NFTs Long the Basis
between the lines of photo criticism
Ancient Greek poets,* who believed writing poetry was more difficult than digging ditches, got nothing on Jonathan Blaustein, noted photo critic and martial artist who tweeted that his column about non-fungible tokens is "a super-long-read, and took more time and energy than anything” he had written previously on aphotoeditor.com. The road to understanding NFTs is an arduous journey fraught with economic, political, psychological, technical, etc. potholes. Fortunately, JB is there to help us jump over several of these craters.
Briefly, only because JB never defines his subject, photo NFTs are unique (non-fungible) digital certificates of authenticity, as well as partial proofs of ownership, with links to photographic artworks located somewhere in the metaverse that dematerialize when you power down your networked device. Like imaginary products traded on an unregulated futures market mashed up with a vacation time-share, NFTs are the art industry’s latest investment vehicle designed for capital accumulation via virtual product placement. The NFT market is everyperson’s entry into the blockchain-powered crypto economy, which will continue to expand as entrepreneurs develop products that attract the larger public to the platform. For now, says Anil Dash, who with Kevin McCoy invented the NFT at a “one-night hackathon” in 2014, the NFT market is the wealthy’s playspace, where “the only rich-person hobby they can partake in with their cryptowealth is buying art.” The developing market for photo NFTs has the potential to steer the crypto economy around its uberwealthy influencers by creating affordable products middle income people desire. Where is and how does an artist photographer become a member of the photo NFT community? How much of our soul do we have to sell to join? These are questions JB is asking us, and himself.
Preparing to cannonball off the diving board, JB tiptoes to the edge of his subject. Quoting "a horrible fucking song stuck in” his head, and with a stroke of metaphorical genius, JB jump cuts to “such a great word” that is gaslighting. JB confesses to having "fallen prey to the tactic in the past, I empathize with others who do.” We know we’re being gaslighted when "you begin to question your own sanity.” JB highlights the behavior by trapping us in a frozen elevator where "an entire group of people is challenging your conception of reality.” While we solipsists face the Muzak, JB free-associates gaslighting with crimes against humanity, noting that "Putin declares war against a Jewish president, and accuses him of being a Nazi.” What can be worse than a gaslighting genocidal warmonger? One of JB's high school buddies who, like a sleazy venture capitalist, seduces you with "promises to make you rich, in what seems like a scam.” Scam or no scam, JB discussed the “too good to be true” NFT proposition with his "wife, and we both agreed even a small chance of life-changing money meant I should keep an open mind, and see where it went.”
Where did it go? In "a manner echoing the batshit crazy world of photo NFTs,” JB’s article echos, reflects, and elides description in keeping with his "bonkers, stream-of-consciousness” modus operandi. Eschewing journalism's who, what, when, where, and why, JB "first started noticing some NFT info popping up” in his twitterverse, but "it’s hard to know what to believe, (or whom,) because everyone is so sure they’re right, even though they’re shouting opposite arguments simultaneously.” Like a risk averse investor, he declares, "I guess my attitude was always, I’ll sit on the sidelines until this becomes a thing, and then I’ll check in with my buddies, who’ll catch me up, and get me in the game. Was that the right mentality?” Probably not. Given his reluctance to play and wish to profit from the successes and failures of his pals, is it so strange that "some people I knew well, and with whom I’d collaborated before, (or done favors,) ghosted me, hard”? JB’s question is a metaphor for an apology.
Returning to his topic and without defining terms, JB compares decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs) that create, “drop” or “mint” NFTs, with collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), a principal cause of the Great Recession. Then, boasting that he scooped Paul Krugman, claims to be "on record as making that comparison months before" the Nobel laureate published a column about cryptocurrencies. JB provides no link to his journalistic triumph, but it’s all good, because “the more I knew the less I understood.” With remarkable perspicacity he wonders "how it seemed like everyone was gaslighting everyone."
Appearances are deceiving. JB has "no beef with the NFT community, which has been kind and generous to me, and certainly don’t feel I side with the haters, who mostly complain about the electricity use, the general sketchiness of cryptocurrency, and likelihood that people will get scammed out of money they can’t afford to lose.” No doubt JB counts Krugman among the “haters” after the celebrity economist criticized financial regulators for making the same mistakes with cryptocurrencies that they made with subprime loans, for failing “to protect the public against financial products nobody understood, and many vulnerable families may end up paying the price” because "crypto investing has become remarkably popular among minority groups and the working class.” From his position of immense privilege Krugman can crunch the numbers to reach his paternalistic conclusion about society's disadvantaged communities; nevertheless, his call for regulation is on point. Otherwise there’s no reason for "affluent college-educated whites” or anyone else to invest in the crypto economy by purchasing NFTs.
“Now,” Krugman admits, "maybe those of us who still can’t see what cryptocurrencies are good for other than money laundering and tax evasion are just missing the picture.” No pun intended. At least old school knows it hasn’t kept up with the research. Neither has JB, unfortunately, belittling activists who “complain about the electricity use” of the blockchain where NFTs are minted and stored, as well as legal professionals concerned about the "general sketchiness” of the unregulated crypto economy. The critic’s uncivilized attitude is both inspired by and reifies a self-replicating ideological zero-sum diktat. Either we’re concerned about the economy, the environment, civil rights, social welfare, whatever, or we’re not. Either we embrace the NFT community with its survival-of-the-savviest rags-to-riches flashmob, or we hate it. JB's mindset is not without reflection as he wonders, “why are electric cars seen as good, and eco, but electric art is automatically bad?” Eco is ecological and economical. "Eco-wise,” JB continues, "there are so many larger issues to worry about, and carbon offsets are available.” How do we calculate the carbon footprint of a single NFT? Is JB proposing a bad faith solution for climate change? Or will carbon offset credits, financial instruments governments sell to industries for greenhouse gas reduction, find their way into the crypto marketplace as NFTs?
Just what are collectors buying when they purchase a photo NFT? Whatever they agreed to purchase when they digitally signed the “smart contract” and clicked the Submit button. According to Dash, what began as a profound idea for a technology “enabling artists to exercise control over their work” quickly devolved into a market “drawing an extraordinary range of grifters and spammers” and depending on technologies that “are wildly environmentally irresponsible.” While Dash hopes that “green NFTs will succeed,” he knows that people “usually choose short-term profit over long-term responsibility,” and doesn’t see “broad support from the cryptorich for abandoning the devastatingly destructive” blockchains. Ironically, Dash says, “Many of the works being sold as NFTs aren’t digital artworks at all; they’re just digital pictures of works created in conventional media.” Assuming, of course, that the embedded link is live. Because most NFT platforms “still depend on one company staying in business” to host the art, if the server is hacked or the company goes bankrupt, the link breaks, the artwork is lost, and the NFT is not worth its carbon footprint.
"If people want to offer something for sale, and other people want to buy it,” JB asks, sounding like a business school undergrad, "what’s the harm?” It depends. What’s for sale? "Even now,” he concedes, "I’m not sure if a collector buys an actual .jpg file with their NFT purchase, or a link to where the file resides on the blockchain, so even after all this time, the process is still obtuse [sic] to me.” While the crypto economy is not for the witless, it’s clear that cryptocurrencies and NFTs will not be purged to the bit bucket, and some people are already making a killing. JB shills for the "official godfathers of the NFT world," founders of “the trendiest NFT-gallery-company,” savvy entrepreneurs "who by all accounts have made a shit ton of money.” Fortunately, it’s not always about the loot. "Over the course of my reporting,” JB reports, "I spoke with a group of NFT artists who truly love their new community, and the opportunities it affords” to increase their bottom line.
What will we be buying, a few years hence, when natural resources are all but exhausted and everything else is commodified. “Monetized graphics” Dash and McCoy called their NFT invention. No longer will we dream of owning artworks previously seen only in museums and hedge fund lobbies. The NFT will give us permission to exhibit the art in wall-sized plasma displays networked to record when the work is displayed as well as who views it and for how long. These data will be collected and anonymized, if regulations require, then marketed to entrepreneurs engaged in digital empire building. If they develop their long the basis trading strategy, JB’s NFT “official godfathers” may one day join the oligarchy with all its rights, privileges, and tax breaks.
The crypto economy is one of the new frontiers to be explored in this century, with its entrepreneurs and profiteers, poets and privateers, patriots and traitors, scoundrels and saints.** The underlying technologies will become more efficient, consume less energy, pollute with less toxic waste. Regulations will make it more difficult for malefactors to cheat the government and launder money. Sooner or later, countless visual, musical, literary, and performing artists will find the means to market their art via NFTs. They will join an expanding community of creatives who, as their followers increase exponentially, will find commissions and collectors, perhaps even a public, for their work. Will crypto gallerists perfect the IRL pay-to-play system and exploit artists with increasingly high markups? Or will they support their communities by making it possible for artists to mint their NFTs as part of a profit sharing collective?
Flying and birthing are JB's passionate metaphors for writing. To post his screen-ready column is to “land the plane.” Alas, writing can be risky. After spending "months reporting, interviewing artists, reading articles, thinking deep thoughts,” JB admits that he still doesn’t "know what the fuck is going on.” Neither do we, because JB’s “word-baby” left the womb crying complacently, because "digital life is ultimately just another manifestation of actual life” where haters and trolls abide and "there are plenty of assholes out there. Right?”
That artists find community in a new source of revenue for their art is nothing short of miraculous given the violent zero-sum game played on so much social media and IRL. It’s marvelous that JB’s colleagues are making money in the NFT marketplace. Perhaps some of that liquidity will trickle down. Perhaps JB will mint NFTs with his Extinction Party catalog pictures belaboring American consumerism. Like a möbius strip, the critique of consumption will turn to the consumption of critique and back again.
Sounds like a plan. Perhaps JB has been gaslighting us, and himself, all along.
* The reference to ditch digging and poetry I remember from a footnote in European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages by Ernst Robert Curtius. My friend Gary reminded me that ancient Greek poets had slaves to dig their ditches. To compare their poetry to the lowest form of manual labor was their mark of extreme privilege. I would also like to thank Gary for reading and critiquing an early draft of this article, as well as for sending me the link to the Columbia Journal of Law & the Arts.
** After writing this sentence, I felt as if I had already seen it. Did I read it somewhere and lose the reference in my brain fog?