By Jack Walker - Philosophy Student @ Churchill College, Cambridge
If you spend any degree of time on the internet, you will likely have heard of NFTs or non-fungible tokens. You don’t need to be an expert on NFTs to get at the key issues surrounding their use.
NFTs serve as receipts on a blockchain for transactions where someone buys a digital file. This allows for a public record showing which one is the notional ‘original’ even if many indistinguishable copies exist. Although there are many problems surrounding NFTs, this article will focus on the aesthetic issues that come with these tokens. For a more detailed picture, check out Dan Olson’s video referenced below.
Importantly, NFTs themselves aren’t art. Rather, they typically represent ownership of pieces of digital art and have been purchased for astounding prices in the past year. Some of the most valuable NFT collections include CryptoPunks and Bored Ape Yacht Club. Given their close ties to digital art, we might reasonably wonder what NFTs are contributing to our aesthetic culture.
Defenders of NFTs often claim that they are good for the art world in general and artists in particular. By creating artificial scarcity, they hope to give digital artists a way to financially support themselves even though their art can be easily copied. However, this seems hard to square with the fact that most of the value of NFTs is generated through the rampant speculation and hype surrounding the space. This means that the system tends to favour the already privileged who are able to artificially create buzz around their projects.
It is also hard to get past just how ugly many popular NFT projects are. This goes beyond the fact that NFTs are often deliberately grotesque or exist only to reference internet memes. Whilst the appreciation of art is largely subjective, there is a clear consensus that NFTs are generally pretty aesthetically uninspiring. This shouldn’t be surprising given that many NFTs are created by algorithms putting layers on a generic base model to generate unique combinations. In this sense, the mass-produced nature of NFTs, often created in batches of 10,000, seems to work against the genuine creativity that we typically expect to be present in ‘good art’.
Yet, most of the people stumping up huge sums of money to buy NFTs hardly seem interested in the aesthetic qualities of the art they come to own. Undoubtedly, this is mostly because they are simply hoping that their purchase will appreciate in value. In this sense, NFTs exist simply as an investment like any other, with no intrinsic importance to the owner beyond the fact that the ‘line goes up'.
However, this isn’t the whole story. The hardcore devotees often seem more interested in being a part of a like-minded community than simply making money. Indeed, we may be making a mistake if we insist on analysing NFTs as a primarily aesthetic project. As JJ Charlesworth puts it, ‘Trying to apply art world standards to some NFTs is missing the point. A lot of the NFT market is based on collectables and there’s always been a visual culture in collecting – from comics, to trainers, baseball cards – that is very mainstream.’
Finally, we might also wonder about the relationship between NFTs and more traditional forms of art focused on the creation of physical artefacts. Although many traditional artists have been anxious to do so, it seems more difficult than we might expect to draw a hard line between the two. We might argue that as the art world has moved away from formalism in favour of more conceptual works, pieces have also become highly dependent upon hype and approval from critics to determine their value and therefore their worth as art.
Indeed, is it not the case that many of those who invest in physical pieces of art are doing so in order to enter into a community of sorts? Just as purchasing an NFT can serve primarily to project something about your character and values, can’t the same sometimes be said of someone who buys a painting?
The core takeaway here is that NFTs help reveal that questions about the nature and purpose of art will never be straightforward. Instead, they will be steeped in layers of cultural meaning that are important for us to be conscious of.
1. ‘Why are NFTs so Ugly?’ by Solar Sands on YouTube
2. ‘Line Goes Up - The Problem With NFTs’ by Folding Ideas on YouTube
3. ‘The Philosophy of Digital Art’ in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy