Profile Pic NFTs Are Suffocating Crypto Art

Bored Apes and other "PFPs" have turned digital fine arts into a zoo.

AccessTimeIconMar 10, 2022 at 5:12 p.m. UTC
Updated May 11, 2023 at 6:06 p.m. UTC
AccessTimeIconMar 10, 2022 at 5:12 p.m. UTCUpdated May 11, 2023 at 6:06 p.m. UTCLayer 2
AccessTimeIconMar 10, 2022 at 5:12 p.m. UTCUpdated May 11, 2023 at 6:06 p.m. UTCLayer 2

Andy Warhol would have been all-in on the NFT PFP craze, seeing it as Art for Everyman and pretender to the throne of his uber-famous Campbell’s Soup can paintings. The fact the craze deigned to elevate fatuous cartoonery assembled by code into a gigantic limited edition might have made him laugh with delight. And he would have been right.

As one form of the generative art landscape that is now so popular with the NFT crowd (so-called non-fungible tokens investors), PFPs (short for “profile picture”) hit all the right buttons at exactly the right time. “Art,” after all, is just a convenient underlying asset that can inject a bit of fun into the stressful world of day trading.

This is especially fitting in our brave new world of alternative facts and truth du jour. Faceless exosuits brilliantly solved the puzzle of how to get people to throw money at a virtual Mr. Potato Head in the guise of a band of simian bad boys with nothing better to do than complain about the club management’s decision to admit females. I must admit that the Bored Ape images do have a certain appeal, but so does crack cocaine.

By 2020, NFT-land already had a reputation as a playground for fraudsters of all stripes, and many people mistakenly saw decentralization as fraudulent to its core, both because of its laughably loose criteria for what is considered to be art and because of the fuzzy concept of scarcity relative to limitlessly reproducible JPEGs. But the most damaging deceit of all was the full-on decentralization concept that art is “in the eye of the beholder” and immune to judgments that would imply the existence of qualitative differences in art. Welcome to the tyranny of Everyman as Expert.

When combined with wash trading and other nefarious means of ascribing worth to worthless images, this meant that a monetary value could be assigned to any image at all, pumped up to vast profits and gleefully traded by those who either didn’t know better or simply didn’t care. After all, few had a clue about what good art really is and they were hungry to be members of the in-crowd.

But then the apes moved in. Bored Apes with their “yacht clubs” didn’t try to compete with such pedestrian lowlife fraudsters but did a brilliantly conceived end run, applying techniques perfected and popularized by multilevel marketing schemes and master manipulators of dopamine levels such as Facebook. They used engineered scarcity and the right kinds of hype by the right kinds of people to create a tide of hysterical FOMO (fear of missing out) that grew with each new buyer and each new price on the leaderboard.

Don’t get the impression that I resent the apes’ success. While I do think it a shame that the fantastic sums paid for BAYC profile pictures could have been better spent to support serious artists, they’re welcome to their money and to their success. But I do have a problem with what they thoughtlessly did to the NFT art community as a whole. The developers clearly had no concern for art or artists, eschewing any responsibility to the community that had made their project viable in the first place.

Already a laughingstock in the eyes of serious art collectors and members of the general public, NFTs took a left jab to the chin that could end the fight. Media hype surrounding the apes and their non-simian progeny (Flitty Kitties, Beauteous Bovines or what have you) added insult to injury. An apish aroma now suffuses all blockchain-marketed digital art simply because they share the NFT tag.

Sadly, the largest viable marketplace for digital fine art must now abdicate space to pixelated flotsam bereft of artistic importance. And to the extent that public perception is molded by a continuing deluge of media hype about the latest digital Beanie Baby, great digital art has been cast into the pit.

There is, however, a surprising silver lining to this story. Thanks to the publicity of art NFTs in general, more and more museums and traditional art collectors are paying attention to the medium as a legitimate and valuable new genre worthy of their interest. And some few insightful investors – even those who first became interested in NFTs via things like BAYC – have begun to look more closely at art for the first time in their lives.

Projects like BAYC have acted like potent contrast dyes injected into the corpus of art NFTs, helping to delineate the borderline between JPEG-as-underlying-asset poker chips and digital fine art. And now that the line has been drawn so clearly, it remains for the NFT community’s serious artists and the platforms providing their marketplace infrastructure to create a safe and inviting space for art lovers to show, buy, sell and trade their highly innovative digital work.

As one of those serious artists, I can hardly wait.

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