Musings on NFTs as the Pop Art of our era, their place within the context of Western Art History, and their intrinsic value as works of art
by Joyce Korotkin
NFTs are today’s Pop Art but a pop art that evolves on the spot in real-time, changing with the zeitgeist of the moment, as opposed to the Pop Art movement of the mid-20th century, which was an homage to the popular culture that had already been lived, observed, consumed, analyzed and then presented to the art-viewing public by its progenitors, as a legitimate cultural force worth evaluating and elevating to the realm of fine art.
Pop Art was about what had already happened, that no one had perceived of as being art while it was happening, having all grown up in a culture that for the first time in human history gave the entire population of a nation exposure to what would become communal memories via mass-consumed experiences and products regardless of geographical or socio-economic differences. One could attend a music festival in the 1960s and meet thousands of others from all over the country who had grown up familiar with the same stuff - the ubiquitous cans of Campbell’s Soup lining the shelves in supermarkets, the fast food highway stops and billboard signs, the Golden Age comic books, Bazooka Joe bubble gum wrappers, the burgeoning car culture. They had watched the same Disney and Sci-Fi movies and genesis TV sitcoms and Saturday morning cartoons. The joke of the times was, if you could hear Gioachino Rossini’s William Tell Overture and not think of The Lone Ranger, you were an intellectual. One’s neighborhood had essentially become the entire country. The power of this within the context of its times cannot be understated.
NFTs differ radically in that they are not works of art about the culture; rather, they are the culture; they are of the moment, are evolving continually, and are interconnected in people's daily lives via the ether of social media and, most recently, the advent of AI. They are not about what happened back then, via the recapitulation as paintings of genres such as comic books by Roy Lichtenstein, or of popular foods such as French Fries into sculptures by Claes Oldenburg, causing us to take stock of our culture by re-examining and validating it. Rather, they are the comic book. They are the culture itself, taking shape before our very eyes.
That NFTs are intangible, available for anyone to view and pull off the internet, is debated by many as indicative of their alleged lack of value, specifically with regard to ownership and authenticity. They are derided by naysayers as jokes and fads that will end up, like Crypto, in the dustbin of history.
But there is already more than a century of cultural precedent for them as a continuum of the kind of thinking that brought us Modernism in all of its manifestations, including Minimalism, Conceptualism and Contemporary, and Post-Contemporary Art. If one had purchased Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ candy portraits from the 80s-90s, one didn’t own the actual physical works. The works consisted of piles or arrangements of wrapped hard candies of specific weights corresponding to the weight of those persons the artist had loved and lost. The public was invited to take a piece until during the course of the exhibition the pile itself would disappear. The viewer played an interactive role in the work, in fact, became an inseparable part of the work, complicit, sharing in the artist’s loss, with actions that literally shaped it, thus actually becoming the art. One might scoff and argue that anyone could drop a pile of candy in a corner and call it art (as one might state that NFTs can be ‘owned’ by anybody simply by the act of right-clicking to download). But what a collector ultimately purchased was the legal right to own it, display it and call it a Gonzalez-Torres. That the artist himself is no longer alive to arrange each exhibition of the work is of no consequence. The fact that the work doesn’t exist in any tangible form until it is displayed again (with new candy that the artist never saw), is likewise irrelevant.
Art has always been about ideas; the entire canon of western art history is a case in point, easily traced through interwoven threads of thoughts expressed in stylistic ‘isms’ by succeeding generations of creators. That physical art itself was deconstructed and eventually distilled into the purity of the idea that existed only as a concept was part of this progression.
Conceptual art lives in the space of ideas that anyone can access, albeit not own, simply by thinking about them. Ironically, these ideas have become commodities (the very thing that conceptual art sought to dispel), and their value has increased, as art in the officially sanctioned historical canon always does. NFTs are intangible commodities that exist in digital space, authenticated on the blockchain; as with conceptual art, anyone can access them but not everyone can own them. Ownership remains as valuable as it always has been in art (the perception of value is a whole other discussion; suffice it to say that where there is a marketplace in which people buy and sell art, there is value; or, at least, the notion of it). Collectors collect.
To put it another way… Thousands of images of the Mona Lisa circulate every day, but the painting itself resides in the Louvre, owned by the French government. Do the photographs of it, or the commercial objects made from them such as T-shirts, mugs, calendars and the like, diminish or increase the painting’s value with each subsequent iteration? The intrinsic value lies in the original, which becomes more priceless every day. These objects, or derivatives of the original painting, and the people who create them, can be seen as its community. The same holds true for NFTs and their communities, as is evidenced by the ongoing fervor to own and make derivatives of ‘blue chip’ originals such as the BAYC, Doodles, World of Women, Punks, etc.
NFTs’ art historical subtext is interwoven within the fabric of the digital art revolution and is by proxy its very validation. Although the platforms, technologies and blockchains used to create, store and exhibit NFTs are relatively new, the only thing that has changed is the format in which the art is created, and the velocity at which it is produced and delivered - documenting the culture on the blockchain with astonishing rapidity in real-time with each passing moment.
Culture is a moveable feast, so grab some proverbial hard candy, mint away and document the Pop Art culture of your own time and place.
Joyce Korotkin: NFT Artist, Painter, Collector, Art Journalist, Editor. Founding Member of the SearchLight.art Curatorial Team; Trustee on Board of Vizmesh.io. Joyce Korotkin is a digital artist and painter whose work is exhibited both nationally and internationally in museums, galleries, art fairs, event venues, the metaverse and augmented reality. Her work is included in museum and public collections. Korotkin has written extensively on art for internationally published art journals including Tema Celeste Contemporary Art, ArtReview, and ArtNews, and co-authored an internationally distributed book, NeoBaroque! (Charta, 2005). Her work can be found on: https://Linktr.ee/JoKorot