How do we give value to something that doesn’t actually exist?
The recent NFT boom has my attention. As the result of binary code translated through technology and into a visual form, digital art was never of particular interest to me. NFTs caught my attention not because of any particular interest in digital art, but because of what it means to be assigning value to intangible objects.
I’m going to skip the part where I explain what a Non-Fungible Token (NFT) is, because you’ll find dozens of articles explaining it better than I can (here, here, here, and here). If you’re like me, at first it won’t make much sense. On the surface, it’s a puzzling phenomenon where people are spending surprising amounts of money on something that doesn’t exist outside of the computer screen (okay, there is room for conceptual interpretation here).
NFTs claim greater transparency than the “real” art world, but with artists and buyers being more or less anonymous and operating without much regulation, that idea is up for debate. The NFT market is mostly a whole network operating under code names on the internet and primarily focused on selling digital tokens. The accessibility of the NFT marketplace has attracted many artists who want to cash in, as well as a trove of brand new players jumping in and expanding the bubble. In fact, some of these new players never even considered themselves artists before.
The value of an artwork is often tied directly to that artist’s story, made up of their lives and artistic careers, positioned within the greater context of art history. An artist’s work selling at exceptional prices rarely happens overnight. By now we’ve all heard about the $69.3 million jpeg made by Mike Winkleman, who goes by the name Beeple. The jpeg is titled The First 5,000 Days, which depicts 5,000 images he made over 13 years. Sure, his more recent political commentary debatably has its merits, but did the buyer of that multi-million dollar jpeg collage know that a number of the included images were racist, misogynist, homophobic, or just plain bad? Would they even care?
Putting the quality of any given work aside, a lack of reverence for the implications of that artist within the greater context of visual culture tells me that it’s not actually about art at…