While media abounds about NFTs revolutionizing the art world, this essay argues that NFTs can instead be understood in terms of Fredric Jameson’s concept of “cultural revolution.”1 In trying to create a decentralized and somewhat Utopian alternative to a specific nightmare induced by commodification, NFTs produce an imaginary space shaped by the structural features of that same nightmare.2 In fact, it could be said that NFTs produce a more efficient future moment in the history of capitalism, allowing the culture industry to control and profit from the digital art landscape in ways that were previously not possible.3
In the 1980s, American museums introduced a series of financial models and exhibition practices that transformed and continue to dominate the institutional zeitgeist.4 In “The Cultural Logic of the Late Capitalist Museum,” Rosalind Krauss describes the effects of these policies as a shift from viewing the museum’s collection as a form of cultural patrimony or embodiments of cultural knowledge to viewing the collection’s contents as capital.5 Part of the change she observes is the activity of markets restructuring the aesthetic original to change it into an “asset.”6 Krauss relates her experience of the late capitalist museum to Jameson’s “cultural revolution.” She describes the notion that an artist, in resistance to a certain manifestation of capital, produces an alternative to that phenomenon that can also be read as a more ideated or rarified function of the thing to which the artist was objecting.7
Though Krauss specifically draws upon the Minimalist movement for her case study, artists working across a multiplicity of aesthetic movements and media have rebelled against the market practices of contemporary arts institutions by proposing alternative methods of purchasing and selling their artwork. These artistic interventions in the art market have been particularly important for artists whose artwork is in some way resistant to the art market’s usual methods for inventing value around a work of art, yet who are also subject to the pressures of commodification. NFTs are part of this tradition of artistic intervention—they were envisioned as an escape from the stranglehold traditional finance has on the art world and the increasing control the same corporate entities wield over online arts communities. This new model for an online art market was designed to empower all independent artists and creators but especially artists working in digital, video, and audio media.
Digital art is simultaneously treated to the sales tactics of the art market, which transforms it into an asset, and the culture industry, which levels art and artists alike with commodities. This changing view towards art as a financial asset betrays the connection between the art market and offshore finance, the latter of which was instrumental in the institutionalization of the contemporary global art market in the 1990s.8 When selling their artwork on the traditional market, both digital artists and non-digital artists alike are treated as brands whose products’ speculative worth is tied to the reputation and hype of their brand name, often resulting in unfair compensatory practices.9
The Warren Buffet – Decentral Eyes NFT series by Coldie, for example, comments on the entanglement of global finance and the art world (Fig. 1).10 The series’ fourth installment lampoons Buffet’s statement that he will never own cryptocurrency because it is an “asset that creates nothing,” which the artist quotes behind a reconstruction of Buffet’s head in the intaglio style of paper currency with colorful US dollar signs arranged to form a mohawk.11 By juxtaposing a symbol of corrupt global finance with the countercultural value of decentralized cryptocurrencies, the series expresses optimism at the prospect that NFTs will disrupt the former’s domination over the artistic sphere.
Digital art is also, however, often overlooked by the global contemporary art market due to its non-physical format, which prevents institutions and investors from easily speculating on how digital works of art will appreciate as assets based on established valuation criteria.12 Additionally, mass media is hosted on the same online platforms on which digital art resides, furthering the association of digital art with popular, free web content produced by the culture industry. The latter characteristic makes monetization increasingly difficult for digital artists due to the growing centralization of the internet in the hands of corporate stakeholders. Media conglomerates are more capable than ever of optimizing algorithms to advertise their own products, thus devaluing smaller creators’ artwork through underpromotion and association with corporate content. Meanwhile, the same ‘personal branding’ logic still applies.
Though NFTs were designed to solve the problems that traditional finance causes within the art world and its online equivalent, NFT communities’ reliance on the same marketing tactics creates a space that applies and even advances the same market pressures. For example, the art market often relies on markers of difference and artificial scarcity models to sell digitally or mechanically created art at a higher cost than the market value traditionally associated with those production techniques.13 This tactic is similarly employed by popular marketing firms to sell limited edition products and collectibles. To surmount the added challenge of digital art’s free reproducibility and intangible format, NFTs invent value using nearly identical logic but go further, inscribing difference through a monetary transaction in the very DNA, i.e., the code, of the NFT. In doing so, they go further than the established postmodern art market in transforming art into a financial asset—a valuation practice emblematic of the globalist financial interference they set out to solve. According to Krauss, “in the world of commodities it is this difference that is consumed.”14
NFT marketplaces also explicitly borrow marketing practices from multinational consumer retailers. For example, Nifty Gateway includes a section on its website for “Drops” that announces when collections are going live.15 Drops on Nifty Gateway allow artists to curate collections of their work and sell them directly to the public with increased visibility due to the website’s dedicated listing section.16 However, the term “drop” references a specific fashion marketing technique in which brands “drop” limited edition runs at their brick-and-mortar stores that are never re-released or restocked and are only resold on second-hand markets.17 This is designed to incite a buying frenzy among dedicated brand followers due to an artificial scarcity model, a tactic that is now successfully employed in NFT marketplaces despite the reproducibility of digital images.18
NFTs monetarily benefit independent artists working in hard-to-sell formats by marrying decentralized cryptographic technology and financial practices with the market logic of multinational capital in a way that intends to result in a more ethical art market. Doing so solves the problem of these artistic media’s supposed unprofitability, for which there are few precedented solutions within a traditional market context. Unsurprisingly, the culture industry and global arts enterprises have taken note of this success and have quickly sought to replicate it, undermining the intended goal of NFTs.
For example, pop musician Grimes has had success selling her digital art as NFTs on Nifty Gateway, volume one of her WarNymph collection selling for roughly $6 million in total (Fig. 2).19 Her involvement in creating NFTs is representative of a larger move on the part of the culture industry to digitally monetizing their products using blockchain technology, often overshadowing smaller creators on NFT platforms and introducing policies that benefit them over said independent artists.
Grimes’ foray into NFTs also demonstrates the impossibility of breaking free from the real-world impacts of late capitalism even in decentralized online marketplaces. For example, Grimes’ partner and billionaire CEO of Tesla Elon Musk recently Tweeted that Tesla would no longer be accepting bitcoin due to the environmental costs of the cryptocurrency, causing the price of bitcoin to drop 15%.20 While Grimes and other pop culture creators remain largely unscathed by Musk’s ability to flippantly tank cryptocurrencies and NFT marketplaces, the same cannot be said for smaller creators who are invested in crypto-art communities. Though NFTs may be decentralized, they are still subject to the logic of late capitalism in which power is centralized in the hands of the global elite.
The postmodern art market has also involved itself in NFTs recently with the sale of Beeple’s Everydays: The First 5000 Days, a montage containing every image in Beeple’s ongoing digital art project in which he created one image per day for 5000 days starting in 2007 (Fig. 3).21 The NFT sold for roughly $69.3 million, making Beeple one of the richest artists alive.22 While the sale is a major accomplishment for Beeple and digital artists in general, Christie’s involvement may speak to further interference from the corporate side of the art market in the crypto-art world. Likewise, Sotheby’s announced that it would be accepting bitcoin and ether for its recent Banksy auction and last month released Natively Digital, a curated NFT sale that doubly functioned as an advertisement for sponsored Samsung products.23 What the postmodern art market’s stake in NFTs means for independent artists and the technology remains to be seen. NFTs have given artists, arts institutions, and the culture industry more effective means of capitalizing on digital art, for better or for worse.
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 Jameson’s proposed cultural revolution is based on his interpretation of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Though it was not accurate to the realities of its original context, it serves as an interpretive framework for other postmodern revolutions. See: Xian Wang, “Traveling Theory: Fredric Jameson’s Interpretations of the Cultural Revolution and Maoism,” CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture 20, no. 3 (2018): 3.
2 Rosalind Krauss, “The Cultural Logic of the Late Capitalist Museum,” October Vol. 54, (Autumn, 1990): 11, http://www.jstor.org/stable/778666.
3 Krauss, “The Cultural Logic of the Late Capitalist Museum,” 11.
4 Ibid., 4-5.
5 Ibid., 4-5.
6 Ibid., 6.
7 Ibid., 11.
8 Laura Lotti, “Contemporary Art, Capitalization and the Blockchain: On the Autonomy and Automation of Art’s Value,” Finance and Society 2, no. 2 (2016): 96, doi:10.2218/FINSOC.V2I2.1724.
9 Lotti, “Contemporary Art, Capitalization and the Blockchain: On the Autonomy and Automation of Art’s Value,” 100.
10 “Warren Buffet – Decentral Eyes by Coldie,” Marketplace, Nifty Gateway, accessed July 4, 2021, https://niftygateway.com/marketplace?page=1&search=&collection=0xa81e0193f30bbd6e83366a88b4570e8766ca2131&type=2&onSale=false.
11 Nifty Gateway, “Warren Buffet – Decentral Eyes by Coldie.”
12 Due to the medium’s infinite reproducibility, it is, in fact, impossible to do so based on any valuation criteria within traditional finance.
13 Rachel O’Dwyer, “Limited Edition: Producing Artificial Scarcity for Digital Art on the Blockchain and Its Implications for the Cultural Industries,” Convergence 20, (2018): 4, DOI: 10.1177/1354856518795097.
14 Krauss, “The Cultural Logic of the Late Capitalist Museum,” 10.
15 “Drops,” Nifty Gateway, accessed May 21, 2021, https://niftygateway.com/collections.
16 Nifty Gateway, “Drops.”
17 “Drop Culture,” Fashion Dictionary, Dictionary.com, accessed May 21, 2021, https://www.dictionary.com/e/fashion/drop-culture/.
18 O’Dwyer, “Limited Edition: Producing Artificial Scarcity for Digital Art on the Blockchain and Its Implications for the Cultural Industries,” 5.
19 “WarNymph Collection Vol 1 By Grimes x Mac,” Grimes, Nifty Gateway, accessed May 24, 2021, https://niftygateway.com/collections/warnymphvolume1; “Grimes sold $6 million worth of digital art as NFTs,” The Verge, accessed May 24, 2021, https://www.theverge.com/2021/3/1/22308075/grimes-nft-6-million-sales-nifty-gateway-warnymph.
20 “When Elon Musk tweets, crypto prices move,” Vox, accessed May 24, 2021, https://www.vox.com/recode/2021/5/18/22441831/elon-musk-bitcoin-dogecoin-crypto-prices-tesla.
21 Beeple | The First 5000 Days,” Online Auction 20447, Christie’s, closed March 11, 2021, https://onlineonly.christies.com/s/first-open-beeple/beeple-b-1981-1/112924.
22 Christie’s, “Beeple | The First 5000 Days.”
23 “Disruptor of Art Meets Disruptor of Finance: Sotheby’s To Accept Cryptocurrency Via Coinbase for Banksy’s Love is in the Air,” Sotheby’s Press Release, Sotheby’s, accessed May 24, 2021, https://sothebys-com.brightspotcdn.com/85/41/52743e394681803f3a9d7a4c2c35/sothebys-x-coinbase-pr.pdf; “Natively Digital: A Curated NFT Sale,” Digital Catalogues, Sotheby’s, accessed July 2, 2021, https://www.sothebys.com/en/digital-catalogues/natively-digital-a-curated-nft-sale.