L’Art pour la denrée

Author: Dom Rottman

31 May 2021

English street artist Banksy has a piece entitled “Morons.” It depicts an art auction with a painting on the block with only the words: “I can’t believe you morons actually buy this shit.” Five hundred screen prints were produced, of which one sells for $95,0000. It is then burned, on live stream, for a painstaking and anticlimactic four-and-a-half-minute burn that required multiple re-ignitions. The video sold for $380,000. According to the arsonist, he did not douse the print in lighter fluid because he “didn’t want to disrespect it.”

The reader might have some questions.

The most obvious: How does a video sell for $380,000? Can’t one just watch it or even download it on a flash drive for free? Yes. For those unfamiliar with the incident, the video itself was not sold per se, but rather as an NFT, a non-fungible token. Clear as mud, right? Let’s continue: An NFT is more or less a digital certificate of authenticity attached to digital things, whether they be images, videos, gifs, or, sadly, even tweets. Like any other certificate of authenticity, the holder can (proudly?) say that she owns the “original” of that digital thing. Thus, by having no duplicate and being unable to be replaced or interchanged, it is not fungible. Insofar as it is a “token,” it can be traded and sold. How can this be? What is preventing people from just copying and pasting this “certificate” like anything else? NFTs are made possible through the blockchain, the technology–essentially just a glorified ledger–used for cryptocurrencies. Thus, any exchange of an NFT is recorded such that its ownership is always known and not subject to fraud.

Those keeping up with news on cryptocurrency and NFTs might be aware that concerns have recently arisen about their environmental impact. Horror stories have arisen about warehouses filled with GPUs set up for nothing but mining bitcoin or Ethereum, much to the chagrin of environmentalists and PC builders. The issue is that the way the ledger is “written” (known as proof of work) requires massive amounts of computing power that only increases as transactions continue. The good news for blockchain technology is that this can be solved, and Ethereum itself plans to convert to this new, significantly cleaner method of “writing the ledger” (known as proof of stake). Of course, Ethereum is not alone in the crypto market, and a transition to proof of stake for the industry in general is sure to take some time. So, until then, energy concerns about crypto and NFTs are still valid.

Well and good. But being “green,” a notion too compatible with liberalism, often preoccupies us so much that we cannot see the forest fire for the burning trees. This is no less true when it comes to critiquing industrial capitalism with respect to concern for our and our ecosystem’s health than our subject here. We cannot sweep under the rug the utter absurdity of commodification. It would be the dream of any capitalist to go straight from money to money prime, to sell literally nothing and receive something in exchange. In this way they are not satisfied with being made in the image of God, they must become God himself, one who creates something from nothing. While this will never be possible, capitalists have come quite close. Clothes are assigned a price inflated by their exchange value thanks to a label. This value can sometimes be inflated even further by scalping and reselling. The stock market is capable of assigning value to pure speculation and feeling. One of the great races to the bottom, to make the commodity as cheap and bloody useless as possible while maximizing its exchange value, is a race never truly won and extends to all fields of production–even, and perhaps especially, art. Today, the culture industry is the most efficient way of producing “art” with respect to the chief functions of commodities: dispensing ideology and making money. But it has by now become an old joke that the world of “art” in the traditional sense, when we think of paintings and such, has become a racket, whether we mean this literally or ironically. A banana duct-taped to a wall sells for $120,000. Even capitalism’s most sympathetic apologists roll their eyes if they have even a shred of aesthetic taste.

What was significant about art entering the digital era was art’s aesthetic value and the idea of aesthetic value as such began to stand out in bold relief. This came as a shock for one reason: it could not be quantified. Commodities, the dominant “things” of society, have three reasonably quantifiable values: labor value, use value, and exchange value.1 Insofar as art could be commodified by the culture industry, aesthetic value remains suppressed, and the total value of the object exists as the commodity. But when all of a sudden the artist is able to propagate and infinitely reproduce her art with almost no barrier, free for herself and for her viewers (no exchange value), three things became clear: art was utterly useless (no use value), the image of the starving artist made much more sense (labor value is never assigned a price if the exchange value of what is produced is zero) and, most importantly, we really just like things because they’re pretty or interesting or whatever. We realized that art, in its truest sense, is priceless. In a bourgeois society ruled by equivalence, where like and unlike must be compared, this truth is unacceptable.

The digital age has arguably made the aesthetic world a more central part of our lives. With this has come questions that, while not new, have gained much greater concern to the everyday person: What counts as art? How can we judge art? How does the artist “make a living”? All of these questions arise from the phenomenon of aesthetic value, which, again, cannot be reconciled with the logic of bourgeois society. What was so appealing and effective about the culture industry was that the perfection of the commodity form sheltered the aesthetic and its questions away from the public. By producing money prime for the capitalists and dispensing ideology to the consumer-worker, free time was no less profitable than factory time and there was no need to worry that moviegoers would question why they enjoyed a film any more than the popcorn they were eating–or whether they actually enjoyed it at all.

But now the genie cannot go back into the bottle, or so we hope. The culture industry remains at large, but its sinister intentions become more and more of an open secret. Consequently, capitalism, wounded in the functionary that allows it to dispense commodities-as-ideology, unwilling to let the aesthetic realm be an open contest, doubles down on the essential function of commodities: making cheap money. In so doing, it recapitulates ideology once again. In the digital age where people begin to question what art is, the NFT answers: it is still a commodity, and it is good that this is so.

While the argument that “X is good because it exists” holds a disturbing amount of power today especially with respect to culture, the NFT has some rationale. With the NFT, supposedly, the labor value of the artist can finally be realized in exchange value, which would also, somehow, incorporate the aesthetic value of art that the commodity wishes to handwave away. The artist can create an image or video, strike it mint with the NFT, and sell it as the “original” at the price she so chooses. You, the starving artist can now be fed! You have the means of production! The value of your labor is fully respected! Is this not what you commies want?

Utter absurdity. We know well how exchange value works. If your precious little functions intersect at a value well below what it takes a worker to eat and exist, much less enjoy her life, then that is too bad, deal with it, get another job or (more likely) take more hours. And then suddenly, when that value becomes unacceptable to you, when, God forbid, the exchange value of labor goes up (but of course still below the value of the labor itself) suddenly the divine functions of the market must be wrong, and God forbid you should have to pay, in order to get people to get people to work for you, the free market price of labor! “Rules for me but not for thee.”

The NFT is merely the latest in the commodification of everything for the production of cheap money and ideology for the capitalist class. What is new, if anything, is a new step in the lie that this is an opportunity for us to become capitalist too–but the worker has no capital for this to be a reality.2 If Grimes is able to sell NFTs of random half-baked images, gifs, or short videos for six million dollars it is because she had the initial capital (social and monetary, we should know by now that the two aren’t so distinguishable from each other) to do so. Money, commodity, money prime, ad infinitum.

New art has waited long enough for a loosening of the tight grip of the commodity form. The promising mediums of the cinema, the television, and the radio and the record/CD player had been from their inception instantly monopolized by the culture industry to pump out commodities. The internet, miraculously, escaped total monopoly after its birth and capitalism had to settle for a majority stake–even if it is one large enough to maintain control. It became finally possible to reveal publicly the essential quality of culture and it’s works of art: critique, the immutable impulse against the status quo and its petrified relations. It is no wonder then why liberalism and capitalism, the bedfellows of the predominant social order, design and propagate the commodity form to suppress aesthetic value: not only is this value incomprehensible to them, it is a value very dangerous to them also. What is feared, the threat art presents, is not of the unknown, but of the inscrutable thing which signifies undoing.

Thus art cannot succumb to any new effort to reclaim it as a commodity lest it wishes to renounce being art itself. At a time in which art can finally resist its fetters, where films and games and music can now even resist the conditions of their own birth as commodities, art which willingly re-enters such a form after having the option to otherwise not is ignorance. NFTs are artistic suicide. Whatever aesthetic value the arsonist wished to convey in burning the Banksy (like, Jesus, at least make the burning look cool) was immediately annihilated the moment it entered the blockchain to be sold for cheap money. If the question becomes what makes this any different from someone paying him to do it beforehand, we should remember that as a commodity what is being realized is not wages, not money, but money prime. The arsonist is a capitalist; $95,000 (M) was capital spent turned into an NFT (C) sold to create even more money (M’). The artist today is made to be a worker like anyone else, either in the traditional sense to be paid in wages, or through commissioners who at least have heart enough to respect the artist’s labor value. This is not to say that the artist does or ought to embrace an “oppressed” state of being or state of mind, but should resist fancying herself a bourgeois, bourgeois not in the sense of having “champagne taste” but in having a desire to reify what merely is as the good and beautiful. Certainly, the idea of being a commodity-fetishizing money capitalist must be outright rejected by the artist, and we should be rightfully skeptical of those who don’t.

  1. I mean this loosely. It can be argued that the quantification of all three of these values are ultimately arbitrary. ↩︎

  2. I mean this particularly with respect to creating a commodity. The offer for the worker to “become a capitalist” is the lie neoliberalism has been working under for some time now. David Graeber argues in his book Debt: The first 5,000 years that the ability to “become a rentier”, to gain a share of money prime, was the false promise that placated the stagnation of wages and the existence of actual rentiers exploiting the labor of workers and extracting their surplus value. Of course, the means offered to the ordinary working person–401(k)s, mortgage refinances, credit cards, REITs, life insurance, retail investing, etc.–offered paltry sums and best and crippling debt at worst. There is reason to believe that, since 2008, people have for obvious reasons become more skeptical of the magic of financial capitalism. It follows, then, that in order for neoliberalism’s famous lie to continue, it must now also offer the illusion that anyone can produce commodities that can then result in money prime. Again, these are mostly worthless, and it is no accident that the NFT, as a novel example of this phenomenon, is literally immaterial. ↩︎