The proliferation of non-fungible tokens has transformed cryptocurrency artefacts into a legitimised art form now considered in mainstream art collecting as an emerging high-yield commodity based on scarcity. As photography was debated “of being art” in the late 19th century, video art in the 1960s, virtual reality in the 1990s, and augmented reality in the 2010s, NFT art is the next medium of artwork tied to emergent cultural forms. From the concept of “introducing scarcity from born-digital assets for the first time ever, NFTs or crypto or digital collectibles, as they are also referred to, have already shown glimpses of their potential'” (Valeonti et al. 1). Yet for NFT art, “numerous misconceptions still exist that are partly caused by the complexity of the technology and partly by the existence of many blockchain variants” (Treiblmaier 2). As the discussion of NFT art is still centred on questions of justifying the legitimacy of the medium and its financial trading, critical analysis outside of these key points is still limited to blogs and online articles as the mainstay of debate. To distance NFTs from a common assumption that they are in some form or another a populous digital fad, cryptocurrencies are intended primarily as currencies, even if they maintain some asset-like properties (Baur et al.).
In a broader sense, NFTs have positioned digital art as a collectable staple as “the most common types are collectibles and artworks, objects in virtual worlds, and digitalised characters from sports and other games” (Dowling). As a point of origin "NFTs were originally developed using the Ethereum blockchain, [while] many other blockchain networks now facilitate trade and exchange of NFTs” (Wilson et al.). “Given NFTs link to underlying assets that are unique in some way and cannot be exchanged like for like” (Bowden and Jones), this article will consider how artists respond to this uniqueness, which separates the art as simply trading an artefact on a crypto platform, to instead consider a different approach that attests to legitimising the medium as a conceptual space.
The concept of NFTs was first introduced in 2012 with Bitcoin’s “Colored Coins”, which referred to tokens that represent any type of physical asset “such as real estate properties, cars and bonds” (Rosenfeld). To that end, the origins of NFTs, as we know, attach themselves to rarities, much the same as any other luxury trading artefact. But where NFTs differ is, as a system, in the non-fungibility of their agency and, as an artefact, the singularity of their rarity and uniqueness. As an example in art, consider a Van Gogh painting where its rarity sustains its value, as there are only a certain number of Van Gogh paintings in circulation.
Thus, the value of a Van Gogh painting in the domain of rarity is determined by its metadata with attention to the verification of the authenticity of the artefact and, among others, its subsequent details of the year it was painted. NFTs work along with the same premise: both the Van Gogh painting’s data and an NFT are non-fungible because they cannot be forged, but the painting is fungible because it can be forged.
From here, there are two components to associate with NFT art. The first is the NFT, which is the data of a digital token registered on a blockchain. The second is the artefact associated with the NFT, which we know as NFT art. But the system by which NFTs exists as a blockchain is different from, say, buying shares listed in a stock market. Therefore, to find a conceptuality in NFT art, the idea of an NFT artwork as a singular tradable commodity needs to be rethought as not the artefact per se, but the effect of the condition brought about by a combination of the artefact, the currency, and nature of its transaction system.
To think of these key points as an independent singularity dismantles any sense of a conceptual framework by which NFT art can exist beyond its form. As McLoughlin argues, “unlike the commercial gallery business model, NFTs are designed to cut out the need for art dealers, enabling artists to trade directly online, typically via specialist auction sites” (McLoughlin). With regards to the GLAM sector, the conceptuality of this disruption positions both the born-digital artefact and the system of trading of the artefact as inextricably linked together. Yet the way this link is considered, even by galleries and curators alike, invites further attention to see NFT art not as a fad, but as a beginning of an entirely new system of the digital genre.
From an aesthetics perspective, recent hostility surrounding the acceptance of NFT art within the establishment has predictably taken issue with the low-brow nature of mainstream avatar-oriented NFT art; for example, Bored Ape Yacht Club and Cryptopunks not surprisingly have been at odds with “proper” art. More so, other artists who have used blockchain in their practice, including Kevin McCoy, Mitchel F. Chan, and Rhea Myers, contributed to early crypto art especially in the 2010s to be inclusive of the proliferation of NFT art as a fine arts medium. Yet despite these contributions, the polarising of NFT art within the art world, as Widdington asserts, has accounted for assumptions that NFT art is identified as being of populous kitsch, lowbrow images, where contemporary art is in opposition to the critique it subjectifies itself against.
The art establishment’s disdain towards the aesthetics of NFTs is historically predictable. Early NFT art focussed on pop culture references that have significance within the crypto community (Pepe memes, collectible CryptoKitties), and similarly, in the 1980s, Jeff Koons forced the world of “high art” to confront and accept his works rejoicing in pop culture (Michael Jackson, Pink Panther; Widdington).
A key point from Widdington’s claim can be attested for other art that came before Postmodernism, linked firmly to artists using identifiers as part of their studio practice. Moreover, the tying of artwork to a non-fungible identifier is not new. Sol LeWitt's Wall Drawing #793B Certificate (LeWitt) compounded his manifesto that “the idea becomes a machine that makes the art” (LeWitt). By adopting the practice that each of his artworks was accompanied by an authenticity certificate, where the identification code forced a fungible asset to be associated with a unique non-fungible asset, it is the ownership of a certificate of authenticity, or a smart contract on the blockchain in the case of an NFT, that makes the artist’s work unique and therein valuable (Widdington).
The scarcity of born-digital assets drives demand for collecting NFT art and joins a financial aspect tied to the process of buying and selling crypto assets. This is obviously different from a crypto conceptuality which exists outside the process and thereby manifests in the idea of what intersects the process, and, in the case of NFT artworks, the subject of the image being traded. Just as LeWitt’s certificate of ownership was thought to raise questions about authenticity and uniqueness through abstract thinking, the concept of art derived from NFT art is fundamentally no different. Both use non-fungibility as a condition of their agency to first address what can be copied and what remains as unique. Second, the mechanism of a ledger that, for NFTs, is blockchain and, for a certificate of authenticity, is the assigned number of the unique identifier, regulates scarcity by using a system to define uniqueness. Adopting this manifesto invites a different way to consider NFT art when the main conversation about NFT art in popular journalism or blogging is a narrow discussion either about the legitimacy of NFTs as an authentic financial stock or about the amount of money they transact in collecting the artefacts. One such conceptuality is in the recent NFT artwork of Damien Hirst.
Damien Hirst’s The Currency “is composed of 10,000 NFTs linked to 10,000 individual spot paintings on paper” (Hawkins) which are inclusive of added security devices within the paper itself to make the physical asset unique. The purchaser can decide if they would like to own the NFT “or ... keep the physical work and relinquish rights to the blockchain-based artwork” (Goldstein). Perspectives of the project, despite the fact that “Hirst has become a renewed critical target in the left and left-liberal media” (White 197) for his NFT project, not to mention being lamented as “Thatcher’s Warhol” (Lemmey), range from indicating “greater fool theory” (Hawkins) to the questioning of a “responsibility to other NFT artists in the market” (Meyohas). However, discussion on the conceptuality created by The Currency, especially its ontology, is muted if not ignored altogether, which this article considers a fundamental oversight in any credible critical assessment of NFT art. Given that Hirst’s artwork has consistently been moulded around conceptual art, whereby the idea of art becomes the artwork not necessarily found in the hand-made aspect of the artefact itself, the idea of The Currency is to question the role and relationship of art and money through an allegory.
One might argue that its conceptuality then affords the idea of the artwork being a currency in itself. It speaks to divisibility, just as the cryptocurrency used to purchase the artworks is divisible of its own tender. The disjuncture in this accord is that “NFTs are not currencies themselves, but rather more like records of ownership” (Cornelius 2). The dot paintings on paper are created as unique artefacts where their uniqueness makes them rare, and this uniqueness makes the rarity an increase in financial value. However, subverting this are Hirst’s physical creations, where the legal tender’s conceptuality is manufactured with watermarks, security embeds, and financial markings the same as traded bills. If this perspective is considered a concept, not a digital selling point, then The Currency prompts further debate on how NFT art can, on the one hand, disrupt the way we might think about the financial systems within cryptocurrencies, and on the other hand, fuel debate on how collecting art within traditional markets has been transformed through the emergence of cryptocurrencies. These once excluded forms of money, often thought of as scams, vapourware, and Ponzi schemes from collectable trade, now dwarf digital art auction sales at an exponential margin; see, for example, the recent Christie's sale of Beeple’s NFT art.
When dissecting The Currency through a conceptuality, it is important to state that this is not the first time that artists have used currency to conceptualise social questions about money. At a system level, Marcel Duchamp created his work Monte Carlo Bond (Duchamp), which “advertised a series of bonds by which he claimed he would exploit a system he had developed to make money while at the roulette wheel in Monaco” (Russeth). At an artefact level, artist Mark Wagner “deconstructed dollar bills to make portraits of presidents, recreations of famous paintings and other collages” (Ryssdal and Hollenhorst). Most notoriously, “Jens Haaning was loaned 534,000 kroner ($116,106) in cash to recreate his old artworks using the banknotes [but] pocketed the money and sent back blank canvases with a new title: "Take the Money and Run" (ABC News).
If anything, The Currency is merely one of many artists' responses in a long history of exploring art and money. Yet the conceptuality of Hirst’s tender lends itself to deploying a conceptual currency system that says more about the money transactions of the art world than it does about the art sold as a financial transaction. More so, a clever subversion by Hirst, whose ongoing thematic produces artworks about mortality, life, and death, places this thematic back on the purchasers of The Currency to decide if they will “kill” the tethered artwork; that is, if they accept the NFT and not the assigned NFT art, the artwork will be destroyed by an act of burning. Hirst’s conceptuality from The Currency forces the consumer to “play God” by deciding which component is destroyed or not, posing the moral question of how we value the immorality of destroying an artwork for the sake of profitability from a born-digital token. The twist at the end is that Hirst melds such a moral choice with “an experiment in the highly irrational economics of collectibles and blockchain technology” (Hawkins).
While this article acknowledges that the extreme wealth of Hirst plays a determining factor in how The Currency has been received by the public, one might argue that such polarising opinions are of no value to the critical assessment of The Currency nor the conceptualities of NFT art when determining the mechanical aspects of the artworks. The same invalidation emerged in December 2021, when “a group of Wikipedia editors ... voted not to categorize NFTs as art—at least for now” (Artnews). This standpoint contradicts the New York Times, which referred to Beeple as the “third-highest-selling artist alive” after his Christie’s sale (Artnews). Bowden and Jones provide insight into this kind of hesitation in legitimising NFT art, saying that “the tension between innovation and incumbency also contributes to the scepticism that always surrounds such new technologies” (Bowden and Jones).
Another example, Beautiful Thought Coins from Australian artist Shaun Wilson, is made up of 200 digital hand-drawn colour field NFT artworks that are an allegorical investigation into bureaucracy, emotion, and currency. “The project is complete with a virtual exhibition, digital art prints, art book, and a soundtrack of AI hosted podcasts exploring everything from NFTs to chihuahuas” (Lei). As with The Currency, Beautiful Thought Coins approaches a conceptuality about NFT art through its subject, but also in the embodiment of the currency embedded within the NFT digital ecosystem.
Not surprisingly, the artwork depicts coins sharing a direct relationship to the roundel paintings of Jasper John and Peter Blake, but instead with the design proportions of the iconic Type C.1 roundels adopted by the Royal Air Force between 1942 and 1947. Merging these similarities between its pop-art heritage and historical references, the allegorical discussion in Beautiful Thought Coins centres around the pretext of bureaucracy that extends to the individual artwork’s metadata. As featured on its OpenSea sales window, each of the coins has substantial metadata that, when expanded to view, reveal a secondary narrative found in the qualities each NFT has linked to its identifier. Once compared with other tokens, these metadata expand into a separate story with the NFT artworks, using fictitious qualities that link directly to the titles of each artwork in the digital collection to describe how each of the coins is feeling. One might argue that in this instance, the linking of metadata narratives to the artworks functions as an ontological framework.
Wilson’s coins draw similarly to philosophical questions raised by Cross, who asks “what, exactly, is the ontological status of an NFT in relation to the work linked to it?” (Cross). Likewise, in the exhibition catalogue of Beautiful Thoughts Coins, Church states that
the ontology of this series appears to be linked to a conceptuality with more questions than answers about the ‘lifestyle’ bureaucracy attached to NFT art, where the branding of the artwork by a digital token will make you feel better with the promise to also make you potentially wealthy. (Church)
When considering the nature of the artwork's divisibility, ontology plays a part in finding a link between its allegory and aesthetic. Given that each image of the roundels is identical, except for the colours that fill each of its four rings, the divisibility of the hue in the subject is likened to the divisibility of the cryptocurrency that purchases NFTs.
This article has discussed NFT art in the context of its emergent conceptuality. Through assessment of the crypto artwork of Hirst and Wilson, it has proposed a way of thinking about how this conceptuality can remove NFT art from a primary attachment to financial exchange, to instead give rise to considerations of the allegory surmounting both fungible and non-fungible artefacts linked to digital tokens. Both series of works draw allegorical commentary about the nature of currency. Hirst takes a literal approach to manufacture physical artworks as a mock currency linked to minted NFTs to discuss the transactions of money in art. Wilson manufactures digital artworks by creating images of coins linked to minted NFTs to discuss the transactions of AI-generated lifestyle bureaucracy controlling money. The assessment of both series has considered that each artist uses NFT art as modularity to represent their contexts, rather than a singularity lacking in conversation about the ontological implications of the medium. While NFT art is still in its infancy, this article invites a wider conversation about how artists can deploy crypto art in a conceptual space. It is by this factor that the plausibility of meaningful dialogue is active in determining the medium as a legitimised art form. At the same time, it explores the possibilities now and yet to come, to attest to defining a new dynamic art form, already changing the way artists think about their work as both a currency and a conceptual effect.
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