Here are some thoughts about NFTs and the art market. NFTs — “non-fungible tokens” — have become the latest art world craze; The New York Times explains them here.
My question is how we might think of NFT’s in the context of what Walter Benjamin called mechanical reproduction or technological reproducibility (depending on which translation you use). Benjamin says paintings have an aura because they are unique objects: the photo, postcard, or other reproduction of the Mona Lisa is not equivalent to the actual painting. But this is no longer the case with mass-reproduced objects, like cinema for Benjamin. And this was why Benjamin saw a revolutionary potential in cultural forms without an aura (the opposite position to Clement Greenberg’s rejection of kitsch).
Now, one of the things Benjamin didn’t quite get was that, in an economically unequal society, the privilege of the aura is recreated in other ways. Benjamin dismisses the “phony aura” of the movie star; but I would argue that, say, Marilyn Monroe’s aura is no more or less “fake” than the aura of the Mona Lisa. Benjamin failed to grasp how celebrities themselves actually do have an auratic presence, in the same way that unique paintings do. Even today, there are also still auratic fetishes about technological differences: things like film vs video (e.g. Quentin Tarantino still insists in making his movies on photographic film, and snobbishly considers that you aren’t really seeing the movie unless you see them projected on an analog projector in 70mm). More generally, every time technology destroys the aura, or destroys the distinction between original and copy, the “culture industry” finds ways of bringing the distinction back. Digital files can be reproduced indefinitely without any degradation of quality, but often the files are degraded anyway, in order to maintain the prestige of the original. e.g., mp3s use compression, lowering file size by degrading quality, so they actually aren’t exact copies of the master recordings. So-called “digital rights management” also restricts the circulation of electronic texts (as well as audiovisual works) in order to maintain an artificial scarcity; the reason for this is to increase revenue, but to the extent that it makes a work unavailable or irreproducible, it once again creates an aura.
Benjamin was interested in aura as a form of elitist cultural prestige; for him, it was more like something for the old aristocracy than something for the bourgeoisie. But in today’s financialized capitalism, this distinction falls away. Anyone with enough money can buy a Picasso, a Warhol, or a Basquiat; the snobbery of the old-rich art connoisseurs becomes less relevant, when (for instance) rappers can hire (white and impeccably aristocratic) art advisors to tell them which canvases to buy. Or to put this all another way: aura and prestige have traditionally been tied to access: as long as there is inequality of access, the work has an aura, and the people with access to the work have prestige and power in a way that people without access don’t. There are only a certain number of Warhols or Basquiats in the world, and reproductions don’t quite do them justice; so these works retain their aura, and their owners retain a measure of prestige. But Benjamin was right that movies don’t have quite this level of aura or social prestige as paintings did: I can watch a Tarantino movie on my computer, even though Tarantino himself scorns this and sees it as an inferior form of access. Widespread piracy of written texts, circumventing DRM and making the books available for free, not only harms publisher profits, but denudes the book of its aura as well. (This also explains why some books are published in limited numbers in high-production-value formats, even though there is no change in the actual text).
As far as I can tell, the brilliant thing about NFTs is that, for the first time ever, it completely separates ownership and auratic prestige from the work itself. I cannot really appreciate Basquiat’s brushstrokes when I see a digital or photographic reproduction of one of his paintings, in the way that I could if I had the painting itself. But I can download, essentially for free, the exact same digital file created by Beeple that just sold for $69 million. NFTs entirely separate prestige, ownership, and bragging rights from access. Some rich asshole just paid an enormous sum for the aura of Beeple’s file, and presumably this will be re-sellable indefinitely, perhaps at a profit. But this unique ownership, embedded in the digital “token” that records it, has no longer has any relation to the possibility or the difficulty of actually looking at the work in question. The aura is a different file from the file of the work itself. The separation of monetary value from the object is very much like what happens with financial derivatives, which float free from their “underlying”. There is a unique, and therefore expensive, prestigious, and auratic “essence” to the work, but this “essence” no longer has any relation whatsoever to questions of access, or to the actual availability of the experience of the work.
I think this would be a great model to apply to other cultural forms as well. Writers are worried about selling their works, and nervous about piracy, because their royalties are the only way they get paid. At the same time, most writers would like to be read as widely as possible. NFTs offer an escape from this dilemma. If I were to write a novel, and if I could sell an associated NFT of the novel to somebody like, say, Martin Shkreli for a million dollars — then I would be paid for my work, and I could still let everybody else download the novel for free. Shkreli could “own” my novel in the same way as he owns that never-released Wu Tang Clan recording. In 2014, before NFTs became widely accepted, RZA sold Shkreli the exclusive rights to the recording itself; nobody else gets to hear it. If RZA had been able to sell Shkreli an NFT instead, Shkreli would have the same bragging rights, and the Wu Tang Clan would have gotten the same money, but everyone in the world could hear the music.