NFTs and Digital Art

21st Century Avant-Garde Impulse?

How to Cite

Lyubchenko, I. (2022). NFTs and Digital Art: 21st Century Avant-Garde Impulse?. M/C Journal, 25(2).
Vol. 25 No. 2 (2022): fungible
Published 2022-04-25


This article is concerned with the recent rise in popularity of crypto art, the term given to digital artworks whose ownership and provenance are confirmed with a non-fungible token (NFT), making it possible to sell these works within decentralised cryptocurrency art markets. The goal of this analysis is to trace a genealogy of crypto art to Dada, an avant-garde movement that originated in the early twentieth century.

My claim is that Dadaism in crypto art appears in its exhausted form that is a result of its revival in the 1950s and 1960s by the Neo Dada that reached the current age through Pop Art. Dada’s anti-art project of rejecting beauty and aesthetics has transformed into commercial success in the Neo Dada Pop Art movement. In turn, Pop Art produced its crypto version that explores not only the question of what art is and is not, but also when art becomes money. In what follows, I will provide a brief overview of NFT art and its three categories that could generally be found within crypto marketplaces: native crypto art, non-digital art, and digital distributed-creativity art. Throughout, I will foreground the presence of Dadaism in these artworks and provide art historical context.

NFTs: Brief Overview

A major technological component that made NFTs possible was developed in 1991, when cryptographers Stuart Haber and W. Scott Stornetta proposed a method for time-stamping data contained in digital documents shared within a distributed network of users (99). This work laid the foundation for what became known as blockchain and was further implemented in the development of Bitcoin, a digital currency invented by Satoshi Nakamoto in 2008. The original non-fungible tokens, Coloured Coins, were created in 2012. By “colouring” or differentiating bitcoins, Coloured Coins were assigned special properties and had a value independent of the underlying Bitcoin, allowing their use as commodity certificates, alternative currencies, and other financial instruments (Assia et al.).

In 2014, fuelled by a motivation to protect digital artists from unsanctioned distribution of their work while also enabling digital art sales, media artist Kevin McCoy and tech entrepreneur Anil Dash saw the potential of blockchain to satisfy their goals and developed what became to be known as NFTs. This overnight invention was a result of McCoy and Dash’s participation in the Seven on Seven annual New York City event, a one-day creative collaboration that challenged seven pairs of artists and engineers to “make something” (Rhizome). McCoy and Dash did not patent their invention, nor were they able to popularise it, mentally archiving it as a “footnote in internet history”. Ironically, just a couple of years later NFTs exploded into a billion-dollar market, living up to an ironic name of “monetized graphics” that the pair gave to their invention.

Crypto art became an international sensation in March 2021, when a digital artist Mike Winklemann, known as Beeple, sold his digital collage titled Everydays: The First 5000 Days for US$69.3 million, prompting Noah Davis, a curator who assisted with the sale at the Christie’s auction house, to proclaim: “he showed us this collage, and that was my eureka moment when I knew this was going to be extremely important. It was just so monumental and so indicative of what NFTs can do” (Kastrenakes). As a technology, a non-fungible token can create digital scarcity in an otherwise infinitely replicable digital space. Contrary to fungible tokens, which are easily interchangeable due to having an equal value, non-fungible tokens represent unique items for which one cannot find an equivalent. That is why we rely on the fungibility of money to exchange non-fungible unique goods, such as art. Employing non-fungible tokens allows owning and exchanging digital items outside of the context in which they originated. Now, one can prove one’s possession of a digital skin from a videogame, for example, and sell it on digital markets using crypto currency (“Bible”).

Behind the technology of NFTs lies the use of a cryptographic hash function, which converts a digital artwork of any file size into a fixed-length hash, called message digest (Dooley 179). It is impossible to revert the process and arrive at the original image, a quality of non-reversibility that makes the hash function a perfect tool for creating a digital representation of an artwork proofed from data tampering. The issued or minted NFT enters a blockchain, a distributed database that too relies on cryptographic properties to guarantee fidelity and security of data stored. Once the NFT becomes a part of the blockchain, its transaction history is permanently recorded and publicly available. Thus, the NFT simultaneously serves as a unique representation of the artwork and a digital proof of ownership. 

NFTs are traded in digital marketplaces, such as SuperRare, KnownOrigin, OpenSea, and Rarible, which rely on a blockchain to sustain their operations. An analysis of these markets’ inventory can be summarised by the following list of roughly grouped types of artistic works available for purchase: native crypto art, non-digital art, distributed creativity art.  

Native Crypto Art

In this category, I include projects that motivated the creation of NFT protocols. Among these projects are the aforementioned Colored Coins, created in 2012. These were followed by issuing other visual creations native to the crypto-world, such as LarvaLabs’s CryptoPunks, a series of 10,000 algorithmically generated 8-bit-style pixelated digital avatars originally available for free to anyone with an Ethereum blockchain account, gaining a cult status among the collectors when they became rare sought-after items. On 13 February 2022, CryptoPunk #5822 was sold for roughly $24 million in Ethereum, beating the previous record for such an NFT, CryptoPunk #3100, sold for $7.58 million.

CryptoPunks laid the foundation for other collectible personal profile projects, such Bored Ape Yacht Club and Cool Cats. One of the ultimate collections of crypto art that demonstrates the exhaustion of original Dada motivations is titled Monas, an NFT project made up of 5,000 programmatically generated versions of a pixelated Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci (c. 1503-1506). Each Monas, according to the creators, is “a mix of Art, history, and references from iconic NFTs” (“Monas”). Monas are a potpourri of meme and pop culture, infused with inside jokes and utmost silliness. Monas invariably bring to mind the historic Dadaist gesture of challenging bourgeois tastes through defacing iconic art historical works, such as Marcel Duchamp’s treatment of Mona Lisa in L.H.O.O.Q. In 1919, Duchamp drew a moustache and a goatee on a reproduction of La Joconde, as the French called the painting, and inscribed “L.H.O.O.Q.” that when pronounced sounds like “Elle a chaud au cul”, a vulgar expression indicating sexual arousal of the subject. At the time of its creation, this Dada act was met with the utmost public contempt, as Mona Lisa was considered a sacred work of art and a patron of the arts, an almost religious symbol (Elger and Grosenick 82). Needless to say, the effect of Monas on public consciousness is far from causing disgust and, on the contrary, brings childish joy and giggles. As an NFT artist, Mankind, explains in his YouTube video on personal profile projects: “PFPs are built around what people enjoy. People enjoy memes, people enjoy status, people enjoy being a part of something bigger than themselves, the basic primary desire to mix digital with social and belong to a community”. Somehow, “being bigger than themselves” has come to involve collecting defaced images of Mona Lisa. Turning our attention to historical analysis will help trace this transformation of the Dada insult into a collectible NFT object.

Dada and Its Legacy in Crypto Art

Dada was founded in 1916 in Zurich, by Hugo Ball, Tristan Tzara, Hans Richter, and other artists who fled their homelands during the First World War (Hapgood and Rittner 63). One of Dada’s primary aspirations was to challenge the dominance of reason that brought about the tragedy of the First World War through attacking the postulates of culture this form of reason produced. Already in 1921, such artists as André Breton, Louis Aragon, and Max Ernst were becoming exhausted by Dada’s nihilist tendencies and rejection of all programmes for the arts, except for the one that called for the total freedom of expression. The movement was pronounced dead about May 1921, leaving no sense of regret since, in the words of Breton, “its omnipotence and its tyranny had made it intolerable” (205).

An important event associated with Dada’s revival and the birth of the Neo Dada movement was the publication of The Dada Painters and Poets in 1951. This volume, the first collection of Dada writings in English and the most comprehensive anthology in any language, was introduced to the young artists at the New School by John Cage, who revived Tristan Tzara’s concept that “life is far more interesting” than art (Hapgood and Rittner 64). The 1950s were marked by a renewed interest in Dadaism that can also be evidenced in galleries and museums organising numerous exhibitions on the movement, such as Dada 1916 –1923 curated by Marcel Duchamp at the Sidney Janis Gallery in 1953. By the end of the decade, such artists as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg began exploring materials and techniques that can be attributed to Dadaism, which prompted the title of Neo Dada to describe this thematic return (Hapgood and Rittner 64). Among the artistic approaches that Neo Dada borrowed from Dada are Duchampian readymades that question the status of the art object, Kurt Schwitters’s collage technique of incorporating often banal scraps and pieces of the everyday, and the use of chance operations as a compositional device (Hapgood and Rittner 63–64). These approaches comprise the toolbox of crypto artists as well. Monas, CryptoPunks, and Bored Ape Yacht Club are digital collages made of scraps of pop culture and the everyday Internet life assembled into compositional configurations through chance operation made possible by the application of algorithmic generation of the images in each series.

Art historian Helen Molesworth sees the strategies of montage, the readymade, and chance not only as “mechanisms for making art objects” but also as “abdications of traditional forms of artistic labor” (178). Molesworth argues that Duchamp’s invention of the readymade “substituted the act of (artistic) production with consumption” and “profoundly questioned the role, stability, nature, and necessity of the artist’s labor” (179). Together with questioning the need for artistic labour, Neo Dadaists inherited what an American art historian Jack D. Flam terms the “anything goes” attitude: Dada’s liberating destruction of rules and derision of art historical canon allowed anything and everything to be considered art (xii). The “anything goes” approach can also be traced to the contemporary crypto artists, such as Beeple, whose Everydays: The First 5000 Days was a result of assembling into a collage the first 5,000 of his daily training sketches created while teaching himself new digital tools (Kastrenakes). When asked whether he genuinely liked any of his images, Beeple explained that most digital art was created by teams of people working over the course of days or even weeks. When he “is pooping something out in 45 minutes”, it “is probably not gonna look that great comparatively” (Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg).

At the core of Dada was a spirit of absurdism that drove an attack on the social, political, artistic, and philosophical norms, constituting a radical movement against the Establishment (Flam xii). In Dada Art and Anti-Art, Hans Richter’s personal historical account of the Dada movement, the artist describes the basic principle of Dada as guided by a motivation “to outrage public opinion” (66). Richter’s writings also point out a desensitisation towards Dada provocations that the public experienced as a result of Dada’s repetitive assaults, demanding an invention of new methods to disgrace the public taste. Richter recounts:

our exhibitions were not enough. Not everyone in Zurich came to look at our pictures, attending our meetings, read our poems and manifestos. The devising and raising of public hell was an essential function of any Dada movement, whether its goal was pro-art, non-art or anti-art. And the public (like insects or bacteria) had developed immunity to one of kind poison, we had to think of another. (66)

Richter’s account paints a cultural environment in which new artistic provocations mutate into accepted norms in a quick succession, forming a public body that is immune to anti-art “poisons”.

In the foreword to Dada Painters and Poets, Flam outlines a trajectory of acceptance and subjugation of the Dadaist spirit by the subsequent revival of the movement’s core values in the Neo Dada of the 1950s and 1960s. When Dadaism was rediscovered by the writers and artists in the 1950s, the Dada spirit characterised by absurdist irony, self-parody, and deadpan realism was becoming a part of everyday life, as if art entered life and transformed it in its own image. The Neo Dada artists, such as Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenburg, Roy Lichtenstein, and Andy Warhol, existed in a culturally pluralistic space where the project of a rejection of the Establishment was quickly absorbed into the mainstream, mutating into the high culture it was supposedly criticising and bringing commercial success of which the original Dada artists would have been deeply ashamed (Flam xiii). Raoul Hausmann states: “Dada fell like a raindrop from heaven. The Neo-Dadaists have learnt to imitate the fall, but not the raindrop” (as quoted in Craft 129). With a similar sentiment, Richard Huelsenbeck writes: “Neo-Dada has turned the weapons used by Dada, and later by Surrealism, into popular ploughshares with which to till the fertile soil of sensation-hungry galleries eager for business” (as quoted in Craft 130). Marcel Duchamp, the forefather of the avant-garde, comments on the loss of Dada’s original intent:

this Neo-Dada, which they call New Realism, Pop Art, Assemblage, etc., is an easy way out, and lives on what Dada did. When I discovered ready-mades I thought to discourage aesthetics. In Neo-Dada they have taken my ready-mades and found aesthetic beauty in them. I threw the bottle-rack and the urinal into their faces as a challenge and now they admire them for their aesthetic beauty. (Flam xiii)

In Neo Dada, the original anti-art impulse of Dadaism was converted into its opposite, becoming an artistic stance and a form of aesthetics. Flam notes that these gradual transformations resulted in the shifts in public consciousness, which it was becoming more difficult to insult. Artists, among them Roy Lichtenstein, complained that it was becoming impossible to make anything despicable: even a dirty rug could be admired (Flam xiii). The audience lost their ability to understand when they were being mocked, attacked, or challenged.

Writing in 1981, Flam proclaimed that “Dada spirit has become an inescapable condition of modern life” (xiv). I contend that the current crypto art thrives on the Dada spirit of absurdism, irony, and self-parody and continues to question the border between art and non-art, while fully subscribing to the “anything goes” approach. In the current iteration of Dada in the crypto world, the original subversive narrative can be mostly found in the liberating rhetoric promoted by the proponents of the decentralised economic system.

While Neo Dada understood the futility of shocking the public and questioning their tastes, crypto art is ignorant of the original Dada as a form of outrage, a revolutionary movement ignited by a social passion. In crypto art, the ambiguous relationship that Pop Art, one of the Neo Dada movements, had with commercial success is transformed into the content of the artworks. As Tristan Tzara laconically explained, the Dada project was to “assassinate beauty” and with it all the infrastructure of the art market (as quoted in Danto 39).

Ironically, crypto artists, the descendants of Dada, erected the monument to Value artificially created through scarcity made possible by blockchain technology in place of the denigrated Venus demolished by the Dadaists. After all, it is the astronomical prices for crypto art that are lauded the most. If in the pre-NFT age, artistic works were evaluated based on their creative merit that included considering the prominence of the artist within art historical canon, current crypto art is evaluated based on its rareness, to which the titles of the crypto art markets SuperRare and Rarible unambiguously refer (Finucane 28–29). In crypto art, the anti-art and anti-commercialism of Dada has fully transformed into its opposite.

Another evidence for considering crypto art to be a descendant of Dada is the NFT artists’ concern for the question of what art is and is not, brought to the table by the original Dada artists. This concern is expressed in the manifesto-like mission statement of the first Museum of Crypto Art:

at its core, the Museum of Crypto Art (M○C△) challenges, creates conflict, provokes. M○C△ puts forward a broad representation of perspectives meant to upend our sense of who we are. It poses two questions: “what is art?” and “who decides?” We aim to resolve these questions through a multi-stakeholder decentralized platform of art curation and exhibition. (The Museum of Crypto Art)

In the past, the question regarding the definition of art was overtaken by the proponent of the institutional approach to art definition, George Dickie, who besides excluding aesthetics from playing a part in differentiating art from non-art famously pronounced that an artwork created by a monkey is art if it is displayed in an art institution, and non-art if it is displayed elsewhere (Dickie 256). This development might explain why decentralisation of the art market achieved through the use of blockchain technology still relies on the endorsing of the art being sold by the widely acclaimed art auction houses: with their stamp of approval, the work is christened as legitimate art, resulting in astronomical sales.

Non-Digital Art

It is not surprising that an NFT marketplace is an inviting arena for the investigation of questions of commercialisation tackled in the works of Neo Dada Pop artists, who made their names in the traditional art world. This brings us to a discussion of the second type of artworks found in NFT marketplaces: non-digital art sold as NFT and created by trained visual artists, such as Damien Hirst. In his recent NFT project titled Currency, Hirst explores “the boundaries of art and currency—when art changes and becomes a currency, and when currency becomes art” (“The Currency”). The project consists of 10,000 artworks on A4 paper covered in small, coloured dots, a continuation of the so-called “spot-paintings” series that Hirst and his assistants have been producing since the 1980s. Each artwork is painted on a hand-made paper that bears the watermark of the artist’s bust, adorned with a microdot that serves as a unique identification, and is made to look very similar to the others—visual devices used to highlight the ambiguous state of these artworks that simultaneously function as Hirst-issued currency.

For Hirst, this project is an experiment: after the purchase of NFTs, buyers are given an opportunity to exchange the NFT for the original art, safely stored in a UK vault; the unexchanged artworks will be burned. Is art going to fully transform into currency? Will you save it? In Hirst’s project, the transformation of physical art into crypto value becomes the ultimate act of Dada nihilism, except for one big difference: if Dada wanted to destroy art as a way to invent it anew, Hirst destroys art to affirm its death and dissolution in currency. In an ironic gesture, the gif NFT artist Nino Arteiro, as if in agreement with Hirst, attempts to sell his work titled Art Is Not Synonymous of Profit, which contains a crudely written text “ART ≠ PROFIT!” for 0.13 Ether or US$350. Buying this art will negate its own statement and affirm its analogy with money.  

Distributed-Creativity Art

When browsing through crypto art advertised in the crypto markets, one inevitably encounters works that stand out in their emphasis on aesthetic and formal qualities. More often than not, these works are created with the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI). To a viewer bombarded with creations unconcerned with the concept of beauty, these AI works may serve as a sensory aesthetic refuge. Among the most prominent artists working in this realm is Refik Anadol, whose Synthetic Dreams series at a first glance may appear as carefully composed works of a landscape painter. However, at a closer look nodal connections between points in rendered space provide a hint at the use of algorithmic processes. These attractive landscapes are quantum AI data paintings created from a data set consisting of 200 million raw images of landscapes from around the world, with each image having been computed with a unique quantum bit string (“Synthetic Dreams”).

Upon further contemplation, Anadol’s work begins to remind of the sublime Romantic landscapes, revamped through the application of AI that turned fascination with nature’s unboundedness into awe in the face of the unfathomable amounts of data used in creation of Anadol’s works. These creations can be seen as a reaction against the crypto art I call exhausted Dada, or a marketing approach that targets a different audience. In either case, Anadol revives aesthetic concern and aligns himself with the history of sublimity in art that dates back to the writings of Longinus, becoming of prime importance in the nineteenth-century Romantic painting, and finding new expressions in what is considered the technological sublime, which, according to David E. Nye. concentrates “on the triumph of machines… over space and time” (as quoted in Butler et al. 8).

In relation to his Nature Dreams project, Anadol writes: “the exhibition’s eponymous, sublime AI Data Sculpture, Nature Dreams utilizes over 300 million publicly available photographs of nature collected between 2018- 2021 at Refik Anadol Studio” (“Machine Hallucinations Nature Dreams”). From this short description it is evident that Anadol’s primary focus is on the sublimity of large sets of data. There is an issue with that approach: since experiencing the sublime involves loss of rational thinking (Longinus 1.4), these artworks cease the viewer’s ability to interrogate cultural adaptation of AI technology and stay within the realm of decorative ornamentations, demanding an intervention akin to that brought about by the historical avant-garde. 


I hope that this brief analysis demonstrates the mechanisms by which the strains of Dada entered the vocabulary of crypto artists. It is probably also noticeable that I equate the nihilist project of the exhausted Dada found in such works as Hirst’s Cryptocurrency with a dead end similar to so many other dead ends in art history—one only needs to remember that the death of painting was announced a myriad of times, and yet it is still alive. Each announcement of its death was followed by its radiant return. It could be that using art as a visual package for monetary value, a death statement to art’s capacity to affect human lives, will ignite artists to affirm art’s power to challenge, inspire, and enrich.


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