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On NFTs could easily become the headstone for a cultural explosion that seems, for now, to have fizzled out

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It is both absurd and fitting that a book that wants to document the history of NFT culture – an extreme manifestation of contemporary society’s shift towards things digital – should materialise at 650 pages long, measure 36 × 50 cm and weigh over 10kg. And that it comes in two levels of collectability: a 1,500-copy collector’s edition and an even rarer (only 600 copies) ‘Hard Code’ edition, which comes in a stainless-steel slipcase, perhaps appealing to the crypto-NFT OGs with a spare £1.5k burning their e-wallets.

Yet while On NFTs goes big on the print-object fetishism, reflecting something of the exuberant, anti-elitist vulgarity of the recent NFT boom, artist and curator Robert Alice pulls together a thoughtful and informative record of the decade in which the growing interest in blockchain and cryptocurrencies intersected with artists of every kind, catalysing an eruption of creativity the mainstream artworld struggled to comprehend. Mixed with the glossy profile pages on 101 NFT artists of note are useful essays by artists and critics dealing with the key debates and innovations that have come to define the NFT space. As Alice puts it in his introduction, ‘it is a history that has celebrated art at all levels and to all audiences; focused less on the art world elite but on themes of democratization, disintermediation, and decentralization’.

Alice and his contributors do an accessible job setting out the conceptual parameters of that history; in his own discussion of Kevin McCoy’s proto-NFT Quantum (2014), Alice notes how it was digital artists who discovered common cause with blockchain enthusiasts’ interest in scarce virtual assets and decentralised currency. ‘The blockchain made possible a process that artists of all mediums have been attempting to implement for decades: one in which the provenance of even the most immaterial conceptual and digital works could be traced and verified, and the sales of future works controlled.’

Two cultures, both in tension with the established artworld, come together in NFTs; in Rhea Myers’s discussion of the blockchain ‘smart contract’, avant-garde and conceptualist art has long anticipated the debates of authenticity and certification of the art object. Alongside this critical art-history is a history of excluded or outsider cultural production; discussing the ‘Rare Pepe Wallet’ (a jokey, fanbase exchange for self-produced ‘Pepe’ digital trading cards), Jason Bailey and Alex Estorick note that what lends the project its ‘particular cultural legitimacy is that its memes were the product of everyday people – rather than an insulated elite – whose communal engagement conjured a viral form of folk art’.

On NFTs could easily become the headstone for a cultural explosion that seems, for now, to have fizzled out, since it misses a more sceptical analysis of the shortcomings of blockchain utopianism and crypto grift. Aaron Wright and Serena Tabacchi’s examination of DAOs (decentralised autonomous organisations) holds onto the techno-utopian vision that technology will give humans the tools for more democratic, non-hierarchical forms of organisation. Yet a recurrent theme in the essays is the reassertion of centralisation by NFT marketplaces and legacy players; indeed, Bailey and Estorick note that the legendary 2021 Beeple auction, while turbo-charging the NFT craze, ‘dealt a deathblow to crypto art as a realistic anti-art alternative to the traditional art world’. Real-world economics and politics hasn’t yet been replaced by crypto and blockchain, and art hasn’t yet dematerialised. As On NFTs solidly attests, materiality is where value still resides.

On NFTs, edited by Robert Alice. Taschen, £750 / £1,500 (hardcover)