The metaverse has been launched, but it didn’t need Zuckerberg’s approval: the pandemic has removed us from often even being able to physically travel to art. Even in Florence, museums and art galleries closed or were heavily restricted. Much has been said about the pandemic: its impact on physical and mental health, transport and travel, a healthy social life. What we are only coming to terms with now is what a long break from beauty does to human beings. Beauty in nature and beauty in the arts fill different roles in our lives, but both create a sentiment which Kant classified as something which is new and different to feelings of everyday life, or even love. The “pretty” and the “terrible” coexist in art in a different way to nature, but both are needed — according to Kant — to make man what he is, and man in turn must become man to grasp the sentiment for art appreciation.
“Just as water, gas, and electricity are brought into our houses from far off to satisfy our needs in response to a minimal effort, so we shall be supplied with visual or auditory images, which will appear and disappear at a simple movement of the hand, hardly more than a sign.”
Paul Valéry had already imagined something along the lines of television and smartphones at the beginning of the last century. At the beginning of the century, cinema was considered to be an abhorrent technical advance that would destroy art. A century later, there is a rich history of cinema that disproves this; the means itself has given art new life and a different visual language. Photography took art itself in different directions as the artist was unshackled from his documentary function. But Paul Valéry’s statement begs the question, a century of conceptual and avant-garde art later: have technological advances, such as television and smartphones, supplied us with the necessary visual and auditory images to satisfy the insatiable human need for purpose, wholeness, meaning and beauty? The answer is best left to the reader: conversations like this are going on all around us, in public spaces and transport, in waiting rooms and offices and queues, most often when the phone is charging and we manage to speak to our neighbour.
Most definitely, what television and social media has given us is a bottomless pit of awesome experiences and audiovisual images: if abstract and performance artists for a sizeable chunk of the last century sought to shock and awe the audience inventing increasingly more obscure and grotesque artwork and performances, shock has now become cheap. Even a toddler who has been exposed to enough social media will not be shocked or amazed by Marina Abramovic’s performances or the blank and ripped canvasses of Fontana. Avant-garde and innovation for innovation’s sake has outlived its function, and yet contemporary artists seem almost obsessed with the ugly and the grotesque. The means of our time definitely have a role to play: being exposed to the grotesque almost constantly through the Internet, the eye might come to accept it as a new norm. But the search for an ever more grotesque art is over a century old, and through these means has outlived its function. The new function of art is what has always been its main function, especially as man goes on to conquer nature fully: to inspire the feeling of beauty, to give something to the viewer that no AI-generated image can.
According to Walter Benjamin in his ever eloquent Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, it is time and space itself that makes art what it is, despite its reproducibility. The Mona Lisa, the first piece of conceptual art in human history, is not just the artwork itself, but its copy that Leonardo Da Vinci painted, its theft, Duchamp’s rendition, its many reproductions, whether precise or made to be funny, on schoolchildren’s t-shirts.The Internet has always been a place, but since the pandemic it comes with a compulsory guided tour that only the use of the Internet as a replica of our real-life places and people, or a careful use of different search engines and VPN’s can take us off the beaten path and the customer profile as assigned. Thanks to the Internet, there has been an immense multiplication of production and sharing of work of every sort. And yet, art has not gone through any type of crisis that it hadn’t already seen at the end of the last century, as described above. Instead, it seems that the metaverse needs more art.
NFTs have turned art into currency. Non-Fungible Tokens are one-of-a-kind cryptocurrency, a unique blockchain that gives the owner music, art, poetry, or any other piece of media. Used as a way to prevent piracy, sell work, or sometimes even auctioned off with the physical artwork itself as proof of authenticity, an NFT is not just a digital reproduction of a piece of work, it is its own currency in the metaverse.
This might seem very new and unsettling, but it is no different to the way currency has always functioned. Currency’s value is determined upon general agreement: some peoples have only ever bartered because the value of the object is given by how much it is needed and the gold standard was used because the rarity of the material was what mattered, along with the capacity to secure it through resources and labour. In the digital age, it follows that value would be found in the mathematical, as with crypto or NFTs: prime numbers and the blockchain technology that it’s predicated on it take resources and labour, and NFT’s seek to “fill” crypto with something that is less self-referential. What does this mean for art? If, according to Benjamin, the time and space of art is what gives it its value, and the Internet is a different “space”, the NFT is not just a representation of the artwork. It IS part of the artwork, and, much like photography or film have changed the course of art history just by existing, it could be that NFTs not only change the specific artwork they are, but they also change what it means to share art online and what it means to sell art, for sure. Art becomes the face of a coin, whilst simultaneously being the coin, and almost any artwork can become a coin.
Leonardo da Vinci said in his Trattato:
“Painting is superior to music because, unlike unfortunate music, it does not have to die as soon as it is born. . . . Music which is consumed in the very act of its birth is inferior to painting which the use of varnish has rendered eternal.”
Is the NFT a different “varnish”, a copy, or an entirely different object? It is a new technology, only time will tell. But it could and has already marked a shift in the concept of art itself: much like photography and film freed art from its obligation to also serve as a documentary source, and television and mass production of other forms of popular culture removed the shock value from art (despite many still have not gone beyond this aspect), NFTs promise to remove the tangible threat of the Internet to give infinite reproducibility to art — and to restore uniqueness to art, digitalised, as well as to give dignity to art that is born as digital. “Stealing with the eyes”, as the expression in Italian goes, has always been a thing (and at After Art Gallery this has always been accepted as praxis — after all, the echo of one’s art in others’ work is still part of the original work, Benjamin would say). How this will play out with all the shocks to various digital markets and crypto itself as inextricably tied to digital tools of production (such as blockchain and mathematical “goods”) is yet to be seen.