On January 13th 2022, ArtNet reported that, after a long debate, a 5-1 vote by Wikipedia editors determined that NFTs should not be classified as ‘art’ on the online encyclopedia. The metric in question? Wikipedia's page "List of most expensive artworks by living artists" included the works of artists entrenched in the canon: Jeff Koons, Jasper Johns, Gerhard Richter, et al. Conspicuously excluded were Beeple and Pak, whose works—sold for an exorbitant price of $69 million and $91.8 million, respectively—outpaced many figures before them, like Picasso. The absence of the two artists said it all.
This verdict drew the ire of many in the crypto community, particularly a vocal group of artists who felt this decision decried and invalidated their practices—a sore spot in a market context where many outsiders felt that they had finally found some footing in an otherwise exclusionary 'fine art' world. Despite the market’s clear preference and the tidal wave of capital washing into the crypto space, the age-old debate over who gets to decide what is and is not art rages on: an elite few elect chosen ones to be indoctrinated into the annals of history, and everyone else suffers the consequences. While the plight of the underdog is certainly a more compelling story that should be told and fought for, and artists who sell their work with NFTs attached are making incredible fine art that should not go unregarded by the canon, let’s not get our wallets in a wad. The Wikipedia editors were absolutely right on one thing: NFTs, on their own, are usually not art.
As experts like Tina Rivers Ryan and Regina Harsanyi have been trying to explain for over a year now, NFTs—non-fungible tokens that exist on the blockchain as encoded smart contracts—are typically not art. Rather, they are software programs that facilitate the sale of goods, including artwork, and reference said goods on a public ledger. When an artwork is minted, the artwork itself—usually an image, video, GIF, or 3D object file—is not actually uploaded to the blockchain; instead, a neat little metadata packet in the form of a JSON file is. That metadata, the token, only points to the artwork file. The artwork file itself lives somewhere else. Often, that somewhere else is IPFS or another decentralized storage protocol. It would behoove anyone buying or selling work with a non-fungible token attached to take a closer look at the materiality of this transaction modality. There is a lot going on under the hood; it’s crucial that artists and collectors alike understand these nuances as files, contracts, and money zooming back and forth through cyberspace.
So, with this technical knowledge made clear, it would have been a slippery slope for Wikipedia to declare all NFTs as art. Most times, there is no inherent intentionality, creativity, or even functionality to tokenized smart contracts outside of their role in facilitating a record of transaction. Besides, reducing the artwork to its connected token flattens its creative merit: the special magic imbued into its material presence by the artist’s hands. I can’t ever recall a time when a sculpture collector has gone to a gallery and framed the receipt for the purchase of a statue. That’s all that the NFT is: a demarcation of ownership, a proof of purchase. Important? Yes. Work of art? Not quite. This should not be shocking; a much more valid question to ask is, “Why does our culture only deem this kind of digital art valuable and salable if there is a proof of purchase available on a public ledger?” This is a moment for all in the creative industries to be emboldened to defend all kinds of media as culturally valuable, relevant, and worthy of the market’s attention.
We live in algorithmic times. Complicated lines of code present information to us on our screens in neatly organized feeds. The internet, and globalization more broadly, has unlocked so many points of connection between disparate nodes of human culture; yet, they have also bred disinformation and homogenization. In the era of the algorithm, it is more important than ever that the crucial work of art historians, curators, and anthropologists does not go unnoticed. Blindly shoving anything cryptocurrency-related into a 'NFT art' category does nothing but dilute the practice of new media pioneers, whose groundbreaking work over the better part of the last century has been firmly rooted in concept and material.
All of that said, there are, of course, exceptions to every rule. While NFTs themselves may not inherently be artworks, there are certainly many artists and artworks that exist as NFTs, and rely upon the functionality of digital contracts as part of their conceptual value; meaning that there are instances of artists creating artworks where the token itself is the artwork, rather than a separate entity from an artwork file. A shining contemporary example is the work of Rhea Myers, who has made a wide array of contract-based artworks. Her piece Tokens Equal Text (2019) is a perfect case study. The work consists of 32 unique ERC-998 composable tokens. Each ERC-998, in turn, owns four ERC-721 tokens. The metadata for each ERC-721, which usually consists of strings of numbers, has been replaced with words by Myers. Ultimately, each ERC-998 can be read as a formal composition of the data of each ERC-721 token that it owns. Playful yet simple, this project turns the contract itself into a work of art to devilishly call attention to the infrastructure of NFT worlds. Many collectors in the crypto space seem to value the token above all else, and Myers has cleverly turned that token—an otherwise opaque piece of code—into something that is aesthetically and functionally attached to its medium: true NFT art.
Rather than playing with the materiality of the non-fungible token, some artists call attention to the functionality/non-functionality of NFTs or the metaphorical value of artwork encoded as a contract. In Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley’s TERMS AND CONDITIONS (2021), the artist has created a code of conduct that decrees certain rights and protections for Black Trans people. Available for sale as an NFT via TRANSFER Gallery, the animated GIF file stipulates that anyone who purchases the NFT must abide by the terms and conditions set forth by the artwork: namely, that they will protect and support Black Trans people. The artist even determines that whoever purchases the artwork must display the artwork in their physical space for a period of two years, thus putting a price and a real-world action to Trans allyship. While obviously not enforceable in computer code, this work calls into question our relationships to contracts—asking whether a different future where morals and social values could be enshrined and traded, and in doing so, made tangible.
There are also brilliant artists toying with the functionality of tokenized art ecosystems. Most notably, Harm van den Dorpel’s Mutant Garden (2021) released with Folia relies upon contractual mechanics to create a dynamic work of art that changes over time. Each of the 512 minted works in Mutant Garden occupies its own unique transaction hash on a discrete block. Based on generative algorithmic function, each Mutant changes over time depending on its relationship to other hashes and its block’s position on the ledger. While the work itself does not rely upon the NFT contract for its generative function, its aesthetic output is constantly determined by its contractual context and relation to other NFTs. “Digital art is defined by fluctuating data and software, but on a blockchain parts of it are fixed, immutably,” the artist explained in an interview with Outland. “We don’t know how long Ethereum will exist, but we trust that it will last forever, as long as mankind will propagate it. It feels set in stone, engraved forever, whereas generative art used to seem so ephemeral.” While relying upon these tensions between permanence & impermanence, Mutant Garden nods to the possibility that NFTs and other kinds of blockchain contracts are not fixed, static artifacts but rather opportunities for fluidity and dynamism in an ever-shifting technological environment.
While these few examples are contemporary, artists have been exploring their relationships to contracts for years. Connecting to van den Dorpel’s exploration of the fixed versus adaptable qualities of NFTs, the Fluxus movement that originated in the 1960’s aimed to create a sort of fluid contract between artist, artwork, and participating audience. Instruction-based art, like drawings by Donald Judd or performances by Carolee Schneeman, also points to this idea of art as something that is newly performed based on a solid and somewhat immutable concept or idea. Knud Pederson summed up the issues at stake quite nicely in 1970, when he wrote on Fluxus and the relationship between art, business, and politics:
Collaboration between art and business is more than party games for limited companies. If the artist who sets it up, remains an alien element, and if his idea is not treated seriously, it will become a party game, pure and simple. But if the artist is one of the company’s employees, or if he is engaged to do his job as part of the company’s activities, the party game can become art.¹
It has been fascinating to watch generative art on platforms like artblocks and fxhash gain cult popularity in crypto communities, showing how the manifestations of ideas, in the form of fixed, performative algorithms, can create dynamic, infinitely unique visual outputs. At the end of the day, it is clear that NFTs on their own are not art. But it’s also perfectly clear that the works that tokens are attached to most certainly are. There is no undermining the damage that Wikipedia has done, evicting all NFT-related projects out of the ‘art’ category—because, again: Who gets to decide what is and isn’t art anyway? What this moment may call for, instead, is a more intentional way of thinking through and working with the material specificities of the blockchain, at least when it comes to our art.
Indeed, as has been seen in the meteoric success of certain artists selling their digital work with tokens attached, the charged social environment around an artwork that is sold with a NFT might be an important foundation to the meaning of that work. The market has clearly shown its perspective—as made quite clear by the $90 million+ Pak sale that sparked this entire debate in the first place. A Bored Ape might not be a contract in itself (again, it’s just a piece of metadata that points to a picture of a monkey on IPFS), but perhaps the electrified fervor from the ravenous community of Ape collectors might push the cartoon chimps and their tokens further into the realm of capital ‘A’ Art. Should the social context around a work and the technology used to create it be considered just as much as its medium? Perhaps—especially as new kinds of token utility and participatory community action begin to evolve. While the NFT-as-art debate may linger indefinitely, we shouldn’t lose sight that in the broadest sense, NFTs are sales mechanisms and no more without the artworks to which they are attached.