Non-fungible tokens in the art world: revolution or disillusion?

NFTs or non-fungible tokens are digital objects that represent a thing, for example a work of art, a video, or even a tweet. Their particularity is to certify the existence and ownership of this thing through a data record on a chain of blocks (a distributed and secure digital ledger).

Since the emergence of NFTs in 2016, many artists have experimented with this new digital device to market their creations. NFTs are most often bought and resold via auction sites, where payments are made in cryptocurrency (such as Ether currency). It is this notion of a certificate recorded on a chain of blocks that distinguishes the NFT from a standard digital work.

But the least we can say is that the public and media discourse about NFTs is polarizing: for the most enthusiastic, NFTs represent the future of art, while for their detractors, they are a vast rip off and a waste of energy.

How to characterize this NFT phenomenon? To what extent does he upset the established codes of contemporary art?

I propose to make a brief review of the situation as a researcher specializing in media studies and the sociology of culture.

Crypto-evangelists and crypto-skeptics

On one side, there is a pole that can be described as crypto-evangelist : that is to say, a set of discourses that present NFTs as a new revolution that will radically change everything.

This is the talk surrounding the sensational sale of a work by the artist Beeple (a collage of vignettes created by digital software) at the prestigious auction house Christie’s, for nearly 70 million US dollars in 2021. According to them two main buyers of this work, it would be “emblematic of a revolution in progress”, and would mark “the beginning of a movement carried by a whole generation”.

On the other side, we find the crypto-skepticism. This is the position of Hito Steyerl, widely recognized artist in media arts. She believes that NFTs owe their development to the “worst actors” who exploit the insecurity of creators, in addition to monopolizing resources and attention by creating a toxic environment.

This polarization means that the real potential of NFTs, just like their flaws, which are also very real, tend to be eclipsed by often caricatural positions of principle. However, there exists in this ecosystem of NFTs a set of rich and plural artistic practices.

Emerging creative scenes

The NFT format is definitely a new form of object to be exchanged. It is based on a new type of contract (called “smart”), itself resulting from the innovation of blockchain technology. In this, the NFT format has sparked the emergence of a new creative scene. Or rather scenes in the plural, characterized by great effervescence – and by certain contradictions.

The scenes natives of the NFT format, that is to say born with the invention of this format, are characterized by high media visibility, a huge volume of financial investment, and, for some of its players, a desire to reshuffle the cards of the art world by criticizing its established order.

A large part of the creators of NFT come from a practice of 3D modelling, graphic design, animation or video game design. In other words, from the creative industries sector. This sector has generated in recent decades a very large pool of skills, including creative surplus finds in the NFT format a mode of expression. But also a source of additional income to cope with the conditions of creative work, which are often precarious.

Very many figures of the native NFT scenes are, to use the English term of the sociologist H. Beckerof the underdogs (of the laymen) compared to the established art worlds. That is, they socialize in circles other than the institutional art world, and they break the rules in many ways.

A more equal art world?

The discourse of the main buyers of Beeple’s sensational work is very enlightening in this sense. In interview given to the magazine SlateMetaKovan and Twobadour (two investors from the crypto world, of Indian origin) make the following statements:

We have been conditioned, from an early age, to think that art is not for us. […] We have always been against the idea of ​​exclusivity. Metaverse is all inclusive. […] A metaverse in which everyone will have the same rights, powers, will be legitimate. […] It is particularly egalitarian.

But between the discourse of egalitarianism that is advocated here, and its implementation in the projects of these two investors, there are major contradictions. For example, at the tech art event Dreamverse which they organized in New York in 2021, the entrance price to the evening varied between $175 and $2,500 US. An inaccessible cost for many amateurs. This hierarchy of prices tends to reproduce a logic of exclusivity for the wealthiest.

Chilly museums

The gap between the market valuation of NFTs and their museum valuation is unprecedented. The first is reaching unparalleled heights, while the other is still hitting rock bottom. Indeed, the collection of NFT by museums remains, to this day, a very marginal practice. Only a handful of NFTs are incorporated into museum collections. Some are acquired following an exhibition in a museum, where they are presented on digital screens hung on the wall.

One of the factors of this lack of cultural legitimacy is due to the process of disintermediation (elimination of intermediaries) and reintermediation (introduction of new intermediaries) which characterizes the world of NFT. That is to say that in its disruptive momentum (changing everything, reshuffling the cards), the proclaimed “revolution” of NFTs cut itself off from a chain of well-established legitimate intermediaries: gallery owners, curators, art critics. art, conventional collectors, public funders.

It replaced them with new intermediaries – in the first place, “whales”: in other words investors who made their fortunes in cryptocurrency, or even celebrities from the world of popular culture. These new intermediaries overinvest in financial capital the production of NFT, with the aim of gaining a position of prestige as collectors, or of enriching themselves by increasing the value of the works. But they very often lack the social capital and the cultural capital to find an access route to museums, their exhibition spaces and their collections.

In search of legitimacy

These works are however accessible to the public, since all the NFTs are freely consultable on the electronic portfolio of their purchasers. Some collectors buy works just to speculate. Others gain visibility by exposing their NFTs in a metaverse (a virtual world) like Decentralandone of the best known, or Spacea newcomer.

And for still others, the quest for legitimacy goes further: in the spring of 2022, a group of artists, art curators, collectors and NFT platforms organized a Decentral Art Pavilionin parallel with the Venice Biennale in 2022. Remaining outside the official program, the exhibition aimed to position the NFTs in the orbit of this unmissable event for contemporary art.

But the presence of NFTs remained marginal in this edition of the biennial. Only the flag of cameroon exhibited NFTs under the supervision of a commissioner sulphurous reputationwith a disappointing result (lack of consistency, neglected attachment).

The recognition of NFTs by the world of consecrated art will perhaps pass rather by side roads, like the more experimental practices presented at the documenta from Kassel this year (another flagship event for contemporary art), or the demands of artists from developing countries, such as the project Balotwhich uses the NFT format to criticize the appropriation of a work from the Congo by an American museum.

A recognition by the margins therefore, but in the latter cases, these are margins that are more easily integrated by the established art milieu, because they share its codes.

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Non-fungible tokens in the art world: revolution or disillusion?

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