Art, but with the rules of the Internet
Should digital and physical works of art be evaluated in the same way?
This article was originally published in Turkish on GQ Turkey Digital, on May 14, 2021.
Dialogues: The David Zwirner Gallery Podcast recently hosted newly-minted millionaire NFT artist Mike Winkelmann, better known by his Instagram alias, Beeple. Starting his interview by introducing himself and stating “I am an artist, I guess,” Beeple spent the majority of his time explaining the differences between the rules of the Internet and the physical world when it came to art, and why he doesn’t believe digital art and physical art can be compared.
With a few exceptions, there are currently no academics, art critics, gallerists, or collectors, who have the experience and knowledge to be able to assess a digital artwork sold as an NFT, within the confines of its own terms. Most art history courses offered at the undergraduate level do not even cover the history of digital art, and one could argue that the art form itself is too nascent for any meaningful accumulation of scholarship.
Perhaps due to the fact that almost everyone is expected to pick up a pen or a brush in elementary school art classes, traditional painting has been inherently more accessible on a global scale, at least for the past century. But how many of us know how to create a 3D rendering of a Star Wars character from scratch? To be realistic, (and possibly a tad cruel), the closest reference points most people have when beholding digital art, are Pixar films and Windows 95 screensavers.
Therein lies the reason why traditional forms of art and digital artworks sold as NFTs should be evaluated separately.
Confessing that he does not know anyone in the world of contemporary art, Beeple responded to Lucas Zwirner’s admission that he had never heard of Beeple until the Christie’s auction by saying that he has 2 million followers and everybody knows him in the digital art world. He continued the interview by emphasizing that he produces work every day and has respect for prolific artists, highlighting perhaps one of the most problematic components of NFT culture.
Attention is the currency of the Internet
Your value on the web is directly tied to the amount of followers you have and likes you receive. Your sociocultural (and financial) worth grows and shrinks with your following. And one of the keys to Instagram fame is sharing content every single day. Reading between the lines of Beeple’s interview, it becomes evident that today, the value of a digital artist, as well as digital art itself, is measured not in their cultural impact, but rather their stats.
Imagine (Turkish painter) Abidin Dino losing credibility because a million people did not show up to his opening, or Fahrelnissa Zeid getting shunned by the art world for not producing a completed painting every day.
It is difficult to enter the world of contemporary art. You have to know the right people, attend the right events, and be introduced to the right curators by the right people. By virtue of offering everyone a chance to exhibit their artworks, one could argue the existence NFT marketplace itself is promising. But the conditions and the hierarchical structure of the digital world Beeple professed his respect for, as a self-declared expert of the field and the most expensive living digital artist, are as cruel as those of the traditional art world.
Is the digital revolution as democratic as it seems?
A majority of digital creators who are now artists thanks to the availability of NFT tech, are competing to create attractive content, perhaps as a leftover habit of being denizens of the internet. This is one of the key traits separating them from traditional artists. Sure, all artists need to attract some form of attention, but until recently, one could argue most traditional artists were not creating work with the explicit intention of generating likes.
If the NFT marketplace we perceived to be more fair than the contemporary art market, only values you once you have accrued enough internet cred to be considered a TikTok phenomenon, if your visibility in this marketplace hinges on the likes you receive, is the digital revolution as democratic as it seems? After all, you can invite friends and family to a gallery opening, but you cannot force anyone to like your artworks hanging on the walls. Whereas on social media, which directly impacts your place in the NFT marketplace, you can simply purchase likes and followers.
Perhaps experts such as Beeple have a better grasp on the technical value of the digital art being produced today than us mere mortals, but while there is a global shortage of digital art scholarship, and while we still haven’t quite figured out what the hell we are looking at, anyone can become an overnight sensation in the NFT world.
So long as these rules stand, anyone who is Internet-popular can succeed as an artist selling NFTs. And if it hasn’t begun already, a rampant degeneration awaits the NFT marketplace in the coming months.
With a clear chasm between the goals and terms of success between these two art worlds, and an online environment so susceptible to corruption, the question that needs be asked for the time being is whether we should continue to evaluate digital art and traditional art with the same set of rules and expectations.