What follows is one of two pieces we are running on NFTs. See another take on NFTs here.
It was the Beeple heard round the world: on Thursday, March 11th, Christie’s sold a collage of digital art images for 69 million dollars. Beeple, real name Mike Winkelmann, is the artist responsible for the work; this makes him the third-highest selling living artist behind Jeff Koons and David Hockney. Prior to the sale, Beeple had made a modest artistic practice out of posting original 3D images online daily. Most of these “everydays” are technically competent but nondescript abstracts—the sort of thing that you might use as a desktop background. Recently they’ve grown more referential, including images of a breastfeeding Donald Trump, Tiger King dethroned, and the coronavirus as a scifi movie monster. How, exactly, did Beeple’s work find itself in the rarefied air of a Christie’s auction, outselling the likes of Lucien Freud and Damien Hirst? The answer, I suspect, has a lot to do with his chosen format for sale: an ‘NFT’, or non-fungible token.
What’s an NFT? As numerous internet explainers will inform you, the abbreviation stands for ‘non-fungible token’. NFTs are crypto tokens, just like Bitcoins and other cryptocurrency: each NFT is a pointer to an address on a publicly verifiable and distributed blockchain. Owning an NFT means that you own the cryptographic key required to demonstrate your ownership; this can be verified by consulting the blockchain, which lists you—or more precisely your digital wallet—as the owner.
Most crypto tokens are fungible; any bitcoin (or fraction thereof) can be exchanged for any other. What differentiates NFTs is that each one is unique. This means that NFTs can be used as identifiers for unique objects. More importantly for our purposes, by attaching an NFT to a particular object—like basketball highlights, digital albums, and yes, even tweets—sellers can use NFTs to transfer ownership of these objects to individual buyers. The person who holds the NFT is the owner. It’s roughly equivalent to possessing a digital deed to the object in question.
NFTs have proven to be especially useful for selling digital art. By linking digital art pieces to specific NFTs, artists have been able to create opportunities for individual ownership and collecting of objects that, to date, have been by their very nature, replicable, shareable, and ownerless. Consider the example of Nyancat, a GIF image-turned-meme dating from 2011 featuring an 8-bit cat with a Pop Tart body: this GIF has been circulating throughout the internet for a decade, featuring most prominently in an insanely catchy YouTube video set to music. The creator of the original GIF, Chris Torres, recently sold an NFT linked to a one-of-a-kind version of Nyancat for roughly $600,000.
There are interesting—and difficult—philosophical questions to be considered here. I don’t think I’ll be able to answer all of them in this post, but I’ll pose a few of them in order to get the ball rolling on the NFT discussion in the philosophy of art.
NFTs and the Ontology of Art
Start with some problems in the ontology of art: What, exactly, is the ontological status of an NFT in relation to the work linked to it? And how might the issuance of an NFT change or update digital artworks like Nyancat, which are already in existence, and have been widely shared and copied?
Philosophers of art have long marked a difference between singular artworks like paintings and sculptures and those which are multiply instantiable, like novels and photographs. In the latter case, there are many instances of these artworks in circulation, and encountering any of them is enough to offer us full acquaintance with the work. Digital artworks seem to fall into the latter category: there are countless instances of Beeple’s everydays circulating around the internet, and loading any one of them onto your device should be enough for you to encounter the work. A tricky question in the ontology of art has to do with the question of what, precisely, these multiply instantiable artworks are, fundamentally: should we understand them as abstract objects? Types with many individual tokens? Or are they just nothing over and above the set of all of the existing instances? (If you destroy all the existing copies of a novel, does the novel no longer exist?)
When an artist issues an NFT—say, for Nyancat or an ultra-rare Pepe—does this fundamentally change the artwork itself? Consider a parallel case from more traditional art: the limited edition print. When an artist issues a limited run of prints of, say, a photograph, they are indicating that some particular set of instances are licensed or genuine instances of the work. They are authorizing these particular prints as privileged compared to any other existing copies—making them into what David Davies calls “provenential instances” because of their provenance. Karen Gover has argued that the set of such privileged instances, in an important sense, just is the work. What’s important here is the idea that artists commonly use their authority to designate which particular instances of their works are genuine, and that these play a privileged role with respect to both what counts as a genuine encounter with the work and (more strongly) what the work fundamentally is.
This analogy isn’t perfect, for two reasons: First and foremost, with respect to many NFTs there isn’t a physical object like a print associated with the NFT at all. There is simply a set of digital bits that’s identical to any other set of bits that makes up an instance of the work. So, it’s unclear whether artists even can designate some instance of the work as licensed or genuine in any meaningful way. Second, with respect to many NFTs being sold, it’s not clear that digital artists have the relevant authority to determine what is and isn’t an authentic instance. Take Nyancat again: sure, Torres sold an individual version of Nyancat, but it’s not clear that Torres has any authority over Nyancat, the internet meme.
So, ontologically speaking, you don’t seem to be getting a special or privileged instance of the work when you buy what’s associated with an NFT. Nor does it seem that issuing an NFT necessarily changes the nature of the work. All of this raises an important question: What exactly is it that you are getting when you buy an NFT?
Getting the NFT Right(s)
Dig through the Christie’s condition of sale for Beeple’s work and you’ll find the following:
You acknowledge that ownership of an NFT carries no rights, express or implied, other than property rights for the lot (specifically, digital artwork tokenized by the NFT). You understand and accept that NFTs are issued by third parties, and not by Christie’s itself.You acknowledge and represent that there is substantial uncertainty as to the characterization of NFTs and other digital assets under applicable law.
Remember how I initially characterized an NFT: NFTs are simply pointers. They are cryptographic tokens that point to something—be it, a piece of digital art or any other digital collectible. Something that’s currently a profoundly unsettled issue is what, exactly, comes along with said pointer. Usually, in agreeing to purchase an NFT, there is an agreement about what taking possession of that pointer means, and what rights it entitles you to with respect to whatever the pointer points to. So: NFTs are fundamentally tools for transferring rights—specifically property rights—from buyer to seller. But at least as of right now, it’s unclear what exactly such rights would amount to for many of the digital artworks being sold via NFTs.
Think about buying a traditional artwork like a painting: ownership involves the ability to control display and performance of artworks. You get to decide where to hang it, who gets to see it, and so on. (Ownership doesn’t give you full control; artists still maintain copyright and other moral rights.) If the work is greatly in demand, you might loan it out to a museum for safekeeping and public viewing; on the other hand, if you’re the Martin Shkreli type, you might gloat publicly about ownership while never allowing anyone else to see it.
However, in the case of digital art, it’s not clear that sale via NFT actually gives you this sort of control. For example, the images in Beeple’s $69 million collage are all freely available on the artist’s website. These are exactly the same digital files that were sold via the NFT. What’s more, they seem to have exactly the same provenance and official authorization as the images that you own as a result of purchasing the NFT. Owning an NFT associated with a digital artwork doesn’t seem to guarantee any control over reproduction and display online. In short: you may end up getting ownership with none of the benefits.
At the same time, as mentioned above, it’s not clear that artists even have ownership rights to transfer with respect to some digital artworks. While Pepe the Frog’s creator Matt Furie has had some success in legal efforts attempting to stop unauthorized uses of Pepe it’s unclear that Pepe qua meme is his property at all. If you were to buy a licensed image of Pepe from Furie via NFT, what you’d be getting would be ownership of that image. However, owning a one-off Pepe or Nyancat just isn’t the same thing as owning the meme itself—which is, I think, an independent, collective, and participatory artwork that would resist any sort of individual ownership. So, NFTs may not even be capable of giving us any sort of ownership of a great deal of the internet art and ephemera that we care about.
NFTs, Stonks, and Getting Paid
A final concern about NFTs—and a major one—is the eye-popping amount of money involved in their sales. There’s no doubt that the explosion in the NFT market is largely the result of the huge growth in value of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum. The buyer of Beeple’s work was a cryptocurrency whale known pseudonymously as “Metakovan.” In interviews, he has stated that he is purchasing NFTs primarily as investments, and that he has purchased NFT art alongside other NFT collectibles.
On the one hand, this is a potential boon to digital artists looking to get paid. NFTs allow for artists to create artificial scarcity, which paves the road to a market for digital art. Of course, this market might not be especially rewarding to all but the most successful artists, and some have already pointed out that between registration and transaction fees, most artists are unlikely to turn a huge profit in NFT sales. But this isn’t too different from the kinds of overhead involved in traditional art sales where galleries standardly take a commission out of the sales of their art.
What’s more significant, though, is the kind of market that is emerging for NFT sales. Insofar as the market is explicitly viewed as an investment platform, market forces will encourage the development of specific kinds of art. A similar phenomenon is already afoot in the world of fine art: Sarah Hegenbart has written about the rise of “zombie formalism”, a trend in the art market for slick, abstract art designed to cater to the needs and desires of ultra-rich investors. Artists such as Lucien Smith and Damien Hirst tend towards creating bland, vaguely interesting works whose primary aim is, in Hegenbart’s words, “generating value out of nothing.”
I think that a great deal of internet art is a kind of folk art—something akin to a massive, collaborative project of generating aesthetic value that reflects some of our strangest and most wonderful predilections. Most of us make and share memes and images because it’s fun, and because we like to be a part of this gigantic collective project of creating and riffing and sharing. I worry that the huge sums of cash (or, well, cryptocurrency) being thrown at NFTs will commercialize and marketize this culture in a way that shifts its content away from the wonderful and weird, and more towards the bland world of Beeple and cryptokitties. It’s also possible that we’ll come to regard digital art as just another investment platform: the next GME, the next Bitcoin, the next stonks. That, I think, would be a major cultural loss.
Maybe all of this concern is overblown. While the Bitcoin bros are quick to tout NFTs as the future of collecting digital art, it’s also possible that this is just a flash in the pan. Even so, the emergence of NFTs feels at once deeply urgent—$69 million dollars urgent—a bit silly, and impossibly fascinating.
This is one of two pieces we are running on NFTs. See another take on NFTs here.