NFTs have ferociously taken over art and the internet in a short amount of time. The topic is confusing, frustrating
tends to engender emotionally charged reactions. But you don’t need a technical understanding to understand the most
common refrain about popular NFTs: ‘Why do they look like that? Why are they so ugly?’ Interesting discourse for
something that must, on some level, be about art. However the discussion around them would have you believe NFTs are
about anything but, its ethos instead being the activity and ecosystem of markets and speculation. Rarely is there
discussion of the actual work you are buying.
You can just think of NFTs as digital artworks. As we will see, the mechanical differences between NFTs and the traditional art market are not especially dramatic. You can find better explanations in lots of other places.
Many NFTs are grouped into collections. Usually they are grouped around some theme, some more popular collections being series’ of people or character avatars. Note that ‘popular’ here denotes what most would interpret as a gross overvaluation. The top collections trade millions of dollars in volume a day and billions all time.
Most people agree these images are at best mildly interesting and at worst reflections of exasperatingly bad taste and faith. Is anyone actually buying these because they like the artwork or want to support the artists involved? Of course not. They are buying them because they have the money to speculate on something absurdly overhyped. The ugliness of popular NFT collections is not an artistic choice so much as a result of cheap, procedural generation which allows thousands of unique pieces to be minted automatically. This leads to lifeless base art whose plainness is necessary to accommodate so much variation. Other collections opt for incredibly basic pixel art, leaving less to offend the eye but little of substance in its place.
A disturbing undercurrent of racism runs through certain popular NFT collections. One of the most popular, Bored Ape Yacht Club, utilizes anthropomorphized apes with various traits and clothing. The comparison of groups of people to primates has long been a racist tactic of dehumanization, especially to Black people, and BAYC is rife with numerous subtle neo-nazi references in their logo and imagery, as well as not so subtle “hip-hop” gold chains and “sushi chef” kamikaze headbands. Many of these references will pass over people’s heads but there are very real ramifications for the spread of such ideology, and already racist offshoots have followed in their place.
Rich, mostly-white men trading images of monkeys worth millions of dollars on the OpenSea. The whole thing feels like a bizarre performance art, but disturbing visual evidence and the history of the alt-right in crypto suggest this is more than coincidence.
Another symptom of the lack of crypto regulation is in the rampant theft of others’ art achieved through minting NFTs of a piece of work (say, an image) without the actual artist’s permission. There are efforts to catch and remove instances of this, but a lot slips through anyway. There is nothing in the NFT process that guarantees the money is being sent to the ‘right’ person. This uncertainty, grating against blockchain’s promises of trust and security, often requires a buyer to verify the art by checking the artists on some other legitimate source and serves as another barrier for new entrants.
Many of these issues are generalizations, and just because many of these images are not necessarily conventionally beautiful does not mean that some others can’t enjoy their aesthetic. For some, having a part in this ecosystem- especially with the energy of devoted detractors and supporters- is a means of genuine connection through digital means. More attention should be paid to how NFTs can help support community and identity. It’s hard to imagine them garnering as much attention if they did not have some power in that regard. As a society, the trend will be more time spent in digital spaces, not less. NFTs will and should not replace physical art or any number of real-world concerns, but the last 20 years have shown that what happens on the internet matters. We should focus on developing exciting and expressive ways of existing online and NFTs have a chance to contribute to that.
The backlash itself is valuable too. To many, NFTs continue to represent everything wrong with traditional art, but the NFT is just a medium. They also offer a chance to explore everything that is right with digital art. Artists whose tokens allow access to exclusive works or discussion, new digital signifiers around causes and movements; there is power and potential in this technology. There are many issues with the current concept of an NFT that hold back its cultural and artistic acceptance. But there is very much a forest behind the trees.
Art feels like it’s been eating itself alive for a bit now. Earlier last year a blockchain firm bought a $95,000 Banksy and burned it, filming the event and auctioning it off as an NFT for $380,000. The print itself was titled Morons and depicted a traditional art auction at Christies. Art-destruction-as-art isn't exactly an original concept- we can go all the way back to the sphinx for that one. But it’s the kind of thing that can be vindicated by the amount of feathers ruffled. How many times can you iterate on Duchamp’s Fountain? I guess as many times as people will react to it.
This is performance art. To restrict the arts to aesthetics or a medium is to severely underestimate it. The only way that more valuable projects will emerge is if we talk about them more than the others.
Art has always been about conveying information, and ‘modern’ art has continued to expand the scope of that information far beyond aesthetic beauty. Just like streetwear before it, its growth shows that these shitty images can compete and excel against traditional art houses like Christie’s, mocking them for entertaining the notion in the first place. Maybe the art world could use a little vulgarity and fourth wall breaking. It’s not quite art for the masses, but it can take us a step closer.
 - I will not tackle the idea of ‘fair’ valuations here, especially in what is ostensibly the art world. Its speculative nature is the intended trait. You can argue for the same property in the highest fine art auctions, and I probably would. We as modern humans are almost always talking about a market, where the price of a work is inseparable from the art.
 - OpenSea is one of the largest NFT marketplaces
- “Bored Ape Yacht Club is Racist and Started By Neo-Nazis”. Ryder Ripps, http://gordongoner.com