Object not found: NFTs and the paradox of authenticity in art

What are NFT’s? Are art collectors paying millions for screenshots?                  

Photo by: Simine Azarnoush

Object not found: NFTs and the paradox of authenticity in art

By: Priscilla Silva

Published 27 May 2021

NFTs are the latest craze that is taking over the art world. From 8-bit icons to viral videos, anything can be transformed into a digital asset to later be auctioned for hundreds of thousands of dollars at some of the biggest art houses in the world, just like a normal painting would. But how can a person purchase and own something that technically does not “exist”? How do we judge the authenticity of an artwork that solely lives and can be freely reproduced online? Are we entering a new age of dadaism?


Over the past few years a new movement has stormed the art market by surprise: “Non-fungible tokens”, or NFTs, are the newest form in which artists and certain entertainment companies are beginning to sell their work. But what is an NFT? NFTs or “nifties”, as some refer to them, are units of data stored in a blockchain, a sort of digital wallet almost impossible to hack, and which possess unique characteristics that make them non-interchangeable. It’s similar to a one-of-a-kind Pokémon card, only digital. An NFT can be anything: an original piece of digital art, a picture, a video or even a meme and its acquisition is done utilizing a form of cryptocurrency, usually Ethereum (ETH). 


In this age in which going “viral” is viewed as an achievement, possessing an NFT of something that has gone viral in the past or represented a peak moment in popular culture can be extremely valuable. The most recent examples of this phenomenon are the auctions of the “Disaster Girl Meme”—a childhood picture of Zoë Roth smiling mischievously while a fire takes place in the background—which sold for $473,000, and the original video of “Charlie Bit My Finger”, featuring brothers Harry and Charlie Davies-Carr having a playful moment in their living room as toddlers, which sold for $760,999 just last week.


What makes NFTs controversial is that the buyer does not fully “own” the work but rather a copy of it, which possesses a distinctive code registered in the blockchain that links it to a particular buyer. The original author remains the sole owner of the work and has the right to reproduce it however they prefer, continue posting it online and even creating and selling new NFTs of the work. For this reason, many consider the NFT craze a scam, a con and a trend that will eventually wear off and fade into oblivion.


Although NFTs are able to exist thanks to the age of computers, there was a time over a century ago when a certain French artist came up with a similar maneuver. In 1917, at the exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in New York, Marcel Duchamp, under the pseudonym of R. Mutt, presented Fountain, a porcelain urinal handpicked by Duchamp himself and that would later become his best known work. The piece caused such commotion that people regarded it as mockery or “anti-art”, and Duchamp as the “anti-artist”. 


At the same time, Fountain became the most prominent among Duchamp’s series of “found objects” or readymades: common, everyday objects not normally associated with art that are taken out of their original context and given art status. Sixteen copies of the work were made and sold for as much as $1,762,500. One of those copies currently lives in the archives of the collection of Moderna Museet in Stockholm.


Photo by: Alfred Stieglitz 1917 of Marcel Duchamp "Fountain" 1917.

The Fountain scandal and Duchamp’s collection of readymades set the foundations of what would later be known as dada (Wikipedia), an art movement born in Swtizerland in the early 20th century which later expanded to the rest of Europe and that rejected the conventionalities of academic art. Dadaists would take newspaper cutouts, found objects and other easily accessible, often mass produced elements as their preferred medium, moving away from the brushes, paint and marble that are more traditionally associated with art practice. 


In a way, dada promoted the idea that anything could be art and anyone could be an artist. Similarly, NFTs are opening a market for those artists whose creations would have been otherwise overlooked by the big auction houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s. The real value of NFTs, just like with readymades, is in the limited amount of “authorized” copies there exist. Anyone could download and re-upload the “Charlie Bit My Finger” video on Youtube, just like anyone could steal a public urinal and sign it as “R. Mutt” at any given time. However, there is only one original—or in the case of Fountain, sixteen—and that’s what the buyer is paying for. 


This brings us to begin questioning the concept of authenticity and the value of “owning an original”. Is there really someone willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for something that, at the end of the day, can still be accessed online and reproduced by anyone for free? Apparently yes. Will someone eventually stand up and yell that “the Emperor has no clothes”, putting an end to the NFT craze? Perhaps. However, it’s been a moment since the art world experienced such a revolution. Art practice has moved beyond the studios and into the blockchain, and as an industry whose biggest source of profit is constant change, shock and disruption, the NFT fever comes out as refreshing and could even represent a cultural reset. Because what is more disruptive than buying an object you cannot see or touch in real life? Not even Duchamp could come up with something like that!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *