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NFTs and the paradox of selling ephemeral digital art

March 11, 2021

It’s so wild to see the explosive valuations and paychecks that NFTs have suddenly enabled for digital artists. Back in the early 2000s, I spent several years making conceptual digital art, and trying to figure out how to make a living at it. The answer at the time (and for the last 20+ years until now) was: you’d better just be an art professor, because ain’t nobody paying for programmatically generated art!

I didn’t want to be an art professor, so I hung up my hat, and pursued other career options that would realistically pay the rent. But it was a bummer to do that, because my heart was in the art, and I wanted to keep making it. In that way, the NFT/Crypto movement is a revolution, since it will fund untapped creativity in areas that have been economically impossible for people to sustain until right now. That alone is incredibly exciting.

It’s also gratifying to see people care about digital art. It’s the artiest of all art, because its mere existence constantly calls into question what art even is. If I make a computer program and call it “art,” which part is the art? The idea for the program? The program itself? A computer with the program installed on it? The output of the program on a screen? A physical print of the output? Or all of the above?

A lot of my old work was about interrogating these questions. When computation is involved, what’s real? What’s true? What’s worth something, and what’s garbage? Does the machine help us know things, or make it harder to know things, because digital information is so malleable and untrustworthy?

There’s no true physical representation for digital art, aside from some 0s and 1s, which are impossible to touch and meaningless without an intermediary machine to interpret them for you. The idea of “owning” this stuff has always been impossible, so it’s perfect that artists would invent an ownership layer that artificially simulates scarcity, onto a thing which is infinitely reproducible—literally the opposite of scarce. The entire concept of a digital art economy is itself a conceptual art joke.

Still, the NFT art market already has some real problems. It’s ecologically disastrous, and so far it’s reinforcing a lot of the same old power imbalances that have always existed in traditional art forms. The terms of ownership are just as vague as you might expect. If I was still producing this work today, I don’t think I could participate in the crypto revolution at the moment, because it’s too ethically problematic.

But it’s early. Longer term, the model will hopefully evolve into something that fully decentralizes power and turns digital art-making into a sustainable profession for anyone who wants to do it. We need a lot more creative people interrogating truth, systems, power structures, and information distribution. The promise of compensation may well encourage a whole generation of people to pursue this weird career, who otherwise wouldn’t have tried at all.