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The embarrassing cost of crypto-art

On the pitfalls of attaching currency to digital art.

With every new technological breakthrough comes innovations ranging from revolutionary to deeply flawed. With the ‘Network of Things’ concept springing up over the past decade, we’ve seen the release of both internet-connected devices that have greatly improved our lives, and ‘Smart’ gadgets that are either questionably useless like Bluetooth water bottles, or dystopically intrusive like Amazon’s Echo. No-one can deny that one of the most exciting new technologies to emerge recently is that of the blockchain, which de-centralised and community-based foundations have the power to wrench financial and informational control out of the hands of corporations and place them back into the hands of the people. While our understanding of the possible implementations of blockchain technology is still very much in its early infancy, one of the most unjustifiably detrimental and explosively popular applications of crypto techniques is that of crypto-art.

The concept is simple: digital art, because it is comprised entirely of data which can be endlessly copied and shared without degradation, has no inherent value. Crypto-art presents a ‘solution’ to this seemingly unavoidable nature of data: by minting a unique token on a chosen crypto-currency’s blockchain that is attached to a unique piece of art, artists can create value for any piece of digital art through artificial scarcity, since there is now a distinction between an original and a copy. Artists can then auction this off on crypto-art sites like Zora, with winners receiving either a symbolic or legal ownership over the auctioned piece of data. However, the widening gulf between the noble goals of crypto-art and its actual practical effects are abundantly clear.

First, crypto-art seems to fundamentally misplace the blame on the nature of data itself rather than the disappointing contemporary culture surrounding paying artists for their work. Outside of mere aesthetic similarities, digital works bear no real resemblance to their physical counterparts in either their distribution or their enjoyment. To listen to a song or look at a digital artwork is to already own a copy of it somewhere on your device: this fact has been responsible for a level of informational and artistic freedom and democratisation unlike the world has ever seen. Artists are able to reach audiences wide beyond their physical networking capabilities. As such, the lack of financial compensation for these artistic experiences should not be the fault of the medium itself, but rather the forces that have shaped its toxic culture up to today: streaming services, the over-policing of pirating, the industry’s heavy reliance on outdated label deals and publishing houses, and copyright law. 

Moreover, crypto-art threatens to re-engage a deeply harmful part of the traditional art market that digital art proposed to abandon long ago: the speculative investment element that comes hand-in-hand with scarcity. Though crypto-currencies are decentralised now, it’s not hard to imagine the possibility that one day the blockchain could be policed by governments or other bodies in order to protect against scams or fraud – the ATO’s recent actions into identity verification already demonstrate that such a future is likely. If so, digital art will fall into the same pit of inaccessible elitism that the medium so inherently resists. If Mark Cuban is getting in, that should be a clear-enough sign that something is ripe for exploitation.

Perhaps most concerningly, however, is the massive environmental impact crypto-art has. Minting unique tokens and auctions on blockchains such as Ethereum have a massive electrical cost, since all servers hosting the blockchain must be constantly refreshed and updated with the relevant transactions and movements. A recent investigation done by Turkish computer scientist Memo Atken revealed that running an auction on Ethereum for ten seconds generated more CO2 than powering a large electronic music studio for two years. And for a largely symbolic act of ownership, such an ecological cost seems absurdly unjustifiable.

The fundamental motivation for crypto-art’s inception is understandable. The exploitation of data’s malleability by companies and labels, like streaming service mega-giant Spotify, has made it almost impossible to survive as an independent artist in 2021. The overwhelmingly capitalistic sponging of surplus value by these corporations desperately calls for an alternative system of remuneration for artists. Crypto-art is a possible solution, but one that is embarrassingly detrimental. One simple look at pay-what-you-want and donation-based models, like Bandcamp’s massively successful revenue-waiving Fridays promotion, shows us that another world is not only possible, but on the verge of arriving.

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