Snobbery Isn’t Dead

NFTs: the good, the bad, and the legitimately repulsive.

Text Whitney Mallett
illustrations Molly Soda
Published 06 Jul 2023

What’s the difference between bad taste and bad art? Good art often celebrates bad taste, camp in its self-aware cannibalization of everything trash, kitsch, cringe, and shlock, coded for insiders and to some degree a closed door for everyone else. But art, pastiche or not, can be bad for many reasons, among them that it’s flat-footed, lifeless, and hitting you over the head a little too hard. It’s the difference between Warhol and Beeple.

The postmodern crisis of cultural authority has not meant the end of snobbery. Hating on Beeple is a bonding ritual in the way that after November 2016, it was easy to make small talk at a birthday party complaining about Trump, whose outrageousness allegedly ruined camp. As John Waters put it to me on the eve of the 2019 Met Gala, “Nothing is so bad it’s good now that we have Trump as president.”

It’s unfair to say that all NFTs are bad, but there are legitimate reasons why many snobs, among them tastemakers who were early adopters of digital art-making, feel repelled by them. Their rise has felt disorienting for many, myself included. And now that their biggest champion, Beeple, holds the third-highest auction record of any living artist at the time which this article was written (after only David Hockney and Jeff Koons), it's easy to lean into the narrative that their financial success is an example of everything that is wrong with the world today. We see them as yet another example of the ultra-rich getting richer, out-of-control speculation, multi-level marketing scheme dynamics, and environmental irresponsibility.

This is perhaps a hysterical response to the current market hysteria. But back in 2014, when I sat in the New Museum auditorium at a Rhizome conference, reporting on Kevin McCoy and Anil Dash pioneering blockchain verification for a GIF, I didn’t imagine that the future of digital art ownership they foreshadowed would mean a dead-in-the-eyes Paris Hilton boosting algorithmically generated cartoons of apes in different hats and glasses on Jimmy Fallon’s late-night show. In eight years, I’d gone from pawning off hot takes about the new frontier of digital art monetization to feeling very “WTF, this is not for me.”

In hindsight, Rihanna going seapunk on SNL in November 2012, only a few months after I arrived, feels like the cultural flashpoint of my young 20s.

Trying to make sense of this shift, I’ve been looking back on what initially sucked me into digital art and aesthetics. If I’m honest, much of it was lonely, horny online networking and drug-fueled partying, enticing me into a hybrid virtual-physical scene that was heavy with nihilistic optimism and clout demonry. But I was also intrigued by the intellectual challenge of making sense of how digital technology was changing everything, plus the promise of a beat I could specialize in—an arena of culture that Boomers didn’t understand. Conveniently, this summer marks ten years since I moved to New York, the milestone another motivation for my trip down memory lane.

In hindsight, Rihanna going seapunk on SNL in November 2012, only a few months after I arrived, feels like the cultural flashpoint of my young 20s. Daily Mail called the green-screen backdrop for Robyn Fenty’s “Diamonds” performance “bizarre,” “distracting,” and “rather outdated.” Consequence of Sound proclaimed that the graphics were “straight out of Encarta 95” and “cringe worthy.” The writer seemed to believe that the janky effect of the band members’ bodies disappearing into the psychedelic display was accidental, and that “perhaps she forgot to tell [them] not to wear white.”

Looking back, it’s striking that cultural authority (e.g. professional critics) could be trolled so easily back then, that the cycle of new aesthetics cannibalizing older ones was still illegible to these writers. Meanwhile, the fact that some seapunkers were shook that the “mainstream” would appropriate their “subculture” (one that had largely developed on corporate-owned social media platforms and had already been identified in a New York Times “Styles” piece) feels almost retro from the vantage of our Diet Prada, West Elm Caleb–marketing era.

Riffing on reactions to seapunk Rihanna, artist Jacob Ciocci, in a self-published post, argued that the idea of subculture was already an anachronism:

Self-image-making-as-belief-system is a form of user-generated-youth-branding that uses corporate web-2.0 technologies to re-appropriate the notion of “sub-culture” that historically died in the 90s. These creative strategies work with what for many of us are outdated fantasies of outsider-ism: when a disconnected and lost youth from the middle of nowhere has no access or sense of perspective on what “is cool” and decides out of the blue to “go goth.” Today, net-art/tumblr/twitter scenes are hyper-connected. The alienation they feel today is because of being too connected. Playing with these different forms of alienation is what makes their output so exciting. Like a lot of good art, the work is predicated on a lie and plays with that lie—like a magician.

The borders between niche and mainstream culture were becoming so porous, and the cycles of appropriation accelerating so quickly, that it didn’t necessarily make sense to describe “net art” as a “subculture.” Still, it was arguably a youth movement—or at least, the “net art” that was being made by millennials and shared on sites like Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, and dump.fm was. Though there were net artists in the 1990s, 2010s net art was specifically a movement of the youth considered the first generation of digital natives. Media and corporate institutions, anxious to stay relevant as culture and consumption became increasingly digital-first, saw something valuable in this scene: this fledgling demographic represented both a new generation of consumers every brand wanted to tap and an opportunity to commodify youthful novelty in a booming, speculation-fueled art market.

Even if the idea of Rihanna “ripping off” net artists now seems absurd (“If you do not want your image to travel somewhere far away,” Ciocci cautioned, “do not release it into the cloud”), the trickling up of these aesthetics did point to the problem of innovators getting the short end of the stick. They were making content for free and posting it on corporate platforms, only to discover their creative output on the moodboards of big brands. If they weren’t blessed with some fancy creative director job where they got paid the big bucks for plundering their peers’ content, how could these digital creators ever expect to make any money?

The Dutch artist Rafaël Rozendaal (born in 1980, so he’s a little older than many of the artists I’m talking about here) had some success selling artwork-websites as domain names in the 2010s. But it seemed as though there weren’t enough collectors interested in buying an intangible product for this to be possible for a wider group (partly due to issues around security of ownership)—and, besides, he was in the unique position of being already established as an “internet art pioneer,” a privilege many up-and-comers didn’t have.

Like the early 20th-century surrealists, the loose net art 2.0 movement was, in some ways, a project to negate art—or at least evidence that in this stage of late capitalism, art for art’s sake could only be made about visual culture itself.

Nonetheless, there were a few routes that seemed promising, including online marketplaces, paywalled sites, and corporate sponsorship. In 2012, Brad Troemel, whose collaboratively run Tumblr, the Jogging, had been building an audience for a few years, started selling sculptures via Etsy. They were primarily made of food and designed to fall apart during the shipping process. The point was LOL: what you ordered versus what you got. Shamelessly courting viral attention through absurd gags, Troemel was intentional about commenting on the strangeness and discrepancies of our increasingly hybrid virtual-physical experience, all while circumventing the traditional channels for selling and circulating art.

Compared to the traditional gallery format, corporate spaces put less pressure on artists to make works that dealers could move. Red Bull in particular showed interest in sponsoring emerging players in this milieu, tapping into the new generation’s affection for cheeky celebrations of consumerism. In 2014, the company launched its branded Chelsea arts space with DISown – Not For Everyone, a group exhibition posing as a retail pop-up that featured over 30 artists, including the Jogging, Amalia Ulman, Telfar, and Ryan Trecartin. Around the same time that it started footing the bill for art shows, SOPHIE and Hayden Dunham launched a pop music and parody energy drink project called DrinkQT. Given the zeitgeist, working with a sponsor like Red Bull felt on-brand for a lot of artists, in a way that was reportedly even disorienting to the company. The year before the DIS show, when Ryder Ripps did an art residency with Red Bull, he blogged that his contacts at the company found it strange how much he leaned into incorporating its product and logo.

Ripps’ disruptive fascination with consumerism is arguably Warholian, and it should be noted that both Ripps’ parents were subjects of Warhol portraits. But whether or not these artists were collaborating directly with brands, what was consistent across the zeitgeist was a kind of anti-aesthetic aesthetic, one that pillaged the internet for advertising imagery and cultural detritus from a range of different eras at a time when this sort of ephemera was easier to access than ever before. Like the early 20th-century surrealists, the loose net art 2.0 movement was, in some ways, a project to negate art—or at least evidence that in this stage of late capitalism, art for art’s sake could only be made about visual culture itself.

Today, this chaotic, absurdist, ironic, trollish, self-conscious sensibility has been fully absorbed into the world of marketing and advertising (think: Balenciaga), with some of its innovators doing creative for big brands. Torso, a project founded by DIS co-founders Solomon Chase and David Toro, frequently works with Mugler; Ripps, via his creative agency, OKFocus, has worked with Soylent and Marc Jacobs. But there’s also an argument to be made that this intentionally “anti-art” mode of creative production—celebrating ugly, cringe, and middlebrow aesthetics—lent itself to a commercial art landscape where value became exceedingly vulnerable to manipulation.

Looking back at the specific moment in time when this sensibility emerged, around 2012 to 2014, I’m interested in how the exaltation of anti-aesthetics potentially helped spur the financialized art market. Artists like Lucien Smith, Parker Ito, Artie Vierkant, and Oliver Laric were loosely associated with both net art and “zombie formalism,” a term critic Walter Robinson coined to describe a wave of abstract painting by young artists (mostly male and under 30) that the market had turned into poker chips for savage speculative flipping.

Smith’s rain paintings and Ito’s inkjet paintings appealed to the market because of their decorative minimalist opacity— or, to borrow a phrase from Robinson, their “chic strangeness.” Blankness allows us to project grand theories onto works to defend their value, but it also makes them vulnerable to accusations of worthlessness: “My kid could paint that,” “the emperor’s new clothes,” etc. Compared with figurative painting, the current flavor of the week, where formal technique is more obvious and the subject matter operates more explicitly as a text, these abstract works can be more likely to fall victim to market volatilities.

There are parallels in how the market treated Smith and Ito. Both became art stars in their twenties, with sales on the secondary market reaching a peak in 2014, only for their prices to plummet shortly thereafter. Before the crash, their youthful relevance hinged partly on the way their practices addressed or incorporated digital culture. Smith used social media to market his artist mythology and persona, posting videos of himself painting with a fire extinguisher in a move reminiscent of action painters like Jackson Pollock and Nikki de Saint Phalle. At times, Ito’s paintings seemed to simultaneously evade and comment on networked circulation: his use of reflective 3M tape, for example, foregrounded the disruption of their photographability at a time when art selfies and sales based on cellphone pics were on the rise.

Smith and Ito may have gotten burned by the market, but their careers have survived. Last year, Smith released the PFP NFT project Seeds, which explicitly references the aesthetic of Warhol’s screenprints. Ito posted on Instagram a diptych of two stick-and-poke tattoos. One, from 2013, reads “NET ART.” Another, from 2022, spells out, in fresh ink on flesh, “NFT.” I enjoyed the latter gesture, and not just because it seemed like the perfect framing for this essay. Certainly more than an NFT project like Smith’s, it subverts expectations, and that isn’t easy to accomplish in a world where trolling has become the cultural white noise of our time.

Shifting to the physical realm wasn’t purely a market-geared compromise: their output had been digitally focused, either largely or in part, because that was the cheap and convenient way to make and share art—not because that was the only type of art they were ever interested in making.

To return to the 2010s: if it was mostly young male artists like Smith and Ito who got scorned in the art market pump and dump, that was because the market hadn’t hyped up many young women as need-to-buy zombie formalists. Still, there was a parallel narrative going on with a constellation of young woman artists, millennials who had also grown up online and had begun experimenting with ways of making their practices more professional and monetizable. We started seeing gallery shows where artists who had built followings on the internet attempted to translate their practices into physical space, and the traditional gallery-dealer format. Shifting to the physical realm wasn’t purely a market-geared compromise: their output had been digitally focused, either largely or in part, because that was the cheap and convenient way to make and share art—not because that was the only type of art they were ever interested in making.

Lonely Girl, a 2013 group show at Martos Gallery on the Lower East Side, explicitly made this transition from online to IRL the theme. Curated by Sex Magazine founder Asher Penn, Lonely Girl marketed itself as an exhibition featuring “seven female artists all under the age of thirty” who’d established themselves through a digital presence and without institutional support: Al Baio, Maggie Lee, Greem Jellyfish, Bunny Rogers, Analisa Teachworth, Amalia Ulman, and Petra Cortright, who today commands the highest prices of the cohort for both her NFTs and her physical works.

Perhaps because women artists tended to be well represented in magazines, even if that didn’t always translate into sales, the show got tons of press. Writing for Artforum, Sarah Nicole Prickett pointed to the discrepancy between the flyer, which advertised the show with the participating artists’ selfies, and the show itself, where “the artists’ faces did not appear—was the audience to be reeled in by the ad’s shallowness? So cynical.” In his review for Observer, Andrew Russeth described it as a survey of artists “haphazardly experiment[ing] with aesthetic codes, mixing images and graphic design that are old and new, ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ into rich artistic stews, often seasoned with glimpses of their personal lives.”

The show’s title was a reference to a 2000s YouTube video diary that had been exposed as a fictional series, underlining both the narrative aspect of the participating artists’ creative output—as seen on their social media feeds, which seamlessly blended person and practice—and the possibilities of a more quixotic mode of trolling, markedly different from bro-ish net art and often playing with gendered expectations and fantasies. Many of the works were deadpan. Russeth noted that Cortright’s contribution, made only two years before, looked already dated, but that was probably the point. Works like Rogers’, a mop with its head dyed pink and purple titled as a self-portrait, and Teachworth’s, a grainy video of hugging, hooded figures that included a threatening-sounding voiceover, suggested an aggressive subversion of the expectation for young women to perform femininity and desirability. Other artworks were disorientingly evasive in their cuteness: Lee, for example, presented a TV set covered in stickers, playing a video of the artist playing with candy. Ulman showed wire sculptures in the shape of roses, butterflies, and girls.

In his book Anti-Aesthetic (1983), Hal Foster explains that, during modernism, artists engaged in negation “in the anarchic hope of an ‘emancipatory effect’ or in the utopian dream of a time of pure presence, a space beyond representation.” By the time we arrived at postmodernism, however, artists could only do so with the understanding that “we are never outside representation,” he writes—“or rather, never outside its politics.” The politics of representation are as inescapable for the social media generation as they were for Cindy Sherman and her set. But for these post-internet artists, it was also about inhabiting networked modalities and vernacular communication strategies. Granted, however they curated, distorted, or wielded their visibility, these artists couldn’t control how they were received, which in turn impacted how their work performed on the market.

“Whenever you put your body online, you are in some way in conversation with porn,” said artist Ann Hirsch in a 2012 interview, speaking of her experience “becoming a camwhore” with the YouTube performance project Scandalishious (2008–2009). It’s a line that is often requoted in essays and interviews, but it was perhaps most famously reproduced as the epigraph on the landing page of Body Anxiety, a 2015 online group show curated by Jennifer Chan and Leah Schrager.

The exhibition opened the same day as Ho, a Ripps show that featured photos from fitness influencer Adrianne Ho’s Instagram, distorted digitally and reproduced as oil paintings. Surveying a cohort of young women, many of whom had been labeled as “feminist selfie artists,” Body Anxiety was framed as a response as much as an alternative. Broader frustrations vented in ☆ミ, a private Facebook group for women artists, writers, and curators, also connected Ho to a 2014 Richard Prince exhibition at Gagosian Gallery, which reproduced screenshots from hot girls’ Instagrams. A year later, at the 2015 New Museum Triennial, Frank Benson debuted a lifesize 3D sculpture of Juliana Huxtable, another artist who showed work in the survey. He gave her a co-author credit but not an equal share of sales, sparking similar conversations about the politics of appropriation without remuneration.

Beneath the veneer of techno-optimism, social media was enabling white men to co-opt and profit from women’s self-representation. In her review of Body Anxiety in Artforum, Johanna Fateman noted that given the structural inequalities and commodification of resistance and activism, “for a lot of artists, gaming the system is more appealing, or simply more feasible, than changing it,” and that “much of the work in the show walks right up to that well-trodden line between criticality and complicity, deploying ‘Internet babe’ tropes with and without irony.” Some of the selfie artists later employed these tropes to great financial advantage, realizing that porn was one of the easier genres of content to monetize through a paywalled model, thanks to most social media’s prudish community standards (#freethenipple became #paythenipple).

You can debate the semantics of performance art versus stunt marketing, but it’s clear that the people who are winning in the world of NFTs today are the people who have mastered the algorithm—many of them celebrities, whether self-made or entertainment industry–engineered.

With over five million followers on Instagram, Body Anxiety co-curator Schrager is the most famous of the cam-girl conceptual artists from the ☆ミ set today, leveraging her visibility to market both an OnlyFans site and selfie-based NFTs. Ironically, before refashioning himself as a devoted Bored Apes conspiracist, Ripps also became something of a porn star. One of the first NFTs to make headlines was a sex tape, audio only, of Azealia Banks allegedly fucking Ripps, to whom she was briefly engaged in 2021. Since I started this essay with a flashback to seapunk, I should add that dump.fm, the image-sharing platform Ripps created, is often credited as one of the online spaces where the seapunk movement developed. Banks, who was very tapped into these spaces and often released music on her Tumblr, was infamously seapunk before Rihanna, with the SNL performance yielding many side-by-side comparisons between the two.

You can debate the semantics of performance art versus stunt marketing, but it’s clear that the people who are winning in the world of NFTs today are the people who have mastered the algorithm—many of them celebrities, whether self-made or entertainment industry–engineered. With their NFTs, A-listers like Snoop Dogg, Bella Hadid, Shawn Mendes, and Madonna (who has collabed with Beeple) have leveraged their stans’ enthusiasm for buying pretty much anything they’re selling.

But this also includes niche icons and influencers with their own devotees. Molly Soda, an artist and former seapunk icon, underscores the experience of microcelebrity in Movie on 06-03-22 at 1.00 PM, an NFT project for On Screen Presence, a 2022 exhibition curated by Regina Harsanyi for Feral File. For 75 dollars, collectors gained access to influence, via livestreamed chat, the remixing of Soda’s private video archive, made up of mostly bedroom webcam footage. Then, for another price, a single collector could own the finished product. On the NFT review series The Hirsch Truth (which I highly recommend, by the way), Hirsch explains that Soda’s interactive piece “is predicated on [her] culture of fandom.” By both embracing and estranging herself from it, Hirsch says, Soda underscores “the fact that an average girl like her even has a fandom.” For a while now, we’ve had the future Momus predicted: everybody’s famous for 15 people. But while Web2 wanted you to do it for likes and clout, NFTs can get you paid for it.

We live in an age of influence. A celebrity with no previous political experience was elected to the highest office in the land. After Trump became president, I thought there would be a backlash and that virtuosity would make a comeback in the arts: all of a sudden, the glorification of deskilling and winking con-artistry no longer felt very punk.

As it turned out, figurative painting did replace abstraction as the art market’s hot commodity du jour. But regardless of what technical skill may be involved, these works often have a meme-like, derivative mash-up quality that seems designed for the algorithm (and the market)—something Dean Kissick has anointed “zombie figuration.” More and more, an artist’s ability to be referenced, imitated, and reproduced seems to be the highest form of influence, and therefore prestige, in our culture. Just look at how many times in this essay I’ve compared artists to Warhol, or noted them referencing him. But this culture of endless recontextualization—functioning as a mirror-mask, revealing little except a reflection of society’s own desires—seems to have contributed to a situation where anything can be worth anything. Case in point: the prices of Bored Apes and Beeples.

It’s a savvy exercise in branding to make yourself into material for the interminable bricolage and regeneration that’s increasingly being handed over to computational AI—to be an artist who both consumes and lets themself be consumed, circulating far and wide, hopefully still recognizable after you’ve been chewed up and spit out. Perhaps the perfect summation of this moment is the Beeple Generator, which randomly creates Beeple-style 3D renderings, remixing eggplant emojis, Shiba Inus, and Elon Musks. It’s postmodernism flattened into clickbait, at the precise moment that it’s-cringe-but-that’s-the-point is oversaturated but still not over, and now easier than ever to monetize. The creators of the website sold it in 2021 via Zora for the equivalent of 653 dollars.

Snobbery Isn’t Dead

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