My ego dislikes debate, but my heart leaps at tension.
Over the weekend, my friend Phil and I decided to make a functional art installation called Illegal.Auction. The premise is simple: we are selling Fungible Tokens (or NFTs) of Culture.
Unsettled ideas of generation and representations colliding with abstractions like finance are important issues both culturally and practically.
Art is for itself, so who cares either way. A certain dogmatic insistence that “medium is the message” is pervasive in the critiques. Are movies different than books? I don’t think they have anything to do with the price of milk. It reminds me of the classic Annie Hall scene (speaking of artistic intent and harm) where Marshal McLuhan explodes on a chattering group “you know nothing of my work.” Woody Allen’s character concludes the scene if only real life were like this. Well on Twitter you can recreate this scene everyday!
It is funny because commentary is distinct from creation. And a lot of people have takes on McLuhan that he himself doesn’t agree with. But who cares right? Interpretation of art is ostensibly art.
It’s very interesting to see just how angry people get about the worth and value of culture in particular. As if it’s some monstrosity to comment on the abstract financial value of some creation with worth that cannot be extracted.
If it were so easy to make value judgments about art then we would trade it on the Chicago exchange like pork bellies and orange juice. Not that we don’t already sell art and trade it and frankly it has been a massive tension through the history of human creation how we value that work, but now many have decided to insist that art is non-fungible. Not interchangeable on a one to one basis like an apple. And yet we are acting like everything can be valued and traded so easily with NFTs. By making art tradeable on exchanges, we have made some thing inherently non-fungible, fungible.
This is ultimately where Illegal.Auction came from. These conversations are important and transformative. That we choose to represent the tensions with representations of reproductions of jpgs of art is part of the art installation. That it is a functional sale is in inherent to the tension.
There is a part of me that is really worried that because I am not a practicing artist that is paid for work or represented in a gallery, that I don’t have a right to comment on these issues. I am a technologist and I do work in finance and the overlap of disciplines makes this an inter-disciplinary question in my mind. It seems like some people disagree with my right to create art (and certainly the morality of remuneration).
But if we insist that only artists can make art I don’t have any right to make installations remixing software and representations. But I’m not sure anyone reading this is comfortable with that world. I am not.
I think people want there to be simple yes no questions to these things. Is it legal? Did you steal? Is it a transformative remixing of a cultural artifact? Is it worth $1 million? And the truth is is that there is no easy answer to what political system is best or how much some thing is worth. Trillion dollar industries are based around the fact that we don’t have clear answers. Irate commentary doesn’t help any of us understand the infinite questions of worth and creation. It is good to do and helps further understanding but its crucial to remember indignation and moralizing is a function of ego.
Personally I don’t think that wealth has any moral value. I don’t want to have to be wealthy in order to be valuable. Or if a piece of art I make does make money do you have a right to tell me it is objectionable because this isn’t how you make money? I guess you do. Whether you can stop me from doing it is a central questions for the ages and also literally why it is important to create pieces like Illegal.Auction in the first place.
This commentary I think is worth having. Not whether speculative infinite land grabs with financial instruments make you worth more to billionaires. They probably do. That’s fine! I think people are mostly offended by the idea that non-artists can make art. Especially if a transaction takes place. If we had stamped illegal on the jpgs and blocked out NOT ART on them would it have made it better? Conceptually I’m not sure that that’s true and probably reflects the viewer’s own sense of value and worth more than a legal, political or moral reality. Also I personally think it cheapens the point just to make concessions to dogmatic insistence on ownership in a space that isn’t settled because frankly it cannot be.
Much of the narrative and coverage around NFTs is that they delineate ownership, value and origination more cleanly. I’d argue that they are actually having the opposite effect. NFT’s are ripping away edifice and abstractions that we use to assign value and worth. And that makes people uncomfortable.