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Art versus commerce in the NFT Era

Art versus commerce in the NFT Era
Koga Harue's Umi (1929) uses fragments of advertising imagery and found illustration

With no more "art for art's sake" nor "selling out," we have landed upon a new resolution in the long battle between human creativity and the marketplace: the commerce is the art

Really, who is more responsible for pushing music forward — producer Dr. Dre or his dogged business partner Jimmy Iovine at Interscope Records? This is the unstated question at the heart of 2017 streaming documentary The Defiant Ones about the long-standing partnership between these two now-billionaires. Let's not ignore the title: “Defiance” has become a supremely honorable act in contemporary society. Artists build their legends by defying stylistic conventions, social norms, and bourgeois values. NWA’s lyrics were so defiant they received a warning letter from the FBI. But what exactly was Iovine “defying”? He pressured his stable of folky 1970s artists to record radio friendly hits, peddled Marilyn Manson's banal provocations to suburban kids, and mobilized his full Interscope roster to shill for Beats headphones. And yet, both men are "defiant ones"; ill-mannered, profit-seeking chutzpah now receives equal billing with the art it attempts to commercialize.

The Defiant Ones quietly confirmed how far we've traveled from Bohemians' “art for art’s sake” ethos. And now in the 2020s, where will the era of digital art take us? With NFTs, profit is not the regrettable byproduct of artistic innovation, but for most participants, the goal in and of itself. To paraphrase Marge Simpson: Culture turned into a hardcore financial vehicle so gradually we didn't even notice.

If NFTs define our current cultural moment – and perhaps our future – it's a good time to track how the primary attitudes towards art and commerce have changed over the last 170 years. There seem to be at least five distinct eras.

1. The avant-garde (1850-1960): True art can’t be commercialized.

The idea of “art for art’s sake” appeared in mid-19th century France, exclaiming that the most radical, and therefore, important art can’t be understood by normal people, which dooms it to failure in the commercial marketplace. Under this logic, commercial success was a sign of artistic failure — and vice versa. Attempting to be popular disqualified you as a true artist.

For the century that followed, most avant-garde and underground artists lacked easy routes to commercialization, so it was easy to stay "pure." Despite the financial difficulties, artists managed to create monumental work. Profit is never the only artistic motive. Lee Quiñones became a graffiti pioneer before anyone saw graffiti as a way to earn a living. He notes, “There was something youthful and unrestrained about [bombing trains]. Very fun. And rebellious.”

2. Postmodern Pop (1960-2000): True art and underground culture can be commercialized, but shouldn’t be.

From the 1960s onward, the growing interest in avant-garde and underground art forced artists to choose whether to “sell out” or not. First, big companies learned how to cash in on subcultural trends, and then in the 1990s, the underground instigators themselves could transform their work into viable cultural enterprises. But there was still a stigma within artistic communities against catering to the mass market. For Chuck Klosterman, selling out — “compromising the values [artists] originally espoused in exchange for something superficial” — was “the single most nineties aspect of the nineties.”

Many bands like Pearl Jam did fine commercially despite a dedication to anti-commercialism. And “not selling out” even functioned as a smart commercial strategy. When the streetwear line Stüssy became known to all mall rats across suburban America in the early 1990s, they intentionally decided to keep supply limited. But ironically, the very successes of self-sabotaging acts like Nirvana revealed that the masses didn't have such terrible taste after all. And if so, why did artists have to fear the market so much?

3. Poptimism (2000s): Pop culture can be equal to high culture, so there should be no stigma to artists commercializing their work.

The crossover successes of the 1990s made poptimism an obvious moral position in the early 2000s, especially with the hip-hop mega hits delivering incredible artistic innovation. It was just logically undeniable that good art could arise in the context of commercial culture. Any inherent preference for underground or avant-garde culture over pop culture became a regrettable snobbery.

Moreover “art for art’s sake” was based on an aristocratic ethos, as propagated by legitimately wealthy artists like Edgar Degas who didn’t need to sell their work. Many artists born into underprivileged communities, by contrast, have used the mass market as a tool for status reversal. Within the lens of cultural politics, to deny the value of pop culture could only be perceived as a denial of social equalization.

4. Ultra-poptimism (2010s): Commercial success is the best metric for judging the quality of art.

With the rise of fan cultures on the Internet, the initial strain of egalitarian poptimism morphed into an unabashed and dogmatic embrace of the marketplace. This new gospel of Let People Enjoy Things implied that low art must be better than high art because more people take pleasure from it. Likewise, traditional artistic critique was castigated as elitist, since it over-selects for the tastes of well-educated audiences. Success at commerce, then, is a more democratic way to measure the value of art.

5. NFT Culture (2020s): Monetization is the culture.

By challenging the appraisals of high art over low art, ultra-poptimism legitimized the marketplace as the most important site of cultural production. This, then, opened the door to the underlying ethos of the core NFT community, where commerce is the central artistic activity. In theory, NFTs are a way for artists to more easily earn money for their labor. (I write for the newsletter Dirt, which pays contributors through the revenue from NFT sales.) And I don't want to downplay all the future possibilities of artist empowerment through NFTs.

But if we define the "NFT community" through their current focus on pseudo-status symbol avatars like Bored Ape Yacht Club, the language around creativity, community, justice for artists can't hide the fact that the primary motivation for consuming art is the eventual reaping of financial rewards. How many would join the core crypto/NFT community if their “profits” were limited to the traditional benefits: aesthetic ecstasy, intellectual stimulation, and spiritual enlightenment? We already had computer illustration and jpegs. The excitement of NFTs is around the tokenization: establishing clear ownership for monetizing in future commercial transactions. And it's hard to ignore that the landmark NFTs of the moment demonstrate few avant-garde aspirations. If Beeple is our Picasso, what exactly is the historical innovation in his crude hand-drawn parody of the Cap’n Crunch cereal logo with long blond hair that reads “Cap’n Bitch”?

So we’ve seen a clear intellectual shift in the last 170 years around art and commerce:

  1. True art can’t be commercial
  2. True art shouldn’t be commercial
  3. Art can still be good even if it’s commercial
  4. Commercial art is the best art
  5. Commerce is art

The NFT community’s claim to resolve the conflict between art and commerce is true: They flipped the entire logic on its head. This can be beneficial if great artists prosper. But if commercial transaction is the explicit end goal, what social mechanism will help us celebrate and evaluate the actual art as art?