Art is something for cryptocurrencies to con

Joe Dunthorne penned an amusing article in London Review earlier this month about encountering a fake account of him on Instagram, whose user promoted the real Dunthorne’s poems and book. Dunthorne begins by citing Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Double, in which a doppelgänger usurps the life of a nondescript young man named Yakov Golyadkin by taking over his life and social circles. The original is eventually confined to an asylum because everyone in his life, such as it was, prefers the new fellow.

Dunthorne himself quests for the identity of the person impersonating him, only to find, through many twists and turns, that it is a guy who constantly changes his identity as he goes about scamming people to invest in cryptocurrencies by posing as someone whose work doesn’t directly involve these digital entities in the first place.

It’s a fascinating con – although not the one Dunthorne may believe it is, as he writes: “Then there was the one where scammers tricked people into investing $2.7 million in cartoons of apes. In fact, this was a double scam, convincing buyers first that the images were timeless works of digital art and then that they should pay huge amounts of money to an organisation that didn’t exist.” Dismissing these investments because they’re directed at companies that “don’t exist” in the physical realm is naïve. Nonetheless, while Dunthorne ponders if a random stranger has done a Yakov Golyadkin on him, there is a con here – one that brings to mind a post by a user named kevbrinx on Tumblr:

Tumblr is known for being a place where creativity happens because it’s cool, it’s fun, it’s different and difficult! “I will make it because I can”.

The majority of NFT artists I’ve seen don’t share the same mentality. And that is worrying.

I’m sure out there are many works of art that aren’t made by a computer and have been created with the intention to inspire. However, just like it has been demonstrated on Twitter, who buys wouldn’t do it just to showcase their precious possessions?

Where is the value in that?

It might be not what NFTs have been created for originally, but right now they represent vanity and greed to many. Expecially when there are other safer ways to support artists economically.

“The focus of NFTs is not actually the art”.

The post is addressed to Matt Mullenweg, the cofounder of WordPress. Mullenweg’s response is ambiguous, noncomittal:

The list of things to do before we got to anything NFT-related is super-duper long. I don’t share all your worries about NFTs, but I am not fanboying them. The only NFTs I hold myself right now are Wapuu related:

If Mullenweg doesn’t see the problem that already exists, he’s not going to solve it.

Cryptocurrencies have emerged as a (disagreeable) way to fund art, and therefore supposedly support artists, using the Trojan horse of NFTs. (For a detailed yet accessible detailed explanation of this concept, see here.) Dunthorne’s story illustrates that cryptocurrency evangelists – including scammers – are looking for ways to promote it without letting their prospects be tainted by the conflict of interest of how much they have to gain: lots of money, and the advantage of being invisible to law enforcement – in exchange for allowing struggling artists to enter the cool cryptocurrencies circuit.

But what Dunthorne leaves unsaid is that the modus operandus of his scammer is indistinguishable from those who claim they’re legitimately supporting artists by trading their work using cryptocurrencies and NFTs.

Separating the item in question from the value of it that’s being traded may seem virtuous, but it’s really the essence of the scam: art becomes another financial asset, one that the rich and the powerful are already familiar with. Art here is being used to give cryptocurrencies something to do, and to look any bit respectable while doing it. But breaking into this art-trading system only legitimises the rituals of the moneyed and renders art, and its makers, inseparable from their limited representation in the plutosphere.

The purpose is money, and profiteering, not the art itself or the issues embedded therein. The antics of the cryptocurrency-proponent Metakovan last year, buying an NFT of a collage of pictures for $69 million, popularised the concept and set this ship sailing, but in his case itself, as I wrote:

Metakovan’s move was ostensibly about getting the world’s attention and making it think about racism in, for some reason, art patronage. And it seems opportunistic more than anything else, a “shot fired” to be able to improve one’s own opportunities for profit in the crypto space instead of undermining the structural racism and bigotry embedded in the whole enterprise. This is a system which owes part of its current success to the existence of social and economic inequalities, which has laboured over the last few decades to exploit cheap labour and poor governance in other, historically beleaguered parts of the world to entrench technocracy and scientism over democracy and public accountability.

To quote Rosanna McLaughlin of The White Review:

The most shocking aspect of the NFT to the art intelligentsia is its brazen entanglement with finance. Trading art has always been a pastime of the wealthy. Much of what counts for art history consists of flattering portrayals of the rich and powerful, and artists have long been expected to perform what Tom Wolfe called the Art Mating Ritual – attracting the interest of wealthy patrons and conservative institutions, while simultaneously presenting as Bohemians and renegades. Yet with the NFT, the distinction between art and asset seems to have disappeared. In place of the curated exhibition is the auction website; symbols of the market have seeped into the aesthetic language of the art itself. Prices, not ideas, dominate.

Despite the promise of “art for everyone”, the final destination of the NFT might not actually be art. Art may simply be a useful way to advertise the possibilities of a new technology. “I’ve done everything from fashion, fragrances to endorsements,” Paris Hilton says, adding that NFTs are another way for “fans to have a piece of me”. As well as working with the rapper Ice Cube, Jones recently made an NFT for the whisky company Macallan, to be auctioned alongside a very expensive cask of scotch. This, it seems, is a taste of where NFTs may be heading: not a radical new model for trading art, but a digital marketing bauble.

Anil Dash, the CEO of Glitch:

Meanwhile, most of the start-ups and platforms used to sell NFTs today are no more innovative than any random website selling posters. Many of the works being sold as NFTs aren’t digital artworks at all; they’re just digital pictures of works created in conventional media.

There’s only one exception to the lack of interest in blockchain apps today: apps for trading cryptocurrencies themselves. What results is an almost hermetically sealed economy, whose currencies exist only to be traded and become derivatives of themselves. If you squint, it looks like an absurd art project.

After a decade of whiplash-inducing changes in valuation, billions of dollars are now invested in cryptocurrencies, and the people who have made those bets can’t cash in their chips anywhere. They can’t buy real estate with cryptocurrency. They can’t buy yachts with it. So the only rich-person hobby they can partake in with their cryptowealth is buying art. And in this art market, no one is obligated to have any taste or judgment about art itself. If NFT prices suddenly plunge, these investors will try buying polo horses or Davos tickets with cryptocurrencies instead. Think of a kid who’s spent the day playing Skee-Ball and now has a whole lot of tickets to spend. Every toy looks enticing. NFTs have become just such a plaything.

Finally, Laurie Rojas, cofounding editor of Caesura, on the inevitability of NFTs because of art’s foregone relationship with capitalism:

Commentators, however, actively neglect the lesson learned since the late ’60s that trying to escape art’s commodification is futile, or merely a pretense, and rarely reflect on the artwork’s connection to capitalist social relations. The connection between these two tendencies — that art’s value is determined/critiqued by commodity “fetishism” or that art’s value is determined/critiqued by socio-political position-taking — is deeper than it appears at first glance. These “critical” tendencies express how much Art has become caught between being an end in itself and a means to an end. NFTs are the latest phenomenon to express this.

Even with all the financial speculation around NFTs, the point that Art’s value is determined within the parameters of a society in which commodification is the dominant form of social relations (i.e., capitalism) has too easily been abandoned for poorly defined neologisms. Rarely is there a reflection on the relation of the artwork — its form, technique, beauty, contemplativeness, incomprehensibility, and what have you — to the increasingly barbaric commodity form.

Has the art world gone mad? No. This is business as usual.

Featured image credit: Karolina Grabowska/Pexels.