Internet ART

Why NFTs are kitsch, not art

“Everydays — The First 5000 Days” is a collage of all the images that the artist known as Beeple has been posting online each day since 2007. The work set a record for a digital artwork at Christie’s, selling for $69.3 million. (Courtesy Christie’s/The New York Times)
Written by publisher team

By Max Blue

Special to The Examiner

Non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, are a decidedly bewildering topic and one that has caused quite a ruckus in the art world. Even the major art auction house Christie’s seems confused: Their condition of sale for NFTs states, “There is significant uncertainty as to the characterization of NFTs and other digital assets under applicable law.”

So what are NFTs and how come their place in the arts is overblown? I have a romantic notion.

The digital equivalent of a deed, an NFT is a unique line of code linked to an asset. NFTs live on the blockchain, a virtual ledger distributed across a global network of computers, making those shared records difficult to alter, steal or hack. This ability to verify ownership of a digital file, and the resulting illusion of scarcity, has enabled a high-dollar market for digital files (usually illustrations or animations) in a movement called Crypto Art.

Art galleries and auction houses typically provide buyers with a certificate of authenticity for physical artworks – except galleries also provide buyers with the artwork. Imagine handing an art dealer a check for a painting, then getting the certificate of authenticity but no painting, and being told the painting doesn’t really exist but can also be viewed for free by anyone who wants to see it at any time. That’s not an innovation: That’s a scam!

Scarcity does lend an exciting aura to an artwork–looking at a polaroid and knowing it’s the only one, or finally standing in front of the “Mona Lisa” in the Louvre. What’s striking about NFTs is that their scarcity is so artificial it doesn’t produce much excitement -– not even at the highest level of the market. That’s because the digital asset they’re linked to still possesses no scarcity in itself: It can be copied and disseminated the same as any digital file.

The most a single buyer has yet paid for an NFT was $69.3 million at an auction through Christie’s on March 11, 2021. The NFT corresponded to “EVERYDAYS: THE FIRST 5000 DAYS,” 2021, by illustrator Mike Winkelmann (who signs his work Beeple ), a digital collage of 5,000 drawings Beeple produced over about 14 years.

To date, the highest selling work of art, Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi,” c. 1500, went for about $450 million at Christie’s in 2017, making the largest NFT sale closer to something on the collectibles market, where a rare Ferrari might go for around $50 million. What the NFT market seems to be doing is reducing the concept of art to its most vulgar form: Commodity.

An historical byline and an artwork’s scarcity certainly factor into its value, but they aren’t the whole of it. What makes art, at any commercial or noncommercial level, valuable, is something you can’t put a price on: A relationship with another human being mediated by an object or sensorial experience that bypasses the restrictions of time and space. That, to me, is art. Let us not confuse it with other modes of cultural production.

But if NFT Crypto Art isn’t art, what is it? It’s kitsch, plain and simple. In his 1939 essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” art critic Clement Greenberg wrote that kitsch “is the source of its profits,” and that it “is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times.” If virtual deeds to digital assets don’t fit the bill, what does?

The aesthetics of much Crypto Art is gaudy, crass, vapid or all three. Beeple’s “Kim Jong-un Rebrand,” 2019, shows a giant Kim Jong-un wearing panties, garters and a combination Buzz Lightyear and Pikachu costume that fails to cover a pair of massive breasts. Cutesy illustrations of blinged-out, blasé monkeys, in the case of the Bored Ape Yacht Club collection, are just boring.

“Kitsch,” as Greenberg warns, “is synthetic art.” And only the real thing offers viewers an empirical experience of any value.

Sure, maybe it’s a romantic position – actually, that’s exactly what it is.

Romanticism, which promotes and equates nature, truth, goodness and beauty, was a reactionary movement in arts and letters opposing the Industrial Revolution of the 1760s. So, wouldn’t it follow that the Fourth Industrial Revolution, as the current moment of technological advancement is sometimes called, would warrant a renewal of romantic sentiments?

As a sort of anti-philosophy, Romanticism begins with a strong feeling, such as the emotional response one has to an artwork in real time and space.

What moves me about a work of art is the transference of energy I experience: The fact that what I am looking at is the residual effect of an action taken by an artist. A mark on a canvas is the result of the painter’s gesture; A photograph is the product of the photographer’s having been there.

Forget a virtual reality headset: This is the closest I get to the experience of being someone else. And when the experience that the artist relates through the art object resonates with an experience I’ve had, or is in some way recognizable to me, I feel a deep sense of human connection. It’s life-giving, harmonious, maybe a little metaphysical, but real.

The sterility and anonymity of the internet forecloses the possibility of having this kind of sensorial relationship with the digital asset, or emotional relationship with the artist. A digital illustration always exists at a distance, at the very least through a screen and what we’re looking at isn’t even the residue of an action, only the record of a digital command. (The fact that digital files load fresh every time we look at them furthers the fact that there’s essentially nothing there.)

The Fourth Industrial Revolution could well be defined by a refusal to settle for a plateau of progress. In striving for more, we lose sight of the sensorial pleasure of viewing art in its own context, be it the gallery, museum or sculpture garden, rather than looking at kitsch in the ungrounded void-space of the internet. But I’m not worried that kitsch will replace art. Reality is non-fungible.

Max Blue is a San Francisco-based critic who writes about the visual arts and modern culture.

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