Depending on your perspective, Non-Fungible Token (NFT) artworks are inaugurating an exciting new chapter in the history of art, or a dangerous new chapter in the history of online market bubbles. NFTs index artworks, and are typically strings of characters stored on a blockchain such as Ethereum. NFTs are not exclusively used to index artworks, and have been used to index a range of collectibles, but it is the sale of NFTs associated with artworks that has launched the phenomenon into public consciousness. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the digital artist Beeple’s sale of an NFT for the equivalent of $69 million (Krastrenakes). For some, such staggering prices suggest NFTs are poised to become the next Beanie Babies—i.e., commodities without utility that sell at vastly inflated prices. Despite such cynicism, some argue that NFTs have revolutionary technical import, such that they could overturn many common and unequal practices within the contemporary art market (Rennie et al.). Chief among these is the supposed disposability of digital artworks, which are viewed as difficult to sell, resell, and protect from piracy. Such issues are thought to be ameliorated by NFTs, since they function as a token that is understood to stand as a “definitive indicator of ownership” of digital artworks (Mackenzie and Bērziņa 2). Or, as Rachel O’Dwyer has summarised, NFT art auctions like the Ethereal Summit held in New York in 2018 allow individuals to bid for the “ownership and provenance details of the works of art encrypted in the Ethereum blockchain and represented by a token” (O’Dwyer).
Unlike a more conventional artwork, such as a painting, NFT artworks typically take the form of JPEGs or GIFs, and therefore circulate the Internet widely, regardless of who owns the token that designates ownership. While reproductions and printed documentations of traditional artworks are commonplace—e.g., art gallery giftshops will often sell relatively low-cost posters of masterpieces like Picasso’s Guernica, or coffee table books showcasing the masterworks of influential movements like post-impressionism—there are obvious material differences between the reproduction and the original. In the case of the typically digital NFT artworks, this distinction does not apply. Accordingly, the academic and popular discussions that surround NFT artworks have reignited theoretical questions around the ontological status of artworks, and the source of their economic value. For some, the NFT market is a financial bubble and the prices attracted by particular NFT-linked artworks have no underlying value (BBC News). For others, the value of NFTs can be explained through an appeal to the value subjectively attributed to the image or animation by the purchaser (Nguyen), while for others the value of NFTs should be understood in terms of digital scarcity and provenance (Rennie et al.; Joselit) or as a technological means for artists to maintain a greater share of their artwork’s value (Kugler).
While the NFT market is novel, and is worthy of study in terms of its specific technological and economic forms, this article will argue that NFTs can be placed in a longer history of the emergence of what Luc Boltanski and Arnauld Esquerre have called the “enrichment economy”. In their Enrichment: A Critique of Commodities, Boltanski and Esquerre argue that, since at least the last quarter of the twentieth century, a new site of valorisation has emerged in post-industrial economies. According to Boltanski and Esquerre, globalisation and deindustrialisation provoked many economies to embrace tourism, luxury good production, and the commodification of heritage and culture as new sites of extraction. As the viability of the mass production of commodities has receded, the production of unique commodities and transient yet “unforgettable” experiences have become more economically significant. For Boltanski and Esquerre, enrichment refers both to the often-discursive refining and redefining of existing commodities—such that they fetch greater prices—and a greater emphasis on an economy for those with disposable income—such as tourists, art collectors, and the wealthy more generally (3-4). Often, Boltanski and Esquerre argue, the enrichment economies of art and luxury tend to mine and exploit the “underlying substratum that is purely and simply the past” (2). For this reason, the enrichment economy requires the production of new forms of authenticity, “aura”, and belief, such that the overlooked or taken-for-granted objects of the past can be reframed as unique and worthy of investment or consumption.
The interesting question, then, is not necessarily that of why someone would pay a large sum of money to own a piece of code on a blockchain, but, instead, that of how a particular piece of contemporary art or an NFT comes to be “enriched” with authenticity and aura. While a thoroughgoing discussion of this topic would require a longer piece, this article will nevertheless attempt to open up connections between art history, debates around the production of artistic value during and after Modernism, and the newly emerging NFT art market. While many have declared that NFTs are “disrupting the art market” (Tripathi)—supposedly evinced by the staggering growth of the NFT market, and emerging institutional recognition, such as ArtReview’s decision to place an NFT at the top of their Power 100 List for 2021—this article seeks to locate the NFT explosion within a slightly longer timeframe, one in which NFTs would feature as a continuation—albeit a non-linear one—rather than a disruption of ongoing cultural and economic logics.
Value and Void
Despite the incredulity that commonly meets NFT artworks, the contemporary art market similarly flaunts conventional understandings of aesthetic and economic value. While many would surely agree with journalist Amy Castor’s claim that “it’s hard to justify that a Bored Ape NFT is worth $300,000 based on the art” (quoted in Artnet), almost identical criticisms have been raised around the contemporary artist Maurizio Cattelan’s 2019 work Comedian. Released in an edition of three, Comedian consisted of a banana duct-taped to a wall, with two of the three selling for $120,000 each. As Sara Callahan puts it, works like Comedian reignited debates around “what makes something a high-priced artwork when another, seemingly identical, object is not?” (Callahan).
While NFTs are reawakening interest in the question of artistic value, the financialisation of cheaply made and mass-produced artworks has a much longer history. Indeed, by the 1960s, a booming secondary art market that traded in increasingly expensive, yet cheap-to-produce avant-garde works—often requiring relatively small amounts of time and inexpensive materials—raised suspicions that art was becoming indistinguishable from more traditional financial assets. In response, in 1968 the influential art critic Leo Steinberg argued that, “avant-garde art, lately Americanized, is for the first time associated with big money. … Another decade, and we shall have mutual funds based on securities in the form of pictures held in bank vaults” (quoted in Beech 300). As Dave Beech has shown, in the ensuing period, “art’s relationship to finance capital has outstripped Steinberg’s worst fears” (Beech 301). By the 1980s, banks allowed individuals to borrow large sums of money against the value of their art collections, and investment in artworks became a normal practice of portfolio diversification (Beech 299–300). When interest rates are low, investments in productive capital offer low levels of liquidity, and international markets appear vulnerable to shocks, artworks—whether physical or in the form of an NFT—offer a means of hedging against future losses. Furthermore, in both the contemporary art market and the NFT market, purchases of artworks at inflated prices often allow an individual to prevent “the bottom from falling out of a market they have already invested in” (O’Dwyer).
The fact that artworks could hold a value well in excess of the cost of the materials or labour time required to produce them, was not solely recognised by art collectors and investors. Instead, this period saw a great number of artists explicitly playing with the aporia that had emerged around art’s economic value—insofar as ready-made artworks could now fetch prices typically reserved for laboriously produced and unique masterpieces. Take, for example, Yves Klein’s project Zones of Immaterial Pictorial Sensibility, which he developed over the late 1950s and early 1960s. In these works, Klein offered collectors the opportunity to purchase a void or “immaterial zone” for varying quantities of gold, with “20 grams (3/4 ounce) of pure gold for the Zones of series no. 1, the least expensive, to 1,280 grams (27/8 pounds) for those of series no. 7, the most expensive” (Cras 24). In exchange for the gold, the void-owner would receive a receipt as proof of purchase. However, for the work to be completed, Klein requested that the receipt be burned by the collector, and in response Klein would throw half of the received gold into the river Seine (Cras 24). By destroying the proof of purchase, and by releasing some of the gold into the river, the collector would receive “the full authentic immaterial value of the work” (Klein quoted in Cras 24).
We see some resemblances here between Klein’s Zones and NFTs—and here Klein is no exception, since, as Cras has documented, the 1960s were replete with artists experimenting with the production of artworks as novel financial assets. For Cras, it was a time in which “the problem of attaching a price to works of art and offering them for sale, traditionally considered to be external to creation in this domain, was now incorporated in artistic practice” (Cras 3). If artists were increasingly embracing the artwork’s status as an asset, and if the price of artworks became divorced from luxurious materials or skilled production, how were artworks able to assert themselves as valuable and worthy of collection and investment? How is that, rather than the decoupling of artworks from some secure material base of value diminishing their market value, such decoupling has instead led to immense growth in the art market? In order to pursue this question, in the next section we will turn to Beech’s rethinking of the Marxist labour theory of value in the context of the art market.
Value and Labour
Here, it is worthwhile to turn to Beech’s distinction between the price of the artwork and the value of the artwork. For Beech, an artwork’s price is whatever sum of money it can be exchanged for in the market. Most neoclassical economists treat price and value as being synonymous, and, from this position, it makes no sense to ask if an artwork is worth—or if its value is equivalent—to its current price. As Beech writes, “neoclassical economics claims to be able to treat the sale of artworks as a standard transaction with prices determined entirely by demand and the subjective perception of utility by wealthy purchasers” (Beech 291). Against this view, Beech offers a Marxist interpretation of artistic value, one that emphasises labour-time in the production of artistic reputation. Reputation is key here, as Beech dismisses the notion that an increase in artistic labour-time increases the value of an artwork. Against neoclassical economists, Beech (311) writes that “the increase or decrease in the price of artworks is not ‘a floating crap game’, but is determined by the changing circumstances of the artwork itself vis-à-vis the esteem it is held in by the art community”. Accordingly, Beech states that the prices of artworks are seriously affected—perhaps even driven—by the non-purchasing “consumers” of art, namely academics, commentators, and other artists, who determine the general reputation of artworks. Accordingly, if we want to understand the prices of artworks at the marketplace, we need to focus our attention on art’s evaluative discourses, the production of knowledge, and the practices of producing objects that provide an assessment and legacy for a work or body of work, such as photographic reproductions and monographs. Artistic value as reputation is not only expressed through the economic consumption of products, but in the activities of learning from them, asking questions of them, reconfiguring them in new products, combining them and rejecting them. The high prices of art derive from the high status of the work within the discourses of art (Beech 312).
Whereas the conventional Marxist labour theory of value focusses on the socially necessary labour time for the production of a commodity, Beech emphasises the labour of the consumer rather than that of the producer. As we have shown, an artwork that takes very little time to produce—such as Cattelan’s Comedian—can attract a much larger price than a painting by a lesser-known artist who spends months in the studio. Nevertheless, Beech argues that the greater the labour time of the non-purchasing consumers of art, the greater the artwork’s value. By maintaining a distinction between price—the quantity of money an artwork can be exchanged for—and value—the total of labour-time expended in discussing, viewing, and reproducing an artwork—Beech provides us with a framework for understanding how prices emerge, without exaggerating the predictive powers of such a framework. If an artist’s work is priced relatively low, but the discourse around their work is expanding rapidly, there is the potential to make a purchase below value, even if this investment is still speculative. By contrast, the neoclassical perspective renders this approach to the price/value relationship unthinkable.
What, then, distinguishes artistic—or artworld—discourse from marketing? Beyond the simple observation that marketing teams are directly employed by capitalists in order to push a message that is directly related to increasing surplus-value, Beech argues that “it is a condition of the contribution of art discourse to the inflation of the value of art that it is independent from the economic interests at stake” (Beech 313). Though Beech does not put it this way, we could argue that the gap between artistic discourse and those who stand to financially benefit from the inflation of an artwork’s value produces the “aura” of the artwork. Coca-Cola’s marketing team is unlikely to change its opinion about its famous product, whereas art discourse is produced—for the most part—by a decentralised “artworld” of curators, critics, museologists, historians, philosophers, artists, and viewers, all of whom gravitate towards certain works at certain times—and it is arguably the uncertainty and uncoordinated nature of these shifts in reputational favour that make certain works feel miraculous. While, in the short term, a Bored Ape, and an artwork like Comedian, can attract a high price, it is unlikely that these artworks will maintain that price overtime—for this to happen, one would have to imagine an ongoing process of enrichment, one that would find new conversations to have about such works beyond the novelty of their unlikely price tags.
Enriching the Blockchain
While recent years have seen the publication of impressive and sophisticated quantitative studies of the NFT market, such studies have focussed on the quantifiable aspects of value and reputation (Vasan et al.; Nadini et al.). While such research has shown that connection to prominent collectors, and visibility on popular crypto-platforms, is an indicator of the expected price of an NFT, Beech’s research suggests that a range of difficult-to-quantify factors must be taken into consideration. While quantifiable forms of influence are of course important, the capacity for an artwork—linked to an NFT or not—to be discursively enriched, such that its status as historically and culturally significant appears independent from the testimony of those who would financially benefit from its revaluation, appears vital for its long-term enrichment and accrual of value.
Some have attempted to articulate the emerging value of the NFT market in such terms. For example, Paul Dylan-Ennis claims that in order to understand CryptoPunks—one of the older artistic series to be linked to NFTs, and which can sell for up to $1.6 million—we must appreciate that they “are sought after because of their age, like blockchain antiques” (Dylan-Ennis). For Dylan-Ennis, NFTs like Cryptopunks are valuable insofar as they are “the oldest NFTs”, and, accordingly, it is “their ‘metadata’” or their “longevity on the blockchain” that is desired (Dylan-Ennis). In Dylan-Ennis’s account, NFTs are worth investing in because their past will one day be historically significant, hence his injunction for us to “look past the art and look at the medium to get what is going on” (Dylan-Ennis). But rather than looking at the medium, perhaps it is more fruitful to look to the institutional forms that nurture, generate, and circulate the reputational discourses that modify artistic value. In doing so, we will not only avoid the conservative move of denouncing NFT artworks on the basis of an arbitrary aesthetic standard, but also the utopian move of associating NFTs with the fantasy of a future “in which the subject is free from coercive mediating institutions, the state chief among them, wielding data certainty as a means of freedom and social transformation” (Jutel 4). Rather than NFTs freeing the digital artist from the problems imposed by ease of reproduction, we can see that the reputational value of the artwork linked to a non-fungible token requires the fungibility of reproduction, circulation, commentary, and discussion. NFT boosters have been quick to critique the institutions that have traditionally provided the training that fosters such discourse and expertise—in the form of the non-purchasing consumers discussed by Beech— as gatekeepers that exploit artists. While we should acknowledge the gross inequities of the artworld and academia, such institutions have nevertheless been relatively historically successful in their attempt to produce large audiences that can participate in the enrichment of past objects, and the connection of new objects to that past. The challenge that the cryptoworld will face, is whether, like the artworld, it can marshal similar long-term discursive labour in the process of enrichment. If it cannot, we may ironically see the same “gatekeeping” institutions of the artworld invoked to bolster the value of the NFT market.
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