Is NFT art good?

Illustration by Mengxin Li / The Verge

An art critic takes stock of the tokenized digital aesthetic

The current state of NFT art can best be described as “visual dog shit,” argued artist and provocateur Brad Troemel in a recent Instagram slideshow. No one really cares what these images look like, Troemel said, as long as they can be produced quickly in large quantities, while also avoiding risky artistic gestures that could alienate crypto bros.

“The defining production method for all NFTs is that they are automatically generated as a batch of hundreds or thousands of images to be sold at the same time,” Troemel wrote, a strategy he says was developed to “make many people as few as possible.”

Looking at the viral hype-driven NFT collections, it’s easy to see what he means. The biggest NFT series are usually procedurally generated cartoons with variations on a theme: a monkey with sunglasses, a monkey with a gold chain, and so on. These characters are more like intellectual property than art. Like Pikachu or Baby Yoda, they can be endlessly exploited for their recognizability without having to offer us anything new.

This is a common frustration in the art world. Strictly economically, NFTs are the biggest thing that’s happened to the art markets in a long time – but most of them are so tacky that they’d be more interesting if they were active and aggressively ugly. When investors spend huge sums for a valued token, they usually buy bragging rights, more like a rare Fortnite skin than an object of beauty.

But it doesn’t always work that way. Literally anything can be an NFT, even a physical object, as long as it is tagged to a token on the blockchain. And if you look closer, you’ll find a lot of really interesting digital art that has been written off due to general NFT depletion.

The critic and curator Tina Rivers Ryan, one of the foremost historians of digital art, told me that it is important to discern different tendencies in the NFT space. There is what she calls blockchain art, these are projects that not only use the blockchain, but actively explore its boundaries to make us think about concepts like value, ownership and authenticity (this is the stuff she finds most exciting ). Then there’s crypto art, a term she uses for art that celebrates cryptocurrency and its subcultures — “illustrations of you know, Elon Musk with red laser eyes, or giant gold bitcoins spinning in space.”

Then there’s everything else, most of which isn’t blockchain art or crypto art. “I would simply call it digital art, or digital design, that has been tokenized to be bought and sold,” she explains.

Cryptopunk #5822which sold for over $23 million in February

Projects with profile pictures (PFPs) like Bored Ape Yacht Club usually fall into the digital design category, and my problem with them isn’t that they’re repetitive, or even formal. Mark Rothko painted the same window-like abstractions in different colors and configurations for over twenty years. Warhol proudly screen-printed his celebrity paintings on an industrial scale with the least amount of effort – hence the name of his headquarters, the factory. But unlike PFPs, Rothko and Warhol’s work rewards contemplation. For Rothko, the color field format was his way of triggering a state of transcendent self-examination, as the paintings resist interpretation in a way that directs the viewer’s consciousness back to itself. Warhol, meanwhile, applied industrial logic to visual art in a way that made people completely rethink what makes an object valuable or beautiful.

What makes CryptoPunk #5822 special? Not its visceral presence, nor its clever meta-commentary, but the fact that it belongs to the rarest batch in a collection of 10,000 NFTs. CryptoPunks play on nostalgia for low-bit graphics and, like many other PFPs, gamers’ penchant for character customization. But to understand a work of art, you have to look closely and try to figure out what you like and dislike, and what stories it might be trying to tell you. Differentiating one CryptoPunk or Bored Ape from another asks nothing of you; it can be done at a glance, in passing, without ever stopping to ask how you feel. It provides the illusion of discernment without actually being asked to discern, in a real way, who you are and what is important to you.

A still from Replicator

There are still plenty of NFTs that make me itch even just perusing the bestsellers list. Short video of Mad Dog Jones Replicator, which sold $4.1 million in a Phillips auction in April 2021, is indicative of an NFT trend I call the “moodpiece”: a scene that’s static, but with a handful of animated elements. These animations are usually non-intrusive and relaxing – think of the Lofi girl with the headphones studying at her desk. On paper, the scene is depicted in Replicator couldn’t be more inconspicuous: a copier in a high-rise office after hours flashes to life and starts doing its thing, then shuts down again. But the neo-noir shades and glow-stick hues of the office equipment create an atmosphere that’s interesting because it’s so inscrutable: a little cozy, a little sinister, as if the quiet scene is hiding a secret. Meanwhile, the copier—this dinosaur beeping toward aging—works late, unloved; it seems to stare longingly out the window to contemplate the countless other lives it could have led. This is a piece about alienation, nostalgia – and ultimately death.

It is interesting to note that the work also has a conceptual element, namely that the NFT itself generates unique variations of itself, mimicking the copier in some way. While I’m not entirely convinced it works (how can the artist assure that random variations even produce the desired effect?), it’s an interesting use of the technological function.

Pak’s NFT the pixel, which sold for $1.36 million, builds on a time-honored tradition in conceptual art, namely something most people wouldn’t consider art and call it art. (You could call this trolling.) In this case, it’s something a single gray pixel, minted as an NFT and put up for sale. What I like about the pixel is the continuity with the great monochrome rectangles of art history, beginning in 1913 with black square by Kazimir Malevich (sometimes called the “zero point of painting”); going back to the post-war period, when Yves Klein painted with his signature ultramarine blue; and moved on to the minimalist Robert Ryman, whose white-on-white paintings eliminated color and depth of field to focus purely on texture and light. The funny thing is, even 110 years after Melovich’s black squarePassing on a monochromatic rectangle as art is still a great way to cause scandal. “The Pixel” is also provocative in the sense that it is extremely difficult to display, as one pixel is so small that it is barely visible. If you blow it up to visible size, it’s no longer a pixel, which invalidates the whole conceit.

Predated NFT/Cryptokitty Display Hardware Wallet Replica (Celestial Cyber ​​Dimension) by Simon Denny.

There are also more provocative instances of what Tina Rivers Ryan considers blockchain art. Berlin-based contemporary artist Simon Denny, who represented his native New Zealand at the 2015 Venice Biennale, was one of the first established artists to speculate on the social implications of technology. his project Predated NFT/Cryptokitty Display Hardware Wallet Replica (Celestial Cyber ​​Dimension) challenges a fundamental principle of cryptoculture, which is that tokenization of a particular asset certifies it as unique and immutable forever. The problem is that the digital image or video in question is usually too large to be stored on the blockchain, so the token points to a URL where the file is stored on the open web. “This means that the digital assets that a blockchain entry points to can be changed,” Denny told the magazine Flash art in January 2022. “For example, you can paste another image into the URL hosting the original image. So that’s exactly what I did.” By buying older tokens and pointing them to different media, a process he calls “hijacking,” he revealed the limits of sustainability that should distinguish blockchain from other forms of archiving.

These three examples couldn’t be more different in genre, but in their own way they each invite the viewer to think about a mystery. What makes this sterile white-collar scene so tragic? Does a pixel you can’t even see qualify as a work of art? Will our data ever really be permanent? Art doesn’t have to be pompous or difficult to grasp to be worthwhile, but it should at least make you think about something you thought you knew, if only a sunrise or a field of flowers. And when the collectible PFPs go the way of the Beanie Baby, the long-standing movement of artists using technology to make people think will still be tinkering here.

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