Ever since the world of cryptoart exploded, I’ve wondered if I should take part. A lot of generative artists that I respect and admire mint NFTs, and as far as I can tell they’re doing quite well. I’m filled with joy for them, but I’m not a perfect human being and a part of me is a little envious. Maybe I too could sell my art and make mountains of cash? I like money just as much as the next girl, and people do like my art, so why not me? Why shouldn’t I be a part of this? I work hard on my art, surely that’s not an unreasonable desire?
Of course, NFTs have their detractors. Every time I have hinted at the possibility that yes, maybe I’d like to be paid for my art rather than giving it away for free, people rush to inform me of the terrible environmental costs of NFTs, as though somehow I were unaware of the single most prominent issue surrounding the subject. The result, of course, is that I feel ashamed of myself for being such a shallow, materialistic person. I resent that. I don’t particularly like the environmental cost either, but artists have to pay the rent too, and I sure as fuck don’t see any of the people moralising about the evils of NFTs doing anything to provide financial support to artists.
In all honesty, the only reason I have the luxury of opting out of the NFT world is that I have a day job as an academic. Academia pays the rent and keeps my children fed. In contrast, my art doesn’t even make enough money to cover my weekly coffee expenses. So, to be honest, I don’t have a lot of patience for people who berate generative artists for making the choice that pays the bills.
So now I start to wonder. What if the underlying system wasn’t based on blockchain, and not so wasteful? It’s not hard to imagine a system for registering digital art online and allowing people to trade the ownership certificates, all without it relying on blockchain. Would I participate in a system like that? My ethical concerns would be addressed, but emotionally I still feel uncomfortable.
Maybe the answer is artistic insecurity? What if my art isn’t very good, and it doesn’t sell for very much money? Perhaps the invisible hand of the market will decree that my work is not valuable. If I am brutally honest with myself I do have that fear, but I also recognise that it’s misplaced. I’m not unaware of my own successes as an artist: a lot of people like what I make, so I rather doubt my work would be considered worthless. Personal insecurities aren’t the source of my discomfort.
Okay, so what’s the problem? I think the answer relates to the very concept of what the NFT represents. The whole idea behind an NFT is a collectible, tradable token of ownership. It’s a peculiar form of ownership, of course, and many detractors of NFTs have made no secret of their disdain for it. Owning an NFT has often been likened to “purchasing a bill of goods”: the only thing the collector owns is the token itself, not the underlying art to which it is linked. Convinced of their own superior intellect, many NFT detractors then go on to mock collectors for purchasing such worthless things.
I think this perspective is wrong. The criticism that “you’re just buying the token” is far too literal and doesn’t really grasp the psychology involved. The token is symbolically linked to the art. Everyone knows what it means: it is an agreed upon convention that a particular token is tied to a particular work, and it confers value by virtue of that connection. If a piece of art is loved by many people, then there is status to be accrued by being the collector who can claim ownership of the token: it is a symbolic form of ownership, but it is a form of ownership. Assigning value to an NFT seems no more absurd to me than assigning value to a financial derivative, or to an academic award, or to any other kind of abstraction. It is a perfectly sensible thing to trade, and if people want to trade in these things then yes, they are valuable. The symbolic connection between the token and the art really does confer value.
So why don’t I trade my art in this way?
Well, the answer is that I really do think that symbolic relationships matter. If a token is valuable to someone else by virtue of its symbolic connection to my art, then my art is valuable to me by virtue of its symbolic connection to my life. I’ve talked about this before, but my art is always emotional. It is always intimate. In each piece there is a part of my life, a snippet of my life experience. I’m not trying to be pretentious when I say that it’s just how it feels to me when I build the system. It’s not the same kind of coding I do in other contexts, it’s… an abstract expression of an internal state. Do I want to sell those intimate moments to strangers? I’m not sure that I do.
A concrete illustration might help. Here are two pieces from the Voronoise series.
I don’t know what other people experience when they look at these pieces, but I know what I experience: I relive some of the emotions I felt when I coded the system. I remember the events in my life that sparked those emotions. For the Voronoise pieces (and particularly the one on the right), I experience this:
The chainlink fence is cold against my back. She has me pinned against the wires, hand inside my jeans, and I’m frozen. I don’t understand this. Why can’t I move? I want it to stop. Why doesn’t she stop? There’s a taxi right there. I could escape if I could move. It’s too dark for her to see that I’m crying
I wrote the code for Voronoise to help me cope with an intense emotion experience that is inextricably linked to my rape. The link is symbolic, but for me it is real. It’s not a thing I can put up for trade. How do you sell the visual representation of rape trauma?
Or consider these pieces, from the Borderlines series:
Perhaps they look intricate and interesting to other people? The experience I relive is this:
What if I’m wrong about myself? What if he’s telling me the truth I don’t want to hear? Maybe I really do have borderline personality disorder. Maybe he is telling the truth when he tells me that my submissiveness to him is ingrained as deeply in me as my DNA. Am I truly the emotionally abusive woman he described? I don’t think so but… maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I just have to accept this
I remember this mental monologue because at the time I coded Borderlines I’d broken up with a man who later described me in his writings as having borderline personality disorder. Numerous professionals have pointed out to me that none of it was true, and that by and large one should not put too much credence in the armchair diagnoses of an ex-boyfriend, but at the time he meant a lot to me and I genuinely believed him. When I coded this system I did so in the mistaken belief that I really was borderline, and was trying to come to terms with the emotions that elicited. It’s a bizarre and kind of surreal backstory: is that a thing I can sell to a collector?
Can I sell the masochism embedded in the Thorns system? The decade of loss and grief in the Water Colours series? Do you want to own a small piece of my sense of pain over my mother’s death? What is the market value of my memory of being raped? If those questions feel disconcerting, then you probably have a sense of my reluctance. It matters to me how these experiences are used. When I recently decided to release some of my art under a CC0 public domain licence in support a women’s shelter, it wasn’t an arbitrary decision. The memories encoded in the art are intense, intimate, and they are inextricably linked to my sense of self. I can’t make myself view them as goods for sale. Those recollections are small pieces of my soul.
I need them to mean something.