Uncovering the ontology of NFTs - the artwork-cryptocurrency crossovers being sold for millions - reveals a profound uncertainty about their nature, and the rights they confer. But beyond this ambiguity, will the vast sums of cash (or cryptocurrency) being thrown at NFTs ruin the whacky and wonderful world of internet folk art? Writing originally for Aesthetics for Birds, Anthony Cross investigates.
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 a modest artistic practice, 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 a Christie’s auction, outselling Lucien Freud and Damien Hirst? The answer has a lot to do with his chosen format for sale: an ‘NFT’, or non-fungible token.
What’s an NFT?
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.
The person who holds the NFT is the owner. It’s like possessing a digital deed to the object in question.
Most crypto tokens are fungible - any bitcoin can be exchanged for any other - but NFTs are unique. This means that NFTs can be used as identifiers for unique objects. More importantly, by attaching an NFT to a particular object—like basketball highlights, digital albums or even tweets—sellers can use NFTs to transfer ownership of these objects. The person who holds the NFT is the owner. It’s like possessing a digital deed to the object in question.
NFTs are especially useful for selling digital art. By linking digital art pieces to specific NFTs, artists have created opportunities for the individual ownership and collection of objects that were otherwise replicable, shareable, and ownerless (think of internet memes). 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 will pose a few of them in order start a real discussion about NFTs within the philosophy of art.
NFTs and 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 already been widely shared and copied?
Philosophers of art have long marked a difference between singular artworks like original paintings 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 offers 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 which can be enjoyed simply by loading the image. What are these multiply instantiable artworks? Abstract objects? Types with many individual tokens? Or are they simply the set of all of the existing instances?
Depending on our answer to this question, an artist issuing an NFT—say, for Nyancat or an ultra-rare Pepe—might fundamentally change the artwork itself. Consider a more traditional parallel: the limited edition print. When an artist issues a limited run of prints, they are privileging those copies compared to any others in existence. Artists use their authority to designate which instances of their work count as genuine encounters. Karen Gover takes this further, arguing that the licensed prints are somehow included in - and change - what the work fundamentally is.
But this analogy is not perfect: First, with respect to many NFTs, there is no physical object associated with the NFT at all. There is simply a set of digital bits that is identical to any other digital instance of the work. So, it is unclear whether NFT artists designate some instance of the work as licensed or genuine in any meaningful way. Second, it is not clear that digital artists have the relevant authority to determine what is and is not an authentic instance. Take Nyancat again: Torres sold an individual version of Nyancat, but it is not clear that Torres has any authority over Nyancat, the viral internet meme.
Ontologicallly speaking, you do not 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 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 acknowledge and represent that there is substantial uncertainty as to the characterization of NFTs and other digital assets under applicable law.
NFTs are simply pointers. They are cryptographic tokens that point to a piece of digital art or collectible. A profoundly unsettled issue is what rights come with that pointer. The buyer and seller of an NFT agree on what sale of the pointer means, and what rights it gives over whatever it points to. In this way, NFTs are tools for transferring property rights from buyer to seller. But, for many of the digital artworks being sold via NFTs, it is unclear what these rights are.
When buying a traditional artwork, ownership includes control over its display and performance: where to hang it, who gets to see it, and so on. It is not clear that sale via NFT gives you this sort of control. All of the images in Beeple’s $69 million collage are still 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. Nor does owning an NFT guarantee any control over their reproduction and display online. This is ownership with none of the benefits.
When buying a traditional artwork, ownership includes control over its display and performance…It is not clear that sale via NFT gives you this sort of control.
At the same time, it is not clear that digital artists have ownership rights to transfer in the first place. While Pepe the Frog’s creator, Matt Furie, has had some legal success in stopping unauthorized uses of Pepe, it is far from certain that Pepe-the-meme is his property. Buying an NFT of Pepe from Furie would give you ownership of that image. But owning a one-off Pepe is not the same as owning the meme itself. Pepe the meme is a collective, participatory artwork that resists ownership. NFTs do not seem capable of giving ownership of the internet art that we care about.
NFTs, Stonks, and Getting Paid
A final and major concern about NFTs is the eye-popping amount of money involved. No doubt, the explosion in the NFT market is largely the result of the huge growth of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum. The buyer of Beeple’s work was a cryptocurrency whale known as “Metakovan.” He has stated that he is purchasing NFT art and collectables primarily as investments.
On the one hand, this is a potential boon to digital artists looking to get paid. NFTs allow artists to create artificial scarcity, making way for a market for digital art. That said, this market might only reward the most successful artists. Between registration and transaction fees, most artists are unlikely to turn a huge profit in NFT sales. But this is no different from the overheads involved in traditional art sales for which galleries take commission.
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. This is already happening 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, in Hegenbart’s words, is “generating value out of nothing.”
Internet art is a kind of folk art—akin to a massive, collaborative project of generating aesthetic value. It 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 part of this gigantic, collective project. My worry is that the cash (or cryptocurrency) being thrown at NFTs will commercialize and marketize this culture. Will its content shift away from the wonderful and weird, towards the bland world of Beeple and cryptokitties? It is also possible that digital art will become just another investment platform: the next GME, the next Bitcoin, the next stonks. That, I think, would be a major cultural loss.
Aesthetics for Birds (AFB) is a blog that aims to bring together people working in aesthetics, philosophy of art and the art world, in a way that is accessible to everyone. Explore the blog at Aesthetics for Birds and on Twitter at @ArtFlockTweets for enriching thoughts and perspectives in these areas of philosophy and art.