“Cryptocurrencies crashed earlier this year. Art star Takashi Murakami apologised to his collectors on Twitter because his NFT prices nosedived. Are NFT artworks still worth buying?”
I’m the wrong person to advise on crypto and NFTs, nor do I have expertise in the various art markets. Yet I’d wager that NFTs are something Plural readers are curious about—as am I—so, yes, let’s discuss.
Unlike previous columns, this one’s a conversation. I’ll be speaking with Kat Ditzig, a curator based in Singapore, whose research interests have ranged from exhibition histories to the financial infrastructures of the artworld, and with art critic Kizu, who co-hosts the NFT podcast Floor Is Rising.
Weng: A consultant advising high-net-worth individuals about expensive paintings may know a lot about auctions and prices, though not so much about art. But my concern here isn’t about the expertise itself; rather, I’m interested in the relations between experts and their clients and audiences.
Back in the day, I was naive to believe that if you made a good argument, you might convince a patron to support art that’s critically acclaimed. Now I’m of the opinion that the verb which encapsulates the expert’s job is not “to persuade” but “to impress”. To be fair, this isn’t a dynamic exclusive to clients and their consultants—it cuts across the artworld.
The artworld likes to think it’s special, and, of course, we have our peculiarities. With the monetisation of everything, from social media to the creative industries to art practices initially intended to resist commodification, like performance—well, the artworld has become even more widely and deeply pervaded by capitalism. So an ethnographer might argue that—contrary to our idealistic assertions—we traffic less in novel forms of knowledge and more in attention, status and exclusivity: in other words, social capital.
There’s so much to unpack in that claim. Here’s an example that illustrates what I’m trying to get at: perhaps the best way to get a wealthy collector interested in an artwork is not to argue for its artistic value and historical significance, but to reveal that a rival really wants to buy it too.
Kat and Kizu—sounds like an edgy animated web series with our two intrepid protagonists navigating the dangers of Web3—sorry about that … to get to the questions.
Soon after the landmark Beeple NFT sale, all sorts of “experts” chimed in, including art critic Jerry Saltz, who downplayed the sale-price hype by observing that an NFT is just another tool that artists have at their disposal. I didn’t find that argument especially insightful because it took a perspective enclosed within the artist’s studio, whatever that might mean these days, and neglected the larger social phenomena. I think it’s important to consider the NFT space in terms of ethnographies and political economies. So, who are the collectors, who are the makers, and what are their agendas?
Kat: I’m definitely not a Web3 expert and would not present myself so. I’m just a cultural observer, asking questions to facilitate a more informed local discussion about this technology.
But I do think there are experts in this space and there are different experts who are working with Web3 and experts who work within the NFT space. With the former, I tend to turn to technologists and lawyers. With the latter, I tend to look to the market-makers—the ones who know how to use the appearance of capital to steer public discourse. My definition here also leans into NFTs as a commercial tool. What I think these experts do is more about steering capital flows—a byproduct of which is that it enables cultural production.
I’m making this distinction because most of this is marketing. Whether we talk about how co-opted the position of the “curator” or experts are in this space, what we are seeing are just symptoms of capital flows—where investment is going. In the global capitalist system we all survive in, these labels are just indications of “value”, a.k.a. “meaning”, getting made and commodified.
The artworld has always been full of these auxiliary services and postures, but I think there is something unique to the intoxicating blend of youth, populism, kitsch, venture capital, systematic inequality and global utopian ideologies that seem to blend together in the social networks and rhetoric that the NFT as technology has spun out.
Moreover, I don’t think that what the technology spins out is the same in the U.S., Singapore, Korea, Indonesia, etc. Yet the mainstream discourses are very biased toward Western networks so there is a disparity in who gets to be heard and published on the matter. Finder, in 2021, reported that Southeast Asia was leading NFT adoption—the Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia being the top three countries.
While this might have more to do with play-to-earn games, it does beg the question of why there isn’t more of a push for Southeast Asian discourse in this space. Although NFT Asia has been organising around this. Clara Peh, its co-founder, is one of the voices writing about Southeast Asian and Asian production in the space and she’s been published by a number of platforms. I’m not sure that she’s being included in the “serious” anthologies that are starting to be produced, which is not a comment on her abilities but a comment on the disparities in this space.
I think NFTs are just a reminder that where power and capital reside hasn’t changed. This technology isn’t changing that, and so it becomes important that we critically engage with the postures that are claimed and mobilised.
Weng: Kizu, who are the listeners to your podcast? In a Business Times article earlier this year, you made a point about gatekeepers and tastemakers in the NFT market. Could you share with us a sampling of the kinds of collectors you find interesting?
Kizu: We have some analytics regarding our audience, in addition to more anecdotal information we get from interacting with listeners on Twitter, which is where we mostly interface with them. I’ll start by saying that crypto Twitter is quite a particular thing. Again, anecdotally, “trad art” collectors tend to skew towards an older age range, and rely mostly on Instagram (and even Facebook) to navigate their art dealings and discoveries. Something about the endless stream of the global timeline of Twitter makes it exist in a more accelerated space-time (and Discord is even more so), which means that our audience is necessarily slightly younger “digital natives”.
Floor is Rising has only been around for about a year. Around the six-month mark we realised that the bulk of our listeners were only interested in the market and the $$, as opposed to purely aesthetic discussions, which we did do in the first few months. In any case, I have to confess that I don’t find our format particularly suited to long-form rambling “art” discussions, although we have had those incredible chats with polymath collector-artist-investors who have a firm grasp of both art history and the technical details of blockchain (and therefore what is truly innovative in terms of “medium-native” NFT art). Invariably, these are the most stimulating and “interesting” collectors, and that productive discourse can only come from interlocutors who can draw all these connections in all the possible directions.
Lucas Pontes and Sam Spike over at @FingerprintsDAO, for example, are exploring the potential of collector DAOs (Decentralised Autonomous Organisation) where taste-making is by council, so to speak, and the burden and responsibility of “curation” is a community-led effort.
“Imagine an investor, a financier, a patron of the arts. Ten times out of nine, your palette is monochrome”, MetaKovan and Twobadour wrote in a joint blog post after the Christie’s auction. “The point was to show Indians and people of colour that they too could be patrons, that crypto was an equalising power between the West and the Rest, and that the global south was rising.”
While I might not say that MetaKovan’s taste as a collector is “interesting” as such, the story of how his trajectory reflects certain lines in the sand of the artworld with respect to identity politics is compelling (he’s Tamil Indian). Also, he has been working on something with Olafur Eliasson for some months now, which I’m sure will be interesting just based on Eliasson’s track record as a “trad” artist!
Kat: I actually think what makes Metakovan compelling is how he works collaboratively and what he does in Chennai, in particular the creative ecologies he is supporting. I think if we look at what he does with the gains from how he has so skillfully promoted crypto and has instrumentalised the international art market—we’ll find something particularly radical and productive. I think how he chooses to invest in macro-economies, how he chooses to support projects in Asia and how he works with the “trad” artworld for his personal interests or for metapurse (his fund) will offer productive insights about what the enduring relevance of the international artworld is and how capital (in its various forms) functions on a global scale not to mention in the “artworld”.
As an aside, I second what Kizu has said, and I think the rhetoric of Metakovan’s Global South optimism is pretty conventional for the crypto-scene. There’s even an academic group at Leiden University studying such crypto-evangelists’ rhetoric.
I’m looking forward to that Eliasson collaboration because I think the relationship is an interesting one.
Weng: Kizu, in that BT piece, you also mentioned how in the artworld, institutions and media play a role in legitimising and validating art through developing and disseminating discourses. That’s not the case with the NFT space. Please elaborate.
Kizu: One of the structural reasons is that the “discourse” on crypto Twitter and Discord is only as authoritative as how hard and loud you shill the projects you’re involved with, are bullish on, have a monetary interest in, and so on. In keeping with the ethos of crypto as a whole, there’s a distrust of legacy institutions and incumbents, and everyone wears all these different hats at the same time.
But there may be more similarities than we think. Arthur Hayes, co-founder of the BitMEX crypto exchange, argues that the process by which value is created and maintained in both “trad art” and NFTs is reflexive:
“Human psychology dictates that if you own a particular asset of possible dubious value, you will look for confirmatory bias […] As more people get skin in the game, the chorus of positive vibes towards the NFT art form creates its own self-fulfilling prophecy […] As these conversations happen globally on- and offline, the number of smug, confident bag-holders grows. That in turn leads to a HODL [Hold On For Dear Life] culture coalescing around a few superstar digital NFT artists. As with everything, the community will decide who creates high and low “art” in the digital space. But now, I am confident that the NFT art form as a whole will survive, because there are too many individuals holding expensive JPEGs who don’t want to believe they purchased digital trash. And given many of these individuals are respected for their past accomplishments, the sheer fact that they participate in the NFT ecosystem lends all the credibility the art form needs to persist.”
The main difference I’d hazard is that the long life cycle of this mechanism in “trad art” (decades and centuries) has been compressed to a matter of months in NFTs. There are also fewer taste-makers and influencers in the latter since the space is so new, so this oligarchy of taste, combined with the lack of academic, institutional, and art historical signals and endorsement, create the impression that there are fewer, or less explicit standards.
Plural is publishing only the first part of our extended exchange; the full text can be found here.
Feature Image: PiggyBank on Unsplash.