There’s every reason to support the premise that creators should be paid for their work, and the marketplace for material minted as NFTs (non-fungible tokens) appears to offer an efficient way to connect them to potential buyers. Provenance records automatically maintained by blockchain technology also track with longstanding artworld priories. But much is lost when cultural forms are understood primarily through the lens of property ownership — whether they are expressed as physical objects or digital code.
Christie’s foray into the NFT realm with their Beeple auction is not the first time they’ve managed to generate news by selling a largely intangible work of art. A 1987 sale of minimal and conceptual art from the Gilman Paper Company was notable for the first auction appearance of a wall drawing by Sol LeWitt, since the art in question was conveyed solely by means of written instructions. The convention of painting over earlier realizations of these certificate-based works, including one drawn in the Christie’s showroom, prompted somewhat breathless coverage from People magazine, under the headline “Talk About Lines! A Guy Paid $26,400 for This Drawing—And Then They Demolished It.” But rather than forging new paths, the recent Christie’s auction was a somewhat late entry in an already robust NFT marketplace.
In addition to embedding provenance documentation, NFTs can be linked to smart contracts that provide ongoing payments to creators. Zora, which has positioned itself as one of the more progressive players in this marketplace, uses language about resale royalties that bears a striking resemblance to a key element of artists’ rights advocacy that has been ongoing, at least in fits and starts, since the 1960s. An obvious point of connection is the The Artist’s Reserved Rights Transfer and Sale Agreement, first published by Seth Siegelaub and Robert Projansky in 1971, which has long received more widespread attention than actual use due to market resistance to its potential constraints on ownership.
The 1987 Gilman Paper sale is relevant here as well, since, in addition to the inclusion of two wall drawings (the second by Dorothea Rockburne), it was also notable as the first time that a work by Hans Haacke, accompanied by the Siegelaub-Projansky agreement, had come up for auction. Language in the Christie’s catalog suggesting that the agreement only pertained to the first owner prompted a registered letter that required the auction house to read the key clauses out loud, prior to the start of bidding for Haacke’s “On Social Grease” (1975). It was therefore somewhat surprising to hear Noah Davis, speaking as a Christie’s representative, say “That’s a bridge that we have not crossed yet,” when asked whether Beeple’s work was accompanied by resale royalty provisions.
For artists working with digital media, NFTs provide a crucial means to define and circulate works that might otherwise not have clear channels of distribution. Anne Vieux has long moved between digital and physical expressions, using refracted shapes and patterns produced by running crumpled holographic paper through a flatbed scanner as the basis for her paintings. But, as she indicated in an email to the author, she had never exhibited a series of related videos, so she was glad to take advantage of the possibility of minting them on Foundation, as a place where they could exist and be preserved. According to Vieux, “releasing them as NFTs gave them a context that made sense to me.”
Rosa Menkman, by contrast, has recounted the experience of finding that several examples of her glitch art had been minted as NFTs without her consent, and her discovery led to a conversation with Johan Unger, a co-founder of marble.cards. Consistent with its tagline “collect the web,” the platform operates on the premise that any URL can be minted as a virtual collectable card. According to Menkman, Unger described a future where “every digital asset (URL, image, tweet, etc.) will be tokenized via blockchain technologies” — with one harbinger being Cent, which sells tokenized tweets.
While certain aspects of the NFT market are specific to this particular technology, its general bent also reflects a broader trend toward staking out ownership claims over forms that emerge from shared dialog or other types of collective activity. This phenomenon is hardly new (witness rock music’s success in monetizing elements drawn from blues traditions), but the urge to treat all types of digital information as potentially saleable assets is a striking twist. The specific gambits convened around tokenizing memes and tweets tie into the already problematic tension between relatively frictionless flows of digitized information, and incentives devised to monetize clicks and likes, with individuals encouraged to equate all forms of expression with building brand identity.
It’s also worth noting that the buyer of an NFT has typically not acquired copyright in the associated work. Therefore, unless specifically permitted by a smart contract, collectors will presumably not have the authority to generate a physical copy in order to show off an acquisition outside digital realms (though a profile of Nifty Gateway founders Griffin and Duncan Cock Foster suggests that their parents found a workaround by displaying their Michael Kagan NFT “on a screen in their Seattle home”). In a Rhizome editorial on NFTs, Michael Connor identified yet another challenge: The fact that each token is linked to a specific digital file representing the work in question opens up problems of obsolescence that artists might otherwise address through options for updating or migrating media.
The stories around NFTs are currently all about the surprisingly large sums of cryptocurrency collectors are willing to spend in order to become official owners of digitally encoded expressions that remain readily accessible to non-owners. Perhaps other narratives will emerge once the newness wears off. Or perhaps the heart of the NFT phenomenon really is their capacity to streamline flipping and other forms of speculation in cultural commodities.