The wondrous aura of digital art

You can buy beautiful pictures, funny videos or unique tweets on the Internet, which have something wonderful about them: once you own them, the world hasn’t really changed. Anyone can still download that photo, watch that video, or read that tweet. The only thing you buy is the status of owning it.

You receive a digital certificate, a so-called non-fungible token. An NFT. There is a brisk trade in NFTs and they can fetch millions at auctions. A famous example is the very first tweet from Twitter founder Jack Dorsey. That tweet was auctioned for nearly $3 million, while you can still read and retweet it. Nothing has happened beyond this: someone other than Dorsey is now the proud owner.

An NFT can be attached to anything you would put in a digital museum: internet art, old photos, new creations – everything. You just can’t charge admission to the museum, and you can’t steal anything either. In principle, everyone can access it.

The only thing you buy with an NFT is the status that you own it

There are roughly two schools of thought about NFTs. People talk about crazy wind trading and wallow in joy when famous NFTs lose their value. The very first tweet? When the owner wanted to sell it, the highest bid did not exceed $15,000. The millions had evaporated.

The second movement sees NFTs as serious investments in digital heritage. They can become worth more in the long term, the claim goes. You run a risk, but it’s no different in the regular art and antiques trade.

They are basic moral considerations. The moralists say you shouldn’t attend, or they say you should enter now. But you can also put morality in brackets and ask what an NFT actually changes. What happens when digital art gets an owner? It is the view of aesthetics.

unique aura

To answer that question, let’s go back to regular, non-digital art. You can’t just multiply or forward them. You might be able to hang a poster of the Mona Lisa in a frame from Hema, but then you have something different than the original painting that hangs in the Louvre. Even if you get it repainted and buy a nicer frame, something is still missing. The rendering lacks a certain look. You feel like Leonardo da Vinci didn’t make it himself.

Even a perfect forgery, once exposed, would be worth a little more. Nothing has changed and yet the job is suddenly his je-ne-sais-quoi lost. Leonardo da Vinci didn’t paint it.

Reproducible art affects the ‘here and now’ of the work of art, wrote the German philosopher Walter Benjamin in his essay The work of art in an age with its technical reproducibility (1936). According to him, in the era of film, photography and mass media, the ‘aura’ of the work of art is disappearing. The special. The unique.

In a way, you could always reproduce art. You can trace a drawing, make casts of sculptures or use a woodcut, not to mention the printing press. But Benjamin understood that photography and film ushered in a new era.

He even predicted the rise of the Internet through a quote from the poet Paul Valérie. Just as water, gas and electricity simply enter our homes, ‘so we will be provided with images or successive sounds which, after a light touch – almost a sign – appear and leave us again.’ Clicks and swipes are actually light touches. Benjamin’s prophecy has come true.

Van Gogh had also faced this canvas, but with a brush in hand

But is he right that art thereby loses its aura? Some art maybe. No one wants to travel the world to see their favorite movie in a museum somewhere that you can watch on YouTube all over the world. But tourists still flock to the Rijksmuseum for Rembrandt van Rijn’s Night Watch.

I’m sensitive to it too. In the spring I stood in front of a painting of cypress trees that Vincent van Gogh had painted in the Kröller-Müller Museum, and it suddenly dawned on me that he himself had also been standing in front of that canvas, about the same distance as me, but with a brush in hands. Without him it would never have been; how lucky he was to just keep painting.

People seem to have a need for the aura of art, and it is no different in the virtual world, even though they can freely share all kinds of art with each other. The thinking behind NFTs seems to be: if you don’t have an aura, you should make one. Digital art is not ‘unique’ because you can make endless copies of it. But the NFT that comes with it is unique.

Benjamin didn’t see it coming. Maybe he had something else in mind. He especially had an eye on the struggle between communism and fascism, in which film, photography and the mass media would play a role. Fascism would aestheticize politics, which, for example, would result in the glorification of war. Communism would use the same media to politicize art, to prepare the audience for the revolution. Benjamin was only indirectly talking about capitalism, but it is the political system that NFTs thrive in. And also the system that artists do their work in.

Absorbed by capitalism

There was once a hope that the Internet would realize all sorts of ideals. Knowledge and news for everyone. Art for everyone. This ideal was quickly transformed into ‘wealth for all’. Shopping on the internet would become cheaper, consumers would have more choices and entrepreneurs could easily start their own webshop.

This is how capitalism reacts: It swallows ideals and turns them into versions of itself. The internet may connect us, but social media is in the hands of big corporations. The internet can give us all the information in the world, but it is also full of advertising, propaganda and porn. Even the revolution longed for by the Communists has been swallowed up by capitalism and is now called disruption: Uber is turning the taxi world upside down, Netflix the TV world, Spotify the music world and so on.

There are beautiful, cute, funny, shocking and wonderful things on the internet. Pictures, memes, artwork. Your picture is my picture if I choose and copy it. The Internet pioneers had little regard for copyright.

But the Internet has largely been conquered by the capitalists. The only thing they didn’t own were the artworks themselves, because no one owned them. Here we come back to the question raised by NFTs: What does such art do if it has an owner?

Capitalism swallows ideals and turns them into versions of itself

You can think of NFTs as another example of capitalism forcing art to its knees. Capitalism uses NFTs to spread the idea of ​​ownership and wealth in an absurd form, as if the rich are saying: Even if it’s free, I can still own it.

But one could also see the sale of NFTs as part of the art. The artist who calls himself Beeple has sold an NFT of his virtual work for $69 million. It is a financial achievement. You can see it as capitalism, but also as a critique of capitalism.

Art asks questions whose hour has not yet come for you to answer, wrote Benjamin.

The sale of NFTs also raises questions about ‘ordinary’ art. How tangible is that art in the museum, really? We see an expensive painting, but what makes it art? What gives it an aura? We can exchange canvas, paint and frame, but art is more than materials and hourly wages. They once sawed off a piece of the Night’s Watch because it wouldn’t fit in the room otherwise. Then the painting did not have the same aura that it has now.

What makes art art is not in the material world, so it is not surprising that virtual art pushes this to the fore through this strange trade in proof of ownership. NFTs are a form of financial performance art where their success is the amazing feature that makes them both art and commerce.

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