If you have spent any amount of time on photography NFT Twitter recently, you’ll notice that everyone is so positively happy and supportive of each other. As the adage goes, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. That seems to be the case here.
In this article, I’d like to talk about the role of the NFT within a broader photographic art lineage. I will draw on historical parallels, briefly cover what makes art valuable, and conclude with an overview of some social structures within the NFT Twittersphere. The short version of it is: if you are thinking of getting into NFTs, then my recommendation would be, “don’t.” But of course, like anything else you read on the internet, take that with a grain of salt.
Originally, it was the aristocratic and theocratic classes who commissioned art. If you were a rich old lord or lady, you might get a painter to make a mural of your family or perhaps an epic battle you were a part of. When either you or your children came of age or did something important, they might get a solo portrait painted. Similarly, with religion, the church would commission artists to sculpt or paint murals of religious scenes. When the rising merchant classes came into prominence, they too began commissioning portraits but also secular and decorative works. In either case, the idea was to use art as a propaganda tool. We’re so brilliant. We did this thing, whether it be winning a battle, having our religion be the one true one, or making lots of money. Just the same, here is an expensive picture or sculpture of it.
Where photography as an art practice fits into the traditional lineage of art, such as sculpture or painting, is that for a long time, it didn’t. Photography has this expectation of being the cheap knockoff of a painting. The mechanical nature of negative process film meant that you could have multiples of an image quickly and cheaply. The well-known author and critic Henry James, for example, dismissed photographic art for the longest time without even knowing much about how photography worked.
These two things, in tandem, led to photography becoming widespread and accessible. Painting and sculpture were exclusive. You didn’t have to know how to read a photograph, and photographs were relatively cheaply reproducible. Not only were traditional art forms expensive, but you had to have some knowledge of the battle they were depicting, or the religious narratives, or even the secular narratives to read what the artist was saying. Photography didn’t need any of this. Some of the earliest and most popular photos were nudes of foreigners.
NFTs are accessible, but the NFT market is inaccessible. You can view an NFT easily, but it takes a specialized currency to even participate in the NFT market, and even that is only after you have been specifically invited. The arbitrary barriers to entry create exclusivity. Exclusivity means that a population wants it more. It’s completely arbitrary to have all these hoops to buy or sell an NFT.
What Makes Art Valuable?
Artworks aren’t inherently valuable. They are only worth monetary value because of what they contribute to broader art discourse. The caveat here, strictly speaking, is that I am not talking about the decorative art you and I might be able to afford for our homes, but rather works that you’d see in a museum or a public art gallery.
Erwin Blumenfeld is an amazing photographer. He took both literal and figurative risks with his work; he experimented in the darkroom as well as with various studio lights and colored gels to create images that were both striking and bold. He was touted as the highest-paid photographer in the world at one point and had clients that included Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, and Elizabeth Arden, to name a few. I have introduced Erwin Blumenfeld as a case study to highlight the divide in photography. Photography is not a monolithic profession, but rather broken into various practices such as commercial photography and art photography; these are further divided into sub-categories such as fine art and conceptual art. Despite his success as a commercial photographer, Blumenfeld was not able to penetrate the art photography market. Because of this and despite his efforts to do so, he is not as much a part of the discourse as photographers who were more entrenched in art photography.
In contrast, Andreas Gursky is very much part of the canon and discourse of photography. It’s not about creating a photograph or a painting, but rather using the language of art with photography simply as the medium to further a specific narrative. In Gursky’s case, the narrative is the mundane and the everyday. His images could be any river or any grocery store; they’re not any specific river or specific store, of course. But the works are printed larger than life on meters wide photographs, which pay homage to a lineage of mural-size oil paintings.
You can be that great and have that many famous covers to your name and yet have so little information about you because you’re not an “artist” in the sense that you’ve contributed to art discourse. It’s not that Gursky is more or less talented than Blumenfeld; it’s not even about the pictures. It’s about what the work says. That’s kind of my point with NFTs. Sure, even if you get invited and you’re able to navigate all the hurdles and start making works that sell, there isn’t longevity to it. Not only that, the making money bit isn’t guaranteed. For art to be art, it needs to say something beyond being a pretty picture. What can you possibly say with #vibes? Perhaps there needs to be a cultural shift.
"We are all going to make it!"
"Artists supporting artists!"
Tired yet? This is some cult-level language here. If you look past the superficial, super-saccharine positivity, the world of the photo NFT is built like a pyramid with no way up or down. There is required a certain suspension of disbelief and reason to participate within the photographic NFT community. They might not be a cult, per se, but the NFT space is very much an echo chamber in which a specific lexicon and exclusivity are used to create a sense of faux community.
Having a sphere of positivity is essential, in that sense. If you say everyone is going to do well and in the same breath ask artists to also act as patrons, it becomes less about making money based on the value of your creations and more about an echo chamber economy where you each purchase each other’s work, which raises the question: who is making money here? The platform owners or the artists? I know who I’d bet on.
To get slightly off-topic, Sotheby’s recently announced an auction of NFTs. Contemporary art, or conceptual art, is a very twentieth-century phenomenon that parallels the burgeoning rise of capitalism. It’s no surprise that Sotheby’s wants to make money. But in saying that, many of the works for auction are natively digital and inherently comment on digital art as an art practice. There are no photographs that I could discern. It’s not that this particular auction legitimizes all NFTs, but rather, these particular NFTs were already created to contribute to a broader social narrative and because of that, they are now up for auction through this prestigious auction house. When you consider that a large proportion of photographic NFTs are of landscapes and seascapes, it takes some level of cognitive dissonance to ignore the environmental impacts of the NFT and cryptocurrencies.
If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Art and art photography have a long and interesting history, for certain. If specifically, photo NFTs are to exist within an art context, there needs to be more than just a pretty landscape and some #vibes. What that is, I don’t think I can comment. But I’d be keen to see it, for sure!