Some things are explained so many times that they become unexplainable: we can only relate to them as something complicated that needs to be explained. The global financial crisis was like this. Crypto-currencies were like this too. The newest thing that exists to be explained is the world of non-fungible tokens, or NFTs.
NFTs are collectible digital objects. They are created with a technology called the blockchain, which unalterably and uniquely records their provenance. This means that if I mint an NFT of an image — a cartoon of Donald Trump, say, sitting naked astride the Capitol — I can prove definitive ownership of the image, no matter how many copies exist. In other words, NFTs can be authenticated, which means they can be sold. I use the example of a naked Trump because it’s a piece by digital artist Beeple, who this year sold a collage of his images for more than $69 million at Christie’s. ‘Sweet baby Jesus,’ he told the New Yorker, ‘this is ridiculous.’
Art writer Dean Kissick described Beeple’s work as reflecting ‘the collective–hallucinatory firmament in which tired art, recycled pop, bad taste, political spectacle and hyper-speculation swirl and coalesce into modern life’. Broadly speaking, I agree. Listening to Kissick’s appearance on the art-gossip and culture-war podcast Red Scare, the conversation reflected a general uncertainty about what to make of NFTs beyond the obvious fact that they are profoundly annoying. The hosts of Red Scare are New York art scene insiders turned hugely successful podcast provocateurs. They manage to ooze intimacy and inaccessibility in equal measure, saying things like: ‘The only thing making me feel better about the wage gap is my thigh gap,’ in voices that bubble and purr with vocal fry.
Kissick and the hosts are in loose agreement that the NFT world is the product of a degraded visual culture, one that has shrieked into the void so long the void now shrieks back.