This is the world of NFTs.
The term “NFTs,or “non-fungible token”, refers to proof of ownership of a digital asset on the blockchain, whether it be art, music, videos, a tweet or even a same. These assets each have their own unique fingerprint – they cannot be replaced or broken down, duplicated or counterfeited. Currently, most NFT exist on Ethereum block chaina digital public ledger used to record all cryptocurrency transactions Ethereum and other smart contracts.
NFTs have become an incredibly innovative way for artists to share, sell and distribute works online. They are creating rarity in a realm where it did not exist before, enabling ownership of digital objects in a way before impossible. Not only does the artist reap the benefits of the initial sale with NFTs, but they receive a discount each time their work is traded hands. For many digital creators, NFTs are positioned as the perfect marriage between technology and art, a mediator between scarcity and the infinite reproducibility of the digital age. And now art museums want to participate.
Proponents of this merger claim that NFTs enable the democratization of art, more funding for museums, and a new way to interact with 21st century art while supporting living creators. And while one might be tempted to embrace NFTs with all these revolutionary possibilities, at the intersection of art museums and the NFT art market lies a contentious ethical debate with costly – and sometimes unknowable.
In March 2021auction house Christie’s has sold artist Beeple’s digital collage ‘EVERYDAYS: THE FIRST 5000 DAYS’ for $69 million, making it the first major auction house to sell an NFT alongside the work of art and Beeple one of the three most valuable artists living. For comparison, a recent Van Gogh on the market sold for $35.8 million – just half of what “EVERYDAYS” did. Following the instant success of Beeple and Christie’s huge payday, it’s no surprise that art museums began to take notice. The Uffizi Gallery became one of the first large-scale institutions to mint and sell an NFT from its collection in May 2021. Eager to repair the financial damage of the pandemic, the Offices sold an NFT of “Doni Tondo” by Michelangelo for $170,000. Two months later, the Hermitage Museum — one of the greatest museums in the world – have sold their own NFT of works by Vinci, Van Gogh and Kandinsky to raise funds for restoration projects. By Septemberthe British Museum had hit two NFTs of Hokusai’s “The Great Wave” for a pair of lucky (and incredibly wealthy) individuals.
Here’s where things get sticky.
On the one hand, legal issues regarding copyright and monetization of museum images, such as image licensing revenue, have yet to be resolved. Perhaps one of the most fascinating examples of this happened around two weeks ago between the Congolese Plantation Workers Art League (CATPC) and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. After the VMFA continually refused to loan a Congolese sculpture to the Art League museum and the people from whom it came, CATPC members pulled an image of the sculpture from the web and used it to mint and sell NFTs as a form of reappropriation, arousing a complex legal battle.
And while the financial benefits of selling NFT for struggling museums are significant, the absurdly high rate of sales of digital art like Beeple’s has led some to question whether this market is a bubble just waiting to burst. It’s too early to tell, but a ‘silent crash’ occurred in April last year when the average daily value of NFTs plunged by 85 percent (although some argue it was simply the market correcting itself). Not only that, but valuable and easily transferable assets in the form of digital art could be used in non-legal transactions – a reality that is complicated by the fact that the digital provenance of the NFT would forever bind it to whose institution. he was sold.
Beyond financial, legal and logistical considerations, there are also ethical concerns. What art should be minted as NFT? Should we profit from stolen art or art purchased by violent, often colonial means? Is it fair that museums, created for public access to art, sell NFTs that only a handful of the wealthiest people can afford?
There is no doubt that NFTs have the potential to revolutionize the art world, engage a wider audience and create new sources of funding for museums. But there is also something disturbing about interacting with art in a virtual world supported by technology that destroys the physical world. Although Ethereum is working towards a greener technology, a single transaction on this blockchain takes as much energy as the average American household uses in a week – a carbon footprint equal to 140,893 Visa credit card transactions or 10,595 YouTube hours. Beeple’s “EVERYDAYS” alone produced the same amount of CO2 emissions as 13 households in a whole year. Other cryptocurrencies consume even more energy: Bitcoin, which houses a handful of NFTs like those of the artist Grimes, is said to have a carbon footprint greater than Argentina. While the meteoric rise of NFTs is certainly exciting, the cost cannot be ignored.
The benefits museums derive from engaging with the NFT art market are clear. But do they outweigh the liabilities? As institutions created for the public good, it seems antithetical to allow a wealthy privileged few to own the NFTs of priceless works that only exist by consuming huge amounts of energy. For better or for worse, art museums have legitimized a world of exorbitant prices and unexplored ethical issues. This may be the future of the art world; NFTs are increasingly popular for artists and institutions. Yet there is something deeply unsettling about owning an NFT of Van Gogh’s magnificent cypress trees or Bruegel’s snowy landscapes and knowing that those very environments can be rendered unrecognizable by the destructive impacts of technology like this one. As museums endure an increasingly erratic climate and works of art and culture deteriorate over time, these digital images will exist unscathed on the blockchain. Art immortalized, untouchable, perpetually accessible through luminous screens.