The [Dissipative] Joy of Accounting: Desiring, Imagining, and Talking about NFTs While the Planet Burns

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Ricky D. Crano


Promoters of art-oriented non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and online NFT auction houses like Foundation, OpenSea, and SuperRare claim to be “revolutionizing” and “democratizing” the worlds of art and art collecting by deploying blockchain technology to track sales and purchases and thereby eliminating the threats of transactional opacity and fraud that have long plagued art markets. This article complicates such claims by arguing that with NFTs, the usual clamoring for authenticity in art becomes so abstract that only code remains, as the aesthetic object becomes effectively indistinct from the account of its provenance and transaction history. An NFT, like a financial derivative, has no necessary or representational relationship with any actual underlying object. The artwork associated with the token is, rather, prised apart from its existence as property and finds its use not in being seen or felt, but in the truth of its copyability. Looking beyond the NFTs themselves, this article interrogates the discourses promulgating this trend. Comment threads in Reddit and Discord groups, for example, do much to channel the libidinal energy elicited by an artwork, while the digital token itself generates an acquisitive enthusiasm wholly apart from the sensation of seeing or hearing the associated work. Despite fronting radical social change, NFTs ultimately reinforce traditional forms of property and ownership, exhibit reactionary aesthetic and cultural values, and anticipate increasingly authoritarian modes of social control. Taking a wider view, I consider ours an age of post-information, wherein, contrary to Bateson’s classic definition of information in terms of a doubled difference, we find data-based artifacts like NFTs (following cryptocurrency) to be increasingly productive of widespread social and political indifference, a perpetuation of sameness, and an augmentation of the narcissistic ego. In this case: data as the afterlife of art.

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