We Asked the Art World to Explain NFTs, and No One Could

It is an exciting time for the intersection of tech, art, and bored venture capitalists. With the rise of non-fungible tokens (NFTs), digital “artists” can sell their “work” (or any image already freely available on the Internet) to a growing base of “collectors” with the click of a button.

However, the art world is notoriously slow to embrace new technology. Until recently, some galleries still accepted bags of loose blood diamonds and hand-forged bond certificates in exchange for paintings and sculptures. And for those of us more familiar with terms like “pointillism,” “post-modern,” and “money laundering” than “PoW protocol,” “carbon emission,” or “terrible for the environment,” the obfuscatory jargon of the blockchain can make it even more difficult to grasp. 

So what exactly are these little tokens that have taken our antediluvian industry by storm? We asked some of the most respected figures in the cultural field to explain NFTs in terms we can all understand. All the individuals interviewed spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing retaliation by the Winklevoss twins, Beeple, and mobs of crypto-bros.

One associate curator at an encyclopedic museum in New York explained to Hyperallergic: “Each NFT is unique, meaning it’s not interchangeable — unlike the works in our collection, a significant percentage of which are convincing fakes. That’s really helped me understand it.”

A group of unionized art handlers gathered for a protest on the steps of the museum declined to comment but handed our reporter a flyer that said “Art Looks Better On Walls.” The demonstration was sponsored by the Geneva Freeport.

In the commercial sphere, galleries have quickly begun incorporating the technology into exhibitions, offering limited-edition NFTs alongside physical objects “because why not,” said a sales director at Pace who compared the Ethereum blockchain ledger to the Moleskine notebook filled with stapled business cards that he carries at art fairs.

“It’s just another way to build relationships with collectors, but it’s WAY more transparent,” he said, citing three new clients he recently brought to the gallery, XxGifLover_201, LolzNyanCat88, and 03049398247.

One seminal art critic and founding member of October magazine described NFTs as “the reduction of post-structuralist phenomenology to its purest form, whereby the medium becomes obsolete by pseudo-flattening of an imagined three-dimensionality.” When asked to clarify, he referred Hyperallergic to Walter Benjamin’s Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.

A longtime board member at MoMA and private prison investor had not heard of NFTs until he was contacted by Hyperallergic, but immediately expressed intrigue. “Wait, so I can just donate a folder of images of my art collection to the museum, instead of the actual art?” he asked. “Or would I not get the same tax breaks?”

He is not alone: according to a recent survey of 1,000 art collectors, 53% admitted to having only a vague understanding of NFT technology. Another 37% said they had “no clue lol” what NFTs were, and a remaining 10% of respondents thought they were a type of compact luxury motor yacht. (97% of collectors surveyed agreed that NFTs were an important new asset class that they planned on or had already added to their investment portfolios.)

“I don’t get it. They’re not that great,” a senior executive at Sotheby’s told Hyperallergic, audibly exasperated. “They’re just jpegs. Why would anyone pay $69 million for a jpeg?!”

“WHY!?” she repeated, bursting into tears before the call dropped.

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