The art market has always faced accusations of being over-inflated and reducing the subversive, political, ethical and perhaps spiritual potency of art in favour of pure profit. Banksy’s ‘Girl With Balloon’ piece pictured above – where a stunt to shred an artwork didn’t go to plan and as a result, actually increased the value of the artwork – is testament to just how divorced artistic and monetary value are from each other. The mechanisms of capitalism in the twenty-first century, i.e. of the intense and deepening financialisation of everything from housing to education, has seen art become an exchange currency that is of more value squirreled away in freeports than on display in the Louvre.
But with the advent of so-called Non-Fungible Tokens (or NFTs), the financialisation of art will obliterate any remaining integrity from artistic endeavour. In the same way that the price paid for Banksy’s failed prank has nothing to do with the politics of the piece, the eye-wateringly high prices being paid for digital art are nothing to do with the appeal of the piece, but because of the infallible copyright accuracy of the blockchain. NFTs essentially do away with the ambiguity of ownership and authenticity and a provide a digitally-encoded and incorruptible proof of ownership. In essence then, all NFTs do is ramp up the privatisation of art; a process that began with patronage, and won’t end until any semblance of social or political utility has been completely removed from the artistic process.
The advocates for NFTs will argue that they radically change the rules of engagement of all potential transactions as it reduces the need for middlemen, agents and go-betweens. Property, land, cars currently they all rely on clunky and expensive contractual arrangements to transfer ownership; the blockchain supposedly removes all this in favour of computational irrefutability and hence removes the opportunity to horde wealth. Apparently, blockchain is a democratising force for the better. For artists, the NFTs promise a more efficient funding route. Recently Zoe Roth, who became famous via the ‘disaster girl’ meme, made half a million dollars by selling the digital image as a NFT. So maybe they’re not all bad?
Well, there are two things to pick apart here: first is the blockchain itself. For all its fanfare, the ‘blockchain’ is really a bastardised extension of the neoliberal worldview of increasing the reach of marketization into ever-deeper recesses of everyday life. The Big Bang in 1986 saw Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government in the UK deregulate the banks to allow use technology to process market decisions rather than humans shouting across the trading floor (pictured above). The relentless lobbying by the London Stock Exchange to change the rules, spurred on wealthy US banks looking to cash in, meant that literally overnight, market mechanisms of unfettered competition embedded the ephemerality (and unpredictability) of trading floors, into the microprocessors of computers. It was heralded as allowing the markets to allocate wealth more fairly around anyone who had the technology to join in, utilising the Hayekian philosophy of ‘competition being a discovery procedure’; essentially, the more the market spreads, the more equitable and indeed democratic, the allocation of recourses becomes.
However, nearly 4 decades of this brave new neoliberal world has evidenced that this more ‘democratic’ distribution of resources simply hasn’t materialised, in fact it has deepened the inequality of our world. This is because all the Big Bang did was to amplify the prejudices and greed of those people who profited from marketization and make it easy to circumvent increasingly insipid State attempts to temper rampant exploitation.
“NFTs merely amplify and embed the already massive inequalities that the art market produces into a codified, digitised and very immutable realm”
The blockchain not only extends this idea but turbo-charges it. So when it comes to the second and related issue, NFTs, they are not democratising art at all. NTFs merely amplify and embed the already massive inequalities that the art market produces into a codified, digitised and very immutable realm. In other words, the more that the ephemeral and tacit world around us is captured in a ledger (analogue or digital), the less its potential for social change becomes because it removes the very human act of making art in the first place from the equation.
The creativity of the human mind has been the source of civilisation’s progress for millennia, and art has been at the bleeding edge. Art and politics share a common DNA because of their desire for social change, yet, as the imprinting of financialised technocapitalism into our world continues apace, we risk losing any potential that art has to relate to politics and the change it can bring about. Notwithstanding the immense damage that blockchain does to the environment via sickeningly high levels of energy consumption, NFTs are a real threat to the potency of art to change the world for the better.