NFTs are a divisive subject. They currently divide the world population into four. The vast majority of people who don’t care or have never even heard of NFT’s, a very small percentage who think NFT’s are revolutionizing the art world, another very small percentage who think NFT’s are pointless and wasteful, and an extremely small percentage of artists who are exploring this new artistic frontier. New art has always been divisive (Impressionism, Cubism, etc.). And the scale of the division about NFT’s is itself extremely interesting, and one that is only possible because of the modern information communication technologies like Twitter. It is no longer possible to separate art and technology, either as an artist, a collector, or a viewer. Technology is an unavoidable, undeniable aspect of creating and experiencing art. NFT’s are part of that, for better or worse.
The uninteresting side of NFT’s
NFT’s mean lots of different things to lots of different people, and tendency of those in either of the small populations mentioned above is to always defend their position. Fine. Uninteresting, but fine. So before we get into the real art of NFT’s, let’s quickly cover the uninteresting (from an artistic perspective) mainstream aspects; commercialisation, motivation and aesthetics, for those two small percentages.
The commercialisation of works of art through the use of blockchain technology plays out in the same way as any market economy. It’s subject to the same underlying principles with the few rich getting richer and the majority poor getting poorer. That’s the same no matter what technology underpins the market. NFT’s as a means to buy, trade and demonstrate ownership of works of art/fairly-mundane-imagery-with-lots-of-hype-associated-with-it doesn’t and cannot change that.
The motivations for buying art, whether at an auction house or on an NFT marketplace, haven’t changed either. It continues to be about status (owning art) and money (investing in art) whether bidding on a Monet painting or Bored Ape jpg. This also will not change because of new technology.
The aesthetics of mainstream collectible NFTs have already reached a dominant design pattern. They are used as profile pictures to indicate identity with a certain group of others, often referencing other cultural aesthetics such as comic books or computer games, and often visually unique within a given set of parameters. Whether this aesthetic is your aesthetic isn’t really the point. If you like a certain aesthetic and enjoy looking at that kind of art, you can do so with or without NFT’s.
This side of NFT’s, the mainstream as it were, is where most of the attention goes, but it is far less interesting than the creative and artistic exploration that they provide for artists.
NFT as a metamodern art form
NFT’s provide the perfect expression of a metamodern art form and subject of artistic exploration. Not just each individual NFT recorded on a blockchain, but NFT’s as a subject, a form, a cultural artifact, as a metamodern artistic sensibility that…
… oscillates between a modern enthusiasm and a postmodern irony, between hope and melancholy, between naiveté and knowingness, empathy and apathy, unity and plurality, totality and fragmentation, purity and ambiguity.
-Vermeulen and van den Akker.
The division of opinion that NFT’s create is in itself a postmodern stance, but for metamodern artists it becomes an expression of oscillation. The role NFT’s play in the cultural zeitgeist swings from extreme to extreme depending on who you talk to. The NFT isn’t the art, the art is the NFT. Art and technology cannot be separated and so for this art, technology provides form and function, context and content, subject and situation.
Even mainstream NFT artwork has already demonstrated a cultural stake in many of Greg Dember’s metamoden methods:
Hyper-self-reflexivity – the idea that people’s identities are constructed quite self-consciously through a narrative lens. NFT’s as status symbol and profile picture demonstrate that knowing identity construction done both unironically and connectively. As unique images, these NFT profile pictures reference the individuality of the owner, whilst at the same claiming their belonging to a group of holders of similar images and in reinforcing their self-claimed identity as early adopters of the trend.
Double-framing – the temporary trapping of the viewer between an outer frame of the “real world” and an inner frame of the narrative of the artwork. The viewer is in a space where they are able to engage unironically with the hype and of the “NFT world” whilst still remaining grounded in the reality of the realisation that NFT’s are purely virtual. This double-framing of the opinions those two small percentages held in opposition of each other is particularly of interest to artists, because it creates a space where both can exist together and boundaries can be explored through double-framing.
Constructive Pastiche – the potentially constructive juxtaposing of seemingly disparate elements, from historically separated genres and/or cultures. The jpg’s we see in mainstream NFT art often combines disparate elements from various cultural and historic reference points. Intentionally or not, they create a space for cultural iconography that doesn’t fit into it’s originating culture or history but instead combines to become a different experience.
Oscillation – a way of engaging two oppositional factors without them cancelling each other out, nor landing in the average zone between them. In fact never landing, always moving. Art that explores any kind of emerging technology such as NFT’s could never land on a single position for the landscape shifts too quickly and suddenly.
Perhaps the confusion and division around NFT’s comes from looking at this most metamodern art form from a modernist or postmodernist perspective.
Some exploration of onchain art
My own exploration into the constantly oscillating world of onchain art has been via stiles, of all things. My work constructively pastiches genres – British landscape art, conceptual art, art/life movement – and oscillates between the physical and digital worlds. It tries to explore the relationship between, and understand a world made up of, all of these things, and usually through decidedly uncultural objects.
Before stiles, there were other works of a similar theme. #FloorsIveWalkedOn created abstract patterns through photographs of floors I had walked on. This work explored presence and place, bridging the physical place and the lasting presence in the digital world. This work isn’t on the blockchain, it exists only on Instagram. At the time, that was enough. Had I been interested in displaying art in the physical world I might have printed lino floor coverings of all the floors I had walked on for others to walk on. But instead my work went the other way, becoming more virtual.
Stiles.style collects images of stiles from the British landscape into a unique collection of unique objects. Stiles are one of the few objects left in the modern world that are hand-made by different people all across the country but following a similar design pattern. Each stile is unique. And they are gradually disappearing form the British countryside. To photograph stiles is one way to preserve them in virtual form. To create a token on the blockchain that represents the photo of the stile creates an even more virtual, more abstract, preservation of a stile. And doing so asks questions. Is uniqueness tied to physical form? How much of a real object is lost when it becomes a digital photo or a string of numbers? What happens when there are no more of those real objects left in the real world and they only exist in virtual form? What effect does it have on our culture to digitise everything from the real world?
NFT’s are more than jpgs on the blockchain. They open up an entirely new cultural space for artists to explore. NFT’s are, at once, the form, subject, context and environment of art, through which artists can explore themes around ownership, the physical and digital worlds, the hype of new technology, and so many more. So, the small percentages can continue to argue from their mainstream positions, and meanwhile the artists will explore the breadth and depth of the virtual, blockchain and NFT landscapes.