Room-sized installation of pickups, plants with computer-managed systems that manage fog and light to sustain plants.
Arts & Médias
January 2, 2023
I don’t like NFTs. Or rather, I do not like how people are currently peddling NFTs as if they were the first-ever artefacts of digital art, completely ignoring the long history of artists and technologists making art with computers ever since computer themselves were invented.
Art—the one with a capital A—has always been difficult to define. I subscribe to the definition that Art must interact with and challenge its history and institutions, not simply be an exutory for tortured creators to generate artefacts as they process their emotions. Media art—which includes digital art—might do that, but usually addresses the issues that stem from its own specificity: contemporary technology, communications tools, digital/disembodied universes, and their impact on society and art. In Beyond New Media Art (Link Editions, 2013), Domenico Quaranta investigates whats makes media art a specific niche inside contemporary art in much deeper details.
Where commerce is the exchange of goods and services for something of equal value, capitalism is the speculation on the value of a thing or a concept to increase its value. As I have tweeted before, NFTs in their current form is capitalism as an art form; it just happens to leverage digital art.
In a sense, capitalism which leverages contemporary technologies as an art form would be at home in media art. However, most of those who participe in the NFT wave that has hit the contemporary art world in the last years have evacuated the critical part from their work. Then again, it’s difficult to completely blame them. All of western society has been bathing in agressive neoliberalism for a few decades, digital creators’ tools are not cheap by any means, and finding patrons to sponsor critical works is a difficult task even for well-recognized artists.
With NFTs, all sorts of creators of digital works have finally found a way to earn money with their trade. But grifters have also joined in, and the discourse around NFTs has become incredibly one-sided: buy now!
It’s in that context that Quaranta published his latest book, originally in Italian in 2021 (Surfing con Satoshi. Arte, blockchain e NFTs), then translated to English in 2022 (Surfing with Satoshi - Art, Blockchain and NFTs). Although I would have prefered to read a French translation—which likely would have been closer to the Italian structure, but which as far as I know does not exist—I read the English translation (Postmedia Srl, 2022). Quaranta's writing—or Anna Rosemary Carruthers' translation?—is still much more approachable than many other art history or analysis books I have read previously.
With his usual cool-headed approach to the minute details and idiosyncrasies that make up media art, he explores how the NFT technology came to be, how art contracts evolved in the last few decades in the contemporary art market world, and whether or not NFTs are simply a Ponzi scheme or an actual new component of the art world.
In the the first chapter, Quaranta presents a history of the evolution of the different technologies that lead to the NFT and its many marketplaces—peer-to-peer transfers, the blockchain, Bitcoin and other digital currencies. Further in the book, the critic explores how artists leverage different aspects of the blockchain technology to create critical works.
At one point, as an aside, he comments how ironic it is that technologies which were meant to facilitate file sharing and digital transactions are now used to create artificial digital scarcity.
Eventually, Quaranta retraces many different instances of modern and contemporary art when artists played with contracts, either when they tried to enshrine royalties in the sales contract of their artwork, or when they would make the contract itself part of the artwork. By doing so, the critic makes a parallel with digital contracts and NFTs, illustrating that they did not just pop up out of the blue, but that they do have an analogue history, one which can also be polemic.
The critic takes a look at some works and art styles that have been showcased in the first NFT sales from the big auction houses—e.g. Beeple at Christie's, Pak at Sotheby's, Mad Dog Jones at Philips'. Quaranta relates the anecdote of an interview where a critic tried to find what artistic facets people saw in the digital images that they purchased, only to find that it was all about money instead.
That perspective is what I dislike from the current state of the NFT market in the first place.
However, Quaranta does ask whether those NFT aficionados really lack taste and knowledge of digital art, or are if we simply seeing a new movement rise, and if we are looking down on that new movement and its participants from our art-educated perspective. I can only imagine a similar reaction by Impressionnist painters looking at the first blurry black and white photographs, or from cinema directors and authors looking at the first video art shot on handheld commercial cameras. This is all reminescent of how Wagner, in Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft, complained about how only a few select artworks were deemed acceptable by an art-educated elite, as opposed to the work created by the masses.
Quaranta says we should not dismiss the NFT technology outright simply because we dislike the aesthetic of some of the artworks that we see being traded at outrageous prices on the art market. In that, I tend to agree with him. However, I believe that those NFT marketplaces have a long way to go to actually sell digital art—e.g. software art, interactive sound pieces, generative videos, etc.—as opposed to only images produced digitally, like they are currently doing.
Finally, it's great that every creator is able to produce digital images or videos and sell them without going through intermediaries like auction houses. However, it would be better if people boasting digital art understood that there is actually a long history of media art doing the critical work that NFTs are currently rarely doing. If not, NFT may remain just grifter talk trying to sell snake oil, which it might not actually be.
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Latest Update: January 3, 2023