Postmodernism has been defined by several features shared by artistic and theoretical works of the latter half of the twentieth century through the present, among them a leveling of cultural spheres, a disintegration of the distinction between “high” and “low” culture, and incredulity towards metanarratives.1 Though there is no singular definition that unites or applies to all postmodernisms, this essay interprets non-fungible tokens (NFTs) within the framework of Fredric Jameson’s view of postmodernism as “the cultural dominant of the logic of late capitalism” through cognitive mapping.2
Though the leveling of artistic and mass cultural spheres is characteristic of postmodern art in general, it is perhaps most fundamentally a part of digital art online, and NFTs in particular…
NFTs form part of a postmodern culture which is the superstructure to a multinational, yet American, late-capitalist infrastructure, and which can be further characterized by the dissolution of an autonomous sphere of culture.3 Instead, culture now extends to all aspects of the social realm, from economics and politics to the psyche itself, all of which are now “cultural” reaffirmations of the corporatist infrastructure.4 NFTs are both expressions of and reactions to the financialization and commodification of art in postmodernism as well as the expansion of the cultural superstructure into all realms of social being. In the case of NFTs, these features are particularly notable in their relationship to technologization as a form of personal and artistic commodification and in their integration with traditional and online pop culture.
But what does that look like exactly? Where are NFTs situated within postmodernism and how can they help us map the hyperspace that is the financial corporatist internet landscape—a space which is “grandiloquent but no longer masterable by the subject, seeming to surpass the reach of understanding like an inscrutable emblem of the multinational infrastructures of information technology or of capital transfer?”5 The internet as hyperspace corresponds to Kevin Lynch’s problematic of the alienated city in which people are unable to mentally map either their own positions or the urban totality they inhabit.6 Jameson’s model of cognitive mapping combines Lynch’s exploration of urban alienation with the Althusserian redefinition of ideology as “the representation of the subject’s Imaginary relationship to his or her Real conditions of existence” to reorient the individual and collective postmodern subject within the world space of multinational capital.7
NFTs are both expressions of and reactions to the financialization and commodification of art in postmodernism as well as the expansion of the cultural superstructure into all realms of social being.
Many artists are drawn to NFTs’ underlying blockchain protocol due to its transparency and decentralization in a move away from online spaces architected on traditional finance. These spaces regulate users’ experiences in ways that further centralize the concentration of power in the institution of global capital, usually to the detriment of independent artists.8 While, in some ways, NFTs and NFT marketplaces intervene in the practice of using algorithms to structurally create and sustain the current systems of power via the logic of financialization, they are far from rejections of financialization itself. By leaving certain parts of the underlying online infrastructure exposed via the blockchain but not rejecting the premise of its logic, NFTs and NFT marketplaces make visible the vastness and incomprehensibility of online hyperspace—a space that has become so entangled with the logic of consumerism that it is unnavigable without financial signposts as spatial markers. Meanwhile, the leveling of cultural and social spheres leaves the technologized postmodern subject stranded on an endless plain (or adrift on an OpenSea) with only financial markers to guide them.
In Jameson’s analysis, he points to one fundamental feature of all postmodernisms: “the effacement in them of the older (essentially high-modernist) frontier between high and so-called mass or commercial culture, and the emergence of new kinds of texts infused with the forms, categories, and contents of that very culture industry so passionately denounced by all the ideologues of the modern, from Leavis and American New Criticism all the way to Adorno and the Frankfurt School.”9 This is a function of the integration of aesthetic production into commodity production.10 Though the leveling of artistic and mass cultural spheres is characteristic of postmodern art in general, it is perhaps most fundamentally a part of digital art online, and NFTs in particular, both in terms of their subject matter and their cognitive-spatial relationship to multinational capital.
Much like the media of film and photography, digital image, video, and audio files can contain both artistic and pop-cultural subject matter and often blur the distinction between the two.11 NFTs themselves represent a diverse array of artistic media and practices as well as pop culture collectibles, all of which coexist on the same platforms. Alongside contemporary works of art, some of the highest-grossing NFTs include pop culture memorabilia such as Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s first tweet, digital trading cards of LeBron James dunking, and memes such as Nyan Cat12. Though not all art listed on NFT marketplaces references pop culture, the highest-grossing artists on said platforms often explore pop cultural themes and motifs, both critically and as pastiche. For example, Beeple, a digital artist who has recently risen in prominence due to his NFT sales, regularly incorporates both pop cultural and political figures in his images (Figs. 1 and 2).
His use of low-detail 3D body renders is another stylistic feature that artists in the NFT space frequently employ (Figs. 3 and 4). This style evokes the appearance of 3D avatars that users create for themselves in interactive simulation games such as The Sims, Second Life, or VR chat. In this sense, both viewer and artist locate themselves within the NFT marketplace by way of a technologized avatar who inhabits the same space as media figures and collectibles.
Furthermore, the spatial layout of NFT platforms, such as OpenSea and Nifty Gateway, illustrate the financial corporatist structure in which artists and members of the public must orient themselves in online settings, even on decentralized platforms. For instance, OpenSea is organized into Marketplace, Stats, and Resources. All NFTs are listed under the Marketplace tab, which is given the handle “assets” in the site’s URL. Asset subcategories range from art, to trading cards, to domain names.13 All spheres of culture are leveled under the banner of the free market. Though users can filter the marketplace by subcategory and select “Art,” the art category is just as likely to feature images of Dogecoin and Elon Musk as is the collectibles category.14 Also notable is the heavy presence of CryptoPunks-style avatars for sale in both categories. Both artist and viewer navigate through a sea of commodities on the same terms as commodities themselves. Artists are then ranked according to the volume and price of their collections, implying that the hierarchy of cultural spheres has been reduced to a purely financial hierarchy.15
The infusion of culture industry products into art is symptomatic of the subsumption of all cultural spheres under capitalism, a reality which has become even more pronounced in the present day due to the expansion of technology into all facets of daily life—“A technological rationale is the rationale of domination itself.”16 NFT platforms’ decentralized nature provides a potential means of resisting the monopolistic control that such rationales propagate; their architectural skeleton is exposed in its impression on the platforms’ financialized landscapes. While at the present NFTs and the platforms on which they exist can help visualize the postmodern technologized subject’s orientation within the online world space of financial systems, whether they can serve as tools of disalienation in the future via cognitive mapping or otherwise remains to be seen.
Sarah Ganzel is a New York-based graduate student of art history and curatorial studies as well as the Curator of LOAM.fun Gallery in VR. She has a background in medieval Icelandic studies and philology, and she is currently interested in exploring new critical approaches to everything from illuminated manuscripts to NFTs.
1 See Jean-Fraçois Lyotard, “Introduction to The Postmodern Condition” and “What Is Postmodernism?,” in Art in Theory, 1900-1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, eds. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (Oxford & Maiden: Blackwell Publisher’s Ltd & Blackwell Publisher’s Inc, 1992), 998-1000 and 1008-1015; Jürgen Habermas, “Modernity—An Incomplete Project,” in Art in Theory, 1900-1990: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, eds. Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (Oxford & Maiden: Blackwell Publisher’s Ltd & Blackwell Publisher’s Inc, 1992), 1000-1008.
2 Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991), chap. VI.
3 Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, chap. I.
4 Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, chap. VI.
5 Rosalind Krauss, “The Cultural Logic of the Late Capitalist Museum,” October Vol. 54, (Autumn, 1990): 12, http://www.jstor.org/stable/778666.
6 Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, chap. VI.
7 Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, chap. VI.
8 Laura Lotti, “Financialization as a Medium: Speculative Notes on Post-Blockchain Art,” in Moneylab Reader 2: Overcoming the Hype, eds. Inte Gloerich, Patricia De Vries, and Geert Lovink (Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2018), 91, https://networkcultures.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/09-lauralotti.pdf.
9 Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, chap. I.
10 Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, chap. I.
11 This can technically be true of all artistic media, but the more recent technological media of film, photography and digital imaging, and recording software are most associated with products of the culture industry.
12 Jack Dorsey’s first tweet sold for $2,915, 835.47, making it one of the top ten most expensive NFTs ever sold. See “Jack Dorsey’s first tweet sold as an NFT for an oddly specific $2,915,835.47,” The Verge, accessed May 24, 2021, https://www.theverge.com/2021/3/22/22344937/jack-dorsey-nft-sold-first-tweet-ethereum-cryptocurrency-twitter. LeBron James dunking was sold as part of the NBA Top Shot series for a total of $208,000. See “The 10 Biggest NBA Top Shot Sales to Date: LeBron Dunk Goes for $208,000,” Action Network, accessed May 24, 2021. Nyan Cat was sold directly by the original artist for 300 ETH (around $590,000). See “Nyan Cat NFT Sells for 300 ETH, Opening Door to the ‘Meme Economy’,” Coindesk, accessed May 24, 2021, https://www.coindesk.com/nyan-cat-nft-ethereum-meme.
13 “Marketplace,” OpenSea, accessed May 21, 2021, https://opensea.io/assets.
14 Digital art of meme-based cryptocurrencies is postmodern above all else.
15 “Rankings,” Stats, OpenSea, accessed May 21, 2021, https://opensea.io/rankings. This is not dissimilar from how artists are listed on art auction ranking sites. See “ArtRank,” ArtRank, accessed May 24, 2021, https://artrank.com/.
16 Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, “The Culture Industry as Mass Deception,” in The Dialectic of Enlightenment, excerpt, https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/adorno/1944/culture-industry.htm.