Wednesday, March 2, 2022

The conspiracy of NFTs

Everybody hates NFTs and is sick of hearing about them, barring the people who have gotten, or are hoping to get rich (or richer) from making and selling NFT art—and we might getting of sick of them, too. We're tired of the phantom whiffs of vape oil and cannabis we get whenever we glimpse a fugitive Bored Ape Yacht Club avatar, and we're tried of gnashing our teeth when we hear that some insipid, procedurally generated .png with a blockchain receipt sold for tens of thousands of dollars. We're even getting weary of reading articles about our collective hatred of NFTs. And yet, the media persists in telling us that the damn things are here to stay, and that we'll all soon embrace them as willingly as we did credit cards, Farmville, Instagram, or any other parasitic technology. Surely the incessant anti-NFT chatter helps to fulfill the prophecy, crystallizing the inevitability of Web3 the same way Freddy Krueger grows strong by feeding on the fears of his future victims.

Nevertheless, we are now, reluctantly looking into the mirror and chanting "non-fungible asset tokens" three times. What compelled me to this was Wikipedia's decision to classify Cryptopunks and their ilk as NFTs—not as "art."

Though it pains me to say it, I don't think this was the right call. "Art" is a word whose meaning lost all coherence around the same time the cabal of critics and curators retroactively canonized Marcel Duchamp's Fountain. If what we talk about when we talk about art is the stuff we see in museums or read about in Artforum, it's hard to deny that NFTs fit the profile. If Banksy's stencil graffiti or Warhol's screen prints of camouflage patterns get to be Art, then who are Wikipedia's editors to say that a .jpg with a blockchain ledger "pointing" to it belongs to a separate, lesser category of cultural artifact?

Not only would I argue that NFTs deserve to be categorized as art, but that they represent the next logical step in the evolution of contemporary art, and of the art market (and truly, it is impossible to separate the two). But what's more important is how they arrived at this position: by a feat of reductio ad absurdum.

If, while reading about and trying to wrap your head around NFTs, you experienced intimations of a perverse simulation of art and the art world, you're in good company. Jean Baudrillard himself felt the same way about contemporary art at the turn of the century.

In 1996, a decade after his essays about simulacra and hyperreality made him a reluctant, distant thought leader of the art scene, Baudrillard shocked his admirers with a short broadside titled "The Conspiracy of Art." It caused a minor scandal among a certain cross-section of the intelligentsia, and it's easy to see why:
These countless installations and performances are merely compromising with the state of things, and with all the past forms of art history. Raising originality, banality and nullity to the level of values or even to perverse aesthetic pleasure. Of course, all this mediocrity claims to transcend itself by moving art to a second, ironic level. But it is just as empty on the second as the first level. The passage to the aesthetic level salvages nothing; on the contrary, it is mediocrity squared....

In a way, [contemporary art] is worse than nothing because it means nothing and it nonetheless exists, providing itself with all the right reasons to exist.
One wonders if the reason for the art world's anger was its conviction that Baudrillard was wrong, fear that he might be right, or astonishment that he knew what it pretended not to know.

We ought to start from the beginning and examine the reasons why Baudrillard turned his cannons against late twentieth-century art. Doing so help us to better understand what's happening with NFTs in the early twenty-first century.

"The Conspiracy of Art" begins by comparing art to pornography—not in the sense that it's prurient or obscene, but that it's ubiquitous. The image, the designed object, the things of art, are so omnipresent that we've stopped noticing them. To traverse a city street is to enter a funhouse tunnel of representation: advertising posters, billboards, and LCD displays bombard us with faces, products, tableaux, and iconography of every kind. Andy Warhol didn't convert such commercial imagery into art by painting Campbell Soup cans and Coca-Cola bottles; he merely drew attention to the arbitrariness of the distinction between the mass media image and the Art-image. And as Marcel Duchamp and Tracey Emin demonstrated, any quotidian, mass-produced fixture of the built environment—say, a urinal or an unmade bed with a pile of rubbish lying at its side—is each an aesthetic object in and of itself, from which any number of meanings can be drawn. Their being resituated in the context of an art museum only underscores the fact.

In a later essay called "Art...Contemporary of Itself," Baudrillard asserts that "nothing differentiates [contemporary art] from technical, advertising, media, and digital operations." After all, what's Jeff Koons' Balloon Rabbit (Red) doing in the lobby of an office building on Astor Place in Manhattan, visible from the street on all sides, but branding and lending prestige to a property hosting IBM, The Daily Mail, and a Carlyle Group subsidiary? Who is Banksy to middle America but the guest director of a Simpsons couch gag? What are Bruce Nauman's neons but Adbusters-tier spoofs of advertisements and slogans? 

We'd be mistaken to read this as an old man grumbling about how he'd rather have a living Caspar David Friedrich painting murky churchyards than attend yet another exhibition showcasing Jasper Johns' paintings of American flags, movable type, and colorful parallel lines. The target of Baudrillard's critique isn't contemporary art per se, but its claim to privilege—the kind of privilege that makes Yoshitomo Nara's Hothouse Doll sell for $13.3 million at a 2020 auction (to the delight of the private owner who paid only $769,000 for it twelve years earlier), while the original art for Calvin and Hobbes newspaper strips by Bill Watterson never sell for more than $500,000. Why? It's not a question of scarcity.

For that matter, what makes Nara's work so valuable when any number of talented, pop culture-influenced artists with their own distinct styles selling handsome original prints will be lucky to ever quit their day jobs, let alone see their work selling for eight figures during their lifetimes? It's not a question of ability or training.

Olivia T., "mistaking self destruction as growth"
$0 (231 likes)

In June 2021, the NFT "Cryptopunk #7523" sold for $11.75 million at a Sotheby's auction. Everyone except for the crypto-savvy was baffled and disgusted. But two years earlier, Jeff Koons' Rabbit sold at Christie's for $91 million. The news didn't go viral. Nobody noticed anything awry. A stainless-steel sculpture of a rabbit-like balloon animal, 41 inches tall, made in 1986 by a still-living artist, selling for nearly half the GDP of the Marshall Islands is just business as usual in the art market.

The leap from any garish, useless object manufactured and signed by Jeff Koons to an anodyne, utterly unremarkable piece of pixel art with a blockchain receipt going up for auction at Sotheby's is such a slight one that it conceivably could have been accomplished a decade earlier if the technology had existed.

The suddenly rich and famous NFT creator Beeple is neither more nor less of an artist than Damien Hirst, and Everydays—The First 5000 Days is neither more nor less a work of art than Lullaby Spring. Can we say the same thing about Beeple and Rembrandt, or about Hirst's UREA 13-C and Mr. Van Rijn's The Return of the Prodigal Son?

The contemporary art market's self-justification hinges on the assumption that we can. We are meant to understand the legitimacy of contemporary art in terms of an unbroken chain of tradition linking it to the Renaissance and the crafts of antiquity. Simultaneously, the market and its stakeholders employ a trans-historical definition of Art that obscures the fundamental differences in the production of art and the social function of artists in the pre- and post-industrial epochs.

As guild artisans working on commission, the Old Masters were more akin to the modern interior designer or ad man in terms of their social function than to the superstar contemporary artist who ostensibly follows in their footsteps. The painters of the Dutch Golden Age, creators of popular content if ever there were, made a living (or supplemented their income) by producing attractive objects for people to hang inside their homes, and their buyers were by no means restricted to the upper classes. Johannes Vermeer has more in common with the local artist who strikes a deal with a coffee shop to display and sell her work than with Banksy or Takashi Murakami.

During the eighteenth century, as the painter came to be regarded more as a gentleman with a gift of vision than a mere artisan, ideas about his proper role in society tended to assume a moral dimension. The mutual entailment between Goodness, Beauty, and Truth was accepted almost as a given; theories of taste held that one could both demonstrate and cultivate his moral character by collecting art. The tremendously influential French Academy of Fine Arts regulated the national art market and influenced artists and collectors outside its borders with its hierarchy of genres, which ranked the subjects of visual art on a scale according to their inherent intellectual and moral merits. At the top of the pyramid were scenes from history, Greco-Roman mythology, Christian scripture, or allegorical subjects. Below them were portraits, scenes from everyday life, and landscapes, with still lifes at the bottom.

While it wouldn't be inaccurate to call Academic Art's standards and strictures repressive, the Academy's control nonetheless meant that those who produced art, those who appraised art, and those who viewed and purchased art all observed a common and intelligible criterion. Mere originality wasn't sufficient; nor was it enough that a painting seemed to adduce ideas that were fashionable among students of philosophy. How skilled was a painter with a brush? How accurate a mirror did his paintings hold up to reality? How much of the sublime Beautiful and True did his work communicate? 

Though the French Academy and its clout certainly precluded the kind of diversity we're accustomed to seeing in visual art, it nevertheless imposed an effectively objective metric by which the public and the art market could assess the value of a work. (It is unlikely that many ticket-holders visiting the Salon in the early nineteenth century stared at a canvas and muttered "well, I could have done that.")

The de facto annulment of Academic parameters after the triumph of the avant-garde provided a temporary reprieve to a tradition under siege by new technologies of manufacture and reproduction. The invention of the camera obsolesced the portrait painter and made the landscape artist something less than indispensable, and the painter of still lifes saw his theme being taken up by print advertising. As ideas of metaphysical, moral, and aesthetic Absolutes fell out of fashion, fine art could repurpose itself as a means of speaking to the perplexity, trauma, and hopes of a rapidly changing world in ways that "vulgar" commercial art lacked the means to express.

But by the mid-twentieth century, after Symbolism, Expressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism, Orphism, Purism, Precisionism, Surrealism, and Abstract Expressionism had each run its course, modern artists apparently exhausted the range of novel -isms that could be productively explored without dredging up the past for its idle signifiers of estranged traditions. The people who, in earlier centuries, would have been painters in the molds of Paolo Veronese, Jan Steen, or Nicolas Poussin were now employed by Disney and MGM, working in print advertising, illustrating children's literature, textbooks, and field guides, or simply selling canvases at local craft fairs. New York became the new axis of the art world, where an incestuous knot was forming between museums, influential critics, wealthy collectors, and their favorite artists. Christies' and Sotheby's expanded into international franchises; art auctions began advertising themselves as celebrity gala events. Having abandoned all regulating principles or criteria in which the worth of an artwork could be grounded, the contemporary art world blithely submitted to an arbitrary governance by wealth and influence.

The concept of Art has since become a conjuring act, a mythology of Art. The contemporary art market and its stakeholders constitute an institution wholly apart from the pre-industrial milieu of artists, patrons, collectors, and their naïve theories of Beauty and Truth, but their cultural clout depends, in part, on an assumption of continuity.

What is Art when all consistent measures of artistic merit are null and void, where the image circulates in the commercial sphere with a promiscuity unimaginable in centuries past, and the million-dollar objet d'art is bought, sold, and speculated on as any other commodity, and confronts us on its plinth as an answer in search of a question?

Jeff Koons, Rabbit (1986)

Baudrillard answers: nothing. "Art is simply what is discussed in the art world," he bluntly states, "in the artistic community that frantically stares at itself."

Rather than a community, we could rather call it a rarefied clique of influencers/creators whose true medium is hype, performing a grotesque, meaningless fashion show for the entertainment and enrichment of the transnational elite.

Hence the need for a conspiracy: giving Art "all the right reasons to exist" through a complicit industry of critics, curators, journalists, academics, scenesters, merchandisers, and pimps of every stripe who insist, contrary to the judgement of the mystified rube murmuring "this is Art?", that there's something there, that something of intrinsic, sublime value subtends these apparently empty flights of aesthetic fancy, justifying all the attendant pomp and circumstance.

It's all a bluff, says Baudrillard, enacted "to force people a contrario to give it all some importance and credit under the pretext there is no way it could be so null, that it must be hiding something." Even though only a miniscule fraction of the people aware of Damien Hirst will ever be able to drop thirty grand on one of 150 glittery prints of Micky Mouse bearing his signature, the scheme requires that the circulation of the myth of Hirst's cultural significance exceeds the range of his real audience—just like any other prestige consumer brand capitalizing on the fetishistic magic believed to reside in its label.

Further: "Contemporary art makes use of this uncertainty, of the impossibility of grounding aesthetic value judgements, and speculates on the guilt of those who do not understand it or who have not realized that there is nothing to understand. Another case of insider trading."

Quite so. Baudrillard's insider trading metaphor is especially apt, since what's truly for sale at a Christie's auction are financial instruments to which only the wealthy have access. The probability that a given artwork will appreciate in value supersedes any consideration about What It Means, or how it will look inside the buyer's living room or corporate headquarters. ("Are you Researching Alternative Investments," reads a Google ad. "Have you Tried Investing in Blue-Chip Art?")

In a 1996 interview, Baudrillard remarked that the contemporary art market had "attained complete autonomy, completely cut off from the real economy of value…not really a Mafia, but something that formed according to the rules of its own game."

With the arrival of NFT art—next to which Tracey Emin's tossed-off scribbles seem wonderfully monumental, and whose digital format makes completely artificial the value of which scarcity is supposed to be a determining variable—this assessment seems either premature or prescient.

Cryptopunk #7523

If NFTs are here to stay, then contemporary art has arrived at the threshold of a paradigm shift. The utilization of blockchain technology is less significant than the art market's evident willingness to not only abandon any pretense of meaning or mystique, but also to cease feigning concern for how anyone but Big Spender feels about what it's up to. While even video game companies are backpedaling on NFTs, art brokers have been dutifully generating hype for NFT artists and smearing naysayers.

In embracing NFTs, the conspiracy has let fall its façade, and the art establishment openly announces itself for what it is: a game of Pokémon that only the ultra-rich are allowed to play, and in which the worth of their net assets increases by so-and-so million dollars whenever one of their creatures levels up. The introduction of NFTs to the game has prompted some of its players to conclude that pretenses of caring about Beauty, Truth, or even Ideas are no longer necessary, since the financiers, art brokers, curators, celebrities, and other stakeholders are installed in all the positions necessary to fulfill their own prophecies about NFTs' long-term viability as an investment option. Inadvertently assisting them are the collectors and traders in the lower economic strata who believe, erroneously, that NFTs finally give them an invitation to play—or that the real value in NFTs is "the community." (Hey guys, I understand we're all alienated and lonely, but couldn't you maybe bond over something just a smidge less wantonly carbon intensive?)

The art market—not Wikipedia, not the painter, not the skeptical critic, not the museum-visiting public—decides what Art is, and the art market has made its feelings on the matter abundantly clear. Art is whatever is sold and bought and sold again on the art market. Its legitimization of NFTs is akin to a magician revealing his trick sleeves and trapdoors before carrying on with his act, all confident that the believability of the illusion is none the worse off for it. History suggests that the conspiracy has every reason to be feeling bullish.


  1. Look, Patrick, only so many people in the world have access to the casinos in Macau. The demand for money laundering has just exceeded the supply of options, that's all. The art market has always been, and always will be, simply the most effective method of laundering money. How much is a painting worth? Who can disprove that amount? NFTs are just speeding up the process, that's all. It's really not that complicated.

  2. It does seem to be the final kick to shatter pretenses that quality matters and that the artists who are on top are the con artists who can hustle as many others to get there" Thing" to be the thing to throw cash at. Maybe that's how its always been but NFT's seem like the most blunt expression of that...