Some see it as a form of emancipation for artists, some will say it is the epitome of art’s capitalization and its bizarre alienating result. Not many things have been as controversial in the world of art as NFTs. Everyone can connect the dots and see how the Pandemic has played a role in allowing NFTs to take the internet by storm.
The Pandemic has surely brought people physically distant from one another even closer and more intimate with their computers and social media, while also sparking people’s keenness for the digital arts. These factors created the perfect ground for the explosion of NFTs.
German philosopher Walter Benjamin was famous for his concept of aura, which can be understood as a unique point in space-time in which a person experiences the presence of an object, usually a work of art. Such an experience is convoluted with mystery and a feeling of unbridgeable distance between audience and object. This experience of aura is usually associated with a ritualistic tradition behind the work of art.
“The authenticity of a thing is the quintessence of all that is transmissible in it from its origin on, ranging from its physical duration to the historical testimony relating to it.”
(Benjamin, The Work of Art in The Age of Mechanical Reproduction, page 103)
Benjamin’s culture critique claimed that this aura of works of art was threatened by the advent of mechanical reproduction and its ability to massively replicate a work of art over and over again, reaching the eyes of millions of people instantly and shattering the uniqueness and importance of attending a museum in order to witness and be in the presence of an acclaimed work of art, for example.
We, people of the internet age know very well about massive reproduction as we witness viral phenomena and memes for example (the massive reproduction of a given image, often to the point of annoyance). It is, thus, not far-fetched for us to understand how art could lose its aura once it hits the internet.
The concept of aura has a lot to do with the authenticity of a work of art, which according to Benjamin was the key to holding institutional power over the arts. Such institutions not only controlled the commercialization of art, but also the distribution and access to art. Perhaps they already knew of the revolutionary potential of art and in order to tame this power, art had been wrapped around ritual and authenticity, which created a distance to the lives of ordinary people.
Benjamin was focused on exposing the ways in which the capitalist system creates the conditions for its own subversion, mass reproduction of art by mechanical means is an example of this. The decay of aura was an opportunity for humanity to do away with obsolete attachments to the authority derived from authenticity so that art could acquire a new role in society and come closer to the lives of regular people.
NFTs come into this scenario as a reaction to this inevitable loss of authenticity and an attempt at creating a replacement for it that could be suitable to the digital world and its logics. NFTs could be seen as a reactionary response that attempts to regain the ancient power structures established between audience and work of art.
However, as a technological solution it actually falls short of creating any real authenticity around a work of art, as anyone can still access, download, view and reproduce a piece of art regardless of buying an NFT for it. In this sense, these tokens are closer to mocking our obsession with authenticity than to really restoring any aura.
Some may claim that this movement will create an aura of its own for NFT or digital art in general. In my eyes, NFTs as a medium for artists are more important for the dilemmas and conflicts they expose than for their effectiveness. One reason I attribute to the proliferation of NFTs is the turbulence the pandemic has created in social life.
If art has become largely more available by means of digital reproduction, physical and present human encounters on the other hand have become ever more rare. Our urge to reconnect physically has largely augmented the mystery and fantasy that surrounds human presence, which has definitely delineated its aura, turning it almost into a long lost art form of kinds. This may sound like an exaggeration unless you live with a child who once hated going to school and is now desperate to return to the classroom.
I see NFTs as an escape valve for our unconscious urges to reconnect; the obsession and hype which we have been witnessing lately is a drama performed by crypto whales and sharks who have taken over the internet as their stage. In this stage the outcries of the human unconscious are let out and are now transforming into their own aesthetic statement and movement.
One would have to be naive to see NFTs as an antagonist to the arts; the history of art shows that it is a manifestation that can gain a life of its own and is capable not only of adapting but also subjugating any medium to its own purposes.
On The Flipside
- While the aura of art declines steadily and the aura of human physical presence increases in value, meetings and encounters that used to have their own aura are now experiencing loss as a result of the pandemic. Before the pandemic you might have been concerned about missing a class as it was a unique event that would never repeat again in your history. Nowadays, more and more encounters are recorded, and sometimes even turned into NFTs, losing their uniqueness in space-time along with their aura. For some, this can represent a democratization of events that were once confined to a select few and to which aura was used as a means of creating more inequality.
- In any case, the aura of physical presence will remain unmatched by any existing technological resource, enhancing the sense of authenticity and realness involved in the experience of its aura.