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The flex culture of art: The Dutch Golden Age to the NFT boom

The NFT fad has a long history.

The zeitgeist of cryptocurrency in the last decade has led to the advent of non-fungible tokens (NFTs), each a unique unit of data stored on decentralised digital ledgers (blockchain). NFTs have become key in digital culture, most commonly being used as a ‘token of authenticity’ for the purchase of digital artwork. However, the line between an NFT being representative of art and becoming art itself has become blurred, with people purchasing and auctioning NFTs in the same way that the art market operates. The NFT market value tripled in 2020, reaching more than USD$250 million. 

NFT culture isn’t just the fine art branch of blockchain technologies, but a natural step in an ancient art-based flex culture. More specifically, a middle class flex culture. Class instability often leads to a middle class focused on the appearance of wealth and ‘class’ rather than true financial station. Art therefore, is a constant of the middle class condition. Purchasing art for the home indicates (in theory) that the purchaser has an understanding of taste and culture, with sufficient wealth to purchase purely aesthetic and non-functional objects. 

In the 17th century Dutch Golden Age, this manifested as small paintings for the home. Many painters of this time moved away from an often unreliable commission model, and instead to pre-prepared smaller works that could be sold to the emerging merchant class. Quality art could now be bought at market or on demand, and even potentially imported. In this era, even some lower-class families had art in their home. But it was the merchant middle class which had the most to lose and gain and, therefore, purchased the most art, solidifying their place in society through aesthetic. 

Many expensive Dutch Golden Age paintings were ‘impossible’ compositions. The painter would include vegetation from different seasons — a display of wealth to house guests to boast of access to many imported goods and being cultured in different areas. 

The usage of rare NFTs as profile pictures on Discord has become a commonality and a heightened form of this flex culture, in the same way that a ‘hypebeast’ would post pictures of their sold out Supreme shirt on Instagram or a 17th century Dutch trader would display a still life in their home. An individual’s understanding of ‘art’ is often seen as showing culture, class and intelligence. The display of such items flexes both wealth and cultural knowledge, even though many NFTs are an intertextual mix-mash of pop culture references and multimedia content (Spongebob edits, Rick and Morty line drawings and trading-card inspired compositions are all common on platforms like OpenSea, one of the largest NFT marketplaces).

The previous digital incarnation of this is (like most things on the internet) rooted in furry culture. The 2010s explosion of furry culture onto mainstream social apps like Tumblr, Twitter and Reddit led to a dynamic and powerful supply and demand for high quality or ‘specialised’ furry art. This lucrative commission culture paved the way for the ‘value’ of digital art on these platforms to increase. Even if the image was proliferated and made public, you were still the one that bought it. You commissioned it. This led to the normalisation of spending thousands on what is (essentially) a digital painting, even if people could copy/paste it.

This commission model also allows for artists to set prices based on labour, with each party fairly compensated. Comparatively, the allure of NFTs is more so in their desirability as commercial objects, and fair compensation is considerably less clear within a cryptocurrency auction model. This commission flex culture is a way of establishing yourself as an important figure within a new culture. Essentially, the instability created a desire to assert control through aesthetic means. The most unstable (prone to movement) social class is of course, the middle. 

From an art criticism perspective, NFTs are a very interesting mirror of printmaking processes. Fine art prints are printed in editioned sets. How many is up to the artist, but the smaller the edition, the more ‘valuable’ an individual print is. Often prints are run as Unique Prints, with a single print in the edition. Similarly, each NFT is its own ‘print’, but often the artist (or company) produces these in runs of any number they want. But that leads to a question that the art world has been toying with for the last couple decades: what is the value of digital art? 

In a real-world environment, much of the aesthetic value in an artwork isn’t just its surface ‘appearance’. It’s in the interplay between texture, light and materiality. One of the reasons for fine art press-printing continuing (even in the world of digital printing) is how colours look when they are physically pressed into paper. The rich, pigmented black of an etching print isn’t comparable to a flat RGB black on a screen. This is because the colour is physically pressed and bonded into a matte material and is much more engaging as a result. When you see digital images of such works, much of the aesthetic value is lost — even if it ‘looks the same.’ That’s the reason why many artworks in art galleries aren’t behind glass or perspex — so that you can see the real dimensional texture and materiality of the artwork. 

A lot of the hype around artistic merit in NFT cultures is due to its proliferation in demographics that have grown up with digital images being interchangeable with real world objects. Many people in the culture seemingly come from a digital background rather than an artistic one. They’re more interested in the high value auction culture of the commercial art world than the potential implementations of NFTs into fine art production. Some contemporary artists like Damien Hurst and Banksy have begun the creation of their own collections or one offs. Hurst’s is a digital currency using images from his physical work whilst Banksy’s is a digital recreation of a work he intentionally destroyed, turning it into an NFT. Such applications are certainly interesting, but aren’t really pushing the potential of the discipline into something more conceptually dynamic. 

I’ve seen some galleries host NFT art shows but, whilst potentially curatorially interesting in how the works relate to one another, I fail to see a reason for viewing art on a screen separate to the screen I have at home. Conversely, I am fully aware that an image of Vase of Flowers by Jan Davidsz de Heem (c. 1660, Oil on Canvas) on my phone would look entirely different in real life. The engagement experience of the art is entirely different. But for NFTs, it isn’t. 

NFTs aren’t a threat to the Art World or art market in the way many adherents claim. They’re an extension of crypto-currency and digital hype culture that mimics pre-existing artistic modes of creation for the purposes of potentially profitable wealth performance. 

Like how the Golden Age was built on the backs of slave plantations, colonialism, and a disregard for the environment, NFTs of today have disastrous environmental and ethical concerns. Their high power usage is damaging for the environment, and the increase in crypto-farms has led to global overconsumption of computer parts, with massive shortages in nearly every country, and especially in developing countries. If NFTs are to continue and join the broader modes of artistic creation, then they need to become more sustainable and potentially regulated. 

The NFT bubble will bust. When it does, I’m excited to see what earnest and art-driven digital artists will do with this interesting intersection of art and technology. I certainly hope it isn’t more Rick and Morty.

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