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NFTs; “but is it art?”

NFTs are the latest thing, but since the earliest days of the modern art movement, we’ve heard the words “but is it art?” uttered many times, especially as many artists sought specifically to break down and redefine what art was. Fauvism, abstractism, pop art, dadaism, minimalism, abstract expressionism, video art and art happenings all brought new meaning to what art was and what it could be. Against a tide of critical negativity, modern artists eventually gained recognition for their importance establishing the ideas contemporary artists work with today.

And so we come to NFTs, which in many ways is just a new format for digital art; a limited edition print of sorts, however the art print market is largely full of the same art which is popular on canvas in an art gallery, but any glance around an NFT auction site is a very different experience.

Fantasy animations with unicorns and rainbows, graphic design pieces designed by person and AI, intensely busy and colourful looping GIFs, photo and video memes, pixel art, crypto art of Ethereum logos, flat commercial art, video game style environments and characters, psychedelic animations and particle effect morphs; NFTs are heavily about the styles of digital imagery and Photoshop sketches, that have filled our social media timelines and Internet forums for the last two decades.

Artistic snobbery or flash in the pan trend?

The art world of the past rejected modern art precisely because it intended to strike down all they held dear. While NFTs seek more to make a gallery selling experience accessible to more artists and collectors, they also show a substantial disinterest in the notions of artistic value that have gone before. When Beeple began receiving millions of dollars for his digital NFT pieces one critic called his work “puerile amusement” and another said it had “the shelf life of Taco Bell leftovers”, the artist himself said “I have no idea what abstract expressionism is”.

It’s perhaps that which offends the establishment more than the work; Mondrian made quite simple graphic work also, who’s to say he wouldn’t have made it change colours like an NFT if the technology had been available? Surely Pollock would have explored actual movement in his action paintings? From dada to pop we see collages of commercial iconography little different from a digital artist using pre-modelled assets to create a new digital art piece, and much street mural art, pop art like that of Hariton Pushwagner, or contemporary work like that of KAWS would look very at home in an NFT auction.

Over-hype can be a real thing though; NFT prices rose with a boom in the cryptocurrency markets and a wave of new, young wealth that wanted to spend their money within that crypto universe; they also wanted to buy art that said something to their experience, rather than that of traditionalist art critics. This may be the beginning of a whole new art collectors market, or they may move on to whatever interesting crypto thing comes along next; many may be buying solely to flip for a return, trading the art just as they trade cryptocurrency. There’s a lot of unknowns here, especially as we begin to head into signs of a bear market in cryptocurrency and ever increasing government regulations of it.

So do NFTs represent a new wave of digital art, with nods to modernism and pop?

You may expect that NFTs would find a more accepting audience in the wide world of digital art, which has often suffered “but is it art?” labelling, but even here there is skepticism. Statements abound that any political or social themes in NFT work only run meme-deep, and that algorithmic art was cutting edge and a lot more interesting back in the 1960s with artists like Manfred Mohr. There is also little “democratisation” of art taking place; some new artists are making large sums of money, but it’s still an elite few noticed above the crowd for some reason.

Nonetheless, the NFT advocates perspective that this is a new movement in art history are probably right; art hasn’t been purely about aesthetics for a long time and modern art thoroughly challenged the notion that some subjects had more value than others. Perhaps one of the most important features of art is that it reflects something of the culture and time in which it was made, and we live in an era where memes have replaced political debate and culture is more throwaway, temporary, and overpriced than ever; NFTs may ask few questions, but they hold a mirror to us, as great art always should.

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