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

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 blockchain (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 usually bought and resold through auction sites, where payments are made in cryptocurrency (such as Ether). It is this idea 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: to the most enthusiastic, NFTs represent the future of art, while to their detractors they are a huge rip off and a waste of energy.

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

I propose to give a brief overview of the situation as a researcher specializing in media studies and cultural sociology.

Crypto Evangelists and Crypto Skeptics

On the one hand, there is a pole that can be described as: crypto evangelist : that is, a series of treatises presenting NFTs as a new revolution that will radically change everything.

This is the talk surrounding the sensational sale of a work by artist Beeple (a collage of vignettes created by digital software) at the prestigious auction house Christie’s, for nearly $70 million in 2021. According to the two main buyers of this work, it would ” symbolize an on-going revolution”, and would “mark the beginning of a movement carried by an entire generation”.

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

This polarization means that the real potential of NFTs, like their flaws, which are also very real, tend to be overshadowed by often caricatured positions of principle. However, a range of rich and multiple artistic practices exist in this ecosystem of NFTs.

Emerging creative scenes

The NFT format is certainly a new form of exchangeable objects. It is based on a new type of contract (called “smart”), which itself is the result of the innovation of blockchain technology. In this, the NFT format has fueled the emergence of a new creative scene. Or rather scenes in the plural, characterized by a great effervescence – and by certain contradictions.

the scenes natives of the NFT format, that is, born with the invention of this format, are characterized by high visibility in the media, a huge amount of financial investment and, for some of its players, the desire to redefine the maps of the art world shaken by criticism of the established order.

Many of the creators of NFT come from a practice of 3D modeling, graphic design, animation, or video game design. Or from the creative industry. This sector has spawned a very large pool of skills in recent decades, the creative surplus of which finds expression in the NFT format. But also a source of extra income to cope with the often precarious conditions of creative work.

Many figures of the native scenes of the NFT are, to use the sociologist H. Becker’s English term, underdogs (of the laity) 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 startling work is very illuminating in that sense. In an interview with the magazine SlateMetaKovan and Twobadour (two investors from the crypto world, of Indian origin) make the following statements:

We have been conditioned from childhood 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 very egalitarian.

But between the discourse of egalitarianism advocated here, and its implementation in the projects of these two investors, there are major contradictions. For example at the tech art event dream verse which they hosted in New York in 2021, the entrance fee for the evening ranged 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 richest.

Cold Museums

The gap between the market valuation of NFTs and their museum valuation is unprecedented. The first reaches unprecedented heights, while the other still hits the bottom. Indeed, collecting NFT by museums remains a very fringe practice to this day. Only a handful of NFTs are included in museum collections. Some were acquired for 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) that characterize the world of NFT. That is, in its disruptive momentum (changing everything, rearranging the cards), the heralded “revolution” of NFTs cut itself off from a chain of established legitimate middlemen: gallery owners, curators, art critics. art, conventional collectors, public financiers.

It replaced them with new middlemen – primarily “whales”: in other words, investors who made their fortunes in cryptocurrency, or even celebrities from the world of popular culture. These new intermediaries invest too much in financial capital for the production of NFT, with the aim of gaining a prestige position as a collector, or enriching themselves by increasing the value of the works. But they often lack the social capital and cultural capital to find an entry way to museums, their exhibition spaces and their collections.

Looking for legitimacy

However, these works are accessible to the public, as all NFTs are freely accessible on the electronic portfolio of their purchasers. Some collectors buy works to speculate. Others gain visibility by exposing their NFTs to a metaverse (a virtual world) such as Decentraland, one of the best known, or Space, a newcomer.

And for still others, the search for legitimacy continues: in the spring of 2022, a group of artists, art curators, collectors and NFT platforms organized a Decentral Art Pavilion, alongside the Venice Biennale in 2022. Outside the official program, the exhibition remains focused on positioning the NFTs in the orbit of this unmissable event for contemporary art.

But the presence of NFTs remained marginal in this edition of the biennale. Only the Cameroon Pavilion exhibited NFTs led by a curator with a sulphurous reputation, with disappointing results (lack of consistency, neglected hanging).

Recognition of NFTs by the world of sacred art may be more likely to go sideways, such as the more experimental practices showcased at this year’s documenta in Kassel (another flagship of contemporary art), or the claims made by artists from developing countries, such as the Balot project, which uses the NFT format to criticize the appropriation of a work from Congo by an American museum.

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

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