In the age of crypto, we must redefine the meaning of “art”

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Michelle Liu

Now, anyone in possession of a device with access to internet connection can upload their pixel images and sell them. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and anything considered to be “art” is done so in a highly subjective manner, but rudimentary pixel art created mindlessly within the span of seconds does not fall into the category of inspiring beauty or emotional power.

By Michelle Liu, The Harker Upper School

What is art? 

For Marcel Duchamp, it was a urinal. For Maurizio Cattelan, it was a banana taped to the wall (in an artist’s edition of 3). But for Mike Winkelman, known to the internet as “Beeple,” art has ceased to exist in a physical form — and yet it carries an even more exorbitant price tag. Duchamp’s “Fountain” artworks have cashed in at up to $2 million dollars each, Cattelan’s “Comedian” banana fetched $120,000, and Winkelman’s artwork, well, has skyrocketed into a $69.3 million dollar digital phenomenon.

The rise of the NFT, or non-fungible token, has allowed artists to sell their works directly to buyers; an NFT represents a unique address on the digital blockchain, so collectors pay a pretty penny for ownership of this address. This follows a huge spike in the crypto market in the last few years, from the rise of Bitcoin, to Ethereum, to even Dogecoin (yes, it derives its name from the famous Shiba Inu meme).

As we witness a myriad of artists from Damien Hirst to James Jean eagerly embracing crypto and creating their own NFTs, we can be sure that the art market is headed toward a decidedly blockchain-abundant future. The sale of Nyan Cat for $600,000 marks only the beginning of a new era, one where internet memes with powerful cultural legacy have become considered seriously as artwork. We’ve already seen the effects that the rise of digital platforms like Instagram have had for artists, allowing them to abandon the traditional route of securing gallery representation in order to create their work. NFTs take this type of democratization to the next level, letting artists sell their work with a simple digital upload.

The bubble of wealth surrounding NFTs will burst one day, but I trust that new, worthy artworks will emerge victorious amidst the masses of undeserving pixel pieces. The world would all be for the better once this stream of rushed, rapacious works dies down.”

Crypto art has broken a new boundary, making the buying and selling of art easier than ever. However, just because it lowers the barrier to entry doesn’t mean that low-effort pieces should count as art. While some NFTs can deliver thought-provoking and revelatory questions that add flavor to our lives, others may not. One artist has so far made $85 selling NFT farts. The simple pixel-art heads of “CryptoPunks”, consisting of a simple 24×24 pixel rectangle, sell for at least $30,000 each. So all this leaves one to wonder again – what truly is “art”? 

Oxford Languages defines art as possessing a “beauty or emotional power.” The introduction of NFTs causes us to dive deeper into the fuzzy grey area that labels something as “art” by opening the floodgates to the market. Now, anyone in possession of a device with access to internet connection can upload their pixel images and sell them. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and anything considered to be “art” is done so in a highly subjective manner, but rudimentary pixel art created mindlessly within the span of seconds does not fall into the category of inspiring beauty or emotional power. To me, a true artwork inspires a new idea that causes me to take a pause and reconsider it: an artist took the time to put thought and effort into their work, imbuing it with their own unique perspectives.

However, browsing the NFT market often begets endless scrolling, with no fascinating high-quality works that cause the viewer to pause even at the slightest. Crypto has led artwork to descend further into merely a profit-making mechanism as the NFT bubble grows bigger and bigger. Within the past few months, people have flocked to crypto with their eyes blinded by dollar signs, ignoring the integrity of artwork and simply focusing on producing as much as they can. And with this new digital platform, it’s easier than ever to over-saturate the market with unworthy pieces, often made with only a few blocky pixels, at the click of an upload. However, the new convenience of NFTs comes at a heavy cost: on average, one single NFT sale pumps out as much harmful carbon into our atmosphere as 91 paper prints. Due to the heavy carbon impact of the blockchain, our environment is suffering the brunt of the damage left by the storm of useless, underdeveloped NFT art.

In some cases, crypto art does meet the standard. Beeple’s artwork “Everydays” consists of 5,000 individual digital pieces; he created one work a day over the span of more than 13 years. While it may seem like an overwhelming and incoherent blur of tiny, colorful tiles at first glance, to me the work carries a deeper meaning that caused me to pause and reconsider it for a long time. It reveals Beeple’s evolution as not only an artist but as a person, the same human transformation that affects all of us.

Time itself becomes a key component of these 5,000 artworks. While the internet and technology have changed almost every aspect of our lives, the one thing that truly cannot be replaced is time. As we become older, we all experience new revelations, perspectives, and new life changes that can’t be replaced with the hyper-speed of the internet. Beeple’s piece took enormous self-discipline, mental and physical energy, and most importantly 13 years to develop a strong meaning. But CryptoPunks? One would have to perform complex mental gymnastics in order to find an emotional power in them. 

So, we circle back again to that definition of what truly makes “art.” Duchamp’s fountain certainly triggered jarring responses from museum-goers shocked to see a urinal in a gallery, cementing its “emotional power.” The same applies to Cattelan’s duct-taped banana. And, finally, Beeple’s “Everydays” has now ascended to take its place among these powerful artworks as well. 

Ultimately, the art market will only continue to grow as it explores the potential of crypto. The bubble of wealth surrounding NFTs will burst one day, but I trust that new, worthy artworks will emerge victorious amidst the masses of undeserving pixel pieces. The world would all be for the better once this stream of rushed, rapacious works dies down. I have high hopes for the new beauty and emotional power that the next generations of NFTs will inspire in us. 

This story was originally published on Harker Aquila on April 13, 2021.