A century after the Brazilian Modern Art Week, NFTs target the future of the art market
While modernist artists wanted to disrupt conservatism and the traditional aesthetic of art, NFTs are causing a new change in the art industry
Disclaimer: This is an extended version of the essay originally published in Portuguese, at TAB UOL.
This year marks the centenary of the Brazilian Modern Art Week, also known as Week of 22. As modernist movements ascended in Europe, such as it was the case of futurism, cubism, and surrealism, in Brazil, artists like Tarsila do Amaral, Mário de Andrade, Oswald de Andrade, Anita Malfatti and Di Cavalcanti formed the first generation of Brazilian modernist artists.
But even before the Week of 22, Anita had already presented to the world her modernist artworks in a first exhibition in 1914 and then another one in 1917. It was in this second opportunity that the artist faced a more conservative and critical reaction to her paintings, especially when we consider the analysis made by the writer Monteiro Lobato, who compared Anita’s paintings to drawings that could “decor the inner walls of a madhouse.”
In fact, what modernists wanted was to disrupt tradition through their pictorial techniques or through their artworks’ messages. In other words, as much as Dali and Picasso surprised European audiences with images that did not fit to the traditional artistic aesthetics, also Duchamp has used his work to make a commentary about the art market.
According to the art historian Vanessa Bortolucce, the art market has existed since the 19th century. This means that, since that period, art was already considered a commodity, a good to be purchased not only for its artistic and aesthetic value, but because it would be an investment — after all, it is very rare that an artwork is devalued throughout time.
But when Duchamp buys an urinal in a construction store and turns it into the sculpture Fountain (1917), what the artist did was to inaugurate a series of “readymades”, that is, trivial objects that are relocated in an artistic context, thus being promoted to art no matter what was its original purpose (a domestic utensil, for instance). His proposal would reverberate for a long time, even reaching the serigraphies of consumer goods done by Andy Warhol and the renaming of his studio to Factory.
In the meantime, the philosopher Walter Benjamin published his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1935). Despite having different versions published in the following years, generally speaking, what Benjamin wanted to communicate is how Gutenberg press, photography and other fast reproduction and production imagetic technologies were subverting what he called the “aura.”
Vanessa explains that Benjamin brought that topic to conversation as a means to think about the relationship between copies and technical reproduction: “Book and painting copies were already made even before the Gutenberg Press, but they were done manually, hence requiring a copist’s mastery which made the process slower and with only a few pieces as result.”
With the advent of the press, it became easier, faster and cheaper to make copies, thus achieving a level of technical and serial reproduction. If on one hand this innovation caused “banalization,” on the other, it also allowed more people to access these works. However, Vanessa stresses that even though antique copies were handmade, copies never ceased to be seen as inferior (both in symbolic and financial terms) compared to the original work.
Nowadays and especially with the pandemic, we spend much more time in digital spaces crowded by texts and images. In the turn to the 21st century, we faced an overwhelming amount of information being delivered by the internet, something that was perceived right after the publication of the Cypherpunk Manifesto which, among other things, claimed that “information wants to be free.”
Cypherpunks were also the group that suggested the creation of a technology that could offer more access, security and privacy to information — here we understand information in the sense of data information, thus anything that could be rendered in a digital device. Besides, now we know that blockchain and Bitcoin were first proposed in this subcultural environment where people discussed cryptography, decentralization, access, and privacy.
With time though, we have seen Bitcoin’s transformation from a dark digital currency that enabled the purchase of illegal substances and services to an investment asset in the financial market. Since then, other cryptocurrencies and platforms based on blockchain have been released, such as the case of Vitalik Buterin’s Ethereum. We started to consider blockchain for its cryptographic technology, its traceability and immutability that could be used not only for financial transactions, but also for the creation of documents, digital certifications or tokens that would certify the origin and the ownership of a certain informational object.
Nowadays, many people have been talking about NFTs (non-fungible tokens) as a synonym with art or digital images that are being commercialized. In fact, what an NFT represents is a certification of authenticity and ownership for an information object. However, the images registered in NFT by groups such as Cryptopunks and Yuga Labs (the creators of the collection Bored Ape Yacht Club or BAYC) have grown so popular that the term NFT has been associated with an artistic or at least imagetic format.
Bia Pattoli is one of the founders of Menta Land, an initiative focused on creative projects on the web 3.0 (blockchain). According to her, it makes more sense to talk about NFTs from a contractual viewpoint than necessarily an artistic one. For this same reason, it’s hard to say what is an NFT artwork or what’s the style of an NFT.
Both Bia and Vanessa believe it’s not possible to infer that there is a general aesthetic capable of representing all sorts of NFT images, mostly because there is a huge variety of formats and artists using the technology. However, research has already pointed that, quantitatively, most of the images certified through NFT have a futuristic aesthetic, frequently associated with science fiction or surrealism according to the tags used in their descriptions.
The artist, futures and emerging technologies researcher Caroline Barrueco can also see some “patterns” in the NFT market. “On one hand, I see artists, mostly Gen Z women, digital natives, creating images and videos of 3D objects with a futuristic aesthetic. On the other hand, we have the famous tech bros dealing with collectible images that don’t have much variation, such as the case of the BAYC series,” she explains, also claiming that the BAYC series is not considered a work of art and doesn’t even want to — it is something else.
More than proposing the discussion of what is an actual work of art, a question that has been asked for centuries and probably still doesn’t have any satisfactory definition, NFTs are bringing a revolution that is not in the content, but in the support. One hundred years after the Week of 22 and Anita Malfatti’s exhibition which offended Monteiro Lobato’s aesthetic sense, we have some news in the art industry that is also making people troubled.
Both Vanessa and Bia can see similarities between these two events separated by one century, but, in the case of NFT, it is searching for a disruption through the format and support. Modernists, by their turn, wanted to disrupt the aesthetics of traditional art, but they kept on using traditional media like canvas, oil painting, paper etc. Therefore, the most reasonable criticism against NFTs is not in the realm of aesthetics, but rather when we are talking about the technology and the market it gravitates.
In order to create an NFT, the artist or creator must “mint” their work. The verb “to mint” here is related to the registry process of an object in an NFT ecosystem, which is based on blockchain. It’s only after this that a work can be commercialized and purchased with cryptocurrencies that, by their turn, are purchased with “real” money (fiat money).
Despite blockchain being first designed to promote decentralization, what actually happened is that this technology found its way in the financial market, so that we have a scenario in which 95% of all Bitcoin gross value is concentrated to only 2% of users. “What I find interesting about NFTs is that they are doing an income redistribution, through which money is forwarded from these 2% to new artists,” adds Caroline.
An artist that has been experiencing good opportunities with her NFTs is Nickelly Garbaje. In 2021, she was invited to join the collective Magna, which is based on the Foundation ecosystem. In October, Nickelly had her first artwork minted in the platform, thus discovering a new way to monetize her work besides through commissions: “It was very stressful to make art to people, trying to find out what they wanted me to do. With NFTs, I can express myself in my own way and profit with my artwork.”
In this scenario, what we are seeing is a return to the idea of ownership and the certification of images in a digital environment. It seems strange, especially when we understand that blockchain was first proposed by a cultural and political movement that prioritized access to information, not ownership. This was the same discourse that got in fashion during the past decade, when the sharing economy defended that accessing was more relevant than owning something, thus supporting the business model of platforms such as Uber, AirBnB and similar. But now we are talking about the ownership of digital objects, not physical ones.
To Bia, despite the generational conflict featured here, it is no longer strange for the younger generations to buy digital content, for instance, skins in a game. However, in the case of NFTs, there is a difference: a skin in a video game is not an unique content and the buyer is not the owner of the content, they only pay for the allowance to use that. It is in this ambiguity that misunderstandings happen and memes are created, such as is the case of the purchase of a rare Dune book. The objective of the buyers was to transform the book into an NFT, burn the physical object and make an animation out of it.
But what they really bought was a rare book that, despite its high price, didn’t give them the right to use the work. In other words, you could theoretically buy the Mona Lisa painting on NFT, but you would own only the image of the painting that is being sold, not the painting itself which is exhibited at the Louvre. Through these idiosyncrasies, new jokes are told and more absurdities are born, such as the case of an influencer that started to sell her flatulence in NFT (as if selling it in a jar wasn’t bizarre enough).
Hence, we enter into a speculative realm that is similar to the art market: it’s about investing, not necessarily appreciating art for its aesthetic and artistic value. By the way, the historian Vanessa Bortolucce stresses that, even today, people value the physical form of an artwork more than their digital counterparts. In Brazil, the YouTuber Gato Galático published a video of himself unpacking some kind of digital portrait in which an NFT was displayed.
In other words, there is once again this sense of fetishization in the work of art that is turned into a commodity, and not for its aura as Benjamin wished. After all, why would someone be interested in buying an image that is available on Google?
From a historical perspective, NFTs use the same logic of collectionism. On the other hand, Bia makes a comparison with people who use Spotify to listen to music and don’t bother to have a CD or the mp3 stored in their computer: “Some people rent or buy movies at Amazon Prime, but if Amazon closes, you cannot watch it anymore. Blockchain is not something that simply ends, so the registry of your ownership is there forever.”
When Bia speaks about blockchain being something that never ends, she is talking about the decentralized way by which this technology works, especially in the case of the proof-of-stake model, in which transactions are only performed once there is a consensus between the providers (hence a security protocol). On the other hand, critics could still argue that the exclusivity of NFTs is just another concretization of what Marx already foresaw: the creation of artificial scarcity even in a context (the digital space) that, technically, is infinite.
To Nickelly, the NFT market is something that has come to stay, but it will evolve more through the following years. Bia believes that we are living a moment that is similar to when Napster was released, because there is once again an incredulity regarding the technology. Still, and possibly most importantly, there is the hard fact of blockchain’s impact on the environment.
The Ethereum blockchain, for instance, uses a lot of energy to keep on running, but Nickelly says that there are other platforms that use sustainable NFTs (CleanNFTs). These platforms can be based on systems such as Tezos, a blockchain that uses very little energy to run. Consequently, the artist reveals she finds it unfair and unnecessary the way people are invalidating NFT art and being hateful towards the artists in the market. After all, many of these artists, such is the case of Nickelly, are being able to monetize their art and, this way, change their lives.
Therefore, it seems that we have reached a new level of maturity in the discussion about ownership and access, physical and digital objects. First, we overcame the need to own something (a DVD, for instance) as long as we are able to watch the movie using some streaming platform. Now, we are talking about the collectionist desire to own objects or content, even if they are digital and accessible to everyone.
In face of the video game industry’s growth, it is now more acceptable or even desirable to the younger generations to buy products that only exist as data in a certain game. What is more, human existence is being increasingly more extended from the physical to the digital world, which means that a person may want to buy a jacket both to dress their biological body and their avatar.
As the metaverse approaches, it is reasonable to expect this trend will grow stronger. However, it is important to remember something that Bia Pattoli has stressed: NFTs can also be used to certify physical assets or even certain events, after all, it is about certification or the proof of purchase of a certain product or service.
At the moment, when an NFT is purchased in the blockchain, this process is registered and the information about the authorship and ownership is available forever. If the owner wants to sell the product, it will also be registered in this “smart notary’s office” which is virtually impossible to falsify. Since this is a very important thing for galleries and museums, we already see examples of galleries such as Leme in São Paulo or König in Berlin which are exhibiting works of art certified with NFT.
Maybe the future is a bit strange for those cypherpunks that dreamed about unrestricted access to information, with no limitations due to ownership or copyrights (as SciHub proposes in the case of academic papers and journals). Perhaps, in the future, owners of NFTs could turn into patrons or the new millionaires that purchase work of arts, but don’t keep them stored in a dark deposit. They would rather exhibit their assets either through an exhibition in a gallery or museum, or maybe even by funding new art spaces. At least, this is what I would hope for.