Beeple, crypto, the meme economy: How NFTs have ushered in a bleak chapter of art history

Illustration of an NFT art sale
Armaan Mumtaz/Senior Staff

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With the advent of the internet and social media, the art world has long been poised to become increasingly accessible and democratized. Where art ownership previously only existed as a pastime for the upper class, over the last 20 years, artists and patrons have been able to engage in transactions online, a shift that has the potential to drastically alter the consumers of art as well as the type of art we produce and value.

These changes have accelerated in recent years. An unforeseeable side effect of the pandemic has been an explosion of decentralized finance, or DeFi, a financial system that removes the middleman present in traditional financial exchanges and allows for the increased democratization of a system previously inaccessible to much of the population. DeFi has manifested itself most prominently in the rise of Robinhood trading and cryptocurrency, in particular nonfungible tokens, or NFTs, which employ blockchain technology to create unique tokens that function as a digital marker of authenticity. The emergence of NFTs has been a significant shake-up to the traditional analog art world of decades past, with art now having the ability to be created, bought and sold without ever existing in physical space.

NFT art has been widely denigrated by critics as “just a JPEG”, and while artists have the potential to encrypt the blockchain to become much more, NFT art in its current form largely has yet to evolve beyond this point. By its very definition, NFT value is heavily reliant on the tokens’ scarcity or “nonfungibility” rather than their artistic merit. Framing NFT art as an asset to be acquired in the way you might acquire stock has severely kneecapped NFT’s potential as a viable pathway for creating great art and freeing art consumption from the constraints posed by the art world. 

At the forefront of the NFT art movement is the artist Mike Winkelmann, aka Beeple, who earlier this year, joined the ranks of artists such as David Hockney and Jeff Koons as the third most financially successful living artist. In March, Winkelmann sold a collection of his digital artworks as an NFT for $69 million. Beeple’s work, on rare occasions, toes the line between crude and subversive, but on the whole remains indicative of a culture that values potential for commodification over aestheticism and artistry, a dynamic that drives the prevailing undercurrent of the NFT art scene. 

NFT art is, by and large, objectively kind of terrible — it’s a hodgepodge of recognizable images and memes interspersed with derivative and visually grating vaporwave imagery. This tendency for NFT art to be awful is compounded by the fact that many online marketplaces have no way to vet artists’ work before displaying it on their site, resulting in a completely feral, uncurated digital gallery where the only barrier to entry is an understanding of cryptocurrency and rudimentary graphic design skills. NFTs, and cryptocurrency in general, garner much of their appeal from how they position themselves against established systems of authority, the art world included. But in what way is creating stylized renderings of decade-old memes and jarring collages featuring milquetoast social criticism at all boundary-pushing? 

Just as the vast majority of art throughout art history has been dictated by the tastes of the bourgeois, NFT art is dictated by the tastes of newly-wealthy Internet entrepreneurs of the pandemic, who value NFT art for its recognizability, easy consumption and the perceived status it imparts upon the owner. Its rather lazy and detached mode of consumption has in turn lent itself to a lazy and detached mode of production. 

Spike Art Magazine writer Dean Kissick refers to this phenomenon as a “very boring sort of outsider art, made by nerds for other nerds.” In many ways, NFT art is simply reflective of the barren and somewhat depraved cultural landscape we now find ourselves immersed in as a result of the pervasiveness of celebrity culture, maximalism and social media during the past decade. One can only hope that the sheer repulsiveness of NFT art will cause us to take a step back and critique the milieu that has enabled it. 

In her 1964 essay “Notes on Camp,” writer and academic Susan Sontag defines camp as “a good taste of bad taste.” Since its coinage, “camp” has remained a rather loosely defined concept and has only become more nebulous in the Twitter age, when seemingly anything can be camp. NFT art — at least in its current incarnation — is not the exciting shake-up to the art world that some have purported it to be. 

But, given its fluid nature, NFT art does have the potential to usher in a new and more democratized era of art guided by the tastes of the masses. Beepleian images of Trump’s swollen naked corpse and Buzz Lightyear’s split open skull are decidedly not camp, but though this style has deeply pervaded the world of digital NFT art, it doesn’t have to remain as pervasive as it is. At this point, using the NFT medium to make good art would be, in the true Sontagian sense, camp. 

Contact Emma Murphree at [email protected].