One recurring experience of modern living is unlocking the old smartphone and catching a glimpse of the future, or possible future, as the increasing pace of digital technology unifies global culture and whisks us ever onward into a world our forebears would have considered magical. A dispiriting aspect of this experience is that the magical new world inevitably looks dumb — not dumb in the sense of trivial or easy, since in most cases these new technologies are lobe-shrivelingly difficult to understand, much less invent, but dumb in the sense of deadening and inert at best, and at worst actively annoying, like the world’s most advanced synthesizer with a hamster running across the keys.
This is how NFTs make me feel: like the future is useless but expensive, and world-altering technology is now in the hands of a culture so aesthetically and spiritually impoverished that it should maybe go back to telling stories around the cooking fire for a while, just to remember how to mean something.
Let me give you an example. Here is what Sean Ono Lennon harnessed the power of an instantaneous global communications network to tweet to his 331,000 followers earlier this month:
My initial response to this tweet was to reassess Lennon as some kind of genius satirist. Then I got scared, because I think he might not be kidding. SkullxNFT really is an offering of non-fungible tokens that Lennon seems to be earnestly promoting — or at least actually promoting, since the level of earnestness with which a fully socialized adult man (albeit one who grew up in whatever weird nutrient bath the spawn of celebrities grow up in) could regard these images of yelling skulls as “getting serious” is impossible to determine. But they are for sale, and you can buy them. As of this writing, many of the less expensive skull NFTs are available for ETH 0.015, i.e. 0.015 Ethereum, or roughly $61.
Ethereum is, of course, a cryptocurrency that someone’s boyfriend has likely already told you about. NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, are a different application of the blockchain technology on which cryptocurrency operates: basically, the seller of the NFT’ed image generates a token corresponding to it that only one person can own at any time — the same way only one person can own a given Bitcoin, i.e. symbolically but also reliably due to its documentation on a transaction record (the blockchain) that is not kept on a single server but rather distributed across all peers participating in the blockchain protocol.
The idea is to create conditions of scarcity and therefore ownership for digital images, so that even though people can still copy your picture of a badass skull guy and paste it somewhere for their own purposes, as I have done, you “own” the image in the sense that you have an incontrovertible claim to having paid money for it, and later you can sell that claim to someone else who regards it as meaningful and important for, presumably, profit. That’s how NFT ownership works: anyone can copy-paste your house, but your name is on the deed, and the metaphorical hall of records can’t burn down or whatever because everyone has copies of the records on a peer-to-peer network they can access via their home computer, which is next to their erotic poster of Sailor Moon.
Perhaps that generalization is unfair. And yet there is something about the aesthetics of NFTs — not a sameness, exactly, but a particular deficiency of which they all partake, such that even though they look different, they all manage to suck in the same way. It’s tempting to say they suck the way everything sucks now, but it’s more like how one particular strain of American aesthetics has sucked for the last 20 years. NFTs are the human capacity for visual expression as understood by the guy at the vape store. There is the predominance of skulls. There is the melodramatic deployment of the visual language of video games, as if romanticism had been invented by people who never went outside. There are the twin adolescent themes of aggression and boredom, as in the Bored Ape series of NFTs, some of which are now valued at over $300,000 and all of which depict chimpanzees in human clothes looking, well, bored.
All of the Bored Apes are clearly produced from the same template: a three-quarters profile of a chimp with the same nose, the same head shape, and the same ears, variously embellished by different combinations of accessories: earrings, open mouth, stubble, laser eyes. In this way, too, the Bored Apes take on the quality of adolescents as seen from the perspective of adults, i.e. all the same but advertising themselves as unique based on hair color and clothes. And this adolescent sensibility of NFTs, their tendency to express the values of an underdeveloped soul, is not just aesthetic but also social.
NFTs are the human capacity for visual expression as understood by the guy at the vape store.
Consider Floydies, a self-described “activism platform” selling MS Paint-quality portraits of George Floyd in various costumes. I would like to think of this project as misguided, rather than cynical to the point of being offensive. It is hard to imagine the reasoning that got from last year’s riots to these images, much less the artistic sensibility of whoever might buy them, but I suspect it has nothing to do with art or sensibility at all, the way your pork-bellies trader is not particularly interested in pigs.
This kind of massive blind spot with respect to visual art as anything but a commodity is also evident in the images Lennon is hawking; the first two skulls featured in his tweet are unremarkable, but the third one is, uh, historically charged. What we have there is a Nazi skull guy. The idea that Lennon, who presumably has had access to maximum educational and social resources, could look at that picture and think, “What is it about a skull in a black trench coat and a leather hat with wings on it that looks so badass? Oh well — time to make a million dollars!” is initially funny and then enormously depressing.
The man is 46 years old. His moronic sanctimony about “cute NFTs for little babies” — a middle-aged man who laughs at your child for watching Peppa Pig, offers to show her some real art for mature adults, and then busts out a picture of Batman saying “fuck” — captures the whole problem with NFTs as a trend in contemporary art. The technology is new and therefore kind of interesting, but the content is hobbled by the aesthetic deficiency of everyone involved. It’s as if the whole discipline of photography consisted of pictures of George Eastman with his shirt off holding a samurai sword.
And this is why the future, be it NFTs or Memoji or the howling existential horror of the Metaverse, looks so ugly and boring: it reflects the stunted inner lives of the finance and technology professionals who produced it. As the visual manifestation of cryptocurrency, NFT art combines the nuanced social awareness of computer programmers with the soulful whimsy of hedge fund managers. It is art for people whose imaginations have been absolutely captured by a new kind of money you can do on the computer.
It is also obviously a pyramid scheme, in which the need for a salable commodity is imperative and endlessly renewed, but the commodity itself does not matter because it is useless — not even useless the way all art is useless, because you can get the images and whatever grains of nourishment your hungry little soul might find in them for free, but useless the way a canceled stamp is useless, useless like a receipt or an envelope that has been torn open. NFTs are an occasion for commerce masquerading as art, just as so many ostensibly meaningful experiences of the 21st century turn out to be occasions to spend money masquerading as life.
“What is it about a skull in a black trench coat and a leather hat with wings on it that looks so badass? Oh well — time to make a million dollars!”
That’s how they feel to me, anyway. Presumably there is someone out there right now — not Lennon but one of this followers, someone who consistently refers to him as “Sean Ono Lennon, whose dad was John Lennon from the Beatles, one of the greatest bands of all time” at a speed 1.5 times faster than normal talking — who saw SkullxNFT and experienced it as some of the most beautiful and emotionally moving art in history, right up there with the Mona Lisa and Avengers: Endgame.
This person is extremely happy with the future as Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg and Bored Ape Yacht Club have imagined it, a future of personalized avatars and people all around the globe competing for status in a virtual world where we have finally solved the problem of how to create scarcity when nothing is real. This person cannot wait to fire up the old smartphone and check the price of Ethereum every morning. He knows the future is in good hands, and it will look exactly like the contents of his imagination, i.e. Travis Scott’s Instagram, pornography, and Assassin’s Creed. The future belongs to him, because he is willing to pay for it, and so are a million other bored apes in human clothes who are just like him.