Updated 1/17 with quotes from Pak, the artist in question.
In a lot of ways, NFTs have represented an opportunity for artists to bypass traditional gatekeepers, allowing a more diverse range of artists to reach collectors and sell their work independently. However, a recent vote by Wikipedia editors introduced a new type of gatekeeping: the popular online encyclopedia has decided not to classify NFTs as art.
The artwork that inspired much of the debate was Merge, created by the artist Pak. It is a single piece of art formed by the merging of tokens purchased by 30,000 collectors. Despite being sold for a total of $98.1 million, Wikipedia decided not to include it in the most expensive artworks article due to how it was formed. “It’s a single piece not because I say so, but because every token effects each other,” said the artist, Pak. “So it’s not a set of tokens, it’s actually one algorithm designed to work in a distributed structure. As a result, arguing that Merge is “many artworks” isn’t accurate; it’s like claiming that every brush stroke on the Mona Lisa is a new painting.”
Many creators and collectors of digital art found Wikipedia’s decision to be overstepping and short-sighted. The basis for this sentiment is the observation that NFTs, while not always used for art, can be another artistic medium, like paint or ceramics. And even more than that, the idea that any person or institution would try to put rules on what is allowed to be deemed art feels problematic to many, with real implications on the lives of artists.
The Definition of Art
Art is a form of expression defined by the artist and appreciated by the beholder. As Oscar Wilde said in his 1891 essay The Decay of Lying – An Observation, summarized on Wikipedia, “To art’s subject-matter we should be more or less indifferent. We should, at any rate, have no preferences, no prejudices, no partisan feeling of any kind.” With this in mind, it’s no wonder that many artists and collectors take offense to the idea of anyone categorizing what is and is not art.
“This was a discriminatory statement against the work of thousands of artists who find their creative freedom and passion in the NFT space,” shared Marlon Portales, a multidisciplinary Cuban artist. “It is not for Wikipedia, or any institution of power, to say what is art and what is not. Art exists in the eyes and consciousness of the beholder. Art is a way of communication, dialogue, emancipation and expression. It is a gesture.”
It’s not only the new wave of creators and collectors that value NFTs as art. “The fact that the biggest art auction houses have folks dedicated to digital art is the most basic proof needed,” Alex Marshall, an artist and director at Silicon Valley Bank points out. “NFTs have dramatically expanded Sotheby’s collector base, Christie’s auctioned off an NFT for $69 million and the British Museum is selling NFT versions of their collections. Just because NFTs can also serve as financial and certification instruments, that doesn’t mean they aren’t art. In some ways they’re better than traditional art, because there is transparency into ownership and the artists continue to get royalties.”
NFTs as a Medium
Art can be created out of a limitless variety of mediums, from paint to found objects. Many people that disagree with the Wikipedia decision on NFTs argue that NFTs should be seen as the medium used to create the art. Just like not all paper is art, not all NFTs are art–but the medium should not limit the end result.
“I see this as a new medium rather than a new marketplace,” Pak shared in a Twitter thread. “In other words, yes, tokenizing old works makes a lot of sense from a blockchain/history point of view, which I sometimes do, and will keep doing – but also, designing* something new for this brand new medium that explores new paths, is vitally important.”
Breanna Faye, NFT artist and creator of Metarkitex Metaverse, explained this by comparing NFTs to blueprints. “Digital blueprints are the blueprints used to build every modern day building. We don’t call AutoCAD plans ‘not real architecture’ and we shouldn’t do it with art,” she points out. “NFTs are merely a canvas on which digital artists export their artworks. Yes, the medium has changed, but the product and the definition have not. NFTs are a canvas, blockchain is the medium, it’s what’s on the canvas that determines if it’s art. Excluding some of the world’s most notable artists from your list just because their medium is different is a shame.”
There have been countless examples of non-traditional mediums being created and appreciated as art. “Piero Mansoni was a revolutionary, highly conceptual artist who mocked the systems that pretended to say what was true art,” Portales shared as an example, referencing the piece Artists’ Shit, which is described on Wikipedia as an artwork consisting of 90 cans filled with feces. “In the end, the NFT is just another medium, it is a new language system.”
Not only do NFTs serve as a new medium for art, but they unlock new artistic realms as well. “NFTs enable new possibilities of art expression beyond what exists or is imagined today. LIT’s Robert De Niro NFT is a great example,” Gabriela Sabate, an entrepreneur and NFT collector, shared. “The actor dynamically reacts in 4,600 images at the same time to live events that happen after the NFT was created. NFTs have the power to redefine our current concepts of art and culture.”
Impact on Artists
The claim that NFTs are not art hits particularly hard for artists who finally found an opportunity to thrive in the NFT ecosystem.
“Many NFT artists are traditional artists who have moved their artwork into the Metaverse and, for the first time in their life, have been able to support themselves financially with their art,” shared Samantha Hume, NFT artist and founder of Crypto Lady Gang. “NFTs are killing the ‘starving artist’ stereotype and creating a modern, financially stable artist. The old era of the art world is all about privilege, based on connections and money. This new NFT era of art has the ability to empower any talented artist, regardless of their background. That is historic.”
Michael Gold, an art professor that teaches generative art, expanded further. “If we think about how access to resources has kept artists from creating and distributing their art in the past, NFTs have flipped that script,” he shared. “Many successful NFT artists have broken into this space by teaching themselves the necessary techniques using resources that are freely available to anyone with a laptop and an Internet connection. Since the Internet, as a whole, tends to look at Wikipedia as a source of truth, if a handful of Wikipedia editors decide what is and is not art, that decision will have ripple effects that will limit opportunities for future self-taught artists and potentially rob the world of their art.”
The emergence of NFTs, and Web3 as an ecosystem, presents the opportunity for a more diverse range of artists to be seen and valued for their art. There is far more upside to embracing that, rather than trying to limit this new decentralized opportunity with the use of centralized definitions.