What’s Really at Stake in the Debate over Whether NFTs Are Art

Mieke Marple
Jan 24, 2022 8:51PM

Mieke Marple, Medusa #56 from the Medusa Collection, a set of 2,500 unique, algorithmically created NFTs. Courtesy of the artist.

Are NFTs art? That is the question posed by Wikipedia’s recent decision to classify Beeple’s and Pak’s recent $69 million and $91 million NFT sales not as art sales, but as NFT sales. As a former traditional art dealer turned artist whose practice involves painting, installation, and NFTs, I have thoughts on this topic. However, in the spirit of Web3—which pushes for collective over singular authorship—I first posed the question to members of my community. Here are some of their responses:

“NFTs are not art in the same way Wikipedia is not an encyclopedia and a pipe is not a pipe. Art is defined by the intent of the artist, not by a gratuitous sweeping generalization by some dumbass contributor to an anonymous website.”

Kenny Schachter

“There is a long history of civilians disagreeing with an artist when the artist declares that a piece of art is, in fact, art.”

Christine Wang

“Asking Wikipedia’s opinion about art is like asking Jeffery Dahmer’s opinion about fine dining.”

Mark Flood

“NFTs are primarily a marketplace innovation. Can they be art? Of course, but oddly enough, the only people who seemed to care about this debate were the hucksters who had an incentive to sell their more commercial products as ‘art.’”

—Colburn Bell

The impression their quotes left me with was: Who f***ing cares? Questions about whether something is art or not, as Wang alludes, are as old and boring as time. Yet based on the uproar Wikipedia’s decision has caused on Twitter and elsewhere, people clearly do care. Why? What gives this decision such juice that people are spouting their opinions here, there, and everywhere? What is truly at stake?

It would be easy to say that what’s at stake is money. People like Duncan Cock Foster, co-founder of the NFT platform Nifty Gateway, call this an “Art Emergency” because it affects their bottom line. If works by beeple (whose NFTs are sold on Nifty Gateway) were on par with works like the Mona Lisa, there would be no ceiling to their worth. But that argument doesn’t really hold water, because—with sums like $69 million and $91 million—there already appears to be little ceiling to what certain people, or groups of people, are willing to pay for NFTs.

Separating NFT sales from traditional art sales has, in my opinion, less to do with questions about whether NFTs are art or not, and more to do with preventing the former from blowing the latter out of the water. If in the first year of NFTs being mainstream, two NFT sales have broken records for amounts paid for works by living artists, then one can surmise that it is only a matter of time before that two becomes ten—and that ten becomes fifty. So what’s really at stake are ideas about what art matters most. For if a digital drawing of Buzz Lightyear with boobs was, one day, worth more than a Picasso, Modigliani, or *gasp* Leonardo, it would mean that everything many people thought they knew about art, and by extension the world, would be upside down.

What is so offensive (at least, to some people) about the high prices paid for works by Beeple, Pak, and other NFT artists is how little their aesthetics and modalities align with traditional fine art values.

NFT artists do not, for the most part, obliquely cite Western art history in a way that only the MFA-educated can understand. They do not revere museums like the MoMA and the Tate, or galleries like Gagosian and David Zwirner. Their art references the history of video games, pixel art, comic books, AI, sci-fi, concert graphics, and other histories that have not been canonized by museums or universities. As artists, many prefer to be anonymous or go by gender-ambiguous one-word pseudonyms. Their work is fractionalized and sold as 30,000 shares, or made collectively with the help of an AI algorithm. Their biggest collectors have profile pics of white undies stained with poo.

What it comes down to is this: Tastes are changing. By which, I mean, tastes of people with money are changing. That is because who has money is changing. A whole new class of crypto wealth has developed over the last few years, and this class looks different from the wealth that came before. Members of the new crypto elite did not, necessarily, grow up going to museums or attending galas. Many, if not most, grew up playing video games, taking psychedelics, and watching The Matrix—experiences that bled into a love of art that is accessible, gamified, collectively owned or created, and interested in the Singularity. And now that they are armed with more money than some royalty, they are actively funding a world, along with a set of artists, that reflects their values back to them.

There is a precedent to this: the Italian Renaissance. The Renaissance was preceded by the invention of the printing press, a technological innovation that removed many gatekeepers resulting in the rise of a merchant class—a class that patronized artists less wedded to the Church and more concerned with scientific rationality, resulting in art that looked very different from the medieval triptychs that preceded it. Am I calling what is happening a renaissance? A digital renaissance? I am. Loud and proud. Whether Wikipedia acknowledges it or not is immaterial. Perhaps, they even are acknowledging it, implicitly, by separating NFT sales from traditional art sales, denoting a clear before and after in this chapter of human history.

Just as in the larger world, there is much work to do around making the NFT world a more inclusive, diverse, and equitable place, as well as making it less environmentally destructive. If there is something to be upset about, it is not, in my opinion, NFTs’ questionable status as “real” art. It is that so few artists—in both the traditional art and NFT worlds—make up the bulk of the market’s volume, and that most of those artists are white cis-het men. Nevertheless, to dismiss an entire cultural shift because of these critiques is not only futile, but dangerous. It leads one to miss out on shaping this next chapter of human history for the better. For it is a chapter that will happen—is happening—regardless, and it is one that would be better served by having as many conscientious voices involved as possible.

Mieke Marple
Mieke Marple is an artist based in Los Angeles.