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Art in the time of NFTs

The buying and selling of art, be it as an NFT or a framed painting, is finance and speculation — a business deal. The art itself is unaffected

June 02, 2021 / 05:45 PM IST
A man captures an artwork in New York. (File image) REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

A man captures an artwork in New York. (File image) REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

‘All art,’ wrote Oscar Wilde, ‘is quite useless.’ The commerce of art, he suggested, had nothing at all to do with art or the artist. In 2021, that can apply to digital art and the new wave of NFTs (non-fungible tokens).

For the uninitiated, an NFT is something like a digital certificate of authenticity. It proclaims ownership of a digital artefact, and is made secure by blockchain (also known as a distributed ledger) technology. It is non-fungible because it is the only one of its kind, and cannot be interchanged. Like other physical ‘properties’, the NFTs can be bought and sold, but they’re digital, which means that they have no tangible physical form.

Unlike Wilde, we live in hybrid times. The so-called real world now seamlessly interacts with and even extends into the digital world every day, every waking minute. We talk to friends online, play games, go shopping, and even consult doctors. In the past year, we’ve even attended school and weddings online. We watch TV and buy music on the Internet. You’re reading this article online, because that’s how we get our news. This screen is just what normal looks like now. Why should art be any different!

The value of an artwork lies not just in the price it fetches at auctions, but also in its cultural value. An original DaVinci or Husain or Sher-Gil is something of great value — and is, therefore, considered to be worth the big bucks. But such artworks are artefacts from the time of Wilde.

In 2021, when a group that describes itself as ‘tech and art enthusiasts’ bought a 2006 Banksy and burnt it on a livestreamed video, they insisted they were attempting to ‘move’ the ‘value’ of the physical piece of art — made by the artist known only as Banksy — to an online NFT. So that it could then be sold as the only ‘true’ piece of that art. This Banksy NFT has reportedly been sold for $380,000.


In a physical artwork, there is a clear ‘original’, and then there are copies, prints, digital scans, and many other reproductions and re-mediations. In the Banksy NFT, with the original destroyed, what does it mean for there to be a ‘true’ online version? How is this digital version different from the many others already online? If the value of the digital piece is determined by the ownership of the physical piece, then the digital certificate — the NFT — now becomes the piece itself. It is the NFT that will be sold further now. Morons — the piece that has now been burnt — has nothing to do with it anymore.

But there’s more to it than paintings. Digital artworks of many kinds, from gifs and jpegs to tweets and music, are being sold through the NFTs. Earlier this year, the famous 2011 animated gif of ‘Nyan Cat’ sold for more than $500,000. Last week, at Christie’s first ever digital-only art auction, a work by digital artist Beeple (Mike Winkelmann) was sold for $69 million.

The strangeness in all of this is that while the digital NFT represents ownership, and can be sold further, the owner of the NFT does not actually possess the artwork itself. Unlike in physical artworks, the owner does not exclusively own the gif or jpeg or tweet. Be it Banksy’s Morons, the Nyan Cat gif, or Beeple’s jpeg file, they are freely available online to download, see, and share. What this does is change the meaning of ownership of a digital artefact, even if it costs millions of dollars.

This isn’t really that different from physical artworks. Owning the physical original does not in any way change or alter society’s enjoyment of the work itself, even if the actual piece is locked away in a collector’s temperature-controlled vault. As has been argued many times before, the price of an artwork is a concept vastly different from its value. How much a piece of art sells for has to do with money and markets and valuation and speculation; and those who buy and sell art need not know or care about the value or art of the thing itself. Other than supporting the artist with the payment made directly to them, the further buying and selling of it means nothing to art or to the artwork, or even perhaps to the artist.

A fan of Wilde wrote to him after the publication of A Picture of Dorian Gray to ask him to explain what he meant by saying that all art was useless. Wilde, as it happens, took the trouble to write back and explain. ‘Art is useless as a flower is useless. A flower blossoms for its own joy,’ he wrote. ‘A man may sell the flower to be useful to him, but that has nothing to do with the flower.’

It has always been so with art, digital or otherwise. The buying and selling of it, be it as an NFT or a framed painting, is finance and speculation — a business deal. The art itself is unaffected. The NFTs might be the newest things that can be sold in an ever-expanding market that has moved online along with the rest of our lives; but as an artefact, it is simply one of many that have come before, and will come after it.

Vidya Subramanian is Postdoctoral Fellow at CPS, IIT Bombay, and Research Affiliate at the South Asia Institute, Harvard University. Twitter: @vidyas42. Views are personal.
first published: Mar 20, 2021 08:52 am

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