@R.Mutt

After posting our last piece about non-fungible tokens, it struck me that perhaps I was missing the point, and that such works should be read conceptually. Interpreted thusly, NFTs would be akin to Marcel Duchamp’s readymades, mass-produced objects given significance by being chosen by the artist, and could even be seen as a critique of the commodification of art, rather than just a particularly crass example of it. It does seem like a lot of meaning to hang on a five-word tweet though, even one worth $2.9 million.

Thinking about Duchamp reminded me of seeing his work The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, during a visit to that city nearly thirty years ago. I don’t recall much else about that trip, though I was there for a few days, so I guess I must have seen the Liberty Bell, and all the other historical sights. I do remember the youth hostel, a rambling wooden structure in what didn’t seem to be the most salubrious part of town. The weather was good though, so it was nice to sit in the garden in the evening, chatting with the other travellers. I need to take another long vacation in the US sometime; hopefully it won’t be too long before that’s possible again.

Comfortably fungible

Exciting news from the world of non-fungible tokens, where a work by renowned digital artist Krista Kim sold this week for a cool 288 Ether, which is apparently equivalent to quite a lot of real money.

I’ll admit that I’ve only seen the piece in question, a futuristic virtual dwelling, on the tiny, cracked screen of my ageing phone, but to me it looks very like the sort of build one could pick up in Second Life for a few Linden dollars back in 2009. The big difference is that Ms Kim’s creation incorporates some kind of blockchain technology to make it non-replicable, though why that should imbue this otherwise unremarkable artefact with such value still escapes me. It’s not an isolated case though; NFTs are evidently the latest in fashionable investment.

The spectacle of huge sums being squandered on such fripperies is pretty depressing in itself, but what I find most unsatisfactory about the whole NFT phenomenon is the way it takes the democratic content of mass production – the idea that everyone can have their own copy of something, with no one instance having any more intrinsic worth than another – and twists it to suit the values of late-stage capitalism, with its insistence that some things must be more important than others.

Anyway, it will be interesting to see how long NFT mania will last before it runs out of steam. Like all speculative bubbles, it is driven by the fact that, at this point in the boom-bust cycle, capital must seek out ever more exotic investment opportunities in order to secure a decent rate of return. The pandemic looks likely to cut some dead wood out of the economy though, creating the potential for a renewed round of accumulation, so venture capitalists might soon find that they have better things to do with their money than buy overpriced jpegs, leaving the people left holding the bitcoins in serious trouble.

That said, I’m sure there’s still a lot of money to be made in blockchain-related investment, for those with the brains and the nerve to try to predict when the market will peak. I am definitely not in that number though, so I’ll be watching from the sidelines, sipping espresso from my Alessi cup (mass-produced can still be classy), and waiting for the whole thing to come crashing down.