The Worst Filing System Known To Humans

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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

A Fleshy Pink Gradient: Inside Cryptoart's Quest for Aesthetic Definition

As cryptoart defenses get just a little bit smarter, a new narrative emerges: NFT artists are diverse outsiders, but conveniently are all on the same side! What does the actual range of NFT aesthetics look like, though, and just how aligned are their interests really?

In the face of relentless criticism, skepticism, and derisive jeering, supporters of cryptoart and NFTs have gotten a little bit cannier about their rhetoric. There's a lot more handwringing about making sure that emissions have "offsets", for example, and some hasty and late attempts at situating cryptoart into a wider art history--of the avant garde, of computer art, of outsider art. Unfortunately for me, they've paired these defenses with a lot of self righteousness. Like, they've got a persecution complex now, and it's such a drag. Check out this tweet for example from (artist? art promoter?) Sara Ludy:

With all the cancelling/shame/hate/death threats being projected at artists for minting NFTs, I'm reminded of this passage about the violent history of computer art. We need to do something before this gets even further out of control, we cannot repeat this.

Yeah ma'am, "first they came for the ponzi schemes and I said nothing for I was selling real shit on itchio". The tie-in to "cancel culture", a thing exclusively decried by economically comfortable cis people with large platforms despite it actually predominantly ruining the lives of impoverished queer indie artists, is a nice rhetorical touch of course. But hold up, let's take a look at that passage she mentions:

See now this is pretty interesting actually. I do think it's pretty absurd on its face to compare the reception of computer art to say Byzantine iconoclasm. After all, there's quite a difference between "a fellow artist" calling someone a traitor, and having your eyes gouged out, which the Byzantines were as I remember it pretty fond of doing to their political rivals. But there's something here to actually respond to, an actual academic source that positions cryptoart as part of a long line of computer art practices, an avant garde attacked by traditional artists! There's an actual rhetorical move here, an argument of sorts that I can respond to! I couldn't help myself, dammit. You can take the Zoe out of the academy but no matter how many structurally induced nervous breakdowns you give her you can't take the academic out of the Zoe.

Comrades, I pirated the book.

And the book paints a very different picture of the history of computer art than the simple binary presented here of computer artists united in their persecution by an inflexible art world.

I have to credit the rhetorical use of the book, though, as part of this new wave of more refined defenses of cryptoart. One interesting insight that comes from looking at art as part of a field of social production is that the game of achieving legitimacy happens on multiple boards at once. Like: if you find yourself struggling to break free from the commercial tendencies of your medium, it makes sense sometimes to try and distance yourself from your roots, find theoretical approaches that consecrate your work, possibly at the expense of your peers. So, your "comics" become your "graphic novels": you make a move to another part of the field of social production for your medium.

But another strategy might be to take the medium itself and move its whole place on the wider board of social production for ALL art and entertainment. Rather than just competing with peers on the game board of "comics", you create a "movement" for comics rights and artistic recognition. So, having established that "biff! pow! comics aren't just for kids anymore!", your "graphic novels" not only are an avant garde within your own field, but gain cultural clout, along with ALL your peers, in comparison to movies, paintings, theater, novels, &c.

That's what this conflation of NFTs with all of computer art, and the situating of computer art as a maligned avant garde that deserves critical reassessment, attempts to do. Cryptoart is the avant garde within computer art, and computer art itself deserves a more privileged place within culture. You play the game on multiple boards at once, and create an idea of "comic creators" or "computer artists" in order to develop a mass base of support among an imagined group of peers, a base which will join in a fight that conveniently elevates your own position in the wider marketplace.

The problem with this rhetoric is that not everyone you're dragging with you as you move your game board necessarily wants to be lumped in with cryptoartists, and in fact not everyone involved in computer art wants to be tied to other computer artists they see as hacks or corporate cheerleaders. This rhetorical move paints computer and cryptoartists as being united, but that's far from the case. Plenty of gif artists, 3d modelers, and webcomickers were interested in their media precisely because digital reproduction wasn't bound by the same restrictions as print media. This parallels the history of computer art as a whole: much of When The Machine Made Art is dedicated to the often dramatic conflicts within the computer art movement. In context, Ludy's quote is part of a complex picture of a movement of artists making individual moves--some to promote computer art as a field, yes, but others to break from their peers for commercial, ideological, and aesthetic reasons. Out of context, it conveniently buffs away these complexities. In other words, the rhetorical utility of the quote comes from the virtual certainty that unless an autistic trans woman with years of academic brain poisoning and bitterness happened to see the tweet and actually read the book, those complexities would remain flattened!


Broadly speaking, this seems to be the trend in the academic or pseudo-academic boosterism around cryptoart. First, that cryptoart is at once wildly diverse but also without any internal conflicts or contradictions, a united field of upstart mavericks. Second, that none of the pseudoacademic language around cryptoart will face any sort of real scrutiny.

The optimistically entitled "In Search of an Aesthetics of Crypto Art" is a solid example of the genre. The paper as a whole is fairly silly stuff, which I'll freely admit I mostly skimmed. It relies on STEM posturing to boost its claims to authority (there are so many graphs!) but it doesn't say very much at all about the field. For example, rather than trying to critically describe what they see, they opt to find the most popular tags on the website and graph them according to average sale price and... wait does that say "Average Views"? But the X axis is popularity of use. Did they actually mistitle the graph? Hooboy.

This is a great example of the "great diversity that is unified and without contradictions" mode of cryptoart criticism. At its core, this sort of number crunching exercise is not a search or a successful recovery of an aesthetics of crypto art, or exploration of the multiple aesthetics within cryptoart, but a guide to optimizing marketing gimmicks. Imagine if we actually did this to other forms of art. You'd only be able to describe Ad Reinhardt as part of the "#black and sometimes dark blue,#2d" movement. This doesn't actually identify trends of genre the way an art historian or critic does but in the way an investor would, which makes their faffing about with phrases like "neoliberal flattening" laughably absurd. Equally absurd is their portrayal of the cute party trick of overlaying and averaging 22 thousand nfts into a vague pink gradient as "suggestive of libidinal melancholy" and having "an unmistakable allure of technostalgia":

I keep running into a fundamental problem with cryptoart defenses: I can't really reply to an argument that doesn't exist as anything more than a vague phantasm or impression. A lot of writing on the subject is just that--impressionistic, like a text generator's idea of what academic texts sound sort of like. Despite a smug denunciation of the old art world and its impenetrable "art speak", the style of the paper is jargon-laden and obscure. When translated into English, the whole thing comes out as word salad:

While therefore useful, aesthetics remains highly problematic, premised as it is on the ‘disinterested’ viewpoint of a supposedly neutral agent who is, in reality, the very definition of an elitist white male spectator. Crypto art’s detractors might therefore argue that this kind of ‘aesthetics’ is no more than NFTs deserve. Certainly, it would take a monumental act of sophistry to claim for crypto art the same kind of ‘autonomy’ from mass culture that Theodor Adorno once tried to claim for art. If anything, crypto art is the most rarefied (or at least the most recent) product of the cultural industries, represented by exactly the community of multidisciplinary artists historically excluded from the art world. Its problem is how to reconcile further environmental damage with the potential of NFTs to redeem a generation of digital creatives from lives of economic precarity.

Let me try to translate. "Aesthetics is useful but assumes the ideal critic is an elite white male. [Teacher's note: all of aesthetics, through all of history, or just certain schools of aesthetics?] Skeptics might say this fits the field of NFTs. [Teacher's note: because NFTs are overwhelmingly minted by elite white men? If this is so, state it directly instead of usinga euphemistic sentence construction.] Certainly, cryptoart is undeniably subject to cultural markets. [Teacher's note: wait, hold up, what about the critique about elite white men?] If anything, cryptoart is the current peak of commercial art, made up of artists and art forms not part of non-commercial art. [Teacher's note: ok, that's sort of a tautology, but again how'd we get from the first two sentences to here?] Its problem is how to make a bunch of digital artists a lot of money despite the huge environmental cost." By the end of the paragraph, the problems raised in the beginning have been completely forgotten and switched out, by the sleight of hand of equating commercial producers ("community of multidisciplinary artists") with *diverse* producers (not "elitist white male spectators"). I have no idea where "aesthetics" went in this paragraph, having begun as a central problem and ended as not even worth mentioning. Someone really ought to let cryptobooster academics know that just because they're writing about cryptographically signed art doesn't mean they must make such a hash of their rhetoric.

What we have then is a kind of machine intelligence art criticism. Like the old "colorless green ideas sleep furiously," the criticism follows familiar grammars of both traditional and more data-driven art analysis, but the actual contents are gibberish. It is order without insight.

So like I thought, right, what if we did the opposite and achieved insight through pure bloody chaos:

I'm sharing this diagram I made for myself in part because I think it's funny to be like "oh throw out this scientific assessment, use THIS instead" and then post what visually is an insane woman's conspiracy theory board covered in jokes about the subject matter. But also, why wouldn't I share my artistic and critical process like this? I'm not bashful about it being messy, subjective, and intuitive, and don't need to pretend to a STEM objectivity premised on- oh, what was it again? "A supposedly neutral agent who is, in reality, the very definition of an elitist white male spectator"?

No, I just drifted, like any good situationist, through the top seller streets of superrare and jotted down my impressions of what I saw. I took seriously the idea that there was a diverse field of artists and artforms to uncover on these marketplaces. The diagram is a living thing: I just added some more sections today because when I started this, in the middle of my entire community being evicted, Bored Apes hadn't completely taken over as emblematic of cryptoart. So, belatedly, I added a broad category of "AVATARS" roughly where I think that kind of finds itself (sort of in the neighborhood of crypto triumphalism, commercial art in revolt, and concept art without a source text). I drew another crazy line between the hashmasklikes up to what I've labeled "Im Basquiat", though, because there's this whole segment of avatars that deliberately takes from "urban" aesthetics, freely pilfers black culture, &c. Do you see how this kind of works? This isn't an authoritative text but rather me trying to map out for myself lines of affinity and aesthetic association. And hey, I'm not the only person to notice some of these trends:

This might be the first piece of cryptoart I actually like. It actually has, like, real jokes! Jokes that work! I just laughed out loud when my brain registered the art used for the "GAN" category! And you know I think the little border around that icon to integrate it better into the emoji aesthetic of the image is pretty clever. Maybe I've just had my standards lowered by looking at so much of this stuff, but this actually feels like it has a sense of humor, self-satire, and effort that almost no other cryptoart possesses, and it's executed in a way that takes advantage of the iconic art style to set up a bunch of reasonably fun visual gags. I mean it's even giving me the itch to go on a rant about why emojis do not constitute "a language". I won't because sheesh gang I have SOME self control, but hey we've finally found some cryptoart that provokes that kind of response in me, good work that man.

One of the things that drew me to this was specifically the identification of "Offbrand Basquiat" and "Pseudo Picasso" as trends. I quickly accumulated a similar array of names on my own chart, named after the tweet in which internet poet laureate dril claimed authorship of the work of enigmatic street and conceptual artist Banksy: "im banky." Not only is there a lot of "im banky" going around in crypto art, and a lot of "im basquiat", there's also quite a bit of say "im koons", "im rothko", and so on. If this one artist is taking notice of the trends... why did it escape the authors of the paper ostensibly on the aesthetics of the movement?

Maybe because it exposes a level of contention, self-reference that goes beyond just "ha ha isn't cryptoart so wacky?" to actually take swipes at other creators. Instead of joining hands with the people elevating the whole art, it suggests some cryptoartists might be a little fed up with their peers. Am I putting words into the mouth of the artist obxium? Maybe... but out of idle curiosity I checked out his twitter and just a few hours ago as of writing this sentence he had tweeted out a really quite solid analysis of why "all NFTs look the same". A way more concise analysis than my own, though I'll try not to take it too personally 😕 . To me, this suggests not a unified movement but one, much like computer art historically, with potentially significant ruptures.

I increasingly felt this way as I jotted down notes on the affinities in the field. They weren't all connected, and some sectors felt notably isolated from each other. Like, one of the big sectors is what I've termed "Commercial Art In Revolt". This encompasses everything from Corporate Memphis On The Immutable Blockchain, to, as it shades into countercultural spaces, Banksyesque edgy deconstructions of graphic tropes. For graphic and industrial designers looking to expand their income streams beyond the flakey world of corporate commissions, cryptoart potentially offers a way to move themselves in the field of social production into greater legitimacy and with it achieve higher earning and greater stability.

The thing about this is that it also shades into a field of art that happens to be, well, ssstupid? This is the Blockchain Wank field, ethereum and bitcoin logos everywhere, a cultural blighttown encompassing everything from Logan Paul Wank to general tech triumphalism to Elon Supremacy. It's all pretty dire and it's all pretty popular. A LOT of Beeple stuff falls into this general region of the map, including that first dumb Paul vs Mayweather piece I dragged. Where it shades into the Commercial Art In Revolt sector, I think you get a lot of pieces about the way Ethereum will liberate us all: graphic agitprop created not for a state or corporation but for the mass fandom/whale base of crypto enthusiasts. They know they have a ready audience for like a space marine pulling the ethereum logo out of demon lord's skull or whatever cause this milieu fucking loves being propagandized to in the corniest way imaginable.

Let me shift to another part of the map though. There's a diverse range of works at the top of the pile worth examining. These are people who work in gifs, videocollage, digital painting, pixels, voxels, 3d renders... immaterial forms of art practice. I'm making a distinction for the sake of convenience and due to the differing nature of production, aims, and finished product, from both procedural art (grammar based generation, GAN art) and pure geometrism (I heard you like cubes so I put some cubes in your cube so you could recapitulate the modernist dream of techo-futurism while--you get it). Rather than these practices which tend to involve programming prowess and a focus on process, here I'm talking about people who are more like sculptors, painters, film directors, print makers, &c.  They just have the bad fortune of picking media that the art world has a harder time commodifying. For them, there really IS an argument to be made that they represent an avant garde that the establishment's been slow to consecrate.

Do I seem more sympathetic to this bunch? It helps that they're subjectively what I consider art that doesn't suck shit. And also, I do get it, I get the frustration of being shut out of traditional avenues because your medium is digital and your mindset doesn't line up with the commodity form the traditional art world expects.

Though, you know, on the other hand, the response I and all my friends picked was "fuck the commodity form, try and build something new" not "invent a new commodity form that requires us to drown New Orleans in order to make it run". So actually maybe fuck them after all. But you can perhaps see the dilemma for these people!

And cryptoart has pushed them into another dilemma. The nature of cryptoart as a unified platform, whose boosters are profoundly committed to selling the world on the market place as a whole, these different milieus find themselves crammed together. It maybe doesn't matter right now while whales are gobbling up just about anything they think will be an Investment, but I can't help but wonder how it feels for someone sincerely trying to sell interesting gif art to sit next to a Pepe smoking a bong shaped like the Ethereum logo. Maybe they don't give a shit! I just wonder is all, because the history of digital art has always been contested, and I can't imagine that will just stop because of The Blockchain.

And in particular I wonder what will happen to all the kinds of computer art that don't seem to have much of a place in the cryptoart ecosystem. Next time we'll continue diving into this diagram, the history of computer art, and whose work gets buried when you simply average all this art together into one big neutral pink blob.

This Has Been

A Fleshy Pink Gradient

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1 comment:

  1. Your analyses so far have been truly engaging; as a digital artist myself, it's been difficult navigating this minefield. Is this artist I loved and supported a huge selfish sellout or just misguided? What do I say to the friends encouraging me to 'cash in' on the NFT market?

    I found your blog from the BLAME! pieces, which still remain my favourites, and this almost seems like a worthwhile continuation to the theme of the 'corpse of cyberpunk' that we are living in.


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