Updated: Dec 9, 2022
By Philippe Nadouce.
A painting or any other form of graphic expression convey ideas and emotions which hold certain aesthetic qualities. Till today this purely visual language was represented in a two-dimensional fashion. The artist combines shapes, lines, colours, tones, and textures to interpret what seems to be the reality or to project our senses towards abstract worlds and sensations. Great artists are valued because they offer a unique visual experience.
The great painters form a chain since the beginning of our civilization to bring us a little fresh water. Their place in the history of art is justified by the critics but also by the people who -sometimes with delay- always end up accepting aesthetic revolutions. But the price to pay is sometimes terrible. The illustrious names of almost vagabond painters, I'm thinking of Van Gogh, Gauguin, the early impressionists and so many others, tell us that posterity is capricious. And for every famous painter, how many poor artists died alone in misery?
Now, if we look at the problem from the point of view of art dealers, the stakes are different. Consistent pricing seems to be the key for successful art sales. But how do you decide on such a rational approach? The “market” concept comes first in mind. So, what is the best way to price art in a very competitive market? Most of the artists today do the following: they get the square inches of a painting. Then, they multiply this number by a currency amount (Dollar, euro, etc.) which reflects the artist’s reputation and credentials. They finally add the cost of materials. Don’t forget to add a 50% commission from art galleries if the artist sells from them.
Such a rational approach may come as a surprise, especially if one takes into consideration the immaterial truths that give birth to an artist's talent. But the market, by its intrinsic nature, cannot go beyond its own limitations. It evaluates art with rational and trivial instruments without, however, ignoring the talent of artists sold by the square meter of colored canvas. In other word, even if the market cannot assess genius at its fair value, it is willing to recognize the individuality, uniqueness, and importance of each great artist. Thus, he recognizes that he could not have a valid work of art without the presence of a brilliant creator.
NFT market; works of art without artists
If we look carefully at what is happening in the world of art and NFTs, we discover that the rules of the art world described in the first part of this article no longer apply. And if we are to believe Catherine Flick, a reader in computing and social responsibility at the Center for Computing and Social Responsibility at DMU, the decentralized world of NFTs is a colonialist universe of predation in which the artists are low paid workers. The academic said with supporting evidence that NFTs entrepreneurs “are kind of sailing their ships across the sea to get there first and plant their flags and make the money at the expense of the people who do the labor, who are less likely to make the same sorts of profits and who are more likely to be exploited or not understand what they’re getting into.”
In other words, the drawings, the artistic creations that are the basis of these NFTs are somehow disconnected from the artists who created them. The paradox is astounding. Beyond the scandal, we would like to focus our attention on what makes the value of a digital work of art.
Value, money, and Art
Are the philosophical and artistic values that used to define art before the creation of the internet nullified by the creation of digital art such as Non-Fungible-Tokens? This is true to some extent but not at all for the reasons one might think. In other words, the existence of Cryptopunks, Crypto queens, etc., is the consequence of the colonization of the NFT market by a minor art form that does not require any talent, and which looks more like collections of images of footballers or cars for kids than art per se. In these circumstances, the term "digital art" is a gross exaggeration. In this buoyant business “art” is an excuse. It is replaced by a rather mediocre aesthetic vehicle which is used to generate cash and whose supposed relevance is explained by confused post-modern gibberish. While the discussion of the sham of post modernism is interesting, it does not explain why masses of people are spending fortunes on digital artworks that have no artistic value. They acquire value because they are desirable. For those who have studied the forms of money, the intrinsic value of an asset is essentially due to its scarcity and desirability. Thus, we will spend the last paragraphs of this article analyzing these qualities in NFTs for digital art, because don’t get me wrong, I think that NFT technology can be useful when applied to other objects such as bottles of wine, or any valuable collectible.
Why would I buy an image anyone can copy on its smart phone?
Imagine you’ve just paid 1 million dollars for a file which represents a Monkey smoking dope. But anyone can copy and paste your image and send it to friends and family. What’s the point? Well, you could answer: “I have got the original file and I can sell it.” You could add: “It’s like owning a Picasso. I have got the original, but anyone can make a copy with its smart phone.” You are talking about the intrinsic value of the object, its uniqueness (Painted by a man called Picasso, the great Picasso) and which is important and relevant in the history of art. But, what about your Monkey? Who painted it? A fashionable graphic designer who, in the grand scheme of things, is literally no one. Now, imagine a NFT created by Banksy. The discussion would be quite different. The intrinsic value of this token would be validated by the name of the great artist. In this case, "owning the original file" would mean something. Art considered as a hard asset is inseparable from the reputation of the artist.
The sociology at work in the world of NFTs for Digital Art is fascinating. Since everything is linked to notoriety, let's consider the following trend. We demonstrated that the dollar value of these NFTs did not depend on the artist who created them. But it is surprising to note that their price is strongly influenced by the notoriety of the person who buys them (in general famous sportsmen). Here again the paradox is significant. Who cares who owns a Van Gogh painting? Does the notoriety of the owner influence the price of the work of art? Not at all. It is precisely the opposite for NFTs. The human mind unconsciously understands that the notoriety and the price of a work of art are linked to the artist. In the world of non-fungible-tokens we discover that this irrepressible desire operates by displacement. Indeed, since the artist is unknown, the price is assimilated to the fame of the owner. But this psychological trick cannot justify the price of a work of art. Therefore, the entire digital art market embodied by NFTs might go to zero. It is just a matter of time.
Now, from a technical point of view, what is the scarcity of an object that can be copied millions of times, each copy being indistinguishable from the original? And why do you need a NFT to embody an image which is not scarce? You don’t need an NFT to sell it. You could just sell the file (Blockchain here is redundant). Regarding desirability, is your Monkey going to be desirable ten years from now, considering the world will be literally drowning in bored monkeys, vegie crocodiles or angry unicorns? A Picasso painting will still be a hard asset and as such will be even more desirable than today.
NFTs for digital art is a bubble. Technological innovation is marvelous but has its limits when technicians, coders, or financiers - foreign to the philosophical subtleties of art and creation - think that it is enough to present purely speculative instruments for works of art. Is it cynicism, opportunism, or ignorance? No doubt greed is the common interest of both creators and buyers who believe that it is possible to become rich in a few clicks. The reality is quite different.
However, music creators could benefit from this technology because a song is never considered a painting. We will deal with this subject in our next article.
It seems to us that this new technology is still in its infancy. It staggers forward and is constantly correcting its journey. Eventually it will find out what it can be useful for. Mass adoption is the key.