Over the past century, art history surpassed the figurative, representational realm it had occupied for centuries, and evolved towards ever-increasing degrees of abstraction and flatness. This evolution was driven by influences from the late Enlightenment (such as Kant), alongside the invention of photography (itself a bi-product of the Enlightenment) as the ultimate means of producing representational images. Realism gave way to impressionism, cubism, and abstract expressionism — followed by the latter’s reactionary counterpart, minimalism. Alongside this progression towards abstraction, a similar quest for ever-increasing “flatness” eventually culminated in lift-off from the canvas altogether with readymades, followed by orbital exit to outer space with conceptual art and its intangible and ephemeral art objects. The new headline-grabbing NFT market can be understood as a subset of conceptual art, and as the next iteration of the aforementioned progression — now, into the digital realm.
In conceptual art, the certificate of authenticity represents the collectible store of value, not the art object. In the latest NFT chapter of conceptual art, the art object is now digital — intangible and ephemeral, to be sure. The certificate of authenticity is now digital as well, but nonetheless very real and residing in the blockchain — and automatically tradable via smart contracts.
The institutional theory of art is being thrown on its head, as the voice of the multitude that is market consensus determines value. Remains to be seen, however, whether a pyramid of value will persist, whereby certain arbiters of taste at the top identify what is important and valuable from among all the chaos.
The excitement and innovation surrounding NFTs must be understood in the context of contemporary art. Not all the features and characteristics of NFTs are new, and some have been explored before. Following is a review of some themes and artists whose works are relevant as context.
Contemporary Art and the Separation of the Artist’s Intention from the Hand of the Artist
Contemporary art marked a revolutionary new chapter in art history, with introduction of the readymade: everyday objects transformed into art further to the artist’s intention, as documented by a (collectible) certificate of authenticity.
Marcel DuChamp marked the beginning of contemporary art by elevating the concept and/or intention of the artist as being of paramount importance, with the art object (executed or expressed in medium) being relegated to secondary importance. With Fountain, he presented a urinal on its side as art because he said so, and the rest is history.
Dan Flavin’s lightbulb configurations can be built and rebuilt and replaced from commercially available fluorescent light bulbs, as specified in a certificate of authenticity, which is the tradable asset — not the light bulbs. Anyone can buy some fluorescent lights from Home Depot and replicate the configurations, but that doesn’t mean they own a Dan Flavin. Only the owner of one of the certificate-backed editions owns a Flavin. Same applies to NFTs where original-equivalent copies of the digital art object can be widely available, without diminishing but rather reinforcing the collectible value of the scarce certificate.
John Baldessari made the separation of the hand from the intention explicitly fundamental to his work, by hiring commercial sign painters to execute his paintings, including his seminal works Pure Beauty (1968) and A Painting That Is Its Own Documentation (1966-). One cannot help but be struck dumb by the the conceptual simplicity of the painting Pure Beauty, consisting of the words “Pure Beauty” stenciled on a blank background by a commissioned commercial sign painter — an analog precursor of today’s NFT The Pixel by Pak. A Painting That Is Its Own Documentation consists of multiple canvas panels with stenciled letters on blank background documenting its ongoing creation as it travels from one museum exhibition to the next — the artwork is not finite and complete, but rather, and very cleverly, the exhibition and viewing of the artwork contributes to its ongoing creation. The role of the receiver in addition to the intention of artist in the art creation process is a theme examined by John Baldessari, Lawrence Weiner, and Sol LeWitt, among others.
Sol LeWitt’s conceptual works consist of a trifecta: 1/ a concept and/or set of instructions, 2/ a physical execution of the concept/instructions into an art object (wall drawings, manufactured structures), and 3/ the receiver’s experience and perception of the artwork, which is subjective and different for each viewer (depending on where you stand to view his large scale drawings in an architectural space, your reception of the work will be different from someone else’s). For Sol LeWitt, all three pillars are required for the complete artwork to be manifest. Once his large scale drawings have been executed directly onto the wall of a large architectural space (not onto a movable substrate), it’s a moot point whether the collectible resides in the certificate, since the physical incarnation is permanent/immovable.
On the other extreme, Lawrence Weiner’s conceptual artworks can exist as mere instructions or ideas expressed in a certificate of authenticity, with execution optional. On the subject of its own existence, the artwork Declaration of Intent (1968) consists of neither more nor less than the following statement:
1. The artist may construct the piece.
2. The piece may be fabricated.
3. The piece need not be built.
Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist the decision as to condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership.
This statement can be painted onto the wall in stenciled letters, as it is at Dia Beacon in New York. Or it could be painted onto another wall somewhere. Or it could not be painted onto a wall. How and when the physical incarnations of the art object interact is governed by the certificate of authenticity. Some certificates are more specific and exhaustive than others. Dan Flavin’s configurations of fluorescent lights can be rebuilt using commercially available lightbulbs. Robert Irwin‘s configurations of fluorescent lights, on the other hand, involve custom proprietary gels and have to go through the foundation.
And then you have the case of Tino Sehgal, who refuses to have his conceptual, performance art pieces mediated via any written form of certificate, but rather only oral and intangible certificates, and yet notwithstanding they have found their place at the top of the MoMA/Gagosian-backed contemporary art canon. In all cases, what has value is the certificate of authenticity that mediates the art (even in the case of Tino Sehgal, where the certificate itself is intangible).
Warhol 2.0, 3.0
If the Contemporary Art narrative took us away from figurative, representational artwork towards ever increasing levels of abstraction, Andy Warhol took things to the next level by inventing Pop Art which, by incorporating and appropriating symbols from popular culture, operates both figuratively and abstractly at the same time. The hand of the artist is replaced by a studio of assistants, pumping out editions of screenprints from the artist’s studio, aptly called the Factory (though replacing the artist’s hand with a studio of assistants is not something new, and has existed for centuries, dating back to the Old Masters and probably before).
A generation later, Jeff Koons and Damian Hirst carry forward with some Warholian traditions, from appropriation of popular symbols to playing on the commercial aspect of the art market with factory levels of output, and cleverly serving all segments of the market from low and accessible all the way up to the highest and most exclusive price points.
If Koons and Hirst could be described as Warhol 2.0, then today’s notion of memes as expressed in many NFTs are the ultimate form of pop art, hence Warhol 3.0.
Like Warhol, Jeff Koons’ oeuvre is characterized by the appropriation of symbols from popular culture, with an emphasis on kitsch, banal, and fake. Where Warhol did paintings of Campbell Soup cans and Marylins, Koons does cast bronze of the Incredible Hulk laminated with vinyl to look like a blow-up doll Hulk — a fake hulk, not the real Hulk. And Hulk itself is a fake archetype — like many of the other pop symbols he appropriates (a balloon dog, as opposed to a dog), such that his work could be interpreted as meta-fake.
Damien Hirst cleverly plays on the workings of the art market such that the clever marketing is all but fundamental to the work itself (including cult of the “Celebrity Artist”)… where Warhol had the Factory and silkscreen editions, Hirst has Spot Paintings and the Beautiful Inside My Head Forever sale (he didn’t so much bypass his dealers, as get them in on the action).
Selection, Curation, and Appropriation
Conceptual artists appropriate readymade objects from everyday life. Warhol and his pop art descendants selected and appropriated imagery and symbols from popular culture. The next logical step in that progression is selection of other artworks, as the appropriated objects.
John Szarkowski built the medium of art photography into the MoMA canon, on the back of a roster of artists, from whose work he curated brilliantly. Szarkowski distinguished photography from other forms of picture-making and art creation as a “radically new picture-making process — a process based not on synthesis but on selection” (John Szarkowski, The Photographer’s Eye, The Museum of Modern Art, 1966). Whereas a painter makes an image additively, the photographer “takes” the image, or selects it from among the infinite possible and potential images the camera could capture.
Curation — of photography or of other media — is a similar process of selection, and hence curation could be viewed as meta-photography: selecting images from among previously selected images. The question then arises: if a curator presents a set of images and they are accepted into the art canon, whose creative act is more important, that of the photographer, or that of the curator? Jacques Henri Lartigue was a talented young photographer from a privileged Parisian bourgeoisie in the early 20th century, who was making photographs as early as age 7. However, his work was not recognized by the art institution until much later, when Lartigue was an old man and his works were discovered and presented by Szarkowski. Similarly, the work of Garry Winogrand was so prolific, he never even reviewed a huge volume of his own negatives, it was only Szarkowski who went through them and curated his selections. Which creative act is more important in the making of art, between the initial image capture and the subsequent curation, is an open and variable question.
Which brings us to wonder where the boundary lies between curation and appropriation.
Richard Prince took the readymade and “pointing” to an art object one step further, by appropriating the subset of readymades consisting of objects already the product of creative output and imbibed with artistic intent. In the noteworthy case of Prince’s Cowboys series, his appropriated copies of Marlboro Man advertising photographs are worth much more than the original photographs by Jim Krantz. So even if NFTs could offer an absolute guarantee of authorship — which they do not — there’s nothing stopping a copy from being worth more than the original. The market decides which NFTs have value, and they don’t necessarily need to be the original. If Richard Prince were to issue NFTs copying other tokenized digital art, the market could decide that Prince’s copies were more valuable than those issued by the original author.
Elaine Sturtevant’s oeuvre consists of fabricating exact replicas of not only artworks, but entire exhibitions.
Kelley Walker deconstructs notion of authorship and authenticity by inviting reproduction and modification, and almost 2 decades ago was already exploring the inherently unlimited reproducibility of digital art — “On numerous occasions, the artist has sold his work on CD-ROM, with the stipulation that purchasers may manipulate and alter the imagery as they wish using Photoshop, so that no work is ever really “finished.” (Tim Griffin, Please Recycle: The Art of Kelley Walker, Art Forum, April 2005).
With the likes of Matthew Barney and Mike Kelly achieving top-level status in contemporary art alongside conceptual art pioneers John Baldessari and Nam June Paik, video art comes to mind with many NFTs, which often back animated loops in addition to still image objects.
Generative Art is fascinating, conceptually. To the extent contemporary art is defined by the absence of the artist’s hand, generative art incorporates, in place of passive art objects (readymade or otherwise), autonomous input by machines and, more recently, algorithms — of ever-increasing levels of sophistication and autonomy. And the machine’s input can extend beyond finite creation, to include ongoing participation of the algorithm in the distribution of the artwork, along the lines of Baldessari’s A Painting That Is Its Own Documentation: recall Caleb Larsen’s A Tool to Deceive and Slaughter (2009), an artwork that automatically sells itself on eBay every week — although it seems to have since gone silent (which is destined to be the fate of most artwork that ever gets created, including most of today’s NFTs). At this point, a human artist usually retains the artistic intention and hence authorship, but remains to be seen where this evolves as algorithms gain increasing autonomy and intelligence. Perhaps at some point machines will take artistic initiative on their own?
Soon someone will compellingly combine AI generative art with new immersive VR and virtual worlds. And then we will cross the machine brain interface, and be immersed entirely in the environment of these digital artworks. The NFT framework sets the foundation for all of these advances to come.