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Dispatches from the present


Cult Value


One of the first notable coinages to hit the mainstream in 2021 has been the awkward construction “non-fungible token” (written everywhere as “NFT”), which at first approximation means “apparently people can own gifs now.” Upon looking closer, one sees they are genuinely a bit strange.

A non-fungible token is a hybrid technological, financial and legal instrument that enables a person to own an original work of digital art as a single entity. It uses blockchain technology to store the history of a piece of data’s ownership in a way that can’t be tampered with or erased, so that any bit of digital content—an image, a sound or video clip—can be bought, sold and resold as if it were a physical object. Anyone can play it, download it or copy the data, but the entity itself has one definite owner.

Investors have been quick and relentless in promoting this as a great thing. Digital artists can now sell their artworks in the marketplace like everyone else. Everybody wins: collectors, galleries and the artists themselves.

But there’s something a little uncanny in NFTs, a hidden meaning in their shifting of the financial and legal definitions of digital artwork. For me (and many other people), just hearing about NFTs inevitably summons up Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” written in 1935 in response to the era’s changing media technologies: film, recorded sound, photography and lithography.

In his essay, Benjamin considers “the aura,” his term for the feeling of authority and presence inspired by a work of art. An object’s aura arises from its physical uniqueness in time and space and its significance within the cultural tradition, a distant inheritance of art’s original role in religious ritual. As a novelist, I’ve signed and dated plenty of first editions, paying my own tribute to the cult of the aura. Just by moving a pen as authors and painters have done for millennia, I can give an object its quantum of sacred uniqueness. Percentage-wise, it moves a little more product.

But when images of Michelangelo’s David are printed and sent all over the globe, something is lost. Its image is forced to live outside a setting that solemnizes it. People needn’t make their pilgrimage to Florence to stand in its presence. Although the object is physically unaltered, its aura has begun to wither away.

That crisis took place in a world very different from ours. The artwork as singular and sacred is becoming an ever more distant memory. I’ve been to Florence and seen the David, and it’s terrific, but I also grew up with it as a refrigerator magnet. Today’s internet just laughs at the quaint authority Benjamin attributes to a Rembrandt. Yes, it has its aura, its sad weathered materiality decaying on a wall in some great museum. Nice work! But Nyan Cat—which recently sold as an NFT for about $590,000—has never lived in a place or a time or had atoms, and it doesn’t care. Nyan Cat doesn’t age. Nyan Cat will gallop through the stars as long as our digital infrastructure lasts.

Digital art doesn’t worry about traditional context. A meme was created to be a non sequitur. It belongs to a digital culture that may have boundaries but is so anarchic, so promiscuously hybrid, so mutable as to seem capable of expanding anywhere without losing anything of itself. It is unassailable in its commonness. Nyan Cat thrives in this world like a mutant fish in a strange new toxic ocean.

In this whirl of sound and image, the NFT stakes a fresh claim for authenticity and singularity. Legally and financially, it creates a breath of aura where none was before. The NFT has pinned Nyan Cat to its possessor like a butterfly in a collector’s display case.

In fact, what Benjamin allows us to see is that NFTs don’t reinvent the aura, they show us what it always was. Although there’s a mournful quality to his description, he defined the aura in order to call attention to its deeply reactionary character. When he says it comes from its place in tradition, he’s clear that this includes traditional structures of power, hierarchy, exclusivity and wealth. Mass-produced forms of art may be vulgar or even reactionary, but as Benjamin writes, “they brush aside a number of outmoded concepts, such as creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery.” Even if they can be used for evil, their latent revolutionary potential remains.

“Cult value does not give way without resistance,” writes Benjamin. When photography first appeared, it brought with it the appalling ambiguity of an art form that consists of copies that have no original. In response, the market rushed to create concepts like limited editions and signed copies to satisfy that fetish for the aura and its monetary value, before things got too weird. Nowadays, of course, they have gotten very weird indeed. In this light, we can see the NFT as just another device designed to preserve art’s mystical capacity to funnel money from one rich person to another, any benefit to the original artist being a coincidental side effect.

This explains the whiff of panic that surrounds the NFT marketplace. The servers are flooded not just with works of art but anything digital that might possibly take on an inflated value: video clips, popular memes, recordings of people’s bodily functions. Prices fluctuate wildly, buyers gain and lose thousands and millions, with a logic that is starting to resemble GameStop’s share price. That anxious frenzied quality is a reminder of the progressive potential Benjamin saw in the changing media production and distribution techniques of his own time: the lurking presence, for better or worse, of the internet’s subversive, populist potential. The NFT may have temporarily reanimated the aura, but in a carnivorous zombie form—the work of art in the age of Boaty McBoatface.