DYOR — Do Your Own Rhetoric
I recently was linked to an article in The Atlantic (I like reading stuff there) that had the provocative title “NFTs Weren’t Supposed to End Like This” by Anil Dash. As I read the article, I thought Dash made lots of good points, but usually passed by more nuanced understandings that were more accurate. It was a persuasive article — and I think that’s what it was meant to be. Here’s the thing, though — persuasion is rhetoric, not facts. I’ve long held the position that upholding “facts” as the best basis for understanding the world is only half the picture — facts have to be strung together and organized to present some kind of narrative and worldview and meaning. It doesn’t happen by itself and knowing just a few facts makes the job difficult and thinking it’s easy to do yourself without extensive research is usually arrogant.
My point: Dash’s article is a nice piece of persuasion that I happen to disagree with on several points, but my own counterpoints are based on a broad sampling of facts and arguments I will try to organize together. Each of us has to realize that we have a construction of a set of facts that makes some important and others irrelevant, some kind of persuasion we perform for ourselves that if we are honest can serve us well, but if we let our weaknesses shape our view of things we can become convinced that flimsy opinions are the gospel truth — and that self-righteousness is poison.
I’m going to respond to Dash’s article with headers for the sections I think deserve response with a paraphrase of his points.
• Artists are being exploited by NFT technology.
I want to first note that this point is mentioned in the introduction without elaboration, and by the time we visit how artists are being exploited the thought has already had time to sink in and marinate and flavor what you’re reading later on when the justification for it is presented. That’s a good tactic — but it doesn’t mean that it’s true just because you’ve been subtly conditioned to think so — and to be fair, presenting an outline of what you’re talking about for the rest of the article isn’t being dishonest. On that note, I think *most* artists getting into the scene aren’t being exploited at all and are usually being handed a pretty outrageous and novel opportunity, but I’ll talk about that a little later.
• Blockchain tech can’t store images, therefore NFTs are dishonest because they link elsewhere for the art itself.
This is an interesting point that really has to do with misconceptions about how NFTs and blockchain works. Before I was involved at all — my friend jrdsctt told me he was involved in selling art on the blockchain. Having done no research, I assumed it meant that an encryption key was somehow stored via blockchain that allowed the owner to view the art and no one else. That doesn’t really make sense now that I have some idea of how it works because it means all the encryption keys would be public (I was not bright). The very real limitation is that, as Dash said, the amount of data you can store to the chain is pretty limited per block. To put it in perspective: according to this article “Data-wise currently most Ethereum blocks are under 2 KB in size.” The maximum block size for Bitcoin is 1 MB. If you’ve been an artist for any time at all in the digital world, you’ll quickly realize that you can’t do a lot of art with that kind of data limitation — maybe vector or code-based, but not with pixels. There’s a reason that “etherpoems” was a good idea, and it’s because a poem is art and doesn’t use up tons of data (unless you’re Virgil or something). You would have to use several blocks and spend a small fortune in gas to put an image file on-chain, and even then if you were talking about a *large* piece of art — the cost is prohibitive and it’s a bizarre use of the blockchain. To put it in perspective: artblocks.io gets around this limitation by minting the program that makes art (a thousand pieces, to be exact) to the chain. My program was not efficient or elegant, and without even minting the amount of data that would make up a thumbnail image of artwork I spent thousands of dollars worth of gas fees getting the whole program on chain — I would have had to take out a loan to be able to pay to put any single work of art I’ve made on the chain itself. Mostly it just doesn’t make sense to put the art itself there. It would be like taking someone’s accounting book that is carefully managed with payments sent and received and ownership ledgers and then using up several pages making doodles on it. Any responsible person would go “what are you doing to my checkbook stop that” and you would probably have snack privileges revoked.
Anyways, the point being: workarounds for storage are standard operating procedure and always have been. That the chain is permanent in a unique way just because it’s decentralized and mirrored on nodes doesn’t mean that similar solutions that are meant to be more like data warehouses are qualitatively worse. What I mean is — Dash neglected to really talk about the actual solutions NFTs use like the interplanetary file system (IPFS) and Arweave (which are beyond me in exactly how they work) but we use distributed file hosting designed to be more of a lasting archive than anything hosted on — say — Amazon S3. The question becomes “how could we ensure data permanence better than mirrored decentralized servers?” I don’t know.
At a certain point this all breaks down though, because you can ask questions like “well, but if there’s no electricity how will I view my art?” Or “if there’s no computers what will be the computer?” Or less facetiously, “if server hosting fails or a bill doesn’t get paid and the IPFS of Infura hash is lost or somehow not mirrored, what then?” These are legitimate problems — but most of the major platforms are acting in good faith and aware and are not only pinning files to IPFS but hosting backups themselves and sometimes have triplicate backup setups. What Dash implies is that this is all swept under the rug as a kind of “house of cards” situation, but in reality developers are usually pretty upfront about it but people either aren’t interested or don’t understand the problem. This is another good rhetorical trick: suggest a panic over a problem that people don’t really understand, and then when they *haven’t* actually looked into the very public and transparent explanations they assume that there are none and no one has a plan.
• Some art sold as NFTs isn’t digitally-native, just digital pictures of conventional art.
Now this one strikes me as just a little unfair. To be clear, though, I think that NFTs are a breakthrough in digitally native art *especially.* To say, though, that other kinds of conventional art being sold as NFTs in some kind of digital format is somehow dishonest or something seems to really miss the point. If someone paints a painting and takes a picture of it, and that artist authorizes this presentation as some kind of authentic creation — it’s a legitimate NFT.
I personally own a token of a digital photo of a painting — but the artist themselves minted the piece and it’s connected to them in the way that I desired, and thus I actually have the token I wanted in the format I desired and no one was tricked. If the medium the work is purchased in is the medium the collector wants, what difference does it make where it came from originally? If I want a 3D scan of a sculpture to admire on a screen and rotate around and look at but I would have no place to put a sculpture in my home, buying the 3D model of that sculpture from the artist is as authentic as it gets. I don’t want a big brass sculpture.
• Cryptocurrency/blockchain has zero use for a typical consumer and the tokens reside in a “hermetically sealed economy.”
Disclaimer: I found economics classes very boring and didn’t master the subject by any stretch of the imagination. I understand the point that crypto can *directly* purchase only a few things. There’s increasing fluidity between things like credit cards and Bitcoin ATMs, individual businesses that accept crypto as payment. I had a Thai restaurant near my home for a while that let you pay for your food in Ethereum — but all these services, as far as I know, pretty much just exchange for fiat currency on the spot after checking some exchange rate oracle when you start the transaction. In my mind, though, this argument is analogous to saying “gold has no value because no one is buying real estate with gold bars” — and the answer is “well, obviously not — but as a store of value some strange libertarians are selling gold bars at an exchange rate to buy real estate.” Just because it’s not the medium of exchange doesn’t mean that it’s in a sealed and separate economy.
To be honest, I have very little use for the money I have in the bank in financial systems. My life experience has taught me that those of us not in the upper class (read: poor) have no meaningful use for fiat money we aren’t spending other than to be stored in a savings account with negligible interest and eventually withdrawn when there’s a medical emergency or auto accident or whatever that drains it. Rinse and repeat. That is — money I’m not spending that I convert to crypto has actually done more for me than traditional money — I haven’t had enough money for any investment firm to take the time to speak with me. Additional disclaimer: daytrading crypto ruins most people — my few investments have been slow burning and lucky or basically more like vaults that earn modest income. The point, however, is that any economy that has use for currency you put into it and use for money you take out of it — provided you can do so — is not hermetically sealed. If money can go *in* and be traded with or used to earn interest via loans or fees via liquidity pools or whatever arcane crypto finance system and money can come *out* and one way or another be used to purchase goods and services in the real world — in what sense is it hermetically sealed?
The only reason the typical consumer believes they have no use for it is that the learning curve to use it seems steep, and getting beyond making a deposit into a wallet makes people nervous. It still surprises relatives of mine when I take money out of a crypto account when I need it for something and they say “wait, that was real money?” — and that’s just it: yes, it gets exchanged at a rate and that rate changes more often than we’re used to money changing value, but it’s real.
• Rich people buying art in crypto have no taste or judgment and the nft art market is just the playground of the rich.
Here’s a place where I will gleefully disagree with Dash on three points.
First — I’ve seen a lot of people talking about how much they hate the art of things like BAYC — the now-ubiquitous ape profile pic NFTs that are associated with the movement. This is such a colossal exercise in missing the point of BAYC and things like it. I have an article about collectibles that addresses this in part — but the bigger picture here is that apes and punks and all their derivatives are essentially functioning like country club memberships. That twitter and other platforms are considering changing the way your profile picture presents based on verifiable ownership speaks volumes: it has almost nothing to do with the art, and everything to do with these tokens signifying membership in some kind of NFT/crypto club. As an artist, I personally feel compelled to have something I made or commissioned around my metaverse persona — but these PFP projects are a way for people to create an identity and share membership with people they know they can trust on some level, people who are also invested. I dabbled in being a member of Friends with Benefits — and whenever I get an inquiry on Discord (98% scams) I look to see what mutual discord servers we share. Collectibles as status symbols and membership signals are in a different category from art, and should be critiqued as such.
Second — it is silly to insist you can tell people what is okay to do with their money. Some of these purchases — the more ridiculous obvious goofs — they are buying junk on purpose to spite you. Some of it might be a form of collecting as performance art. Regardless — there’s a certain stream of collecting and art making that exists in a very spiteful and mocking space. This shouldn’t be so alien to hipsters (present company included) — people who bought knock-off t-shirts of foreign productions of 80’s cartoons, people who wear hideous pepperoni pizza themed socks — people who will spend their hard-earned money on the dumbest things like mustache wax. It’s fine. People don’t take themselves that seriously all the time — and that’s a part of the real freedom of the postmodern mood I think, the liberty to not take yourself so seriously. “This cartoon of Vitalik Buterin is awful” — well, maybe so — but they have a right to buy it just as much as any other idiot has the right to wear some godawful crafted Christmas sweater around instead of a nice button-up shirt or Patagonia vest (aside: I’d rather freeze than wear an Old Navy fleece).
Third and most indignant — consider this interview with David Bowie — he argues that the tastemakers of the traditional art world are not at all working in a meritocracy, but they are basically contriving to choose particular artists to elevate to a point that they are unavailable to a low art market specifically so that they can raise prices. As Bowie says, “to consign the idea of art to a particular world” and make it unavailable to the rest of us. The value of art and the business of selling art are two separate things. I believe that the traditional art markets make no attempt at being equitable and allowing anyone to enter them because it’s bad business. I believe that traditional art markets are essentially an elitist commercial institution that aims at having a tiny pool of benefactors, and if any artist gets caught up in the success of it they may or may not be a good artist, but the point is rather that they’ve been used by the institution as a token value signifier.
There is lots of awful crypto art. There’s lots of awful art being created all the time in people’s basements, on their napkins at the bar, in a backroom where they are practicing and listening to George Michael or something — this art usually doesn’t end up in front of us. Those people (if they have any self-awareness) they aren’t trying to sell it at an art fair (yet!). NFT and the ease of going from your computer to a marketplace means that the amateur, the developing professional, the joker, and the master artist are all being presented alongside one another. Especially if you make no consideration of what platform the NFT is on and you compare what’s for sale on Opensea or Rarible right next to what’s on Super Rare or Makersplace or something. In crypto art: we are allowing the collector to play institution, we are allowing the artist to get around traditional gatekeeping, we are allowing the value of art to be determined by the people buying it and not necessarily by middlemen tastemakers who prop up artists for the benefit of others. There’s that too, the middlemen still — some cryptoartists who sell for small fortunes aren’t far from the traditional model where a tastemaker has chosen them to be put on a pedestal for commercial reasons. This isn’t me being idealistic or something — it’s got more to do with me being very cynical about the actual relative worth and quality of the art curated by traditional tastemakers. It’s got more to do with me recognizing that an open door online doesn’t mean everything that gets thrown through the door is going to be great or terrible — it just means recognizing that the technology is putting the decision of “what is good” in the hands of more people and offering more people a chance for their work to be considered “good.”
• NFTs are rife with grifters and spammers.
This is one of the places I most agree with Dash and can immediately call to mind several examples. Suryanto Sur, Ardnek, and recently ECollectionNFT.
One thing I was surprised about after talking with some different administrators is that notion that intellectual property laws and copyright can’t actually be taken as a given. That is to say — even though many of us media specialists and artists have some understanding of how it works and what is protected and what isn’t — Ethereum is a global network with no gatekeepers in terms of who can participate. People in very different cultures or remote (to us) places may have no idea why you can’t sell a jpeg of Pikachu as an NFT on the blockchain.
As I recall, that was a part of the defense of the now-famous Suryanto Sur: an artist who was caught basically just minting whatever JPEG they found without pattern or plan and only once they were caught making art that seemed derivative of Basquiat did they make a formal and public apology about all the stolen work. Their explanation was something like “I didn’t understand” — from twitter: “I really don’t understand what tokenize is and how to make it” (the article is no longer live, I used an archived link). I even stumbled into owning one of those bootlegs from Suryanto.
It’s interesting that in Suryanto’s development as an artist, it went from copying Basquiat to the community generally agreeing that Suryanto’s new work was in some sense an authentic spiritual successor to Basquiat — taking a *style* and using it to create new work rather than making strictly derivative art. I agree with the community on that point, it really is something new in a familiar mood and I don’t think we need to gatekeep ideas in that way to protect originality.
Let’s assume *most* people in the space do know how copyright works, though. There are famous examples like Twisted Void ripping off Ardneks art that really felt like more than adopting a style, but copying actual individual assets. This is probably one of the most common things I see that annoys me — collage artists using huge portions of other artist’s paintings, artists that trace assets from GTA or Archer or what have you, basically tracing and repurposing. Don’t get me wrong, either — I love a good collage — and a part of what should be our shared cultural well is the media and materials we’ve allowed to be remixed and repurposed as new things in an ongoing dialogue. I make lots of collage art myself — but if I feel like I’m exploiting my source material and just re-labeling art as my own — that only worked well for Duchamp. You can make an NFT out of virtually any image file — so far what we’ve found technically challenging is verifying that an image isn’t stolen through technical means rather than relying on signed statements from artists that this is original work. In the real world — any craft fair you attend will have t-shirts of Calvin & Hobbes (which are famously ALL bootlegs) because t-shirt presses have no built-in IP protection. A similar thing is going on here with NFTs, and really it’s just the amount of money changing hands at once that makes it shocking rather than the practice itself.
Another example of grifting that is really damning is the new middleman scams that are entering the scene like ECollectionNFT. This is essentially an analog to record companies having independent A&R Reps who take a ridiculous cut of the artist’s album sales. It’s people with relationships to galleries/marketplaces who are finding unknown (in the space) but talented artists and being a little unclear about how it is that they came to have the right to mint this art and sell it at profit. Is it dishonest? I think so. Is it an abuse of the space? Yes. Is it unfair to the artists? Yes — but — consider also that there are many many artists who find the learning curve of crypto just too steep. Artists who don’t have the patience to learn the tech or to promote themselves or bother with any of that who honestly think they’re just hiring a manager (so to speak) without asking enough questions about the manager’s cut. I do not want to victim blame here, but in the same way that there is a certain caveat emptor that means the collector is responsible for not buying art that is wholesale stolen, there is also some responsibility on the part of the artist to do their due diligence and make sure they are looking after their own interests when it comes to marketplaces that allow individuals to be responsible for themselves. Let me maintain that I think middleman scams are terrible and really a thing the community should try to self-police. I’ve personally gotten a number of offers from would-be middlemen, and it’s only my confidence in (precariously) using crypto and wallets and managing my own affairs that let me see how predatory these people were.
The “spammers” are one of those things it’s just not that easy to get around. Every successful enterprise will have people trying to flock to it in amateurish ways for the sake of a cash grab. Complaining about the spammers and giant collections of garbage is just part and parcel of having any kind of taste at all or any kind of distaste for the clearly pandering or pathetic productions of art and collectibles in any medium.
• Corporations are tailgating the success of NFTs for promotions.
That corporations are using NFT tokens for promotional stuff sounds tasteless and opportunistic, I admit. Consider the SpaceJam NFTs that came out in 2021.
The counter-example though, I think, isn’t to compare them having done nothing to that, but to compare the energy usage and landfill usage if they had instead manufactured 500,000 tiny plastic toys to go in meals at a fast food chain. This concept stems directly from the Sterling Crispin article: Beeple would have had a considerably higher carbon footprint trying to sell t-shirts that amounted to the same sale as his NFTs. I think it’s worthwhile to consider whether NFTs are actually a decent corporate solution to not shipping and producing metric tons of plastic garbage but still being able to promote things with fun collectibles. That said — it seems to me that it’d be wise to use some of the (supposedly and rhetorically) more energy thrifty solutions like Tezos to make huge collections of promotional NFTs.
• NFTs are wildly environmentally irresponsible.
This has become a real battleground for the pro/anti NFT debates. It’s difficult especially because it requires lots and lots of technical understanding and facts and choosing only the relevant statistics. The nature of the debate has meant that two people who disagree with each other both don’t understand what they’re talking about, and both link massive mega-article blog posts about their chosen side so that their delegated informed people can argue with each other by proxy. Dash links to this article about environmental issues.
People I know who are pro-NFT or just pro-block chain generally link to this article — the point of most of the anti-NFT ones is that blockchain tech is intentionally energy-inefficient to prevent being mucked up with garbage. I think it’s important to add that it also prevents people from essentially being able to just print money. Usually, the anti-NFT articles will cherry pick data from huge important drops like Beeple’s niftygateway or something and extrapolate data usage from things like that. Usually I find anti-NFT articles will also talk about energy usage and use really strange units of measurement like “the amount of energy Libya uses” — and I mean that’s a whole country and it sounds like an awful lot but also I don’t honestly have a great picture in my head of just how much energy that is relative to other things. It’s an arbitrary example meant to make an impression — and intentionally or not it deflects from considering the energy usage of a global finance network not controlled by any state governments compared to other things we use even more energy for. People do similar rhetorical arguments against things like Netflix — notice again, the key is not to compare energy usage to major corporations or industries (although Netflix is pretty huge itself) but to pick an example that sounds like a lot but is hard to understand. Just how much energy is it — from the Netflix detractors — “to boil a kettle once a day for three months?“ Or to “drive a Tesla more than 30km”? I don’t really know. I’m not exactly a Netflix fan either, I just want to have an accurate idea of energy usage and who is doing the lion’s share and for what purpose.
To argue that NFTs are environmentally disastrous, as far as I can tell, misses the point in that it’s blockchain technology more generally that is energy intensive. So then to say blockchains themselves are bad could be correct, but “bad” — according to the article above — is really more of a relative term that needs to be put in the context of global energy usage for various purposes, at which point it becomes exceedingly small potatoes compared to other giant carbon footprints that *someone* probably wants us to think about less. Abusing and harassing crypto artists is probably more satisfying for a lot of people though, since executives at oil companies and such don’t really read twitter comments or instagram vitriol and certainly don’t have their income or emotional wellbeing threatened by it.
One of the most fascinating things about this whole cultural event has been seeing the response from communities like Reddit. The same people who came up with the phrase “okay, boomer” to dismiss people they perceived as having invalid opinions because they didn’t understand context, technology, or cultural trends are doing the exact same thing to people enthused about something they don’t understand themselves. I don’t just mean technically, either — you can understand how NFTs work and disagree about the value consensus — but someone else believing a thing has value that you disagree with doesn’t give you the right to openly and cruelly mock them. Honestly, public and heated disagreements about value have been the subject of my own explorations of craft and art fairs (“…we’re not buying that, it’s ridiculous I don’t care if it’s handmade from natural sources“) — but there is still such a thing as rudeness and respect for individuals that seems to get thrown out when people can be labeled as “crypto-bros” or “trash artists.” The reddit thread I linked here even showed that people understood that BAYC are status symbols more than art — but how on earth is that different from a little business card in a wallet that has a lion or an elk on it or something? It’s literally a token, and the fact that they’re sillier tokens in crypto than they are on Wall Street or at the local golf course apparently just rubs some people the wrong way.
Being inside of NFTs and being an artist in the movement offers you one thing that makes you feel very strange: perspective. I can read all these reddit threads and see words like “scam” and claiming that my collectors don’t own the art they purchased from me or that somehow I’m laundering money or that my collector is and know that at least in my case none of that is true. There is no universally agreed upon licensing / ownership legalese for NFTs yet, but major platforms are thinking on it. Crypto technology has an inherent ideology of not relying on courts for behavior to be enforced, but there’s still legal things going on. For example, on my artblocks drop it says in the metadata that the license is “CC BY-NC 4.0” meaning whoever has purchased this from me has the right to share (copy and redistribute) or adapt (remix / transform / build upon) my art. Without any legal clarification, the owner of an NFT definitely owns the token they’ve purchased: the little chunk of ledger on-chain with metadata that tells you where the image is hosted and mirrored and who made it and so on. The token’s worth is not intrinsic, but I would argue very few things have intrinsic value. The worth is a mutually agreed upon value that can be placed not only on the actual image but on the verifiable connection to the artist that the chain creates, and the relationship that is implied by ownership.
Let me put this another way. If you enjoy music, you would say that it has worth. You can listen to an mp3 of music on any number of streaming services or download the mp3 file (if you know where to look). You can copy and have infinite copies of that mp3 file. Listening via a streaming service, however, means that at least some tiny pittance of money was sent to the artist — and you have agreed that even though that file can be copied infinitely by you or accessed without paying — you want the artist to have some measure of pay for work. Maybe you just use Spotify because it’s convenient and not because you’re interested in artists getting any money (even though it’s a laughable amount I’m told). The point here, though, is that art and digital images have no streaming service, and ownership of any file works the same: you can theoretically copy it or access it without ownership. What tokenization does is take that perceived value and make it meaningful for the artist: the collector in good faith pays the artist for the token because the art has worth. The fact that the collector can then take the art token and re-sell it on the open market is more of a compensation for the collector and begins a new sort of investment economic structure — but if you are asking why on earth someone would buy a JPEG, this is as good of an explanation as any: art in digital mediums still has worth, and paying for it is more about the relationship with and support for the artist than it is for a qualitatively different end experience. We have found that the language of ownership and marketplace economics makes this kind of exchange of value for worth possible with NFT technology so long as there is a consensus on the value of the token as a representation of that relationship and link to the relative metadata.
Dash’s article aside, what are the very real issues that artists and collectors and people just goofing around with NFTs need to be aware of? I think intellectual property theft and art appropriation are something that the technology can’t prevent as much as the culture can. It behooves us to call out and have mechanisms for discouraging bootleggers from profiting off of other people’s art. I think labeling them “bootleggers” or “counterfeiters” rather than NFT artists is important because it establishes that there is an authentic artist at work at the same time there is a fraud.
I think it’s important also within the community to uphold the standards we’ve set for artist’s rights. Most every crypto art platform has artist royalties built-in one way or another. This protects unknown artists from selling art for a pittance early on and having their collectors profit massively without benefit to the artist once they gain some traction. It also counter-acts the doctrine of the first sale in ensuring that a successful artist actually shares in their own success rather than becoming destitute after an initial burst of sales. Refusing to patronize middle-men services and insisting on some kind of direct connection to the artist also helps us avoid predatory practices. Plus, it’s fun to have a relationship with the person who made art you admire.
Are public relations important? Yes and no. I think it’s important to be clear about how the technology works and its energy consumption needs to be honest but contextualized. Having everyone understand and not have misconceptions about what we are doing helps prevent fraud or deception — but more importantly it helps us to see where bad actors are leveraging narratives (rhetoric) for their own purposes. I don’t know this for a fact (read: conspiracy theory starts here)- but it seems to me that if the vast vast vast majority of energy inefficiencies and usage is by large industrial or military complex type entities — it serves their purposes to keep ordinary people angry and at each other’s throats over the tiny amounts that we are personally responsible for as a diversion. I do think that arguing over the value of an NFT as connected to artwork is a waste of time. I can present my case and argue for it, but ultimately the value is just what I called it: “a consensus.” I think that’s how all value works, personally, but if both of us understand how the technology works and what it does for both the artist and the collector and you simply disagree that this is a valuable thing — that’s okay — but there’s nothing more to be said. More importantly, let’s both recognize that we are forming our opinions on arguments and persuasion rather than one of us possessing a monopoly on the facts. That’s okay, that’s how it has always been — it was only a temporary stumble that we as a culture became arrogant enough to imagine that we could just know all the facts and that our opinions would form themselves automatically.
Maybe I’ll see you around the NFT space, but I probably won’t read your comments if you’re writing from elsewhere.