Crypto Art Does Not Exist. Coming to Terms with an Unfortunate Art Label

The following text is the unpublished draft of an essay I'm writing for an academic magazine, loosely based on chapter 4 of Surfing con Satoshi. If the title sounds confrontational, it definitely wants to be. I'm publishing it here as an attempt to start a dialogue with the Mirror community, which hopefully will leave its traces on the final version of the text. Comments, feedbacks and reactions can be sent to me via e-mail. I'm pushing the "NFT" button nearby "Publish" as a test, but as the final version will be different, it also makes sense to mark it as something "unique". Thank you for reading!

p.s. in the Mirror version, I removed footnotes but all bibliographical references are linked into the text. I don't add any image as most examples are widely known.

On March 11, 2021, Christie’s auction house made history by selling, for the whopping amount of $69,346,250, Everydays: The First 5000 Days (2021), a visual artwork that exists in purely digital form. The spectacular sale immediately placed Beeple, the pseudonym of Mike Winkelmann (a South Carolina-based graphic designer and 3D animator who was very popular online, but until then virtually unknown to the art world and to the primary art market) in third place on the list of the highest paid living artists, after the likes of Jeff Koons and David Hockney.
Technically, this result was made possible by the association of Everydays’ image file — a mosaic of 5,000 images made and individually published for free on his blog since 2007 — to a non-fungible token (NFT), governed by a smart contract and registered on the Ethereum blockchain. A blockchain is a public and publicly searchable ledger, distributed and protected by cryptography, two features that make it secure and tamper-proof: once registered, a piece of data cannot be modified, except by involving the majority of the blockchain’s nodes in the scam, and investing unimaginable amounts of money to break its encryption. This security makes it the ideal technology to enable the minting and circulation of a cryptocurrency — the primary function for which blockchains were created; but it also allows it to lend itself to a multitude of other applications where a high level of security and data invulnerability is required.
This second aspect became particularly evident upon the publication, in 2013, of the Ethereum white paper, which introduced the concept of smart contracts: computer programs recorded on the blockchain that translate an agreement between parties into software, automating its execution and making it inviolable. A specific application of smart contracts, non-fungible tokens are financial instruments that enshrine the uniqueness and non-interchangeability of a specific cryptographic token, and any digital assets associated with it through a cryptographic hash (a unique alphanumeric string that identifies a file). In addition to building “verifiable digital scarcity” around the digital file with which it is associated, the NFT makes its provenance traceable, another crucial aspect for the art market: since every transaction is recorded and publicly searchable on the blockchain, of a file associated with an NFT anyone will always be able to see who the previous owners were, right down to the one who minted the NFT on the blockchain (ideally the author, or whoever is authorized to manage their work).
Obviously, (artificially constructed) scarcity and provenance make a digital file finally marketable, in the same way as any physical artefact whose uniqueness is certified and whose authorship and provenance are traceable:; but they still don’t explain why this specific file (the .jpg file Everydays: The First 5000 Days, measuring 21,069 x 21,069 pixels, associated with token ID 40913 and smart contract 0x2a46f2ffd99e19a89476e2f62270e0a35bbf0756, minted on February 16, 2021) was sold for more than $69 million. In order to understand this exceptional sale, it is necessary to trace the historical path that brought NFTs, and Beeple’s work, onto the radar of Christie’s auction house; it is essential to delve into the explicit and implicit motivations that guided the choices of the two collectors — crypto-investors Justin Sun and Metakovan — who competed for the work, which was eventually awarded to the latter; it is vital to explore the cultural territory within which NFTs found, between 2017 and 2021, fertile ground to flourish.
Explaining the reasons for Everydays’ million-dollar sale is not the purpose of this paper, whose goal is rather to discuss the legitimacy of the expression with which Everydays and most of the works linked to an NFT are defined: “Crypto Art.” However, the two questions are closely related, and it is likely that by addressing the latter we will offer the reader useful tools to answer the former.

I. A Short History of NFTs

In May 2014, when Rhizome, New York decided to join Anil Dash and Kevin McCoy in his annual Seven on Seven initiative, smart contracts had only just been conceptualized. Seven on Seven is a kind of hackathon, a project in which an artist and somebody from the field of new technologies are paired and invited to develop a new project together, which is presented at a conference 24 hours later. Anil Dash was, at the time, a consultant for auction houses and media companies; with his wife Jennifer, since the 1990s Kevin McCoy has established an artistic partnership that has explored the evolution of video in an interactive, performative and installation direction. The collaboration between Dash and McCoy focused on the development of a system that would allow artists greater control over their work and its circulation.
From this collaboration Monegraph was born, a contraction of the phrase “monetized graphics”. The name was intentionally ironic, and made the audience laugh at the presentation, where the two demonstrated how a digital artefact could be associated with a smart contract registered on the Namecoin blockchain, and transferred to somebody else’s wallet. Not featured in the presentation, the first file minted by McCoy on May 2, 2014 was Quantum, a tiny animated gif featuring a colorful, hypnotic abstract animation.
Right after the first presentation, Monegraph got an immediate response, and a few days later McCoy and Dash were invited to talk about it at TechCrunch Disrupt NY, a convention aimed at tech industries, where no one — Dash recalls — laughed. Their idea was taken very seriously, as a tool for certifying digital properties. McCoy tried to pursue the project a bit longer, but Monegraph never really got off the ground as a company.
At the time, Kevin McCoy was not the only artist who sensed the potential of the blockchain for certifying works of art. In July 2014, British artist Rob Myers (now active as Rhea Myers) published This Contract Is Art, a contract programmed to assert its nature as art. This claim of status could be modified by anyone by changing its setting from “is art” to “is not art.” Two days later, Myers published Ethereum – Art Market, a contract that allows anyone to register as the owner of a digital work contained in a specific file (identified by its cryptographic hash value) residing on a specific URL. The link idea was borrowed from Monegraph; but unlike Monegraph, which is based on a very simple contract, Ethereum – Art Market allows for more information about the work to be managed, and implements resale rights for artists. In November of the same year, Myers tokenized his soul on the Dogecoin and Bitcoin blockchains, dividing the token into 100 units to allow for shared ownership of it, and anticipating by 11 years many conceptual shenanigans made by artists with NFTs, such as Kenny Schachter’s “tokenization” of his grandmother or Ryder Ripps’ sale of “nothing,” and countless other examples of “self-conscious NFTs” (Brian Droitcour) that make conceptual use of smart contracts or reflect their own condition of existence. The very choice to use Dogecoin — a currency that started as a joke and then turned into something very serious — was not accidental.
Both Monograph and Myers’ early works stand on the edge between the (very serious) reflection on artists’ rights and the precarious economy of art (especially when, as in the case of digital media, it is expressed through “allographic” works, whose authenticity and uniqueness can be proved only through a declaration of authenticity), and the playful spirit of many artistic interventions on this theme, from the avant-garde to Piero Manzoni, up to projects such as Net. art Consultants (1999), a work by British artist Heath Bunting that made it possible to arbitrarily donate a work of to a public collection. All the more so insofar as they are functional, these projects remain imaginary solutions, celibate machines in the absence of a system of consensus capable of accepting the wager they raise.
For this consensus system to develop, McCoy and Myers’ ideas had to leave the hands of artists and land in those of a techno-élite that understands, as Anil Dash noted, the value of “monetizing information”; it had to attract a type of collector more informed about the dynamics and workings of cryptocurrencies than art, and more bitterly aware of the difficulty of owning and trading digital assets. After all, when he was designing Ethereum, Vitalik Buterin wasn’t thinking about art; he was thinking about the night he cried because Blizzard (the company that produces and runs the online video game World of Warcraft) removed the damage component from his beloved warlock’s Siphon Life spell. Being the true owner of what’s yours in a game, not depending on the whims of a centralized system, being able to import your properties into other game environments, being able to buy and sell digital assets on other platforms and with different currencies, is every gamer’s dream, just as being able to attribute the character of scarcity to digital playing cards is the dream of every nerd who loves Magic: The Gathering. It is in these communities that the technological shrewdness, the economic availability, the libidinal urges necessary to understand the seeds thrown by McCoy and Myers and to make them germinate were gathered. It is from these communities, incidentally, that the hard core of “Crypto Art” collectors is coming.
The first popularization of the concept behind NFTs occurred in September 2016, with the launch of Rare Pepe Wallet. The project had been anticipated by the release of some trading card games, such as Spell of Genesis, on the blockchain, but it is the viral force of memer communities that creates the phenomenon. An internet meme is a content that is able to circulate and spread in ever different forms, thanks to its communicative power but also to its adaptability, its potential to convey ever different messages and to adapt to different contexts. An emblematic case of internet meme, Pepe the Frog is the illustration of an anthropomorphic frog, created by cartoonist Matt Furie in 2005, and became viral with its circulation on forums such as 4chan from 2008 onwards. Over time, there has been a real fever of Rare Pepes, unusual and uncommon versions of the meme, a collecting passion that until 2016 found no actual market in which to express itself. A .jpg image may be unusual and “rare” in style and content, but it remains infinitely reproducible; how can one turn it into a collectible asset?
In September 2016, a long-time user of the Counterparty blockchain, announces the tokenization of three Rare Pepes, framed as a playing card. A few days later, the Rare Pepe Wallet site appears, allowing its users to tokenize and trade their Rare Pepes. The currency is also renamed: at the time of writing, one dollar corresponds to 39 Pepe Cash. The community grows rapidly, and its economy keeps pace: in January 2018, well before the NFT boom, the Homer Pepe card is auctioned off for a whopping 350,000 Pepe Cash, then corresponding to $38,500. The Rare Pepe community also deserves credit for having solved the problem of the immutability of the asset linked to the token, through the association of a cryptographic hash to the file uploaded to the platform (a solution that will later be adopted by the various NFT marketplaces).
At this point, the timeline begins to accelerate. In June 2017, Larva Labs, a studio of American creative engineers, launched CryptoPunks, a project that tokenized 10,000 8bit graphics portraits of as many unique characters in terms of appearance and character. Originally, they could be acquired for free by anyone with an Ethereum wallet, but once all 10,000 characters were claimed, CryptoPunks turned into a thriving economy. Currently, the most expensive punk (CryptoPunk 7804) is worth $7.57 million, but “affordable” characters can still be found (the cheapest one is currently selling for around fifty thousand dollars).
In October 2017, CryptoKitties followed, created on the Ethereum blockchain by the Canadian studio Dapper Lab. CryptoKitties are adorable kittens with flat, vector graphics, each with a distinctive look and feel. They can not only be sold and collected, but also “bred”. Each of them, in fact, carries a genotype, a DNA and individual attributes registered in the smart contract that can be transmitted to the descendants. In other words, CryptoKitties is a game of collectible “virtual pets,” combining the playful, childlike pleasure of raising virtual kittens, familiar to anyone who has known Tamagotchi, with the adrenaline-fueled, adult pleasure of playing with a boiling market and speculating with virtual currencies. From the original set of 50,000 kittens (the “zero generation”), by October 2018 it had grown to one million kittens and a total volume of 3.2 million transactions; a few months earlier a CryptoKitty had sold for $140,000. Despite being a corporate project, backed by venture capital and capable of supporting transactions worth several tens of millions of dollars, in September 2018 CryptoKitties was exhibited at the ZKM in Karlsruhe as part of the colossal Open Codes exhibition project, in order to illustrate how the blockchain works.
Two months after the launch of CryptoKitties, December 2017 saw the announcement of OpenSea, the first decentralized marketplace for buying and selling digital assets, based on the Ethereum blockchain. The announcement proclaims:

At OpenSea, we’re excited about the emergence of this new class of digital assets. We believe that “true digital ownership” means that assets will be traded across a diverse ecosystem of decentralized exchange platforms. We’re building OpenSea as the first of these digital exchanges.

Founded by Alex Atallah and Devin Finzer, two young engineers who came through YCombinator (a well-known American start-up accelerator), OpenSea is intentionally generalist, open to all kinds of collectible digital assets. The pioneering project of Kevin McCoy and Anil Dash has now been adopted by the cyber elite of Silicon Valley. In the following months, OpenSea is joined by other platforms and marketplaces: in April 2018, SuperRare is born, which unlike OpenSea has a specific focus on art. Its first registered sale is a declaration of intent: four works by French artist Robbie Barrat, known for his experiments with artificial intelligence algorithms, are purchased by collector Jason Bayley, founder of Artnome, a company specializing in Art Analytics. Celebrating its first birthday, SuperRare announces figures that, if not yet impressive, are nonetheless interesting: 2,551 works uploaded, of which 1,124 sold, with a net gain for the artists of $91,000.
The same month also saw the birth of Manchester-based KnownOrigin, whose main mission, like SuperRare, is to attract artists. In the same months, marketplaces were joined by virtual worlds such as Decentraland and Cryptovoxels, which rely on the blockchain to buy and sell virtual space and allow people to showcase work stored in their wallets, providing an ideal space for artists and collectors to display virtual assets. Many of the other known platforms will follow between 2019 and 2020.

II. Crypto Art: Some Case Studies

If projects like CryptoPunks and CryptoKitties trained a generation of potential collectors to appreciate and understand the possibility of attributing the ideas of authenticity and scarcity to a digital asset, and to consider these assets as lucrative investments, Rare Pepe Wallet opened up the possibility — picked up by marketplaces from OpenSea onwards — of attributing these characteristics to individual creations, and not to predetermined sets of images. We can easily imagine that the original “Crypto Art” community has drawn from a very wide and varied demographic, already accustomed to circulating their creations on social platforms, attracted by the possibility of “monetizing” their images: memers, illustrators, graphic designers, creatives, young artists without access to the art world and more mature artists eager to experiment with the possibilities introduced by these new platforms, professionals and prosumers. Some names have already emerged. Robbie Barrat is a young French artist who had a moment of sudden visibility during another hype. On October 28, 2018, Christie’s New York put Portrait of Edmond Belamy, a work by the French collective Obvious, up for sale. The portrait was created with the use of a GAN (Generative Adversarial Network), a neural network “trained” on a dataset of portrait images from the history of art. The sale, prepared by a massive communication campaign insisting on the work created entirely by a computer and on artificial intelligence as the next medium of art, totals $432,500. Among the many discussions generated by the sale, one brings to the fore Barrat’s name as that of the true author of the GAN, of which Obvious merely made very specific use to generate the portraits of the Belamy family. Barrat traverses the story elegantly, avoiding denunciations and accusations of appropriation, and builds a reputation as a young programming genius who knows his medium and uses it with awareness of his role as an artist in the education of the program and the selection of outputs. A rare case among those who use artificial intelligence, he does not allow himself to be seduced by the superficial effects of the medium, indeed declaring, “There’s nothing about the tool which is particularly interesting — there has to be a collaboration with an artist first.”
Another early artistic presence in the crypto space is the Italian duo Hackatao (Sergio Scalet and Nadia Squarci). Active since the early 2000s under the aegis of Italian neo-pop and Pop Surrealism, Hackatao create paintings, illustrations and sculptures that represent human beings and anthropomorphic animals, with an iconic and recognizable language that combines flat surfaces in bright colours with other more graphic and black and white, meticulously drawn and full of writing and decorative elements, in a horror vacui that recalls the language of tattoos. Digital graphics have played a marginal role in their career, until they met NFTs, which led them to tokenize dozens of works and sell them successfully, and to be recognized as one of the pioneers of “Crypto Art”.
Other representative names can be deduced from the reports on the most spectacular sales achieved on the NFT market. Pop Surrealism, with its easy and accessible aesthetics and its references to mass culture and current events, is intuitively one of the most successful trends in the NFT market, as the Beeple case also demonstrates. FEWoCIOUS, a 17-year-old transgender artist from Las Vegas, sold The EverLasting Beautiful for $550,000 on Nifty Gateway in March 2021.27 His works are digitized paintings, illustrations, and small animations that juxtapose Pop Surrealism, street art, and aesthetics borrowed from tattoos. With The EverLasting Beautiful, along with the NFT, the original oil on canvas is also given to the collector. Later in June 2021, Christie’s auctioned 5 works by FEWOCiOUS, selling them for the spectacular total amount of 2,162,500 $.
Among born digital artworks, 3D modelling and animation are some of the favourite carriers of a Pop Surrealist taste. A surreal-futurist aesthetic is attributed to Kathryn Blake, a Los Angeles-based 3D animator who creates short video animations of impossible environments and the cyborgs that inhabit them. Blake has a considerable following on social media, and one of her NFTs sold for 11 ETH, corresponding to about 20,000 euros. Andrés Reisinger, on the other hand, is a furniture and interior designer who is having some success with a series of surreal renderings, representing landscapes inhabited by abstract and impossible furniture, in a silent and suspended atmosphere. The series The Shipping quickly sold out on Nifty Gateway, with prices ranging from $2,500 to $67,000. Canadian pop star Grimes (a pseudonym for Claire Elise Boucher), partner of tycoon Elon Musk and illustrator and filmmaker as well as singer, is also easily ascribed to the genre. Her illustrations with dark and apocalyptic atmospheres combine references to manga imagery and science fiction. In March 2021, she reached nearly $6 million with the release of her WarNymph Collection Vol. 1 on Nifty Gateway.
A similar success is obviously encountered by pixel art images, glitch aesthetics, generative graphics, memetic images and the whole wide vernacular of digital images. In the world of NFTs, the self-referential use of the images and iconographies of blockchain and cryptocurrencies is quite widespread: a fact that should not be surprising if we consider, on the one hand, the importance of the financial aspect and, on the other hand, the type of “native” collectors of these platforms, largely made up of entrepreneurs who have invested in the blockchain or speculators infatuated with cryptocurrencies. A well-known example is the one offered by Right Place & Right Time (Bitcoin Hourly Price Offset), created in 2020 by American artist Matt Kane and sold in September 2020 on the Async Art platform for more than $100,000 to a collector active under the pseudonym TokenAngels. After a brief career as a painter, Kane abandoned his artistic practice for a decade, one in which he worked as a web developer and learned programming. Returning to artistic practice, he considers himself a painter of code, and makes generative works that develop over time, layer by layer, under the influence of different data streams. The sale of the first NFT of Right Place & Right Time allowed Kane to launch the larger project (2020 — ongoing), which promises to spawn 210 editions over the course of more than 10 years, spread across different platforms and blockchains. Each edition of Right Place & Right Time is generative. In essence, the project involves a graphical representation of Bitcoin, split into 24 layers (as many as the hours of the day) being influenced by a process that reflects the volatility of the currency over a 24-hour period. The price of Bitcoin at a specific hour influences the rotation, scale and position of the corresponding layer. On low volatility days, the layers will be more or less aligned, and the image close to its initial state; on high volatility days, the image can be significantly, sometimes dramatically distorted. Each day’s output is an accurate and readable portrait of the currency’s life on that particular day. Kane’s project is conceptually interesting, technologically refined, and aesthetically close to Pop iconography (in particular, it is reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s screen prints, due to the bright colors and visible misalignment between layers). Its limitation is its affirmative and uncritically celebratory nature, common to other projects by the artist.
Another work that avowedly presents itself as a tribute to Bitcoin is Robert Alice’s monumental Portraits of a Mind cycle, which made headlines on October 7, 2020, when Christie’s London auctioned Block 21 (42.36433° N, -71.26189° E), one of 40 paintings in the series. Offered with a high estimate of $18,000, the work — a circular panel more than a meter in diameter, painted in acrylic and gold leaf and accompanied by an NFT — sold for $131,250. Viewed from a distance, the paintings in the series appear to be minimalist canvases; looking closer, their blue surface appears to be covered in a dense pattern of numbers — 322,048 hexadecimal code digits to be exact. According to the essay accompanying the auction,

Portraits of a Mind is one artist’s response to the inevitability of digital degradation, to the idea of Bitcoin’s founding code (v0.1.0) as a Magna Carta of the 21st century. The largest work of art in blockchain’s history, the forty paintings that comprise Portraits of a Mind stretch to over fifty meters long and compromise a full transcription of the 12.3 million digits of code that first launched the iconic technology in 2008.

The work is conceived as a portrait of Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonym inventor of the blockchain and Bitcoin, and “explores the politics and aesthetics of open source code and its relationship to identity and truth.” The sale of the forty “blocks” that comprise it, moreover, is “strings attached”: each must go to a different collector who lives in the part of the world corresponding to the time zone specified in the coordinates embedded in the work’s title. No one can own the series in its entirety, just like no one can own the totality of blocks on a blockchain.
Robert Alice is a pseudonym adopted in 2018 by London-based artist Benjamin Gentilli, with the explicit intention of “educating” the visual arts world about the history and culture of the blockchain. In even more blatant and uncritical forms, the celebration of cryptocurrencies returns in countless other works, the most infamous one being Trevor JonesBitcoin Angel (2021). Bitcoin Angel is the digital image of a sloppy oil painting depicting Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Theresa, in which the golden rays are partially covered by a giant representation of Bitcoin. Put up for sale on Nifty Gateway in February 2021 in an edition of 4,157 pieces, each priced at $777, the work sold out, totalling the impressive amount of $3.2 million. The price of each edition (777) is inscribed in gold letters in the lower left corner, just above the signature.34

Before wrapping up this quick review of so-called “Crypto Art”, it may be useful to consider the work of the three artists that Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips respectively chose to open up to the NFT market: Beeple, Pak and Mad Dog Jones. With a degree in computer science and a passion for drawing, on May 1, 2007 Beeple started Everydays, a project that involves publishing one illustration a day on his blog. Halfway between a performance project and a daily exercise, this diary in progress has the declared purpose of improving his drawing skills and his mastery of computer programs, as demonstrated by his tendency to focus on a single tool for long periods of time. In recent years 3D modeling and animation have been his preferred means of expression. His illustrations and animations, which often make grotesque and satirical references to news and current events, have earned him growing popularity on social networks, and have opened the door to collaborations with brands such as Louis Vuitton and Nike and music stars such as Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj and Eminem. It wasn’t until October 2020 that he began recording some of his illustrations as NFTs on Nifty Gateway, achieving immediate financial success. Crossroads, a video animation that existed in two variants respectively representing Donald Trump’s victory and defeat, sold on November 1 for $66,666 (by February 2021 it would change hands for $6.6 million). More spectacular sales would follow, paving the way for Christie’s March 2021 auction.
In the face of the avalanche of press generated by its million-dollar sale, there are still very few attempts to critically address Beeple’s work. On his personal website, he presents himself as follows, in his characteristic language: “he makes a variety of art crap across a variety of media. some of it is ok, but a lot of it kind of blows ass. he’s working on making it suck less everyday though so bear with him... :)” According to Will Gompertz, the well-known BBC News art critic, his work is actually not that bad: “If you’re into the comic book aesthetic, which can be traced back decades, then Beeple is a talented exponent of the genre.” Gompertz evokes Hieronymus Bosch, Andy Warhol, and Philip Guston, and while admitting that “Beeple’s artworks read to me more like a comedian’s one-liner than a novel captured in a picture, which is what the greatest artists are able to achieve,” he declares that he has “seen enough to know it is of artistic and documentary merit.” Decidedly more critical is Ben Davis, who on Artnet News points out that there are at least four “Beeples” layered into Everydays’ 5,000 images, corresponding to different periods. As Beeple himself says, next to a few images that manage to reach a certain level of quality and iconic effectiveness, most are below the level of amateurism, chock-full as they are of naivety, uncertainties, mistakes. Jokes and humor are mostly crude and vulgar, and draw extensively from the repertoire and imagery of pornography. Racism, machismo, and misogyny, watered down by the mosaic treatment in which each image loses its autonomy to become a puzzle piece, emerge clearly by scrolling through the Everydays images on the dedicated blog, where each image is accompanied by a title or textual commentary.
The work of Pak, chosen by Sotheby’s for its landing in the world of NFTs, is decidedly different. As earthy, sarcastic and vulgar is Beeple’s imagery, as abstract and algid is Pak’s. Loved and collected by Elon Musk, the mysterious identities behind this pseudonym that ask to be referred to in plural form present themselves in their profile on Nifty Gateways as “an omniscient designer/developer/wizard, one of the leads of the design scene” and as one of the creators of Archillect, an artificial intelligence that selects and publishes on its social accounts web content destined to go viral. Mostly in black and white, their NFTs are short looping animations or static images with a minimalist aesthetic, using elementary geometric solids and generative processes. In their work, Pak reconnect with the entire tradition of software art, with Sol Lewitt’s minimalism, and the abstract geometric and optical investigations of the second half of the Twentieth Century, but at the same time, as Michael Connor keenly notes,

Pak is a leading exemplar of the GPU-intensive finish fetish aesthetics that have risen to the top of the NFT art scene. Their work in particular, with its coldness and mathematical precision, resonates with a cryptographic imaginary in which the NFT market is one component of a burgeoning metaverse.

Spheres, cubes, hypercubes and Rubik’s cubes, Möbius tapes and Escher-like visual paradoxes mix with more conceptual experiments on the use of the blockchain, as in The Title, a collection of NFTs all the same in appearance but differing only by their title and starting price, underlining the cruciality of the associated smart contract, as important as — and perhaps more than — the image: so Copy is offered for $17.777, Paste for the same amount, while The Cheap, The Expensive and The Unsold are all put on sale for a million dollars; and again, The Gift is not on sale and The Flipper is offered as an edition of 99 at one dollar each, which has not prevented them from reaching dizzying figures on the secondary market.
The desire to experiment with the performative and conceptual nature of smart contracts also marks the entry of the third major auction house, Phillips. REPLICATOR by Mad Dog Jones, auctioned between 12 and 23 April 2021, could be technically described as a “genesis NFT”, a smart contract programmed to generate a new NFT every 28 days, for a total of 7 generations. Each new generation NFT, according to a probabilistic calculation, can be itself a “REPLICATOR”, therefore capable of generating new NFTs, or a “jammed NFT”, a “wrong photocopy” destined to remain unique.
Born Michah Dowbak, Mad Dog Jones is an illustrator who brings cyberpunk urban scenarios to life, chock-full of electronic signs, artificial lights, “sprawl” layers of old and new technologies such as washing machines, vintage cars, telephone sets, and CRT monitors. Consistent with the concept, REPLICATOR represents a cumbersome photocopier in an office environment, in front of an urban scenery full of skyscrapers. As with Beeple, before successfully entering the world of NFT, his illustrations won over audiences on social media and music and entertainment stars from Deadmau5 to Maroon 5. Like many other artists in the scene, he often reinvests his substantial earnings in the work of other artists, as evidenced by his extensive collection on Nifty Gateways.

III. Crypto Art?

The “Crypto Art” label emerged in the environment we tried to outline so far: marketplaces that want to shape a new creative economy, and need a new vocabulary to make its novelty more consistent; collectors who often lack a traditional art collecting background, grown up on social networks, image boards and games, mostly active in decentralized finance where they amassed some crypto-wealth that they want to show-off, bragging rights on artworks; creators — both professionals and amateurs — from very diverse cultural backgrounds. Significantly, this list doesn’t include art critics and curators (the ones who usually forge art labels, for better or for worse): a defining character of the crypto space, that since the advent of the Bitcoin blockchain, promises to remove the middleman from any transaction, and the gatekeepers from any social structure.
Going back to the creators, most of what they do, mainly in the form of static or animated images, is far from new, but already circulated on social networks and sharing platforms like Deviantart, Instagram or Tumblr; with a few notable exceptions, it has nothing “specific” to the crypto environment it pretends to be part of. For the most part, the lowest common denominator shared by so-called “Crypto Art” identifies with its mere technical description: a digital or digitized art made “rare” by its registration on the blockchain. Is there anything else, besides a certain aesthetic and conceptual naiveté, that brings together all “Crypto Art” under a single definition, apart from the way it is published and sold? An aesthetic or formal element, a set of instances and themes, a common background of the participating artists?
On his website, “Crypto artist” Martin Lukas Ostachowski makes available an up-to-date chronology of what he calls “Crypto Art” that is a real boon to scholars and historians, with a chronology that starts in 2011 and includes not only art projects and platforms, but also exhibitions and conferences. Ostachowski’s chronology does not propose a definition of “Crypto Art,” but the selection it offers and some editorial details (such as the distinction in the subtitle between “Crypto Art, Blockchain-related Physical Art and Crypto Collectibles” attest to a fluctuating conception, swaying between a narrow meaning (where “Crypto Art” would be all works “tokenized” on the blockchain) and a broader meaning (where “Crypto Art” would be all art that has some relation, operational or semantic, to the blockchain).
Ostachowski is one of the co-authors of the long academic paper “Crypto Art: A Decentralized View” (2019), arguably the first academic attempt to define the phenomenon. At the beginning of the paper, “Crypto Art” is defined as such:

Rare digital art, also known as crypto art, is limited-edition collectible art cryptographically registered with a token on a blockchain. Tokens represent transparent, auditable origin and provenance for a piece of digital art. Blockchain technology allows tokens to be held and securely traded from one collector to another.

The paper makes no further effort to define the subject of its investigation, although it provides many insights on the cultural environment in which it came about.
The names of artistic trends and movements are often problematic. They often describe a formal characteristic (Cubism, Minimalism), an attitude (Futurism, Post-Internet), a source of inspiration (Surrealism, Pop Art), a space of intervention (Land Art, Public Art); at other times, they are rooted in the use of a specific medium (Body Art, Performance Art, Video Art). The reference to the medium used is especially questionable, notably in a territory like that of contemporary art, where the rejection of media specificity in favour of a post-media attitude has been mainstream since the 1960s; but it can prove functional during the affirmation of a new language, and subsequently to circumscribe categories of artefacts that pose similar problems of presentation and preservation.
“Crypto Art” has nothing to do with any of this: not with a medium, because what is being “tokenized” is not the work, but the smart contract associated with the work; not with a formal choice (even if one could argue that most marketplaces favour the circulation of small, static or animated images — usually straightforward and of rapid consumption — as we already noticed none of these formats is exclusive to “Crypto Art”); not with an attitude (unless you want to talk about anarcho-capitalism), nor with a space for intervention (the blockchain is only used to ratify the authenticity and scarcity of the work), nor with a source of inspiration (although much so-called “Crypto Art” thematizes and celebrates cryptocurrencies and blockchain, it remains a minority trend in a much larger phenomenon). Contrary to what art critic Jerry Saltz thinks, we cannot think of NFTs as a brush except in the few cases where the crypto token is the work, and the smart contract actually and creatively controls the behaviour of the tokenized file, as we have seen in the work of Pak, Mad Dog Jones or Matt Kane. There is nothing that identifies and unifies all the works collected under the definition of “Crypto Art” other than the fact that they are tokenized on the blockchain, or that they are made by a self-declared “crypto artist.” At worst, “Crypto Art” is a trend based on a certification technology; at best, it is a movement based on a community that identifies with a milieu, a shared sentiment, and a similar value system.
Yet, despite its opacity and dubious origins, the expression “Crypto Art” spread rapidly at the time of the NFT boom, gaining a position not only in the generalist press, but also in contemporary art publications: from Artforum to Flash Art, from Artribune to Artnet News to Art In America, which provided it with an awkward legitimacy. In most cases, the label “Crypto Art” is just taken for granted, as the simpler, faster way to address all digital art linked to an NFT; sometimes — as in Kevin Buist’s article on Artforum — it is addressed critically, yet nonetheless legitimated by its very appearance in a respected art magazine. Buist writes:

While there is a crypto art aesthetic emerging — think kaleidoscopic GIFs, glitchy abstraction, crisp renders of pastel-tinted fantasy scenes — none of this has any material connection to the technology that enables the minting and exchange of NFTs. The NFT is not a medium, but merely a speculative financial instrument that can be pointed at a digital artwork just as easily as it could be pointed at anything else [...] The NFT is a financial innovation masquerading as an art innovation.

In a subsequent take published on the same magazine, art critic and historian Tina Rivers Ryan is even more straight, describing “Crypto Art” as a “moniker that conflates the exchange and the exchanged, erroneously suggesting that NFTs themselves are an artistic medium.”

IV. The Return of the Middleman

But even if it could work to describe the original milieu in which the practice of “tokenizing” an artwork emerged, the “Crypto Art” label has now to face the predictable consequences of what happened along the NFT boom. In the following, I will briefly focus on two opposite dynamics, even if sometimes prompted by the same actors: the growing involvement in the NFT world of celebrities, influencers and “authors” of internet memes; and the entry, in this same space, of a growing number of artists recognized in the contemporary art world. Although easily downplayed, in many cases, to an attempt to ride the media wave and the interest in NFTs, the first phenomenon takes on more interesting implications when it involves relatively marginal figures of the star system, as happened to model and actress Emily Ratajkowski, who put up for sale a self-portrait in front of a print of Richard Prince representing her, itself an appropriation of a Sports Illustrated photo, presenting the gesture as an attempt to regain control over her own image; or when those making the NFT are the alleged “authors” of popular internet memes. However entrenched, through Rare Pepes, in the history of “Crypto Art,” the phenomenon exploded in February 2021 with the sale, on Foundation’s marketplace, of the Nyan Cat by the original animation’s author, Chris Torres, for 300 ETH. In quick succession, other memes appeared on NFT marketplaces at the initiative of their authors: still on Foundation, on April 13, 2021 Leave Britney Alone, a short video from 2007 in which Chris Crocker launches into an exaggeratedly passionate defence of Britney Spears, was sold by Crocker for more than $50,000; for a similar amount, the same platform made the fortune of a now 21-year-old Zoë Roth, the little girl from South Carolina captured by her father in 2005 while showing a diabolical smile in front of a fire, who made history as Disaster Girl. These are just a few examples of a growing phenomenon, skilfully orchestrated by managers like Ben Lashes, who have been searching for years for the people who generated these little tsunamis of the infosphere, and supported by collectors who have grown up culturally in the internet of social networks and subreddits.
Another form of celebrity increasingly inhabiting the NFT space is the public figure. On April 16, 2021, whistleblower Edward Snowden sold on Foundation an NFT titled Stay Free for 2,224.00 ETH (about $5.4 million at the time of the sale). The auction was made to benefit the Freedom of the Press Foundation. Stay Free uses a US appeals court decision that ruled the mass surveillance program Snowden exposed had violated US law to generate a black and white portrait of Snowden himself. Around the same amount was spent on June 30, 2021 by an anonymous collector to buy a visual restitution, in the form of a video and a static image, of the original code of the World Wide Web, written by Sir Tim Berners-Lee in 1991 and auctioned by himself through Sotheby’s, New York thirty years later. Again, proceeds went to charity. Even His Holiness Pope Francis made NFTs, launching on the marketplace Akoin the collection Scholas Ocurrentes, a charity “reaching and supporting young people by promoting the importance of art in education”. The collection consists of three pieces, published in edition of twenty: the first (A Beautiful Move) made by Pope Francis alone, the others made in collaboration with artists Domingo Zapato and Mr. Brainwash. Are memers, models, the Pope, the inventor of the World Wide Web and the man who unveiled the current panopticon all “crypto artists”?

At the same time, as we anticipated, after March 2021 an increasing number of contemporary artists have been carried in the NFT space by a number of subjects: auction houses, art galleries, online marketplaces with a focus on contemporary art, all actively contributing to the blurring of the border between the art world and the original NFT space. Here, examples are many, and increasing on an almost daily basis: traditional art galleries with a focus on media art, such as Postmasters, New York, Bitforms, New York, and Transfer, New York, all opened up their own online marketplace for digital artworks with an associated NFT. Renown artist Urs Fisher broke his ties with Gagosian and partnered with Pace Gallery in order to launch, in April 2021, an NFT collection, Chaos, featuring animated 3D collages of familiar objects. British art star Damien Hirst worked with the platform HENI Leviathan to publish The Currency, a collection of 10,000 unique NFTs that correspond to 10,000 unique works on paper created back in 2016. When a collectors buy the digital piece, they receive the corresponding work on paper as well, and they are given a year to choose weather they want to destroy the NFT and keep the physical work, or to destroy the latter and keep their crypto investment. Berlin based König Gallery opened a virtual venue in the online metaverse Decentraland on the occasion of the physical exhibition The Artist is Online (March 21 — April 21, 2021), focused on painting in the digital age. The virtual gallery is still open and active, currently featuring a solo show by Swedish artist Jonas Lund, who in 2018 created an artist coin (the JLT, or Jonas Lund Token), turning his artistic practice into a decentralized autonomous practice aiming to “optimize and streamline the decision-making process in art production and the strategic decisions concerning Lund’s career path.” Artist run online galleries such as Left Gallery, founded by Dutch artist Harm Van Den Dorpel well before the NFT boom; Feral File, designed by American artist and programmer Casey Reas and launched in 2021; and platforms like the French Danae, launched by former gallery owners Laetitia Maffei and Frédéric Laffy under the artistic direction of curator Dominique Moulon; are also facilitating the access of “art world” artists in the NFT space.
A better focus wold deserve Foundation, the NFT platform that also turned Edward Snowden and many meme creators into “Crypto Art” stars. Launched on May 27, 2020, Foundation maintains a generalist attitude and is open to various paths, but it also seeks to give precise direction to the development of its artist base. On Foundation, you don’t become a creator by simply registering an account: you join by invitation from another participant, or you can apply to be voted in by the community base. Moreover, as Head of Community, Foundation hired Lindsay Howard, a curator with a distinguished reputation and track record in the contemporary art world. After directing 319 Scholes, a landmark in New York for the post-internet generation during its years of operation, Howard has been Curatorial Fellow at Eyebeam, New York between 2012 and 2013; in October 2013, she curated Paddles ON!, a collaboration between the auction house Phillips and Tumblr that symbolically marks the entry of several “digital” and post-internet artists into the auctions world. In 2017, Howard worked with the New Museum, New York and Nokia Bell Labs to organize the fiftieth anniversary events of Experiments in Art and Technology. The involvement of such a figure as Head of Community clearly played a central role in defining Foundation’s identity. Howard has brought to Foundation many of the artists with whom she has collaborated in the past, from Petra Cortright to Rafael Rozendaal, Ryder Ripps to Jonas Lund to the younger generation of post-digital artists, and with them their collectors. As a curator sensitive to racial and gender issues, she has significantly implemented a female presence in the community. Her involvement with Foundation is evidence of the effort to acquire contemporary art collectors, with their purchasing power, their educated eye, and their continued support of the artists they champion, to the NFT space.

V. Crypto Art Does Not Exist

[...] the art world is layered vertically and heterogeneous horizontally, comprising many overlapping spheres of association and commerce. Julian Stallabrass 2004

To conclude: the NFT space is currently perceivable as a confused bazaar, where different art worlds, and different spheres and layers of the art world, had collapsed into a single space, where the only guidelines for orientation are those offered by who collects who, who follows who, who comments on what and, of course, by the price at which something was bought or sold. Nothing new, if you look at it from the perspective of how the attention economy is managed by Platform Capitalism; but it can be quite disorienting and upsetting for those who believe that certain barriers cannot be bypassed, and then see massive flows of cryptocurrency break them down with little or no resistance.
In this upheaval, reshuffling of cards and breaking down of barriers, there is definitely something very strong, fresh and welcome. The highly polarizing and emotional reactions of hate and love, disdain and celebration, that the NFT boom is stirring up in the art world, is also a symptom of its ability to challenge categories established by art history and art education and especially the role of the so-called “gatekeepers” — critics, curators gallery owners who have the presumption to decide what is art and what is not. As Martin Herbert noted in the columns of Art Review, moments like these have the ability to reveal the gatekeeper in us:

When the very structure changes, or new arenas muscle in, I tense up a bit. This might be a flawed corner but it’s my flawed corner, is what I think, despite myself. The hard thing to determine is whether you’re trying to maintain some perceived standard, or if you’ve become traditionalist, or if, more simply, you’re a snob.

Art has to change, Herbert concludes, and if you think it’s changing for the worse, that might be your problem.
NFTs are bringing a breeze of change to contemporary art; they are attracting new players, new audiences, and new tastes to a territory often perceived as obscure, hostile, and refractory to contact with the outside world; they are, apparently, allowing hitherto marginalized creators and hitherto disinterested viewers to change the rules of the game. What attitude should the art world take, between the two extreme poles of uncritical acceptance and preventive defence?
This question also affects the issue discussed in this paper: what attitude to take when faced with the definition of “Crypto Art”, used and loved by artists and collectors who have helped shape this environment? Confronted with two equally prejudicial attitudes, the choice we made was to conduct as thorough and objective an analysis of the phenomenon as possible. From this analysis, the so-called “Crypto Art” emerges as a mode of online existence of not much art (digital or physical) and a lot of non-art (digital and physical), regulated by smart contracts and made possible by the blockchain. This mode of existence solicits community dynamics and, for some, solves the problem of livelihood; it disintegrates the traditional hierarchies of the art world, attributing to collectors, to the solidarity dynamics among artists (who collect each other, or invite and vote for each other) and to the selection mechanisms of marketplaces (when they exist) the task traditionally entrusted to galleries, museums, critics and curators (who, moreover, are returning, reintroducing the possibility of mediation and enriching with new nuances the already diverse offer of these platforms).
In formal terms, the settings of marketplaces (which often inherit the architecture of social networks and impose weight and format limits on the contents of what is uploaded) and the prehistory of NFTs (from Rare Pepes to CryptoKitties) favour the proliferation of small media objects: static images, animated gifs, looped videos. But nothing prohibits “tokenizing” other forms of art (born digital or not), and the most experimental platforms are already gearing up to open the doors to other formats and other languages, and to no longer reduce, as Silvia Dal Dosso writes, “the artist’s work to what is nothing more than a collectible digital card game”.60 Finally, as we have seen, many participants experiment artistically with smart contracts, considering them (rightly) not a mere certificate of authenticity, but something that is in effect part of the work and conditions its nature and existence over time.
The fact is that, taken together, these aspects are not sufficient to justify the use of a unifying category or definition such as “Crypto Art”, with the aberrant implications that the use of this term can generate. “Crypto Art” doesn’t exist: NFTs do exist, with the economic, political, social, cultural effects that their use can imply when it generates a fast, effervescent, global market partially protected by pseudonymity and anonymity.

Subscribe to Surfing with Satoshi. Art, Blockchain and NFTs
Receive the latest updates directly to your inbox.
This entry has been permanently stored onchain and signed by its creator.