Tuesday, June 29, 2021

The NFT's Aura, or, Why Is NFT Art So Ugly?

NFT art is bad for the environment, and bad for artists, but critics and supporters of NFT art are both missing a key fact: it's also just bad art. Whether Beeple or Bugmeyer, it's time the stars of the NFT revolution experienced some real art criticism.

I'm stumbling blearily into the blog again, tangling in cobwebs, picking up a newspaper: "The Non-Fungible Token Market Collapses" the headline reads. Motherfuck! But there's another paper trumpeting an 11 million dollar Sothby's sale of a "cryptopunk." The news about this nascent... medium? content delivery mechanism? is about as volatile as cryptocurrency prices themselves, which is to say, so volatile it's impossible to use as an actual currency. 

I've got to find my footing, really establish some stable ground, some base on which to build an analysis. I know! I'll just take a look at what the most famous and successful NFT artist in the world, Beeple, is producing right n-




This is going to be a problem.

For one thing, to talk about this, uh, art, I have to do the obligatory overview of cryptocurrency and NFTs and, here's the thing, I don't want to. It's boring and stupid and explaining it makes me feel like simply going to sleep. You couldn't even talk about Bitcoin in the terms set by its proponents if you wanted to, because the story keeps changing. Is it a currency that uses a distributed consensus mechanism to prevent centralization? lol nope! It's too volatile to work as a currency, and most of the "miners" that receive bitcoin via the consensus mechanism in exchange for carrying out the transfer of funds from one user to another are consolidated into centralized companies. And then there's the environmental impact of the proof-of-work "decentralized" system! Do I even need to talk about that at this point? Yes it's exactly as bad as you heard if not worse, no it's never getting fixed, and if you disagree--well, actually, let me just say up front that if you want a reasoned critique of crypto that respects all sides, you're going to have to go somewhere else, because I simply do not give a shit. The whole thing is a pyramid scheme based on gold bug libertarian cult economics, implemented with tech that burns down a rainforest every time you want to sell a cartoon of a cat. If this isn't sufficient backstory for you, here's David Gerard writing about NFTs being a scam. Here is also an excellent overview that heavily shaped my own thinking for this series, which analyzes the deeply fucked politics at the heart of NFTs ideologically. If this isn't sufficiently fair and balanced for you, please sit on my hen. I will be charging for the privilege. How's that for some pegged valuation?

In the back of my mind though a maddening fact gnaws. Something everyone seems to miss. Something obvious enough to fade into the background of all discussion of this new way of packaging and selling art.

Everyone talks about crypto art as an investment vehicle.

Absolutely no one talks about it as art.

Who dares critique the cartooning of Cryptokitties, or the ideology of Beeple, or the originality of Cryptopunks, or the cohesion of Hashmasks? This is ostensibly the art of the age! Don't believe me? According to former Magic the Gathering artist Peter Mohrbacher: "Pretty soon collectors of physical paintings are going to demand provenance kept via NFT. Owning a painting without a token will be the domain of yard sale art." Taking this bold claim entirely at face value, why have I not seen any treatment of Mohrbacher's work in the context of his artistic precursors? Typically, work as highly valued as this has a whole critical apparatus around it explaining why it's good enough to command such prices, with information drawn from history, culture, aesthetics, affect, phenomenology, philosophy... and all I ever hear about the value of NFTs is simply: well, it's, uhh, it's on the Blockchain, that's cool right?

Maybe I know why, though. As I write this I've already got uhhh 7,280 words in this document, chewing over NFTs, and after putting all that together I've realized something bleak:

It's actually very difficult to talk about NFT art as art because most of it is so god damn ugly, vapid, and amateurish. NFT art is like, imagine if you took a bunch of dudes in a high school art fair, then put them in an echo chamber for a decade that constantly told them that everything they did was Epic Bacon, and then finally started handing them million dollar checks for that artwork. Does this sound like an environment where artists would develop self awareness, or intellectual depth, or aesthetic uniqueness, or any of the other stuff that a critic might be interested in?

The Beeple piece above is a great example. The piece depicts a crowd of people standing in front of the giant heads of Floyd Mayweather and Logan Paul. Jake Paul? I do not care. The two boxers, who recently had some overhyped meme fight, instead of boxing are... kissing??? WOW! What wild and wacky stuff! The giant heads are on an off-white ground. The piece as a whole is lit in a flat way with muddy colors and what appear to be rather thick and haphazard applications of an opaque medium, possibly acrylic. This is an illusion though: I could be wrong about this but I'm pretty damn sure this is a filter overlaid onto a flatly lit set of 3d models.

If it is, it's not working particularly well. The algorithm isn't capable of giving the work an understanding of underpainting or contour so it exacerbates an already flat and unappealing lighting scheme. The large flat areas of flesh tone don't so much invite the contemplation of nuanced color as in a Rothko but rather invite comparisons to a dirty car window. Maybe someday we will teach an algorithm to understand how to paint facial hair better than a ninth grader. Today was not that day. There's no particular color scheme to the art, but it also lacks the unsettling supermarket glare of comparable contemporary photorealistic painting. Several models are used twice, conspicuously so. Is this saying something? I'm struggling to imagine what. If the point was to create a sense of interchangeability in the crowd, why opt for such distinct character models, and then wash everything over with this ugly, obscuring, fake paint stroke effect?

The positioning of the heads is stiff and lazy. Like many of Beeple's pieces, the figures have a kind of archaic smile going on, a generic non-expression. Mayweather's face obscures enough of Logan and or Jake's that the muddy blond's profile appears weirdly flattened. Flat flat flat... the rendering is flat, the features are flat, the crowd in space is flat... there's no sense of depth or mass, no sense of the figures looming large over the crowd. Oh and the meaning is flat too. What if instead of fighting, men were... kissing??? Apparently this is "commentary" on the fact that the two douchebags have repeatedly put on pay per view fights where instead of fighting they I guess hugged it out? It all seems dumb as hell if you ask me, and Beeple has not so much commented on it as just... done the thing that the meme is about, again. Alright man. The title of David Gerard's piece above on the NFT scam is "Banksying the Unbanksied." This is a much cleverer joke than anything in this painting.

So there's three paragraphs about some high schooler tier art.

Was it worth it? Did it feel a little pretentious maybe? A little goofy, to compare Beeple to a Rothko? Well there's the problem! As soon as you actually try to talk about this art as art the whole thing sort of falls apart, it just absolutely cannot stand up to the scrutiny. Doing so is about as cringy for the writer and the reader as it is for the viewer of the art itself, which I have to think is why the entire art world seems committed to talking only about the technology, the transmission mechanism, the great great value, all the swirling bullshit AROUND NFTs rather than, god forbid, the amateurish nonsense itself.

That's the art world, though. What's holding everyone else's tongues? People sure seem to AGREE with me. Just like plenty of us have an idea of, and instinctual revulsion towards, silicon valley graphic styles, plenty of us seem to have a mental image of "NFT art". Yet the discussion revolves around subjects like whether or not it actually pays artists (it doesn't) and how bad the environmental impact is (appalling). Admittedly important, but kinda missing a major part of how we talk about art!

I think bashing the art itself is kind of taboo because we're inclined to see the artists involved as victims of the pyramid scheme. That's, I mean, that's fair, to a point. There's a reason I started out here making gagging noises at Beeple, someone who is being paid millions of dollars* (may not be exchangeable in any way for actual money of any sort) and not some rando who's been sucked in by promises of quick profits in a crushingly unprofitable field. Unlike someone at the bottom of the scheme drawn in by the evangelizing of Beeple or Mohrbacher or corporations cranking out procgen slop, those evangelizers strike me as fair fucking game.

These big beneficiaries can prey on people's basic empathy, however, and exploit a sneaky sleight of hand that conflates workers with, in one way or another, their bosses. Lots of that going around lately, as I'll get into later.

But it makes criticizing NFT art as an aesthetic phenomenon with shared similarities, a shared target audience, shared practices and methodologies and perhaps even politics, well... just mean! Don't you care about the feelings of all those smol artists with anxiety who are just trying to get paid? It's very important that we should be Supporting Artists, after all. The entire pyramid scheme's marketing is premised on this: Supporting Artists. This is a sick joke, given the deep hostility of this technology and its proponents to artists, but it responds to an existing set of crisis conditions in digital art:

What value does digital art have?

This question is troubling because digging into it at all means recognizing the complex, tangled knot of ideas that are wrapped up in the term "value". Obviously, there's the basics: how much will someone pay for this, how much time and energy and material went into its production, and how much worth does it have affectively, intellectually, aesthetically, and so on. Some of the crisis emerges out of contradictions here: it's increasingly easy with contemporary modeling technologies and digital paint and photobashing programs to produce images that are Pretty Cool. I mean it'd be easy, right, if all this stuff was Beeple-tier. In fact it'd be easier if all Beeple was as bad as average Beeple! But it's gotten much easier in terms of time spent on an individual work, time spent learning underlying skills, time and money spent on materials, and effort expended gaining an audience, to produce works that are, at minimum, pretty decent looking, and at maximum actually thought provoking.

This should be one of the best things to happen to art, but because we live in capitalism, instead it sucks. It fucking sucks!

Art is an increasingly proletarianized field. The people who produce cartoons or video game art or paintings for trading card games or comics are... I mean, have they ever been this interchangeable? Have there ever been this many of them? These art "tokens" might be non-fungible, but the ease of making and distributing art makes it easier than ever before to treat the artistic workforce as fungible, interchangeable cogs. The same is true of writing and music, and the industries with the least developed organized labor (games, anime, comics, pop music) are where we see this manifest in astonishing abuse and exploitation. Moreover, our consumption patterns for this art has moved heavily towards experiencing these now easily produced and shared works as part of an endless feed, each fragment just a little bit of everything all of the time, and the people primarily profiting off this sharing economy are the platforms themselves, who have no obligation to give any sort of kickback to a deskilled creative class dependent on those platforms for what paying customers they can scrounge!

The fix for this is clear: we must restore the Aura of the artwork, that special something that makes it unique and valuable, the whole chain of provenance that you can just sense when an art object can't be mechanically reproduced, its non-copyability and non-fungibility. At least, that's what crypto people think Walter Benjamin's "Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" says, anyway. For Benjamin, the Aura is the whole authority and history of a work of art or architecture or even a landscape, its whole history and its place within tradition. That tradition for Benjamin is stifling and fascist, and he celebrates the way mechanical reproduction inevitably depreciates this value! Not only do NFT apologists miss what everyone else can plainly see--you can screenshot or just copy the files attached to an NFT and then you "own" it just as much as the person whose wallet it supposedly sits in--they miss that Benjamin revels in this overthrow of the Aura! Art freed from the authority of the single object can meet the audience "half way", in new contexts, with new juxtapositions. That, for society, is value, and blaming the current struggles of artists on the loss of Aura is absurd, let alone imagining you can suck all the paint back into the tube and provide an Aura just by firing up some more coal plants. It's a TED talk understanding of the theory.

No, it's better to understand the rise of the NFT as a move within a social field of production. Pierre Bourdieu has a lot to say about fields of social production, and says it with diagrams that look like this:

which I had to read for this article so fuck you all very much for that. Bourdieu sees artistic production not as just [artist does work => work has value], but as a whole complex field creating capital and also social capital, produced by artists, educators, museums and other institutions, critics, and peers. The value of art as capital comes from this interplay of a whole lot of labor, and everyone in the constantly shifting field is making plays and moves to try and capitalize on their position. 

One frustrating position to be in is a commercial artist particularly a commercial artist acting as a gun for hire for the big studios that produce our culture. Those producers might be able to acquire payment directly for their services, but they're shut out of fine art spaces which operate on topsy-turvy logic, spaces where in the short term you struggle as an avant garde participant, acquire cultural cache, and eventually you (or... your gallery or your early investors...) can cash out, converting cultural capital into material capital. Digital art is sort of stuck in the worst of all worlds, ubiquitous but unable on an individual level to cash in due to a glutted field; using new media but unable due to that media's association with pop franchise freelancer work to attain cultural cache.

Until the marvelous NFT! NFT artists often come from fields such as 3d cgi art, digital fantasy painting for trading card games and videogames, pixel art, voxel art, photobashing, &c. NFTs have provided a way to secure the interest and attention of art investors (tax dodgers, money launderers, financial speculators...) because they've repackaged these works in a form that makes their asset class, if not their artistic subjects or techniques, into a new avant garde. Now seemingly overnight what was kitsch demands serious consideration.

This results astounding levels of cringe, such as this image and text, proudly displayed on the Christie's auction house website, in their paean to Beeple's artistic brilliance:

Oh my god the dumb guy smugness of this.

Commentary without a coherent worldview, politics as pure vapid meme, protest art as pure riff. The blatantly prebuilt assets cobbled crudely together with a questionable understanding of caricature (there's that archaic smile!) suggest a "yo dude wouldn't it be fuckin sick if-" approach to art, to politics, and to life. Beeple perfectly has captured the image of his audience: dumb, easily amused, easier to impress, convinced that because they are on twitter they're politically engaged, in some sense. Christie's has captured in turn the image of its audience: bankers who don't give a fuck what they're buying so long as it's square, makes them look hip, and can be used as a speculative asset class. All that matters is that the machinery can consecrate this as worthy of gaining social and real capital.

And god damn is the machinery having to work overtime to consecrate this dogshit:

‘Beeple is looking at his whole body of work as it’s presented on Instagram as a kind of Duchampian readymade’ — specialist Noah Davis

MOTHERFUCKER IT'S NOT A READYMADE! HE MADE THE ARTWORK!!! THAT'S NOT A READYMADE IT'S JUST A GALLERY SPACE!!!! You can see the smoke rising as the cogwheels and gears of the consecration machine inside this guy's head spin wildly, frantically, trying to create some explanation for how presenting a body of work created in a slapdash way constitutes itself a triumphant artwork that, most importantly, will make Christies auction house a whoooooole lot of money.

Though, maybe they have a point. Benjamin describes the "barbarism" of Dada as a precursor to film, a bullet to the head in terms of experience, something that impacts and does not invite contemplation. You don't sit and admire the contours of "Fountain", you get smacked in the balls by it and just have to work through the immediate response. So, Benjamin says, it is with cinema, which throws up a bunch of information rapid fire and which is received as a mass, distractedly.

That's where much of the art of the NFT shines, actually: scrolling through a twitter feed. Close contemplation of a successful Beeple isn't necessarily rewarding. It's, as I've noted, pastiche. The best of his works are engaging to be sure, they have a certain spooky vibe that can capitalize on the growing awareness over the last few decades of a surreal power to sci fi and fantasy illustration. Only one such piece makes it onto the Christie's gallery:

At best this feels like an interesting, ominous commentary on what we might call the Lovecraft or the Basilisk tendency in contemporary fascism, a worship of vast, inhuman systems. At worst, it feels like Beeple watched Star Wars too many times. At the very least, the reused prebuilt assets here suggest uncanny conformity, and the texture and lighting create a feel somewhere between a washed out paperback and a 70s polaroid. The piece is good, though I think it compares unfavorably to other artists doing similar work with inhuman, alien objects intruding into life. 

I'd contrast it for example with Simon Stålenhag, whose choice of rural rather than cliche urban cyberpunk environments in which to introduce androids or large neon advertisements or distant megastructures, has the effect of defamiliarizing our own environment. His most recent series, Europa Mekano, depicts a smoggy sky lit by vast advertisement projections, which to me doesn't suggest so much speculative future fiction but a derealized present, a recognition that but for a few cosmetic differences in technology, we're basically here. Stålenhag's work also operates maybe best in the twitter feed, but it operates there partly because it provides a jolt that might make us see our present conditions with fresh eyes. Interestingly, Stålenhag a few months ago professed skepticism about NFTs, and apologists reacted with steadily increasing attempts to sell him on it. After fully alienating him from the whole thing with their deranged cult behavior, some of them took matters into their own hands: they began minting tokens of his artwork on their own without permission, forcibly enclosing on his commons.

Back to crypto artists though. Peter Mohrbacher--remember, the "everyone not buying into this is doing yard sale art" guy from the beginning of the article?--is another dude who shines best on the feed. That's fitting: his art also shines best in its original setting of trading card games, most notably Magic the Gathering. Like Benjamin's film, pieces of TCG art are at their most interesting when gathered together in a mass, part of a continuous roiling boil of Cool Shit tossed onto a playing field, and now, tossed up by the Internet. That's actually not a strike against Mohrbacher. His big weird angel paintings are cool. They're cool shit. And I like to see cool shit as much as the next woman. I have a side twitter that I just use to follow a few hobbies, a lot of furry porn artists, and Cool Shit. Mohrbacher, till I unfollowed him because the crypto shilling and general dipshit behavior was annoying and repellent, sat on my furry porn and cool shit feed, alongside artists that his work sometimes resembles: bots that tweet out Zdzisław Beksiński and Max Ernst and Hieronymus Bosch. Post-surrealists, surrealists, proto-surrealists... they resonate with Mohrbacher's work but they're not quite the same. When I look at a Beksiński I feel compelled to take in all its textures and ambiguities. When I look at an Ernst I marvel at the emergence of form from chaotic surrealist methodologies. It's pretty subjective, but I have to say, I don't really feel compelled that way by Mohrbacher. In this sense, Mohrbacher's art situates better into my experience of art-as-distracted-mass. The surrealism of the individual work, contemplated as a series of jolts and attempts to reason, is outmoded compared to the surrealism of the gestalt flow, countless images contributing to an overall sensibility.

Beeple and Mohrbacher and others in other words took their works and completely removed them from the one place in which they shine as the art of the present: completely unbounded meme distribution, aesthetic experiences without Aura, without original, without a set history or place. They made art designed for that sphere, and locked it behind a trading mechanism powered by burning rainforests.

The product being labored over for the contemporary artist of social media is not "the work of art" but "the gestalt experience of art-posting". From that perspective, artists might be more or less successful but the same is true of any gig economy worker. Imagine if every warehouse worker could simply be timed and optimized and would have their livelihoods determined by their profit making metrics! We're headed in that direction but this will not make Amazon employees entrepreneurs, it just will make them proletarians subject to a particularly horrific conditioning, the final dream of Fordism. Twitter and Patreon aren't that, just yet, but I think once you stop seeing people using it as producing individual WORKS but producing a WHOLE GESTALT EXPERIENCE it's more apparent that these workers are profoundly fungible. Twitter has finally successfully done for all forms of art what factory production did for ceramics and textiles, which the Arts and Crafts movement struggled hopelessly against. And all without producing a standardized product at all!

Well, without standardization up to a point. Part of the disciplining of this proletariat is the constant threat of stepping too far out of aesthetic line in the context of a deep cultural conservativism. Is this why so much NFT art is so insipid? So without challenge? So dominated by cishet white dudes doing garbage derivative computer models of shit they've seen in the movies? There's so much Ready Player One shit, and yet the artists that need the most help, the queers who often produce difficult complex and unique work and also, not coincidentally, do various forms of sex work, are not for the most part involved in the NFT revolution. Maybe it's just that we're a little too smart for our own good: we've seen the promise of technology and we've seen the actual misery it often brings us, and the way queers and sex workers are used to build up platforms to a certain size and then dumped when e.g. Livejournal or Tumblr or most recently OnlyFans decide they want legitimacy. Aside from a few people who are willing to say do dev work for Curtis Yarvin, we don't get sucked into the cult of technocracy. But this is also convenient. It's convenient that we can always be destroyed at a moment if some teenager raised on abstinence only sex ed and TERF/SWERF tumblr propaganda decides they don't like how we fuck. It's convenient that we are part of the crab bucket. 

And it's convenient that sometimes the chef reaches down and pulls out a Beeple or a Mohrbacher and everyone can see that this crab is given a lovely new tank and lots of anchovies! It gives us something to aspire to. It makes it seem like we're not what we are:


Workers who are being exploited by the most massive corporations that the world has ever known, because we are all bored, and we all crave having our crab bucket filled with some stimulation toys, and we are happy, because it is simply human nature to want to express oneself, to produce the content that Twitter needs to make its profits. NFTs represent the promise that someday we might too be pulled out of the bucket we're all constantly dragging each other back into, that if we just hustle hard enough we can rise from the level of Artisan pumping out products to Artiste, consecrated in glory on high.

And if everyone says they can see the aura glowing around the work, well, it's gotta be there! We have the software to prove it! 

Just don't spoil the fun by looking too closely at the actual art.

This Has Been

The NFT Aura

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  1. So, like, I generally agree with what's here re: "NFTs suck and the 'art' surrounding it tends to be devoid of passion" BUT it kind of feels like you're just broadly shitting on CG/digital art by way of Beeple. Which, don't get me wrong, I'm no fan of the guy. I think you chose an exceptionally bad piece to take potshots at, but you do point out what I personally consider to be the most frustrating aspect of CG art: kitbashing (bashing together a purchased collection of ready-made assets to compose a scene). You point out that the same model is seen multiple times in the same frame, and that's a result of kitbashing. Beeple hardly uses his own assets. I know. I unfortunately make cg stuff, and I've watched streams and interviews and seen his process. But there's a reason cg artists tend to kitbash: it's extremely fucking hard and time consuming to do all that. You make a point that this kind of work is more easy and accessible than ever, and I agree with that but only because that's just how tech & communication works with linear time. The present moment will always be the easiest & most accessible time to make digital art, like no shit dude. But that majorly discounts just how much work can still sometimes go into these things (not usually Beeple's, they're pieces he makes in a day). Each individual element of CG art (lighting, texturing, modeling, rigging, animating, simulating and so many specific subsets of each) can and usually is one person's individual job that they train years for; it's their entire career just doing one thing for a cg scene. And by no means is it accessible. I've been learning 3D for a couple years and still suck shit at it. I specialize in fluid and soft-body simulations, and a good sim can take me a full month to build -- they're extremely complicated and requires not just software knowledge, but code, art, and high-level math & physics knowledge. It's bonkers! And don't even get me started on software, education, and hardware required for this stuff. Blender, YouTube tutorials, and a Lenovo laptop doesn't get the average user very far for reasons that I'm already too tired to want to explain. But the point being: you're knocking CG art a little much. And you clearly didn't do your research if you don't know what Beeple is using to make his stuff (Cinema 4D, rendering with Octane, post-processing in Photoshop). I'm as frustrated as any that CG art has become synonymous with NFTs. I seriously fear that people will look at something I worked stupid hard and immediately assume I'm morally spineless and minting it. It blows beyond belief. But I think you're not treating them as synonymous but as one in the same, which is super disheartening and confirms that above fear of mine. And again, I'm absolutely not defending Beeple here. I think a lot of his work can be technically impressive, but has little going for it beyond that. I just wonder what differentiates some MS Paint character art a'la Andrew Hussy vs a CG piece from Simon Holmedal (who has made NFTs, which, yeah, fucking sucks) for you, considering they're both undeniably digital art. You're right about a lot of this, I can't deny that. And maybe all CG art is all awful and soulless and I'm just bummed that I yoked my life and career onto this shambling circus -- I really do think that's a serious possibility. I just desperately don't want it to be that way, I don't want to be perceived that way. I feel so helpless.

  2. High school tier? I drew better gay kisses than this on the back of my math tests in tenth grade, when I still referred to it as "yaoi".


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