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Art Culture

To NFT or Not to NFT? That is the question.

Picture this: it’s 2030. Galleries as we know and love (or hate) them are redundant. Now, there are no queues, travel expenses, coat checks or pretentious middle-aged white men explaining, for all to hear, why the work of the Guerrilla Girls isn’t really art. Instead, all it takes to engage with the visual culture of the present and past is a VR headset and a pretty strong 5G connection. If we take the precedent set by NFTs this past year, this somewhat Orwellian prediction could offer an accurate projection of where we are headed as society delves deeper into the metaverse.

For those out of the loop, under a rock, or intentionally hiding in a bubble of blissful ignorance (oh, how I envy you), an NFT is a non-fungible token. In layman terms, that means a digital unit (a video, photograph, or work of digital art, perhaps) that is stored on a blockchain, a virtual system that records transactions of cryptocurrencies. The format has been increasingly adopted by a variety of sectors, as seen in Balenciaga’s foray into Fortnite through digital wearables.

A provoking example in the art market is Damien Hirst’s NFT project entitled ‘The Currency’. Essentially, the British artist created 10,000 unique works back in 2016, that reflect his signature spot paintings, and has now created corresponding NFTs for each piece. Collectors buy an NFT, but have the opportunity to swap it for the material copy, and have a year to decide which they choose. After the year is up, the physical piece is burned. In terms of monetary value, the stunt was hugely successful for the artist, grossing an initial $18,000,000 according to Artnet.

However, the artist is also challenging perceptions of cultural value, as well as art lovers’ optimism (or indoctrination) towards what is being positioned as the future. “It’s like being in a cult,” Hirst describes to the New York Times, “and I’m the cult leader.” I mean, who wouldn’t want to be in a cult led by Damian Hirst?

The positives of digitised art are vast. For example, seeing as blockchain technology functions via a decentralised system, it has often been hailed as a liberating facet of the digital age, disconnecting users from the regulatory restrictions of big banks and big bankers. When applied to the arts sector, a similar desirable separation emerges, allowing artists to separate themselves from the curtailment of institutions, academies, museums and galleries, like the Salon des Refusees of the digital age. Not only would this have a positive effect on individual artists, who have more space and potential to create and sell works, it could also create a totally new cultural space, aware of yet not shadowed by history, allowing a definitive new chapter in the history of art.

Whilst descriptions like this seem to turn the dystopic image of the metaverse into a utopic paradise of potential, it is important to remember that the two are never too far apart. If Black Mirror or The Handmaid’s Tale taught you anything, let it be that we should always be careful what we wish for, especially when technology is involved, for the negatives surrounding the metaverse are equally diverse. First, there are troubles with authenticity, as seen through Hermes’ trademark infringement squabble over inauthentic Birkin NFTs being sold for a whopping equivalent of £40,000. There are also sustainability disputes, such as those reported by The Guardian that highlights how bitcoin ‘mining’ requires the electricity needed to power entire countries. Social acceptance must also be considered, because, whilst NFTs have positioned themselves as exclusive, ambiguous and desirable for now, with the ever-increasing speed of changing trends, is it really worth the intellectual, environmental and financial investment? Seeing as they have already been corrupted by Instagram meme pages and are more commonly met with an eye roll than an interest, can they have a future?

Taking the precedent of the internet, which was initially met with similar confusion and reluctance, we would say a definitive yes. And, seeing as art, both digital and material, has continued to flourish and diversify in the virtual age, I would hazard a guess that the metaverse if properly harnessed, will have the same result. We thought that the Kindle would kill books, that blogs would kill magazines, and that email would kill letters but, in reality, whilst their financial viability may have dipped, their cultural value has not. So, to NFT or not to NFT? If history has taught us anything, then build what is authentic to you, and the people will follow, be that physical or digital.

Image Damien Hirst standing in front of the physical copy of his artwork ‘The Currency’.
Courtesy of Andrew Russeth via Wikimedia Commons