The artworld is buzzing about "non-fungible tokens" (NFTs), or digital files in which ownership is secured by blockchain technology. As the name suggests, such a crypto-asset can exist only as a whole piece. That's unlike cryptocurrency, which is infinitely divisible and, well, fungible. NFTs are diverse in their features and functions, but various kinds of art are now being traded as NFTs: digital images, GIFs, and audio clips, for example.
A digital artist named Mike Winkelmann, otherwise known as Beeple, makes digital "Beeple-crap," as he calls it, like the giant "Xi-bot" shown above. He has successfully monetized the digital images he's posted on his website over the last 13 years. In a coup de grace, he recently aggregated all those images into a one-file mashup NFT for which a buyer paid $69.3 million in Ethereum (less a substantial fee to Christie's auction house). And Beeple isn't the only one making big bucks on NFTs!
Beeple's "collage" is available for anyone to see or copy on the web. It's called "Everdays: The First 5000 Days". But precisely what are the rights now held by the buyer of "5000 Days"? Apparently, they are limited to the satisfaction of knowing digital proof of ownership is his, and whatever that smug feeling might be worth on potential resale! In fact, Beeple himself retains the copyright to 5000 Days, so it's not as if the buyer is the only guy who can ever print a high-resolution copy. But here's what Beeple says the buyer got:
"The biggest thing he actually bought is a relationship with me to promote his purchase. He and I are very aligned. I want to see this artwork go up in value. He wants to see the artwork go up in value, which benefits me. So the idea that he bought nothing is kind of misleading."
The buyer, known as Metakovan, is the founder of Metapurse Fund, a highly influential player in crypto ventures and NFTs. But Metakovan's purchase of 5000 Days is not his first collaboration with Beeple. They already had a significant "relationship," and this transaction obviously won't be their last.
If this smells a bit like a con game to you, you're not alone. Don't get me wrong: Beeple does produce art ... very striking images, in fact. They might not be your cup of tea, and many are a bit cartoonish, but Beeple has computer skills and a real creative streak. He also has a knack for self-promotion unequaled, in relative terms, by perhaps any of the old masters or impressionists.
I'm perfectly happy to know there is a vibrant market in anything people call art. Whatever floats your boat, baby! However, I have trouble believing that long-term growth can occur on top of this kind of "valuation" without an escalating monetary inflation. Between the Federal Reserve's open-spigot policy of near-zero interest rates and the advent of crypto-currencies with supply limits, dollars are getting cheap. Asset markets, still denominated in dollars, usually receive more than their fair share of bidding as excess dollars accumulate on balance sheets. So the outlook might be bright for NFTs as an asset class, such as it is.
Art in the Ersatz
The most regrettable thing about NFTs like 5000 Days might be what it reflects about the state of the art world itself. Richard Bledsoe of the Remodern Review has a lively take on 5000 Days and NFTs as a new stage in the long decline in the quality of what is called art. Bledsoe is no fan of contemporary art, which he argues has been enabled by elites who have successfully corrupted the art market.
I'm no expert, but I generally view contemporary art as less ambitious and requiring less skill than earlier forms. I think that's easy to prove (see here and here), but it's outside the scope of this post. I have wondered whether the emergence of contemporary art was impelled by the tremendous increase in prosperity during the late 19th and 20th centuries and the attendant expansion in the market for original art. Artists such as painters and sculptors, whose labor productivity did not greatly benefit from technology growth (we can argue about the last several decades), might have adjusted to this reality by focusing on simpler and more abstract forms. This is a digression, but it's surely worthy of a much longer treatment.
There's no accounting for tastes, of course, and while I like some contemporary art, I'm definitely sympathetic to Bledsoe's views. As for NFTs, he quotes from his book, "Remodern America: How the Renewal of Art Will Change the Course of Western Civilization":
"Billions are being spent on unskilled and intangible contemporary art. Just like in the good old days, many of the suckers are the newly rich or globalists looking for social credibility and a fast buck. There's a lot of money laundering and tax evasion in the equation as well. How does the art world convince well-heeled fools to part with their money, when they are offering so little real value in return? Simple. The art market follows the tried and true methods honed by generations of confidence tricksters: the elaborate pantomime known as the long con…"
Don't You Let That Deal Go Down
Bledsoe gives a brief sketch of the mechanics of the "long con" and how it's practiced in the art market. He describes players such as the "Shill" (a promoter who avoids revealing a personal stake), the "Face" (a celebrity whose presence helps to "guarantee buzz will exceed rationality), and then lastly, the "Roper":
"... whose affluence leads to influence, a savvy and powerful individual whose participation gives credibility to the whole enterprise. What is ignored is how much moguls like this manipulate the market to serve personal interests, using insider trading, shady financing and backroom deals to inflate the value of their own collections.In any other industry, common practices of the establishment art market could probably lead to criminal charges. But in the unregulated free-for-all of the art world, it's very hard to bring these cases of potential white-collar crime to justice, and the victims here are less than sympathetic. After all, the buyers are people who have so much money it's meaningless to them. Who cares if a bunch of billionaires are getting ripped off?"
All of these players seem well ensconced in the world of promoting NFT art: Beeple in particular, the "art experts" at Christie's, Beeple's celebrity pals (OMG! Katy Perry!!), and finally Metakovan's stature as an authority on NFTs and "tokenomics." By the way, his considered opinion is that 5000 Days is "worth a billion dollars." Well, okay then!
Another insane aspect of NFTs and the crypto-currencies used to buy them is the pushback over the carbon footprint of crypto-currency mining. This is discussed briefly by Bledsoe as well. While the electricity used in mining is significant, the amount attributable to any given transaction is minuscule. Yet now, sales of high-value NFTs are accompanied by the purchase of carbon credits. Read this description of an auction to be held for a piece of art created by Jerry Garcia on a Mac in 1990. It says, "... carbon offsetting to be provided by a company called Aerial." Now, Jerry Garcia was a talented visual artist on canvas and on his early Mac, not to mention his considerable magic as a guitarist and songwriter. God bless his family, and no offense to the Garcia Foundation, but they were perfect suckers for what has quickly become a standardized virtue signal or buy-off. The fact is that carbon offsets generally don't have an impact for many years, and there are doubts as to their efficacy in permanently reducing carbon when the time comes.
While the artistic value of NFTs like 5000 Days can be debated, my doubts about their value as assets center around the lack of real ownership rights conferred to buyers. Work is underway, however, on new NFT standards that would allow an NFT buyer to collect royalties, which would obviously carry real value. So, for example, a musician or band could immediately monetize a recording's future royalties by selling it as an NFT. No one should have qualms about that, and good for the musicians.
I believe other kinds of NFTs have real value, in principle, such as the digital racehorses discussed in this article. Apparently, virtual horse races have already achieved a degree of popularity. These crypto-horses actually win prize money and collect stud fees based on their digital bloodlines. Another example: NFTs can be concert tickets, electronic possession of which can entitle the bearer to a particular seat at the venue; or, the NFT might remain in your "digital wallet" as a season ticket to sporting events. Among the claimed advantages over "normal" electronic ticketing is security, and NFT tickets live on as tradeable memorabilia as well.
It's still early days for crypto-currencies and especially for NFTs. I can't object to a free individual spending their hard-earned crypto-wealth on crypto-art like 5000 Days. The market for NFT art does seem to embody aspects of a confidence game. And like Richard Bledsoe, I'm a skeptic when it comes to most contemporary art. However, there are circumstances under which the value of NFTs can be compelling, and the development of more "use-cases" will increase the value of digital currencies. New NFT standards and applications might well revolutionize certain industries. Continuing asset inflation instigated by central banks, and especially the Federal Reserve, will cause the dollar value of crypto assets to rise. Big institutions like investment banks are starting to jump on the crypto bandwagon as well. So, while some NFTs might be short-term plays and might even be dangerous swindles, crypto and NFTs, in general, should not be dismissed as an asset class.
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