Contemporary Art is Dead, Long Live NFTs
Imagine a technology that guarantees authenticity no matter what you purchase
This article was originally published in Turkish on GQ Turkey, on April 27, 2021.
The letters NFT stand for Non-Fungible Token, which can be roughly translated as “A signifier of something unique.” In order to acquire an NFT, which also serves as proof of purchase, you need to use cryptocurrency, because this authenticity, and the transparency of the chain of custody of whatever it is you purchased, are derived from Blockhain technology. In other words, if you were to buy an apple through NFT technology, you would be able to see where the apple came from, what is was worth at the moment of its harvesting, and whose hands touched it, before it arrived to your local grocery store. One could argue that in the age of global mistrust, NFTs just might be the ideal method of transaction.
In theory, you could buy anything though NFT technology. It functions as a certificate of authenticity, and this certificate could be for a painting that exists in the physical world, or for a digital file. It is possible to authenticate the originality of a work you might acquire from an art gallery thanks to NFTs, and if what you just bought is a jpeg, video, gif or any other form of digital file, you can open it instantly on a smart TV or computer screen and display it without having to wait for shipping. One of the most interesting traits of NFT technology is that it allows a new and safe marketplace for digital works of art that, up until today, were vulnerable to getting lost or stolen or pirated, at the mercy of flash drives and email attachments.
In March of 2021, Mike Winkelmann, better known by his alias, Beeple, sold a high resolution jpeg of a collage comprised of his first 5000 works of art that he had posted on Instagram, for nearly $70 million. The first $70,000,000 jpeg in history contains digitally made animations and drawings that depict strange sci-fi scenes in which cartoonish famous figures and gargantuan Disney characters writhe in pain; a series of images that speak to the post-internet era we are living in. Despite his popularity on Instagram, Beeple the internet content maker, did not exist on the contemporary art world map up until a few months ago. He had never been heard of or seen at biennials, art galleries, or museums, and no one referred to him as a “contemporary artist.” When a single Christie’s auction rendered him “one of the most expensive living artist” the contemporary art world understandably had a moment of crisis.
Despite the NFT sale of Beeple’s collage promising the uniqueness of the image, the individual works it is made up of, are still on his Instagram. So what was sold as the NFT artwork, one could argue, is the soul of the 5000 works he had posted, more than anything else. The question is, should this soul be worth $70 million, and will people compete for it in an auction five years from now?
Journalist Oray Eğin recently wrote that “Contemporary art died a few years ago at Art Basel Miami, and its funeral services were performed by Maurizio Cattelan when he sold his banana for $120,000.” In an art market where people were all too eager to accept a banana taped to a wall as investment-worthy, an exodus towards newer pastures was inevitable.
The justified questions of what makes an artist, what is art, and whether these should be decided solely by the Art Basel and Venice Biennale-goers of the world, have been asked for a long time. One could say that NFTs have democratized the world of contemporary art that has for years shunned digital artworks as worthy investments, or refused to consider art that requires a digital screen as art. Out of the thousands of graphic designers and animators who became “artists” overnight à-la-Cinderella, what remains to be seen is how many will turn into pumpkins once the initial frenzy of buying digital art dies down.