Measuring the Ethical Value of NFTs: How Do We Know What is "Good"?

As a follow-up to the previous article where I talk about our over-valuation of the “numerically gifted”, I’d like to dedicate an article on the topic of “artistic merit” and how that relates to everything that has happened in the crypto industry thus far, including its ethical standards…or lack thereof. The main thrusts of this article is as follows:

  1. Art = Truth = Transparency = Ethics. As a “product”, this is the chain that needs to be created (ethics needs transparency and truth, as does art) in order for NFTs to reach its full value and potential.

  2. In recent years there have been, both in traditional and in “new” art styles, to sever the link between aesthetics and truth. (“Medium is the Message”, conceptual/performative arts, “Art is Only Subjective”) This has allowed for bad actors to thrive within the cracks of aesthetic (therefore, ethical) ambiguity. It is also the reason why we have had a “fake news” problem in recent years - people no longer see the importance of truth in the content that they consume.

  3. This subject is very difficult to talk about because neither the public nor “experts” seems to be even aware that this is a problem, much less do anything about it. But it is the existential issue that defines the time that we currently live in.

  4. Traditional institutions have failed to remedy this problem, and have largely given up. As have Web2 companies, who opted to exploit the situation rather than fix it, making matters worse. Web3 companies are society’s only hope for a better content environment at this point, but the vast majority of them have fallen pray to old habits, repeating the same mistakes of the past.

  5. It’s likely that the first ecosystem to figure out how to remedy this problem in an effective way will set the standard for the next tech cycle to come. And this transformation will likely happen in the NFT industry somewhere, because it is currently the only place where these issues (culture, economics, technology, politics) are colliding in a meaningful way.

Despite all of the scandals and meltdowns happening in the Web3 space right now, the baseline interest in the technology itself hasn’t waned so I’m not too worried about crypto’s long-term future. But the “social transformation” bits of it is taking way longer than it should have, and people’s patience is starting to wear thin.

Crypto’s biggest problems aren’t going be solved by throwing money at it alone - it needs to be addressed on a cultural level, where its biggest bottlenecks currently are. It’s been over a decade since Bitcoin came into being - where is the cultural revolution that we’ve all be looking for? Maybe it’s not where we’re currently looking, but more…over there.

What Makes Art “Good”?

The idea that all art is “subjective” can be an alluring line of argument, because it creates the illusion that all art is created equal - there’s no such thing as “bad” art, because art is always subjective! It spares everyone - artists, critics, teachers, collectors, foundations, non-profits, schools, etc. - of the unpleasant task of actually creating or consuming meaning in the work itself.

In practice, the application of this line of thinking is actually much more nefarious: it’s used as justification for nepotism (allowing the talentless X related to person Y into a prestigious show), writing checks without justification (if meaning doesn’t matter, you can throw money at anything), or in its worse forms, as a form of money laundering in order to evade taxes, regulations, or the law. When you disconnect the link between art and meaning, it becomes an empty vassal for other things that have basically nothing to do with the expression of an idea in it of itself - this has become the norm, rather than the exception, of how art is understood in the West.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because this practice has very close similarities of scandals that emerge in broader society - fake news, gaslighting, scams, fraud, lack of transparency, etc. - all those things we say we dislike when it becomes too personal, but don’t seem to notice when it’s happening in the artworks we consume. We are being primed, subconsciously, to accept the outcomes of meaninglessness in expression, which works to the advantage of the grifters and sociopaths out there. The NFT ecosystem needs to flip the script on this trend if it wants to avoid being another failed revolution of cultural change.

How do we do this, however? There’s a lot to be unlearned, since these trends have been deeply engrained in every aspect of our lives at this point: TV/radio, academia, art institutions (both old and new), social media, politics…even the internet itself. But the trick to long-term art collecting is to look at works from a historical point of view: imagine yourself 50 years from now, looking back at the cultural artifacts being produced today. What is an artwork and what does it contain within it? It is:

  1. The perspective, history, and upbringing that the artist(s) brings to the table.

  2. The amalgamation of the materials, methods, skills, and presentation methods that is a reflection and representation of the moment of its creation.

  3. The conservation methods that the artist/collector used in order to preserve the work over time.

You may have noticed that in the list above, uniqueness or popularity does not necessarily add anything to an artwork’s inherent “value” - that’s where the biggest misconceptions in art often lies. The value of art lies in its ability to convey the truth of its time and place. Perhaps it’s easier to explain using examples of “good” and “bad” within each category:

  1. The perspective, history, and upbringing that the artist(s) brings to the table.

    • Good: The artist is in a situation where they’re able to clearly see the social/historical trends of their time - the work expresses truths that transcends the short-term interests of political/business cycles of its time.

    • Bad: The artist was commissioned for the purpose of promoting short-term agendas, marketing, or ideological frameworks. The work’s relevance dies as soon as its marketing budget runs out. (i.e. the “one hit wonder”)

  2. The amalgamation of the materials, methods, skills, and presentation methods that is a reflection and representation of the moment of its creation.

    1. Good: The artist uses commonly available materials and methods of its and finds a creative way to innovate with it - a good representation the ingenuity of its time period.

    2. Bad: The artist imports exotic and expensive materials for its novelty value, becoming an expression of their separation from the world at large. (This is a bad habit of the noveau-riche artist, who often is unaware that this type of novelty more often than not leads to inferior quality works.)

  3. The conservation methods that the artist/collector used in order to preserve the work over time.

    1. Good: The artist finds a reliable way to preserve and document their works for the long-term. (Giving custody to family, collectors, libraries, museums, schools, etc.)

    2. Bad: The artist doesn’t think about how where their works might go after, and their works are forgotten and lost immediately after they die.

So for artworks to have historical value - the artist does not necessarily have to be popular, rich, the most skilled, or even unique - they just have to be aware and truthful. These traits are often harder to find the higher in society you go…which is why many great artists and innovators often come from middle and lower class backgrounds, with their career arc detailing the struggles they go through as they moved their way up. (An socio-optimistic narrative that intrigues and inspires the public as a whole.)

In a way, what makes the crypto space exciting is that NFTs effectively solves the problem of #3 - what gets uploaded to the blockchain will likely be there forever, which is actually a great thing for both artists and collectors alike. The industry is currently working on improving #2 - it still has yet to have full support for video and audio formats but is likely to get there, eventually. What’s missing the most at the moment is #1 - the recognition of the artist as an essential part of the work itself.

Art = Truth = Freedom

As mentioned earlier, there is a tendency for most people avoid talking about meaning in art for the same reasons they avoid honest conversations - sometimes the truth is unpleasant, and it’s something we would just rather avoid doing in order to avoid getting hurt. But at some point, it has to come - one benefit of doing this through art (rather than words) is that art makes truth easier to swallow - especially if done in a clever or tactful way. The truth shall set you free, after all.

But that can’t be done if we’re actively trying to sever the ties between meaning and the artwork itself. Artistic expression and ethical inquiry are one in the same, because they both deal with the pursuit of the truth - and transparency. If we can make this part of the ethos of the NFT movement, everything else will follow as a result. It’s time for artists to take the lead on these issues, rather than be a victim of circumstance or pawns of monied interests that do not have society’s best interests at heart.

Right now, we’re living in a vacuum where neither the old nor new guards really seem to know how to do cultural production properly - on TV, all we see are institutional propaganda and incompetence; on the internet, fake news and political polarization. On one hand it may feel hopeless at times; on the other hand, this is also an opportunity for something genuinely new to emerge out of the fray.

I’m hoping that the latter will become more common as time goes on - will we choose to be liberated by the truth that art can provide? Or will we once again be placated by the soft whispers of nothingness that our mediums try to distract ourselves with? Time will tell.

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