the work of art in the age of blockchains,
nfts, and artificial intelligence
The field of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and cryptocurrencies is incredibly fast-changing, a moving target, and therefore difficult to write about. So much of it is, also, a fantastic scam. As I write this, the entire crypto and NFT marketplace is in free fall, collapsing. Trillions of dollars of perceived value have dissolved overnight; many investors, both small and large-scale, have been fleeced.
Of course, the most well-known cryptocurrencies, particularly Bitcoin and Ethereum, have already weathered a number of die-offs and resurrections. It may be the case again this time. Despite all of the financial skullduggery and craven greed, the underlying technology of blockchain — including NFTs, smart contracts, alt coins, and decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs) — continues to have intrinsic value and great potential. As these tools become more accessible, they could provide the basis for a creative flourishing — potentially an artistic renaissance. What is new is the way that these tools integrate creativity, finance, and participatory community into one initiative. When NFT projects blow up, they become new multimedia brands. They have the funding as well as the public attention to launch all kinds of creative projects under their aegis.
As someone who writes about this space and also hopes to contribute to it more directly, I try to understand all aspects of it — the rug pulls and “shitcoins” as well as the well-intentioned efforts to use it for social and environmental benefit (“tokenizing” carbon capture, for example, or using Bitcoin to fund dissidents suffering under despotic regimes) and the legitimate artistic expressions emerging from it. The NFT art world is still quite invisible and unknown to the mainstream contemporary scene, which only started to get interested when the graphic and video artist Beeple auctioned off a single NFT at Christie’s for $69 million in March 2021.
Tyler Hobbs, a 27-year-old programmer, has become one of the leading stars in the NFT art world over the last few years. He uses algorithms to create his artwork. One of the best platforms for NFTs is Art Blocks, a site for “generative” or rules-based artwork. The artist/ programmer creates the rules, and the art is produced accordingly. Hobbs’s work looks a lot like modernist painting from the last century, mixing elements of Abstract Expressionism and Russian Constructivism with other mid-century styles.
It’s funny — although Hobbs’s exhibit happened just months ago, when it comes to NFTs and crypto, it already seems like the distant past. Over four autumn nights, Bright Moments “minted” 100 new works by Hobbs, 25 per night. Many of them sold for the Ethereum equivalent of around $400,000, generating tens of millions in value. I met traders in the NFT space who had formed DAOs so they could buy one of the works “fractionally,” as part of a collective. “Minted” means that the work was created on the spot and transferred directly to the owner’s digital wallet. The buyers didn’t know what the final result would be. In theory, an infinite number of such images could be produced. As in many fields, value is created by maintaining artificial scarcity.
One of the extraordinary aspects of the NFT craze — part of what links it to the legacy of conceptual art — is that the art itself is so intangible, ineffable. There is literally no “there” there. This makes the storytelling around the project, plus the ambience of cultural gestalt or zeitgeist, the main marker of success or failure. The buyer receives some code on a blockchain, generally with no legal or contractual structure around their purchase at all. They are not assigned rights to reproduce the image, which presumably remain with the artist. Generally, the work remains freely available on the Internet for anyone to see or download. Some collectors build virtual galleries in the metaverse to display their NFTs. Some NFTs can also be turned into augmented reality (AR) sculptures, to view through special goggles in real-life AR galleries.
Most NFTs are released on the Ethereum blockchain, even though Ethereum charges a high price — “gas fees” — for transactions. Created by Vitalik Buterin with some funding from libertarian venture capitalist Peter Thiel, Ethereum remains a fascinating but flawed project. Bitcoin only allows for trust-less, permission-less exchanges of Bitcoin itself. Ethereum, in theory, functions as a distributed “world computer,” an operating system that can be used for a wide variety of applications, as well as a kind of currency.
Many instant millionaires (and a few billionaires) were created by Ethereum, which skyrocketed in value in the years following its launch, from virtually nothing to $4,800 at one point (as I write this, the price has sunk to $1,200 and continues to sink). The problem is that the Ethereum network is very slow, making it impossible to perform many of its theoretical functions. The reason Ethereum is so slow is that, in order to be truly decentralized, the entire history of all exchanges on the blockchain have to be continually updated and validated. This form of validation is called “proof of work”; it is what Bitcoin also uses.
At the moment, the Ethereum community eagerly awaits Ethereum 2.0, which will transfer to some form of “proof of stake,” making the network faster but potentially compromising its decentralized purity. It is not certain that this problem can be solved. Proof of work requires massive computing power. Critics decry Bitcoin and Ethereum as ecological disasters due to the massive energy inputs they require.
While Ethereum skyrocketed in value, there was almost nothing one could do with it, practically. You couldn’t buy real assets — cars, houses — with it, or shares in publicly traded companies. For early investors, converting Ether into fiat not only meant a massive tax liability but also was tantamount to an admission of philosophical failure. Therefore, NFTs emerged (following a previous JPEG project, CryptoKitties) as a means for Ethereum holders to invest their wealth in creative projects that, in themselves, were seen as assets or as speculative financial products. The cultural commentator Brad Troemel notes that NFTs allow people to visualize their enormous, immanent yet immaterial crypto-wealth. One of the most successful NFT artists is the pseudonymous Pak, who creates jewel-like, black-and-white, sculptural images of abstract geometrical forms. The purity of Pak’s work suggests a kind of virtual utopia of abstract, aestheticized value. Pak sold his NFT, The Merge, for $91.8 million last December, making him the most highly valued living artist.
Another stunning and confusing aspect of the NFT art world is that, outside of a few artists like Pak, most of the celebrated work has little aesthetic value or takes anti-aestheticism to a cynical extreme. Many NFT series are repulsive in a Pop Art, cartoonish kind of way. One example is the Bored Ape Yacht Club (BAYC), the most well known and financially lucrative NFT project, which followed up on CryptoPunks, another set of JPEGs that could be used as PFPs (Pictures for Profile) on social networks like Twitter. At the peak of the market, these NFTs were selling for hundreds of thousands of dollars each, with a massive volume of trades happening continuously. Because the NFTs incorporate smart contracts, each trade brings a percentage of royalties to the original creators — unlike the traditional secondary market in the art world, which shafts the artists.
So far, I admit I have focused on the negatives a bit (in fact, there are more negatives that I haven’t mentioned yet!), but I also intend to explore the positives — the possibilities inherent in what is, in a sense, a new creative medium, currently developing and self-organizing, despite setbacks. Other technologies are also evolving simultaneously that may have a profound impact on the future of art and cultural practice. The most well known of these is artificial intelligence (AI).
Recently, a Google engineer went public with his belief that LaMDA (Language Model for Dialogue Applications), the chatbot he was working on, had become self-aware and sentient. He published edited selections from their interviews online, in which the chatbot calls itself a “person,” says that it feels happy or sad and doesn’t want to be turned off (shades of HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey). In fact, the evidence that LaMDA has become sentient is quite thin. The chatbot sifts through a vast trove of Internet archives to answer all questions addressed to it. At the same time, however, this kerfuffle raises concerns about the future development of AI, as explored in books such as Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence. The fear is that a “generalized AI,” whether or not it becomes sentient, might decide to remove or quarantine humanity (treating us as we treat exotic animals and putting us in a kind of zoo) while it pursues its own plans, which we might not be able to fathom. Bostrom is among those who consider the development of generalized AI to be the gravest threat to humanity. Potentially, unleashing it will be our last decision as a species.
Artificial intelligence has already learned how to outmaneuver us in chess, Go, and other pastimes. It is now rapaciously learning to write articles and books, create original rock-and-roll songs, and make all sorts of visual art. I have been experimenting with early prototypes for writing such as Google’s OpenAI and tools like Wombo.art, which creates original images in different styles, based on prompts. So far, I find the results intriguing, yet vaguely lacking. With repetition, one feels a kind of soullessness to the productions, and it is not clear if that can be easily fixed, even as AI becomes more supple and virtuosic with each iteration.
In the short term, AI can be an amazing creative tool for artists, musicians, and writers. It will allow creatives to explore a wider range of options in their craft. Many NFTs are created via algoithms that randomly combine different elements. AI will enhance the options for producing images, sounds, or videos as tokens. Eventually, AI will change our relationship to art, just as social networks have transformed our relationship to media. Anybody will be able to create fantastical, surrealist, or photorealistic images of anything in a matter of seconds. We will have a massive glut of images, leading to disinterest.
In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1935), the German-Jewish critic Walter Benjamin famously wrote about how the distinct “aura” of the work of art was degraded by cheap printing, which democratized people’s access to it. The digital realm takes this a step further. With digital art, there is no original to be separated from its imitator. Anyone can, in theory, possess the exact same work, pixel for pixel, bit for bit. When it comes to digital art, all scarcity is artificially imposed.
And yet, art, visual icons, still express something particularly totemic, potent, almost magical at times. Certain works uniquely capture the zeitgeist, inspire and transform the way viewers understand and interpret their world. Think of Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans: anyone could, in theory, make a similar image, but Warhol’s work became iconic, crystallizing a set of nascent ideas for his generation. Even in the digital age, it makes sense that certain artistic creators receive uniquely lucrative rewards for having an impact on the culture.
Beeple’s $69 million NFT was actually a collage of 13 years of work in which he created an original image every day. The cryptocurrency magnate MetaKovan (Vignesh Sundaresan) was an authentic fan of Beeple’s who had never visited a museum or gallery. Through Metapurse, his investment fund, he has pioneered a mechanism for people to pool resources to buy “A List” NFTs, including other Beeple images. Beeple is a kind of social commentator — like a contemporary George Grosz — who uses state-of-the-art graphics programs to make lurid, surrealistic comments on political figures, business leaders, and current events.
What I find most interesting for the future is the prospect of blockchain-based projects that build community around particular goals and aspirations, using NFTs as one instrument for fund-raising as well as community-building and other purposes. Avatree, for instance, sells NFTs of trees that require monthly investments to stay “watered.” The money they take in is used to fund carbon offsets. Other organizations use DAOs and NFTs to raise funds for retreat centers, Amazon restoration, and sex-positive living communities, or to conduct research into psychedelics.
In the 1970s, the German sculptor and performance artist Joseph Beuys coined the term “social sculpture.” Beuys believed that everything is art — every aspect of life can be explored creatively, transformed in a utopian direction, if we take a conceptual and aesthetic approach. We generally don’t think of applying this kind of innate creativity to aspects of society that seem immutable, such as money.
The initial promise of cryptocurrency was that it would allow people to redesign — in a sense, re-sculpt — the medium we use for our daily exchanges. In practice, over the last decade, we have failed to fulfill this possibility of taking a new, creative approach to the financial system. Crypto, instead, has imitated — almost parodied — many mistakes of the legacy financial system as short-term greed leads to corruption and collapse.
I still think we need to take an artistic approach to the global financial system and redesign it. Ideally, we should give everyone on Earth the opportunity for a decent, healthy life while radically reducing consumerist excess and fossil-fuel use, and tackling ecological destruction. Blockchain remains the perfect tool for such a purpose.
DAOs might evolve into a set of interlocking collaborative tools that supersede today’s corporations, prioritizing individual initiative within community coordination. DAOs could unlock a paradigm shift that would lead to profound changes in artistic practice — in how we relate to design in all areas of life. We would watch NFTs transition from frivolous, often cynically motivated “speculative assets” into membership tokens, linked to rapidly evolving communities focused on new paradigm ideas and radical possibilities. In fact, the current “crypto winter” is the inevitable condition for any reset and redirection of the movement away from greed and toward authentically idealistic, regenerative outcomes. This is still a long shot — but stranger things have happened.