What to do with the NFT rancor?

Jon Burgerman, BERLIN TECHNO CLUB, 2021, NFT, mp4 video using elements of hand drawn oil bar and aerosol work on paper, 00:30 min, Music by Todayidance

By Anika Meier: I don’t know where to start. The fuss about NFTs is heavy, very heavy. Feelings run high everywhere. Crypto collectors are irritated that the art world is not amazed by what is currently achieving astronomical prices and is being traded as art. Beeple, Grimes, Trevor Jones, Fewocious. The art world is very critical regarding the art on NFT Marketplace Nifty Gateway. And media is trying hard to follow up, but it’s is Mission Impossible because because there is always someone with an opinion. Meanwhile there are as many NFT experts as there are experts on Corona. It seems like every minute a celebrity announces an NFT drop. Eminem, Paris Hilton, The Weeknd, Jerry Saltz, Scooter etc. Yes, and now even Hito Steyerl is upset.

But you can fuss around about anything all day anyway: the weather, the boss, the traffic, corona deniers, politicians, Pinky Gloves and bad days. Now it’s the NFTs turn. If you haven't noticed yet, just in case: NFTs are a proof of authenticity for digital files and turn them into originals someone can own. Files as well as pictures can still be copied, shared, and downloaded, but now the file nbelongs to someone. There are also prints and copies, fridge magnets and coffee mugs of the Mona Lisa, and still the original painting isn’t less valuable.

What to do with the NFT rancor? Just let it out, Hito Steyerl thought. You can read her fit of rage in the art magazine Monopol (5/2021). Steyerl herself is amused. Well. She talks about a "bubble for stupid", about "casino madness" and "iditotic one-of-a-kind-propaganda", about clueless collectors and desperate gallery owners. A kind of tcharm-echnology is sold to credulous believers, an art world is imagined in the spirit of cryptocapitalism and the NFTs on sale on the platforms reminds her of the childhood car quartet or a glorified Smurf collection. Smurf appear twice: Climate-damaging bets on digital Smurfs collections are beeing subsidized. Whatever might be going on with the Smurfs, I don’t know. Oh yes, art, of course, nope, no art. “The entire crypto art world is simply a replica of the ugliest parts of the art world, minus the art,” says Steyerl. And virtual worlds like Decentraland and Cryptovoxels consists of standard 3D shopping mall architectures, all of them are nothing but pimped web shops, teleshopping channels and short-term advertising campaigns. This new art world almost lacks of everything, nearly all the artists, art workers, the whole bunch of art critics. But in the meantime, she has good advice at hand, take a deep breath, it’s a constructive blip : The art world shouldn't akt this knalldackelig (means: small dog on speed)– I like the expression–and carry favor with the tech capital. OK. It would be cringeworthy. OK. NFTs, can be made by "every fool in 20 minutes" anyway.

Of course, Steyerl is not alone with her opinion, on the contrary. I don't mean the story of the twenty minutes to become a professional NFT minter, but the at most strict verdict. And of course, she is right, the hype is annoying, just like every hype is. Let’s turn to what's so nerve-wracking about the NFT hype althoug a problem seems to be solved?

AES+F, TURANDOT 2070, LYNX AVATAR, 2021, HD Video, Sound, 00:30 min

TECHNOLOGY

What is this all about? What about this new technology? It’s asked again and again. Everytime something new is condemned so harshly and helplessly dismantled as NFTs are right now, I am remindet of Katrin Passig's essay NEW TECHNOLOGIES, OLD REFLEXES. The title is self-explenatory. The new is always met with the same skepticism, because there is uncertainty and insecurity. Not in the mood for a change, too exhausting.

In her essay, Passig lists the reactions in the media and in private life to technical innovations of the past decades, the pattern is always the same: What is it good for? Who would need something like that? It’s only the strange or privileged minorities who want the new. Maybe it will go away. Nothing has changed. The new is not sufficient. It’s bad for weaker people. Bad manners. Harmful for thinking, writing and reading. According to Passig, it takes five to fifteen years for an innovation to leave predictable criticism behind it.

And yes, the reactions do follow the familiar pattern in this case: What are NFTs good for, please? Who needs NFTs, please? Only the strange (crypto nerds and speculators) want the new. “It is remarkable the cryto art collector have only been 'crypto miners' so far. I haven’t met an art collector yet who has exchanged dollars into crypto currencies in order to buy NFTs for several millions", says Max Hollein, director of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, in an interview with the NZZ. Maybe it will go away, at the latest after the hype, you may think. Media never gets tired of writing about the end of a hype as soon as the sales decline a little bit, as Kenny Schachter states in his Artnet column: “(…) it's all but with relish that the press gleefully notes that the sky is falling on the ubiquitous NFT market, citing a drop in average prices from around $ 4,000 in mid-February to $ 1,500 now.” But NFTs are not going away again, just as the Internet won’t, because NFTs solve a problem. This doesn't change a thing, we have contracts on paper, and paper is much more reliable than anything with technology, and files can be bufferd on USB sticks and be sold. The new is not sufficient, in this case it’s art that’s not even recognized as art. It’s bad for weaker people. Well, at least Hito Steyerl thinks NFTs are as easy to handle as online transfers. Bad manners. Harmful influence. Anyone who sells or buys NFTs doesn’t consider the environment, so the allegation. But more on that later.

The current lack of information is terrifying. People keep uttering, Heaven, that's bad art. Or: art, nope, that's not art at all. But if you ask where those rescuers of fine art did their research, well, if anywhere, on Nifty Gateway. If you didn't stop in front of Beeple’s collage and quickly run away. Back to painting and sculpture, at least whith this you have something tangible as familiar as your own four walls in lockdown. Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic, Jerry Saltz–and one has to give him credit for that–was harshly critical in the first place, but when he looked around intensively on NFT platforms, got himself involved in conversation on social media with the crypto community he revised his opinion. “At the moment it's just the market, and it's so stupid that it only sells what other people in the market have already bought. A dog that eats its own shit–coprophagia. It makes perfect sense that the cannibals at Sotheby’s and Christie’s are keen to shit the fools. They are all just becoming what they already were–anti-art,” he raged on social media. A bit of research later: “I've seen a lot of artists doing strong NFT art. NFT is a tool, a material, a medium. There will be a Francis Bacon or David Hockney of the NFTs. There is already strong NFT art.” As I said, just look around.

By the way, Passig's conclusion is: "If you catch yourself using one of these simple arguments when approving or rejecting an innovation, that is a very good sign the argument will not help the understanding."

Jeremy Bailey, LEANING SCREEN #2, 2021, NFT, Video, 00:36 min

ENVIRONMENT

All those who refer to the energy consumption of NFTs have a great many number of arguments. Justifiably so. NFTS ARE CLIMATE KILLERS titels Ji-Hun Kim column in Monopol. He summarized the results of a research by artist Memo Akten, which have been shared across traditional and social media in the past few weeks. An NFT sale on the Ethereum blockchain, Akten counts 340 kilowatt hours, i.e. CO2 emissions of 136 kilograms. The website CryptoArt.wtf, which displayed how much energy an NFT drop consumes, is no longer online. Akten argues he closed the website because the informations have been misused.

What was going on on social media was at least very uncomfortable. “NFTs are bad for the environment, bro,” is the most friendly posts you can read about pollution. In fact one should answer: Life is bad for the environment. But of course it’s not that easy. And to be that fair, thinks it is. The pressure is on to find a solution for the Ethereum blockchain to reduce electricity consumption in the future with the switch from proof-of-work to proof-of-stake. There are blockchains that are already energy efficient like Flow and Tezos. But on social media fairness is scarce. Meanwhile artists are being gunned down and threatened, as if NFTs were the only environmental we have.

Nobody talks about how often people fly to trade fairs, biennials and exhibition openings anymore and about how art is constantly being transported from continent to continent. The critics believe themselves on the right part of morals and demand the artists to take their side and pease let the NFTs be. It would help a lot if unique copys were sold instead of open collections, to reduce minting a hundred or thousand times. But no difference is made. Because finally an argument against NFTs has been found which should be obvious to everyone.

ART

The art thing is a little more complex. Because it really doesn't have to be obvious to everyone if someone doesn't like NFT xy. Art is a matter of taste, as everyone knows. Let’s google “NFT bad art”, I thought to myself, because it was impossible to meaningfully store all the articles for this essay dealing with NFTs and the decline of art. Google knows the score, the best text on NFTs and bad art actually is written–as often on the topic–by Dean Kissick for Spike. "With NFTs, we've made another leap from art that's easy to post, to art that simply is the post," he writes. And further: “This is an age of great speed and competition. We're all looking for more popularity, new ways to find an edge; and yet, all this competition only seems to lead to blandness and mediocrity, rather than breakthroughs.“ Totally right. Art created to be sold as NFT on one of the marketplaces always takes the logic of the platforms, social media and algorithms into account. Kissick thinks Beeple is pretty boring and unimaginative, he just objects society in a mirror. “Beeple holds a mirror up, without insight or criticality but with an unnerving feel for the contemporary grotesque, to our sci-fi present, in which stars of news and entertainment culture have taken on a messianic quality, with politicians, justices and comic book Characters revered like saints.” Beeples EVERYDAYS is nothing more than than a commentary on current events, if something happens worth commenting on. Like the fly peacfully scrambling on Mike Pence's head. Who generates the best punchline if there is fuzz on the net again? Some tweet, others make memes, Beeple takes a picture. Of course you can be bored with this, but maybe you should think about the context in which art is created, if you need to dismantled it.

Olive Allen, THE OTHER SIDE, 2021, NFT, Video, 00:51 min

Somehow it all reminds of the initiationg of influencer marketing, with a little less money put on stake. After it became clear you can make good money if you have hundreds of thousands followers on Instagram and advertise detox tea, socks or handbags, teenagers were suddenly eager to be like Kim Kardashian and work around with detox tea. After all, it wasn't that easy, because Kim Kardashian already was a brand. And Beeple hasn't been around for five minutes either, but now quite a few think they could be as successful as Beeple in five minutes. Established artists are still holding back, as they did when Instagram was new and selfies and foodies were criticized, like screensavers and gifs now. New platforms create new protagonists who attract a new audience. Like it is with genres in music. Those who trip over Cloud Rap on Spotify and are surprised not all music sounds like classical music, I don’t know. But anyway, there are numerous NFT marketplaces with a diverse program just like galleries or–maybe the better comparison–like trade fairs. I think of Paris Photo and Photo London, what do you think, how many works are really good there? Five? Ten? How many galleries in Berlin, for example, does one go on a regular basis with the expectation every exhibition and every work is the best one has ever seen? Why should it be any different with digital art on the NFT Marketplaces now?

Yes, why does one expect from NFTs and the marketplaces to be better and different and more innovative than the traditional art world? The new technology is revolutionizing the art market and it is ensuring digital art can finally be traded like painting and sculpture. To ask from NFTs to solve all the problems in the art world may be to much, because this task belongs to the protagonists. But so far almost all of them are holding back, as Hito Steyerl remarks correctly. And according to the skeptics: whoever is triying is knalldackelig and desperate. That's what we call a vicious circle. We'll know more in five to fifteen years.

First published online in Anika Meier’s MONOPOL column.

CREDITS

Jon Burgerman, BERLIN TECHNO CLUB, 2021, NFT, mp4 video using elements of hand drawn oil bar and aerosol work on paper, 00:30 min, Music by Todayidance
AES+F, TURANDOT 2070, LYNX AVATAR, 2021, HD Video, Sound, 00:30 min
Jeremy Bailey, LEANING SCREEN #2, 2021, NFT, Video, 00:36 min
Olive Allen, THE OTHER SIDE, 2021, NFT, Video, 00:51 min

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