The Frida Kahlo NFT

Like a Phoenix rising from its ashes, Art is reborn into Eternity.

In July this year, a Mexican businessman named Martin Mobarak allegedly destroyed a painting by Frida Kahlo in order to liberate it from its physical shackles and unto its “eternal” existence henceforth as an NFT that he is selling for $4,000 apiece. He has said the money will go to charity, but it’s hard to understand how that is relevant considering what has (allegedly) been lost. Art these days is not entirely art: at least a part of its purpose has been subverted by cryptocurrencies into an object for proponents of this technology to con. Also, a fundamental tenet of the NFTs market is that scarcity is always better. Put these things together and you realise Mobarak’s actions were a matter of when, not if. However, the intersection of NFT-centric thinking with the art world has been and continues to be complicated.

In 2021, an artist named Beeple sold a collage of images he’d crafted and pieced together to a cryptocurrency entrepreneur named Metakovan for tokens worth $69 million. Metakovan, and his partner Twobadour, had said at the time that they were democratising art by enabling the cryptocurrency-based public ownership of works of art and by taking advantage of cryptocurrencies’ opportunities to allow non-white, non-western people to acquire high-valued art. It was a poorly conceived proposition in many ways – starting from the fact that the acquisition was a façade for Metakovan to inflate the value of the tokens he owned and going up to the fact that the $69-million moment did everything to uphold the links between art and modern capitalism instead of critiquing them (forget tearing them down).

Fast-forward to Martin Mobarak’s (alleged) destruction of ‘Fantasmones Siniestros’ and the contradictions abound. Contrary to Metakovan’s aspiration to democratise anything, even in principle, Mobarak’s (alleged) action epitomises the private ownership of art – outside history itself, isolated in one’s personal collection and thus – by the premium American logic of private ownership – at the unquestionable mercy of its proprietor, who may even choose to burn it without regard for its thingness as a historical-cultural-political object. In both cases, and the thousands of other instances in which NFT-makers have either championed the cause of paying artists or conceived art of their own, this human endeavour has been far removed from its telos of critiquing capitalist society and has become a commodity per se.

But while this is the long- and well-known effect of capitalism on art, the (alleged) destruction of ‘Fantasmones Siniestros’ also confronts us with a tense three-way contest. On vertex 1: The painting is Kahlo’s and is as such an important part of Mexico’s past, heritage and the aspirations of its people through the ages. On vertex 2: The headlines of most news reports, if not all, make sure to mention that the painting was worth $10 million, in a reminder of its monetary value de facto and the place of art by influential artists as an important bourgeois value-store de jure. And on vertex 3: No matter the legerdemain of businesspeople, NFTs will always and eventually ensure the complete commodification of art, thanks to their foundational premise.

The only thing worth prizing here is that on vertex 1: Kahlo’s work, inasmuch as it captures her spirit and anima and is a reminder of what she did, when and amidst whom. But vertices 2 and 3 seem to hold the means by which this preservation has been achieved before and will be achieved in future, and together prompt us to pay more attention to the delicate strands by which the memories of our pasts dangle. We still await the public ownership of the work of important artists, and many others, but anyone who says cryptocurrencies or blockchains are the way to get there is lying.

A similar problem has assailed the world of scientific knowledge and publishing for many years now, with more scientists becoming more aware today of their actual role in society: not to create new knowledge and improve lives as much as to widen the margins of scientific journals, overlook their glaring flaws and the incentives they have set up to the detriment of good science, and comply unquestioningly with their inexplicable price hikes. And even as many scientists have invented notions like “prestige” and “status” to make their allegiance to journals make sense, Mobarak et al. tell us, and themselves, that they’re doing everyone a favour.