But is it art?

It’s the same overwrought quandary that pops up every time technology invents a new kind of paintbrush. And with digital art and collectibles, that’s what the blockchain and other decentralized technologies are: another paintbrush.

Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are artworks made with the blockchain and smart contracts as key tools.

Axios columnist Felix Salmon doesn’t get NFTs. 

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In his Feb. 25 newsletter Salmon traces the idea of digital ownership back to the blockchain startup Monegraph (whose launch your correspondent covered for another news site). Salmon claims (probably correctly, who knows?) that the sky-high prices for the best stuff right now reflect, in his words, “Excess wealth and liquidity, especially in a world where a lot of people are experiencing windfall cryptocurrency profits.” 

Maybe! It’s good to remind people to be cautious in any speculative market.

But then he writes:

“If you look at Hashmasks or CryptoPunks or much of the rest of the NFT world, there’s no connoisseurship at play – no correlation between artistic merit and financial value.”

Objection, your honor

If Salmon wanted to choose cases in point for artistically meretricious works, it’s hard to imagine worse choices than CryptoPunks and Hashmasks.

I suspect Larva Labs did not describe CryptoPunks as a work of “art” when the team created it in June 2017, but I will. Breaker Magazine (RIP) did, too. 

To assess merit, it’s important to consider a work’s context. Artwork doesn’t exist outside of history or outside of space; the quality and depth of the statement it makes is relevant to its time and place. 

Created before a standard was in place for such tokens, Cryptopunks existed entirely online. It made a statement about the potential of the Ethereum blockchain simply by existing as intended.

Further context: CryptoPunks were minted during the initial initial coin offering craze with hundreds of millions of dollars flowing from avaricious retail investors to startups that often had little or no plan. So it’s hard not to read a critique of that frenzy into Larva Labs’ decision to issue CryptoPunks for free to any Ethereum user who claimed them.

But those are deeper aesthetic points. Most people understand aesthetics in terms of appearance. So, fine: Choosing to go with “punks” as the theme spoke specifically to Ethereum’s more countercultural, hipster vibes, particularly then.

Further, the pixelated, 8-bit graphics spoke playfully to a digitally native form. All very on point and artfully capturing that moment.

Next level

Then there’s Hashmasks

I happened to catch Hashmasks early, when you could still get one for 0.3 ETH (about $500 at current exchange rates). They’re now selling for six-figure dollar sums. I debated banging out a story late on a Friday night because as soon as I saw them I thought: Oh dang, these are going to be big.

Hashmasks were picking up on similar themes as CryptoPunks but, a few years later, deftly extending the narrative. 

The project combined work by flesh-and-blood artists with procedurally generated computer graphics, making software just as much an artistic tool as a cartoonist’s pen and ink.  

Further, Hashmasks used liquidity mining, an innovation of the budding decentralized finance (DeFi) market, to enable token holders to participate in the works by renaming them, a collaboration that will run for at least a decade.

The graphics themselves evoke Basquiat-esque vibes and the vernacular of graffiti. The mood could be read as either speaking to how much more diverse the crypto community has become or a hope for it to be yet more inclusive.

Either way, as statements go, not bad.

Eye of the NFT holder

And beyond all that? They were just. So. Cool. 

I get it, not to everyone’s tastes but look: Your grandpa probably didn’t like rock and your dad probably didn’t like hip-hop. Were either on the right side of history?

Dismissing these works out of hand reads roughly the same. 

Seriously, if there were an OK, Boomer award show, I don’t know if Felix Salmon’s take would have taken 2021, but it for sure won February. 

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