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The Cult of the NFT

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.

Historical Parallels

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.

WAGMI

"Good morning!"

"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.

Contemporary Art

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.

I was lucky enough to have this work be a finalist for The Bowness Photography Prize. As part of the exhibition, for which the Australian version of Sotheby's is a sponsor, not only did this sell at auction, but I was lucky enough to have a few private sales as well.

Conclusion

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!

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10 Comments

charles hoffman's picture

nft = something that can be programmed by a random number generator attached to photoshop elements

Timothy Roper's picture

Art photography, like all other 2D art, was and is meant to be displayed on walls. Rich people and corporations have a LOT of wall space, and most don't like to leave it all blank. NFT's, on the other hand, aren't for walls. Sure, you could print one out, or digitally display it on a wall, but that's not their main use--the digital metaverse is where they mostly live. And that means, they're something completely new and different. No point in comparing them to past categories of art.

And as a quick test, if you don't understand why someone would pay actual money to, say, own a digital pet in WoW, you probably won't be able to fully understand NFTs (and I count myself in the can't fully category :/ )

Ali Choudhry's picture

So this can probably be an entire article in and of itself; but wouldn't work for this website because it would sit a bit too far outside the the umbrella of "photography".
But I think you and I are talking about different types of art; you're comparing NFTs to more decorative art where as I'm referring to more conceptual works which you'd see say in a museum.

Something like Tania Brugerra's "Tatlin's Whisper #5" for example is a great piece on surveillance but doesn't really belong in an office. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/bruguera-tatlins-whisper-5-t12989
I know you pointed out 2D works specifically, but I'm specifically trying to make a point that conceptual works are valuable more for what they say rather than what they are.
More recently, as much as I hate Jens Haaning's "Take the Money and Run", I also think it's brilliant and poignant. But probably not appropriate for decor, despite being "2D" as you put it. https://www.npr.org/2021/09/29/1041492941/jens-haaning-kunsten-take-the-...

So to get back to NFTs, the ones which have an value as an art object (and this is corroborated with the caveat of the Sotheby's sale) are ones which say something beyond being decorations. Where as most photographers are works, especially landscapes, which are technically brilliant but don't contribute to a broader art discourse.

Timothy Roper's picture

But conceptual art is often used as "decoration" (a rather pejorative term)--the two concepts aren't mutually exclusive. What the works "say" is the reason people want them as "decorations." In fact, high end collectors looking for 2D and 3D conceptional art for their walls and foyers and gardens drive the market, including what museums want in their collections. Sure, not everything fits on a wall or in an open space, but so what? Some does, including conceptual photography.

Crina Prida's picture

great article, and great conversation right here; I'm also among the baffled when it comes to NFT narrative and phenomenon, but I can't say I'm prompted to immerse myself into its study just now. Good to read this article to confirm my insecurities regarding the matter.

Ali Choudhry's picture

Thanks Crina. It's definitely a lot to take in!

Hector Belfort's picture

NFT’s. People making money out of them think they are a great idea and are pushing them like crazy. Early entrants are making great gains. People who don’t like NFT’s are criticised for not “understanding “ them.
Art is a funny world full stop. We attach value to something and the reasons why can be complex. It can be rarity, unusualness, beauty, fame, history. It’s price can be set by reference to other works by an artist or another artist of the period. It’s worth what anyone is prepared to pay for it.
NFTs are taking this further where you are not even physically receiving the art product.

If I paint a painting and sell it for a $1000 and a year later the buyer can only sell it for $500 would I care? Probably not , The same way I probably shouldn’t complain if they sold it for $2000 (but might grumble)

Does the same feeling arise with an NFT? Not for me. I think I would selling something I would think could be worth zero in a short period of time (it might not be - in depends on a belief it has a value). It strikes me as a get rich quick scheme with no regards to the future losers. It’s emperors new clothes. I’m appalled at some of the photographers behaviours (charity first runs to set a price on their NFTs). I’d be dubious about whether some purchases are genuine and lack of resell data and losses. There are a number of photographers now I will no longer follow, view or purchase courses/products from. I’m sure they won’t miss it with the NFT money rolling in or lose a wink of sleep when he value of the sold NFTs drops to zero. Caveat Emptor

RT Simon's picture

Grand architecture with large salons and high ceilings, which are even found in more modest structures, required larger paintings to fill so many vacant spaces. The two evolved together because accomplished art, transforms space (and time). This is a value outside of monetary exchange.

When art transforms space, it transforms the human mind. This pursuit for creating representation, transforms the artist’s mind before the viewer’s. When we look at a portrait by Francis Bacon, and the representation, the form, eludes us spectacularly, imagine entering the mind of Francis Bacon? The NFT is void of the conditions or descriptions that force the minds of artists and viewers to experience, just a little bit, that process of transformation. Citing a concept photographers understand, it is the light reflected from an object that becomes visually important in every architectural situation, and which a photograph can achieve as work on paper.

Many of the first NFT’s using digital tools were like bad GIF animations that looped for 3 seconds. Why would anyone bother? They were trying to give a ‘Face’ to cryptocurrency. For myself, the ideal NFT would need to resemble a Tarkovsky film or a work by Jeff Wall, or even better, Banksy.

The face of cryptocurrency becomes art we all agree is important to our age.

One last point. The code behind the tools that allow people to make digital art and film, should be recognized as a form of abstract art in its own right.

B B's picture

financial markets suck every amount of money out of the real economy. NFT is just another tool created for this purpose, another derivative.

james Tarry's picture

There seems to be a divide on NFTs you love them or hate them. Personally I don’t really care if someone else chooses to not like them-you do your business your own way, but there is a lot of incorrect statements being banded around by photographers.

“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”

That is factually incorrect. While it’s true that ETH is a difference currency, to change dollars into ETH takes about 5 mins. The biggest misconception that gets thrown around by the community is that you have to be invited, that’s simply not true, you don’t have to be invited to buy ETH or sell your work.

Sure There are some sites that have invite (similar to some Stock sites) but the largest NFT market OpenSea is open for everyone, it takes no time at all to upload an image/artwork on there and list for sale.

Like I said, I don’t care if people use or don’t use the market, but it’s important that things like that are correct.