NFT artists do not sell “digital art objects”. They are selling a story
“It’s been very clear to us these past few days that NFTs may not be the future right now,” one of the Nifty Alpha Podcast hosts recently joked. “Like, it’s the future, but not today.”
The Nifty Alpha Podcast is a jovial and pleasantly candid source of information for NFT investors. Nifty Nick was doing a bit here, but he’s basing it on the bigger truth: the NFT market is dying. The overall story at the moment is the bleeding of large “blue-chip” NFT projects, with isolated spikes for this or that project fading fast.
We’re about a year and a half into the big NFT integration and a few months into the first NFT winter.
Some parts of the NFT universe are so obnoxious – the guys who tweet “HAVE FUN STAYING POOR” to the doubters; influencers who inflate the projects in which they are secretly invested and then cash in; the endless supply of business hacks donning the mantle of digital art – that it’s easy to get a lot of schadenfreude.
But I don’t really think NFTs are going to go away, actually. They only mutate under pressure.
People who promote the alternative NFT art world tend to speak with great confidence about the ills of the mainstream art world, seen as hoarding economic opportunities that the magic of blockchain technology promises to bring. open to all. But often it seems to me that this vision still buys the hype of the mainstream art world.
The truth is, anyone who seriously studies the art market knows that traditional art is mostly a bad investment. Almost all the new arts are worthless; even most works of art that have had their day are worthless a few years later. Only in truly exceptional cases does art appreciate dramatically over time, and such increases are almost impossible to predict.
The main reason to collect art is that… you actually love art or want to support artists. To be fair, I heard NFT experts say similar things at the recent NFT.NYC conference in the face of falling prices. (Six months earlier, during the previous NFT.NYC, the line was “who wants to retire in three years?”)
But this remains to be underlined: “democratizing” the financial opportunities of the art market means above all democratizing the ability to lose money on hyper-speculative assets. As Bloomberg reported last year, “A very small group of highly sophisticated investors reap most of the profits from NFT collecting” – just like in the traditional art market.
And yet…just because most of the claims about the money-making potential of NFTs for the average person turn out to be smoke and mirrors doesn’t mean NFTs will go away; there is too much money to be made to keep this dream alive. Multilevel marketing groups like Mary Kay and Herbalife are also recruiting people with huge promises of financial independence that turn out to be largely illusory. These operations have been criticized, sued and investigated as pyramid schemes, but new people are signing up every year to become evangelists of their products.
Such programs tend to thrive among segments of the population that feel cut off from economic opportunity: Mary Kay among housewives; Herbalife among immigrants; and crypto and NFTs among young men seeking stagnant opportunities in the real economy.
The highly engaged audience of digital art day traders is truly something new, culturally, serving a mass audience of self-identified “degenerates” (“degenerate gamer”) that has no equivalent in the traditional art market. Most NFT projects are definitely bubbles, but the NFT art and collectibles business ecosystem as a whole feels more like a new form of art-themed online gaming. It scratches the same itch as horse racing or sports betting, but for digital natives.
And gambling actually tends to thrive in economically uncertain times. In fact, the emerging field of “crypto addiction” is treated as a subset of gambling addiction.
There is, however, a slightly less cynical reason to think that the NFT trade will continue, on the artists’ side rather than the collectors’ side. The innovation reflects a way to sustain digital creativity, which has proven potentially viable over the past year, under the moss. Society is increasingly focused on digital creativity.
Again, though, I think some of what this means is obscured by the ordinary breathless NFT sales talk. Web3 advocates sound to the world like they’re pitching from Silicon Valley for a “new Internet”, without any satire. You hear a lot about how NFTs will finally liberate culture from the evil grip of Web 2.0, that is, the influence of the big platforms that have captured most of the profits from the internet economy. attention, your Alphabets and your Metas.
But as far as I can tell, success in the NFT space is very heavily based on the same viral dynamics and addiction to trending topics that have hollowed out the media in the age of Web 2.0. After a year and a half of watching the NFT art world grow, it’s become clear that even when a project catches fire, its medium-term value tends to follow the ordinary curve of viral fame and memes. in general: there is an intense first pop of conversation as everyone tries to jump on a trend, which is rapidly aging and quickly becoming yesterday’s lunch.
Critics roll their eyes and talk about the absurdity of “buying jpgs”. But even this way of criticizing NFTs unwittingly incorporates an unnecessary analogy. collectors are not buy a digital image (or rather a token pointing to a digital image) that functions as a discrete array, like a “digital object”. The most engaged NFT audience is looking for a storya cycle of hype that they can bet on fluctuating.
To me, it seems this is where a lot of more mainstream artists entering the NFT space go wrong, thinking they’re just going to “make an NFT” which will then be sold to an audience that will passively hold it. It doesn’t work that way; people looking to invest money in these things are looking for a consistent narrative to hold the price down. Ongoing commitment is needed.
Artist JR got into NFTs last year, which generated a lot of excitement. As can be seen on Discord, his collectors have been apoplectic that he hasn’t ditched his other art to shuffle more of his NFTs, to pump up the project. An angry former fan even recently created a mocking animated version of his famous face in sunglasses, where JR is forced to assure his NFT holders, in a shrill cartoon voice, “Hey guys, I have not forgotten you! I think of you all the time I fly around the world spending all your money! Brutal.
JR is one of the most famous, well-connected and high-profile street artists in the world. If he can’t just sit back and let the NFTs flow on their own, neither can any other artist who wants something like an ongoing practice in the space.
The tendency of NFT conversation to be dominated by large collections of slightly varying images stems from the need for a story. More related images means more transactions, which means more potential news events and data points to monitor, which means more of a story to bet on.
When it comes to “one-of-a-kind” art – the NFT way of saying “one-of-a-kind” artistic images rather than lots of digital collectibles like monkeys or punks – it seems significant that the most famous artist in The space, Beeple, got his fame was born out of his “Everydays” project to release a new work of art…every day.
Constant attention, constant new stories, is what is required to keep the ball of interest in the air, to guarantee a continuous drip of interest. And so, the effect of the NFT-ization of art is an extension and intensification of the demands on creative life in the age of social media and the tyranny of algorithmic feeding, not a healthier, people-friendly alternative.
Sara Ludy, a successful digital artist based in New Mexico, recently spoke with my colleague Tim Schneider for the Art Angle podcast about the future of digital art. She spoke enthusiastically about the huge, game-changing NFTs represented for digital artists, being able to get money for previously unevaluated work, as well as artists like her, based outside of geographic art capitals. These are real goods.
But this passage also struck me, and I think that any artist who is interested in NFT should think about it:
I don’t think the NFT space is a healthy space because of what is required of artists to constantly have to market and promote themselves. You have to be on Discord 24/7 and you’re basically juggling several other aspects of what it means to be an artist, and it’s exhausting. Personally, I am currently in digital detox and re-evaluating what it means to have a healthy and sustainable digital practice. Which was born out of burnout. I can barely open my computer screen right now and I struggled with the latest works on my show because I had exhausted being online all the time.
NFTs may not look like the future right now. But they are much more like the near past hanging over the present. I’m not betting on their total crash just yet, but I certainly wouldn’t bet on their ability to escape this dynamic either.
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