NFTs: Art in the Age of Memetic Money Making [part 1]

The value of art used to be at least partly a function of craftsmanship, the exceptional, awe-inspiring talent of the artist. The primeval, empathic response to art has been one of reverence. It was the disciplined capturing of emotional reality that gave art its intangible value throughout history. It was also the reason why the avant-garde artists, who broke these boundaries of expression, have historically paid a very tangible real-life price for their non-conformity.

This has changed over the last four decades, as the art market has become more fully embedded into the opaque megastructure of transnational wealth exchange. As the late cultural critic Mark Fisher pointed out, art of the capitalist realist times is precorporated. Value precedes meaning; the work of art is pre-emptively formatted and shaped by capitalist culture. This process has been obviously intensified by the current platform-based accumulation. Even the most radical gestures of anti-capitalist rebellion are the output of (and the input to) the increasingly mediatized wealth machinery. In fact, the contemporary mimicry of the avant-garde tends to be extremely advantageous in these attention economies, which is made clear by the success of artistically dubious works of politicized Instagram art of the last 5 years.

The contentious debate of the 2010s about mediatization (or Instagrammification) of art was limited because there’s nothing novel about making art within the bounds of the prevalent media. The coincidental, more pressing phenomenon of memeification of all stores of wealth, is much more potentially disruptive to “The Art World”, as it subverts the already frail public acceptance of institutional merit in determining value. It is telling that at this time the institutional art world tends to ignore or even outright reject the Internet meme as a mode of artistic expression. I would argue that in the age of infinite digital reproduction, memes have become one of the most compelling and culturally influential genres of art, second only to con artistry itself.

This brings us to NFT art. In essence, the non-fungible token is a way of ensuring a given work of digital art is verifiably unique, and that it can be reliably licensed to its singular owner. This is of course a way of creating artificial scarcity for works that are otherwise infinitely reproducible, such as images or procedural animations.

The current practice of NFT art is simultaneously of and against the memetic logic. The most financially successful NFT works are moderately unique iterations of the most viral, too-big-to-copyright memetic images. One of the most outrageous examples of this was the Nyan-themed NFT sold recently for the price of 602,000 dollars. In this case, the value in NFT art is being created by leveraging the more or less absurd feats of the attention economy and applying overt, artificial scarcity to them. The resulting work is valuable because it’s recognizable, which in turn creates more monetary value, which increases its popularity and thereby worth ad infinitum (to the moon).

The true paradigm shift is not that art has become a mere placeholder for wealth — which has already happened and, as some would argue, has always been the case — but that the memetic and the monetary value have finally converged outside of institutional curation, making the art market ultimately detached from any pretense of connection to cultural inquiry. Or perhaps, it is the meaning of culture-making that is changing yet again.

[Part 2 coming up soon]