Intro: Art as Labor, Art’s Inherent Value, Art’s Financial Value, Art as Art
Art is a product of creative labor, it is social currency, it is based on cultural relevance, it is inherently relative, and as such, its value is a complex, multi-layered, and open-ended proposition. The question of valuation in art is persistent, largely unanswered, and has only grown in complexity and importance over time.
Art’s “special value form” is reflected by its status as a material product with a singular creator which contains within it the labor attached to the product (there are, of course, exceptions, but that is broadly true). Artistic labor is in a certain sense an immaterial form of labor. Artistic value is theoretically contained within the work itself — that is to say the value of a piece of artwork is neither inherent nor intrinsic. This is a topic which can be debated endlessly in and of itself from any number of philosophical positions.
The commodification of art and the legacy of museums are not entirely analogous. The commodification of art is largely a modern phenomenon; the market value of art runs far deeper, historically; the symbolic value of art is inherent to and analogous with art itself. The market value is a natural extension of the symbolic value of art; it is nearly as old as art itself.
Where it all goes topsy-turvy is with the commodification of art. Art as a financial asset or investment vehicle is decidedly modern and has only grown in prevalence through the current moment.
Cryptoart finds itself at an odd cross-section between art as commodity and art as symbolically (read: culturally, socially) valuable. On the one hand, the symbolic value of an NFT PFP project (punk, toad, what have you) is inextricably wound with its commodity value. These projects are clout-bearing commodities. The cachet attained via a cryptopunk is both symbolically important and immensely valuable as a commodity — there is little beyond that. On some level art ought to be able to justify itself as art for art’s sake. It is clear that, though they may be aesthetically pleasing, PFP projects are not art-as-art. There may be art there, sure (especially as it inherently flies in the face of both the traditional art world and art collecting — this is itself a sort-of commentary on the decrepitude of contemporary and traditional art landscapes) but it is ancillary at best. None of which is to reject, on its face, the notion of PFP projects — it is simply time for a reality check.
The culture and economics of cryptocurrencies are definitionally imbued in the attendant NFT art scene. The import, both as a commodity and symbolically, of a cryptopunk is not tied to its artistic merit. Thus we touch on a constant complication in the valuation of art; the value (symbolic, market, or commodity) isn’t inherent in the art itself, and the boundary between NFT art and commodity is likely more concrete than in the analog art world. Because of the nature of the crypto community and the way in which cryptocurrencies (and, it follows, wealth) are enmeshed in the culture itself, the value of NFT art (generally speaking) at every level is inseparable from economic factors.
Art’s “special value form” as a product that (theoretically, anyhow) contains the labor that produced it has always led to a confused place within the market economy. Artistic labor is a privileged and abstract form of labor (which certainly isn’t to say it is easy to produce — the opposite is true, if anything) and as such valuation is not done by the same parameters as other products. These valuations are further complicated within cryptoart by generative artwork — a subset of questions one could get thoroughly lost in on their own.
The most intuitive and lasting value of art is its symbolic value. Creating art and collecting art lends prestige and recognition. It always has and it always will. This value is entirely relative to the cultural and historical context in which a piece is created and collected. This context-dependence isn’t to diminish the importance of a piece’s symbolic value, it is simply to say that that value is grounded in a specific time and place. It encapsulates both the innate allure of a piece of art and the social capital accrued by artists and collectors alike. This value is taken largely for granted and is the undercurrent that drives and propagates (not entirely, but to a large extent) the collecting and exchange of pieces. This all mostly goes without saying and is simply taken at face value without a great deal of reflection. The symbolic (read: cultural, social, etc.) value of a piece is often related to market and commodity values but not as a rule.
The relationship between symbolic value and NFTs, however, raises deep questions and brings the question of symbolic value to a very prominent place in any discussion of valuation. Call it clout. Cryptoart as a whole serves as a signifier within the community of wealth and connectedness. PFP projects are particularly vivid examples of this intersection of wealth and status. This significance, however, is not intrinsic to the artwork. The nature of the crypto community and the premium attached to early involvement in the scene are what lends weight to a CryptoPunk; it is not the art involved (which isn’t to discount the aesthetic appeal of a Punk so much as it is to say that the aesthetic appeal is not the primary contributor of value) but the history and the context behind it that makes that particular project so desirable. Symbolic value in NFTs is relatively closely linked to its market and commodity values due to the nature of the crypto community.
The market value of art is the financial extension of art’s symbolic value and has been largely built into the artistic process in ways that are both self-evident and so ingrained as to be nearly invisible (though it is more readily apparent than a piece’s symbolic value). A given piece’s market value is related to provenance, the prominence of the artist or the particular work, and general attendant market pressures that needn’t be dissected here.
The market values (in a literal sense) of NFT art are inherently more complex (or at least more dynamic) than that of traditional art markets, due to the array of marketplaces, minting practices, and the nature of cryptocurrencies. In a broader sense (in terms of “market value” as the phrase is used in other contexts) the market value of NFT art is subject to the same pressures and circumstances as art in any other era. As the landscape solidifies and matures one would expect these pressures to stabilize to a certain extent, but it does seem as though the dynamism of markets and the array of options available to artists and collectors is a feature rather than a bug. The array of markets (Opensea vs. Superrare vs. Hic et Nunc vs. et al.) raises questions: are these markets oppositional? Is that relevant? Is it relevant to the collector? To the artist? And if so, why? These are questions that the cryptoart as a community will answer in time, but are as of yet largely unsettled.
It is likely not, in the long term, particularly relevant how this all plays out. The technology and the art will dictate the advancement of the movement and squabbles over territory and market share that seem at this point to be of vital importance are irrelevant at best and counterproductive at worst. That is, again, when one adopts the long view. Certainly those questions are important to those with direct exposure and vested interests. A unique strength of NFT markets is the malleability and diversity of markets and the very nature of minting. The existence of multiple editions, different markets, different currencies, sell-on clauses, etc. allows for a flexibility in the short term that seems to make the cryptoart scene more durable and better-grounded than might intuitively seem to be the case.
Fine art has largely become an investment and tax-evasion vehicle. This, by its nature, subsumes the artwork — commodification of artwork necessarily degrades the art; it becomes something else. A means, rather than an end. When art becomes an investment vehicle it ends up crated in freeports and ceases to fulfill art’s primary prerogative (to be seen). Art as commodity is not necessarily not art, but it certainly does not enrich the artistic discourse to view pieces primarily as financial assets.
How does this relate to NFT art, when NFT art is inherently and definitionally commodified? If art is to be commodified (and at the moment, at least in terms of popular contemporary art outside of certain curatorial exercises and exhibitions, it is mostly, from inception, commodified) I suppose the least the artworld could do is gravitate towards a model that allows artists to more equitably profit from their labor. The instant and unquestioning commodification of all art from the moment of its minting brings with it a host of consequences and effects. The minting itself is the step that is worth focusing on and unwrapping here; if it is the case that minting allows for greater profit for the artists along with a much-desired break from the traditional world of gallerists and auction houses then, sure, it can and hopefully will yield a net positive from an art-facing perspective.
Broader Implications & Conclusion, and a Warning
A cursory appreciation and understanding of art history and artistic movements is necessary for a holistic approach to the NFT scene; necessary context will keep collectors grounded and keep at least one toe dipped in appreciation of art for art’s sake. PFP projects and the like are something else entirely; they are practices in social engineering and clout chasing — again, not necessarily bad in and of itself (collectibility, gamification, and the like, are both inherently fun and inherently valuable and therefore worthwhile) but certainly not centered around the art.
Ultimately the key for a collector or a connoisseur of art is simply understanding personal value and trusting one’s instinct. Let everyone else worry about the market, and certainly don’t dive into art intending to buy and flip pieces on the way to glory. Art isn’t about speculation, and it need not be a commodity — why make it one? Answer first: how and where do you slot into the landscape and the community, how do you justify and enjoy your own involvement, and to what end?
The danger of hype cycles and speculation to the art itself is self-evident; the danger of commodification to the art itself has been proven many times over. The chaotic malevolent absurdity of market pressures on artists and the broader artistic landscape is something to ward off, not a thing to embrace and exploit. This is done by recognizing the importance of mutual support within the artistic community and a base-level awareness among collectors of the primacy of the art itself. There will always be those who are out to make a buck; it is up to those retaining idealism and self-awareness to support and foster artists and compelling work in the Metaverse.
If the tokenization of art becomes more about ownership, investment, secondary markets, and profit to the point that it eclipses the art itself, then the entire enterprise will collapse in on itself and be no more than a curiosity in hindsight. Which is to say everyone in the space would be fucked by avariciousness and shortsightedness, including many, many artists who deserve much better.