Michelle Kuo: The NFT craze—which erupted with the $69.3 million sale of the artist Beeple’s Everydays: The First 5,000 Days last month at Christie’s—clearly touches a huge nerve within the art world, even though there’s still so much confusion about what NFTs even are. The initialism stands for “non-fungible token”: a unit that is totally unique as a digital asset, registered or certified as such on a digital ledger, or blockchain. An NFT can’t be exchanged with a like entity (the way one dollar bill is equivalent to another, or one bitcoin has the same value as another). So it can be used to digitally codify ownership of things like art. The idea is actually straightforward, but it’s provoked so much angst.
In fact, much of the response seems to be about taking down Beeple and his art, which to my mind misses the point. It’s like making a full-throated critique of Justin Bieber: I don’t think our existing models of analysis really apply. At the same time, there’s a lot of hand-wringing about NFTs signifying the total conversion of art into a speculative financial instrument. Or you hear the rhetoric of liberation: This will free art and every human along with it. So, as usual, there are the Cassandras and the utopians. Part of what I’m hoping to chat about today with you is a different approach.
Seth Price: First of all, as soon as they print a coffee table book of the Everydays, I’m buying it. I think that work is going to be a pretty great record of this moment. I mean, it sucks, but it would make a good book.
SP: I’m also interested because Beeple [Mike Winkelmann] uses a software package I use, Cinema 4D. I’ve been using it for five years to make large, printed works, and he’s also using it for still imagery, and it’s not really suited for that. It’s a 3D movie-making program, essentially; it’s used a lot for gaming. So it’s a use of this extremely complex tool in a very dumb way, and it can be interesting when you misuse a tool.
MK: It’s a time-honored avant-garde strategy. And you’re both using or misusing the same tools, to very different ends.
Now I’m doing the thing I swore I wouldn’t, which is some sort of close reading of Beeple’s artwork. But there’s something about the insanely high resolution or high definition of these images that is part of their popularity, or the value being conferred onto them. And yet I was struck by a quote by the purchaser of Beeple’s Everydays, Vignesh Sundaresan, who goes by MetaKovan, saying that the reason Everydays is worth a billion dollars is not because it represents a high degree of skill or technique. It is about the sheer amount of time the artist spent on this work. In this sense, MetaKovan is exactly (if unknowingly) describing deskilling: deliberately removing technical mastery from the making of art, to question mastery and structures of power in the first place. So strange alignments start happening when you look at the reception of Everydays. When you look at the work itself, it’s a simple misuse of a high-end, moving-image program that weirdly chimes with Conceptual art strategies of deskilling. But it leads to images that somehow look as if they actually did take a lot of time and skill and refinement to make (even if they didn’t!).