Mint Me (on the Blockchain)

I am not an art critic. But I have been following a lot of digital artists since about 2013. Four years ago I wrote a short blog post about artists like Beeple (Mike Winkelmann), Blake Kathryn, Chad Knight, and others who were amassing an online following through their diligent efforts to make an artwork every day (or close to it) and sharing it on Instagram and/or Tumblr.1 My initial comments revolved around the aesthetics of the works, their almost direct allusion to Dada and the Surrealists as well as each creator’s disciplinarity, their commitment to daily production as a creative regimen. But as non-fungible tokens (NFTs) have blown up in recent weeks, and Christie's auction house prepares to host an auction of Beeple’s work, it might be necessary to reflect on the broader techno-cultural contexts from which the paradigm of NFT art emerges.

NFTs are in essence a way of assigning value to a piece of digital media. To be minted on the blockchain is to sign a kind of certificate of authenticity to something that might otherwise be easily reproducible. One can finally “own” an image or video that is circulating freely on the web. However, in contrast to copyright or patent law, non-fungible tokens provide a tradeable (read: valuable) signature and allow copies of the work itself to continue to peaceably exist. In a sense, the technology is used precisely (and paradoxically) to solve the problem of authentication at the same time allowing limitless reproduction.

Questions of authenticity and reproduction are crucial to an understanding of NFTs. We might therefore benefit from revisiting one of the most canonical texts on these two issues. Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” provides a cohesive digression on art’s value and role in 20th Century society.2 A Marxist critique par excellence, Benjamin’s “Work of Art” addresses the increasing commodification of art objects and other paradigms following mechanical reproduction technologies such as photography and film. And despite being written in 1936, the essay prefigures many discourses on digital artworks stemming from the democratization of access to computing, stating, for instance: “To an ever greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility.” But more significantly, what Benjamin establishes is a notion that mechanical reproduction has, on the one hand, made art more accessible to the masses, and on the other, extracted from objects their “aura” and cult value.

It is generally understood that what Benjamin refers to as aura in “Work of Art” is a work’s unique effect, made up largely from its context, construction, and reception. Before mechanical reproduction, an object’s aura was its authenticity and its authority. “The authenticity of a thing,” writes Benjamin, “is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced.” All of the chips on a painting’s frame, all of the fingerprints of its previous owners contribute to an object’s aura. Whereas Benjamin’s argument rests on the premise that the mechanically reproducible work of art loses its “historical testimony,” today, thanks to the blockchain, that testimony is now computationally addressable for digital artifacts. In other words, NFTs provide an answer to Benjamin’s question of authenticity in the age of infinite reproducibility. By tracking a work’s changes of ownership, value, and even environmental impact (via estimated CO2 emissions)3, cryptocurrency protocols have updated aura for the age of planetary computation.

But there is much more to crypto art than its authentication. The recent trend in NFT minting and trading points to a larger cultural shift in both the production and reception of digital art. Once relegated to quirky software experiments with tools such as Maxon Cinema 4D and Autodesk Maya, surreal 3D collages have established a new visual language for screen-based media. Common recurring tropes are platonic still lifes (realistically textured objects, drenched in millenial color palettes), sci-fi/post-apocalyptic scenographies (see the work of Beeple), miscellaneous particle effect loops (aided by the powerful SideFX Houdini), and others easily recognizable through a romp on Instagram’s hashtag #nft. A recent Microsoft campaign featuring many prominent NFT artists reinforces the attraction to these visual tropes, not to mention their commercial appeal.

On the production side, the popularization of this visual language is fundamentally tied to the democratization of 3D visualization tools. I’m a member of a Facebook group that experiments with the beta 3D Studio Max particle simulator plug-in tyFlow. A common post on this thread is an image of an existing artwork and a question asking how to replicate it. Similar exchanges are widespread on other 3D-related forums and technical exchanges. It is also telling that many established NFT artists began their career by posting demo or test scenes produced while learning new software tools, most notably Beeple. Here the demo or test scene is reframed as an artistic process. Self-described as “one of the originators of the current "everyday" movement in 3D graphics,” Beeple used to describe his work as “crap” to suggest that he was merely practicing. In an early version of his Everydays blog, he stated: “The purpose of this project is to help me get better at different things. By posting the results online, I’m “less” likely to throw down a big pile of ass-shit even though most of the time I still do because I suck ass.” In December 2020, Beeple sold a minted collection of his 2020 Everydays for $3.5 million.4

While artists like Beeple have certainly outgrown their “crap” phase, followers are undoubtedly working to catch up. This has resulted in a rise in the software tutorial economy on sites like Patreon where the heralds of 3D images are teaching masterclasses on some of the aforementioned visual tropes. KitBash3D, a popular marketplace for affordable 3D scenographic assets, also helps many achieve Beeple-like images. The NFT economy has stimulated a quest for knowledge predicated on a dream that anyone can make money if they learn the right tool and process. In contrast to traditional art education (specifically the studio art model), 3D techniques are more likely to be learned through YouTube tutorials, which can update faster than art school curricula and keep up with the latest software version. As a result, 3D visual artists are often self-taught and may find themselves outsiders to the art world. Art critic Jerry Saltz perfectly summarized this condition in a recent tweet stating, “What is an NFT???”

A tension that will inevitably arise with NFT art is plagiarism. The flip side to democratic access to tools and visual examples is the ease with which one can copy styles and techniques. But this is different from what we might call art forgeries. Because a minted artwork’s signature lies on the blockchain, its authenticity is guaranteed in spite of its replication. Thus, the more fickle issue that may plague artists is whether or not another work is too derivative of their own. Beyond Benjamin’s dialectic of mechanical reproduction and authenticity, here the tension is one between visual trends and form; for instance, arguments will be made about whether a piece’s form and composition is close enough to another’s to constitute plagiarism or whether they are simply part of a larger trend (of still lifes, of sci-fi scenes, etc.).

“Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art,” writes Benjamin, “is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” What then can be said about the presence of NFT artworks in terms of time and space? The hash value of a minted artwork has no place, no location, only a record of transactions—its history is its ontology. Like our global debt, its existence is premised only on a ledger of agreed upon transactions. But for me, the emerging hype following crypto art is predominantly a symptom of a culture desperate for alternative models for producing value, outside of art world hierarchies, outside of established canons, and perhaps outside of tangible media. There are many more things to be said about NFTs—their environmental cost, their fickle economic value (is it a bubble?)—but those are conversations for another time, and perhaps for more knowledgeable experts.5 Whether or not I will mint some of my own work remains up in the air.

1

The blog post was imported here from wordpress. https://digitalfabrications.substack.com/p/dailies

2

Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (New York: Schocken, 1968).

3

https://carbon.fyi/

4

https://www.cnbc.com/2021/02/18/christies-to-auction-beeple-nft-art-and-will-accept-ether-as-payment.html

5

See “The Unreasonable Ecological Cost of #CryptoArt” https://memoakten.medium.com/the-unreasonable-ecological-cost-of-cryptoart-2221d3eb2053