the deed is worthless, the artwork will still be accessible.) Yet the enduring value of a NFT might not be the token alone but what its price enables.
Sterling Crispin, an artist who often produces physical sculptures using technological material and digital aesthetics, is launching a NFT that serves as the blueprint for a physical sculpture. As a NFT, “Entropy Extropy” is a sketch of a sculpture that pairs a found tree root with a fabricated metal copy. The sale of the NFT will kick off the production of the sculpture, and the two are meant to stay together, according to Crispin; the auction begins at 3 Ethereum, or about $4,700, which the artist based on the production and shipping cost of the work. “I think the NFT is both a proposal and then provenance for ownership of the physical artwork in this case,” Crispin said. “That’s part of why I wanted to emphasize they stay together.” For him, the difference is clear: “The rendering of the NFT itself isn’t a full execution of the artwork.”
Artists with big sales records might have a gallery or collector finance the production of a work in advance, but less established artists don’t have that option. NFTs provide a shortcut — like an initial public offering, they can raise money to create a work or simply provide a living. “Being able to propose an idea and find out if there’s a buyer before you spend thousands of dollars on fabrication is amazing,” Crispin said.
Art creates value in different ways. It might be sheer visual beauty, as in the case of Michelangelo, or it might be in the breadth of a beautiful idea, like the work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, which can be repeated without cheapening its effects. Or it lays in the work’s relationship to its era and societal shifts, like Andy Warhol’s screenprinted paintings. The value of the work of art never lays in its price tag alone — or at least that’s a kind of awe that rarely lasts long.
For centuries, the concept of scarcity of Western art was not so much a choice as a default: There could only be one oil painting or one marble sculpture because perfect reproduction was impossible. In digital spaces, however, perfect reproduction is the default and scarcity has to be imposed through blockchain-based platforms like Foundation, Rarible, or Zora. In the case of the Nyan Cat GIF, or Beeple’s $6.6 million video, scarcity doesn’t emerge from the material facts of the artwork but from an appendage, like a Plexiglas vitrine.
Plexiglas vitrines often make art look better, but they don’t make the art. What brings value is the artwork within the ecosystem, not the imposed scarcity of a NFT. And without the former, the latter is meaningless.