Consider this: Art no longer requires a physical presence to activate its “aura.” Back in the 1930s, philosopher Walter Benjamin famously wrote about the aura of an artwork, which had to be experienced in person, could not be replicated, and was inexorably linked to the work’s provenance, as well as to the so-called “cult rituals” associated with its existence. These cult rituals started in caves, moved into churches and then broke off into secular spaces like the cinema, stadiums, and other mainstream arenas. Fast forward to now, and social media has emerged as a new altar for cult rituals — on a scale that literally transcends both time and space.
More people now experience art digitally, via smartphones and their social media feeds, than in person. Often, what is perceived is not the art itself, but a simulacrum. And yet, the simulacrum has the power to transform the original art object. Like Baudrillard said, the simulacrum is real.
The aura, as Benjamin described it, has been digitized. This process of cultural dematerialization has been underway for decades, but the recent implosion of NFTs as a collectible artform — and, yes, as a speculative asset class — is also really just the result of pure circumstance.
Simply stated, the “unprecedented times” of the 2020s — the social, economic, and, of course, technological conditions of our current zeitgeist — lit the match that made the NFT molotov cocktail explode.
In 2017, the same year the first NFT was invented by an artist and a tech entrepreneur during a hackathon spearheaded by the New Museum in New York, a widely-circulated article published by The Economist announced that data had replaced oil as the world’s most valuable resource. Three years later, a glitch in the natural world’s ecosystem went bezerk, resulting in the global coronavirus pandemic that has — to date — killed more than six million people and locked down entire cities, and even countries, for months at a time.
The lockdowns had two immediate effects — demand for gasoline dropped off a cliff, and our reliance on data skyrocketed. Covid data visualizations and dashboards published online by the World Health Organization, Johns Hopkins University and other institutions became our digital divining rod, telling us each day if we should be afraid, or brave, or hopeful, or morose.
In response to social isolation mandates, humanity’s screen time hit an all-time high. The black mirror became a cybernetic lifeline, permitting our species to still organize and cooperate — to get on with the business of existence — despite the absence of in-person contact.
In 2021, as the pandemic wreaked havoc, the United States watched in utter shock as a heavily-armed mob attacked the capitol — all live streamed by the mob itself on social media. Social media is also where said mob was recruited, organized, and effectively deployed by the then-President (who, it bears mentioning, was arguably elected thanks to Russian-controlled social media weaponization). The spectacle of society, as described by Guy Debord, had reached a historic fever pitch, catalyzed by networked data.
Just a few months later, Christie’s auction house sold a jpeg file by an artist named Beeple for $69 million, sparking the media blitz and market frenzy around NFTs. Literally overnight, digital art became mainstream news and Beeple became the third most expensive living artist, after David Hockney and Jeff Koons (not bad for a guy based in South Carolina who had never even exhibited in a traditional white cube gallery before.)
The Beeple auction announced a new era of the art market and, by extension, a new era of cultural production. Art reflects — and critiques — the values of the society in which it is produced. Bits, bytes, data and technology have proven themselves of paramount value in the 21st century. In truth, the ascendent digital art market owes a great debt to the coronavirus pandemic.
The titans of 20th century industry — those same patrons who previously made headlines with their big-ticket art purchases — are now being challenged by tech and crypto billionaires. This new money class not only possesses a different aesthetic, it generally holds different social and political values than its predecessors. Tech money also understands “material” differently, i.e., Zuckerberg is the new Carnegie, and data is the new steel.
“In Code We Trust”
NFTs (non-fungible tokens) are essentially digital certificates of authenticity that include “smart contracts” — sets of pre-programmed conditions that must be met in order to execute a transaction between two parties. Before blockchain and cryptocurrency, a 3rd party intermediary — such as a bank, or an auction house — was generally required to conduct said transaction. The fact that Christie’s inserted themselves in the Beeple transaction was not in keeping with the original spirit of a blockchain-backed NFT sale, but it was a relatively predictable move for one of the world’s oldest businesses.
Blockchain’s genesis mission was to enable peer-to-peer transactions with public transparency, personal anonymity, cryptographic security, and perpetual immutability. The NFT, a digital token associated with the “wallet” of a user, can be applied to an asset — digital or physical — and traded on the blockchain. NFTs authenticate ownership and scarcity (i.e., edition size) of their underlying asset, digital or otherwise.
Thus, the provenance of said asset is indelibly recorded on a digital public ledger (the blockchain) that, due to its “distributed” nature as a network maintained by many different nodes, is theoretically impervious to both hackers and widespread system failure. In theory, the blockchain will never “go down,” because there are hundreds of computers maintaining it at any given time.
These nodes are incentivized to maintain the blockchain through the cryptocurrency they are awarded by successfully mining a block. Mining a block basically just means that a node has solved the math problem faster than the other nodes and thereby added a “block,” or series of transactions to the blockchain.
The smart contract programmed into the NFT means that the creator of said asset can collect resale royalties on that asset in perpetuity. For digital artists, who had never really had any meaningful access to the art market before, the advent of the NFT is nothing less than an event horizon of incalculable magnitude. According to the most recent Art Basel and UBS Art Market Report, the average NFT is traded on the secondary market within 33 days, unlike traditional fine art, which the report’s authors calculated had an average resale period of more than ten years.
NFTs have created a new commodity, a new marketplace, and a new class system. Blockchain/cryptocurrency/NFT evangelists believe that these emerging technologies will lead to the total democratization of essentially everything. No more intermediaries, 3rd party regulators, or even bad actors trying to overtake the network for personal gain. They have been algorithmically filtered out, in theory, by complex math problems whose solutions require a greater energy expenditure than the average European household uses in a month.
In fact, a recent study found that the carbon footprint created by Bitcoin transactions in 2021 alone could be responsible for “around 19,000 future deaths.” This is due to the Co2 emissions created by the consensus protocol first introduced by Satoshi Nakamoto, the anonymous inventor of Bitcoin, which requires significant computational energy to execute.
Nakamoto originally designed the blockchain so that the math problems that nodes must compete to solve could only be correctly calculated every ten minutes. That is obviously not efficient at all (imagine if every time you swipe your credit card, it takes 10 minutes to process) and is also impossible to scale.
Every node, or computer (or miner, or whatever term you choose), has to complete a “proof of work” and solve the math problem in order to “mine a block” and add its transactions to the chain, receiving a cryptocurrency reward for doing so. They also needed a bit of luck to solve the equation, as an element of randomness was built into the system. So, it’s also sort of like gambling. Fun, right?
In Nakamoto’s Bitcoin whitepaper, published in 2008 and only eight pages long, this “proof of work” protocol was touted as the solution to one of computation’s most complicated and long-standing issues, known as the Byzantine Generals Problem. In summary, a 21st century digital protocol that’s been touted as a “new society” boils down to a military “game theory” riddle: How can Generals trust each other in order to execute a common goal? Spoiler alert: They can’t.
Trust is therefore programmed into a system as a series of conditional parameters that require each stakeholder to sacrifice some of their own “power” (in this case, computational energy) in order to reach consensus and ensure the success of the larger mission — the “greater good” as it were. And yet, we’ve repeatedly seen that hackers have been able to break into cryptographically secure “wallets” (including Beeple’s, ironically), copy NFTs, transfer them into other wallets, and then demand cryptocurrency ransom to return them.
So, while the NFT gold rush has certainly created some instant millionaires, it’s also a deeply flawed system that doesn’t live up to its ideals (sort of like the art market, itself).
A recent article in the New York Times with the headline “How ‘Trustless’ Is Bitcoin, Really?” discussed the work of data scientist Alyssa Blackburn, whose research on blockchain and the ur-cryptocurrency discovered that, rather than a widespread network, only 64 nodes controlled the majority of mining and, “on many occasions, just one or two people held most of the mining power.” According to her findings, “within a few months of the cryptocurrency’s introduction — and contrary to Bitcoin’s egalitarian promise — a classic distribution of income inequality emerged: A small fraction of the miners held most of the wealth and power.” So much for utopia.
Today, there are many different blockchains and “para-chains,” and there are many different types of cryptocurrencies. NFTs were introduced to the masses via the Ethereum blockchain, which uses the cryptocurrency Ether. Ethereum was also originally programmed to run on a proof of work (PoW) protocol, however, an uproar from eco-conscious users aghast at the carbon footprint of PoW has pressured the network to adopt a new consensus protocol, known as proof of stake, which they plan to launch sometime this summer. Proof of stake (PoS) allegedly requires 99.9% less energy than proof of work, but it’s also not a perfect solution to the environmental crisis plaguing the mass adoption of blockchain, crypto, and NFTs.
Digital Art and the New Political Stage
As I type this essay from the comfort of my couch, Ukrainian citizens are desperately — and heroically — fighting for their lives against an onslaught of Russian invaders intent to destroy them. The war has been raging now for more than 100 days, cities have been reduced to smoldering ash, and more than 7 million Ukrainian civilians have fled their homes.
The Ukrainians, however, are not backing down. Against all odds, they’ve been racking up victories — but also weathering terrible losses. Like the Trump mob’s coup attempt in the US, this political spectacle is being live streamed — like a David vs. Goliath reality show — but with very real casualties, trauma, devastation, death and despair.
Ukraine’s embattled president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has leveraged every means of defense to expel the Russians, but it’s his command of the digital stage and his social media strategy that has given his country a surprising advantage. While Russians are being subjected to hardcore pro-Putin propogranda that has labeled this war “a liberation” operation, Zelensky is recruiting support on an unprecedented scale, from the palm of his hand and without leaving his troops. Meanwhile, Putin appears sickly, bloated, potentially terminally ill. The optics bolster the narrative — the folk hero underdog going round for round against the oligarch villain — all of which makes the spectacle even more sensational.
If art sometimes seems frivolous — an investment vehicle for the super rich, or a bourgeois navel-gazing pastime — look to Russia, and to Cuba, and to other places where artists are political prisoners, and reconsider. Pussy Riot, the feminist political collective whose members have been imprisoned for criticizing Putin, standing up for LBGTQ+ rights, sewing in public, and performing punk rock on Kremlin buildings, among other “crimes,” exemplifies the power of art — and the threat it can pose in an oppressive society.
When the war first broke out, Nadya Tolokonnikova, one of the Pussy Riot members who has spent years in prison, created an artwork to benefit the Ukraine resistance and auctioned it off online to the highest bidder. It ultimately sold for over $7 million dollars. It was a jpeg image composed of two colors, blue and yellow, the Ukrainian flag.
This is the power of the digital stage, its open-access forums — which transcend geo-political borders and have no nation-state allegiances (or regulations) — and the immaterial economy that is emerging right now.
Nadya obviously made herself a target for Russian authorities (again) by selling her art to benefit their military opponent. Because of cryptocurrency, blockchain, and NFTs, she was able to recruit her cult following and global community to execute an altruistic act of political art activism (and which technically also made her one of history’s most “expensive” female artists, dead or alive).
For cryptocurrency naysayers, consider your government, your banks, your net worth. If you generally trust these institutions and the wealth they steward in your name, consider yourself a lottery winner. Many countries don’t have the luxury of economic stability — for these populations, cryptocurrency is understandably enticing. Nadya points to DAOs — decentralized autonomous organizations that emerged in concert with blockchain — as a historical movement capable of standing up to corrupt regimes and entrenched authoritarian systems.
In Marxist terms, these are the digital proletariats, uniting in a common cause against a gargantuan foe. Just as Marx touted “historical materialism,” we have crossed over into an era of historical dematerialization, in which digital proletariats — “workers” whose own data is mined by social media for profit gain — can rise up through power in numbers, protected by a shield of cryptographic anonymity. This is the utopian dream of blockchain, of Bitcoin — and yes — of NFTs, manifest.
You can’t separate capital from power, and that’s one core mission that cryptocurrency touts as having achieved. After the NFT auction, Nadya wrote via Twitter, “Revolution could not be achieved with conventional currencies, there are too many ways for traditional funds to be intercepted by traditional institutions, governments, other factions with intent to control, harm, simply shift funds without transparency.”
NFTs are a new tool for artists to connect with a new marketplace, a new stage, and a new audience. They are not an end in and of themselves. While technologists work to make blockchain and cryptocurrencies more sustainable and secure, artists will be the ones exploring and experimenting with how best to leverage this new tool for cultural and social progress — and even revolution.
Like almost all new technologies, NFTs are a source of much controversy, skepticism, and even fear. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, for sure, but how you feel about NFTs, blockchain and crypto may be indicative of your role in society, whether you like it or not. Ultimately, throwing the Molotov cocktail is an act of revolution for one side, and an act of violence and destruction for the other: The question is simple, but also complex — what side are you on?
Writer, curator, and artist Emilie Trice (she/her) specializes in conceptual contemporary art and new media. Her writing has been published by The New York Times, The Paris Review, The Brooklyn Academy of Music, Artforum, Artnet, Dazed Digital, Southwest Contemporary and other media outlets. She is currently based in Colorado.