Writing by Isabella Yeo Frank. Illustration by Berenika Murray (@photograberry_).
On the last day of 2021, Eminem spent $462,000 on an illustration of an ape wearing a hat. The ape, which vaguely resembles him, is part of a series of artworks called Bored Ape Yacht Club; whose average selling price currently sits at around $300,000. The artworks are non-fungible tokens (NFTs), the evolution of digital art technology that’s recently generated huge amounts of controversy.
The title 'non-fungibl
e tokens’ does little to clarify what they actually are; NFTs are unique digital tokens linked to digital or physical assets, including songs, animated GIFs, video game items, and, as purchased by Eminem, digital artworks. They are stored on the blockchain, a decentralised, transaction-tracking ledger, which also houses cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ether, the currencies of choice when buying and trading NFTs.
It’s important to note that buying the NFT of an artwork does not make you the owner of said artwork. You own the digital link on the blockchain corresponding to that art. It has been compared to the ‘buy a star for your loved ones’ novelty certificates; though you receive a piece of paper that says you own a certain star, its legal weight is questionable. You can’t physically take the star into your possession and everyone can look at the star without your permission anyway.
This is not a recent development in digital art, as NFT trading spaces have existed since 2014, with the decentralised nature of their existence giving small-time digital artists the opportunity to sell their work without an art broker or gallery taking commissions, whilst guaranteeing they get 20% of any future sales. Artists who would otherwise not be able to exhibit in a real-world gallery can showcase and auction their work on the online spaces.
As the concept gained traction, NFT trading became more popular, exploding in 2020, perhaps because while the COVID19 pandemic had the world on lockdown, there was little else to do but explore cyberspace. Once people began to sense a huge money-making opportunity and ‘the next big thing’, the hype around NFTs grew exponentially, with artwork prices increasing drastically; it’s estimated that the NFT market surpassed $40 billion in 2021, with the most expensive NFT artwork on record selling for $69 million in March 2021.
However, it’s unclear whether the interest in NFTs is sustainable. Several issues limit the feasibility of NFTs becoming a fixture in the art world, including their solely digital, abstract nature. There is no way to attach physicality to them as they are simply data strings that link to digital artworks. The artworks are stored on servers, and if a server goes down, the artwork stops existing. Though the NFT itself still exists on the blockchain, its associated artwork could just disappear, and the potential thousands of do
llars spent on it could have nothing to show.
This fragility puts the NFT market on tenuous ground, alongside the dubious morality that comes with the vast environmental impact of making, trading, and storing NFTs. The sheer computational power needed to support their infrastructure requires huge amounts of electricity, often generated from ‘dirty’, unsustainable methods. The average NFT was found to have a carbon footprint equivalent to more than a month’s worth of electricity for a person living in the EU. Though efforts can be made and techniques developed to make NFTs and the blockchain as a whole more sustainable, there isn’t sufficient financial incentive to implement these changes, and so at least for the near future, NFTs will remain significant contributors to greenhouse gases.
Some uses of NFTs do make sense; practical applications include buying video game items, virtual fashion, and event ticketing. The reason artwork NFTs seem so stupid and unsustainable is well stated by Keanu Reeves; ‘the purpose of art is to be experienced, not owned’. They exemplify how the contemporary art world has been contaminated by capitalism; art and capital have arguably become indistinguishable. The extremely strong financial incentive for creating and selling NFTs means that artists are making them as fast as possible, in as high numbers as possible, resulting in a market saturated with low-quality, vapid works with little poignance or deeper meaning to them. NFTs do exist which are arguably ‘art’, but they have been overshadowed by the more infamous, expensive collections; the Bored Ape Yacht Club is 10,000 almost-identical apes strong, and they’re all continuously traded for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
It’s certain that NFTs are rich and fertile ground to draw more innovations in finance tech, but it is also certain that the criticism and ridicule their presence in contemporary art warrants is very well deserved.