Recently I was terribly impressed to hear some intelligence community pointy-heads (thanks Mark Galeotti), on BBC Radio 4, making an analysis on the writhing mass of engineered subterfuge that now seems to be an accepted part of our daily diet of (mis)information, geopolitics and faux scandal. Scary, but perhaps the most sobering part of this exchange was an apparent longing of the assembled ex-MI5/RUSI and other intelligence bod participants, for the predictability and comparative certainty offered by the Cold War’s mutual atomic annihilation. The analysts waxed slightly lyrically about the clarity provided for operatives by the bleak concept of atomic Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) during the 1950’s and ‘60’s, against sorting through the murky avalanche of state and cybercrime-sponsored falsehoods that currently characterise intelligence gathering and field operations.
In this brief thought piece, I will attempt to draw a parallel between the reassuringly visible conflicts of mid-20th century art as it moved from Modernism, Conceptualism and Post-modernism against what I might describe as the current, commercially-driven, Post-post-modern free-for-all.
You would be entirely forgiven for wondering what on earth the idea of weaponisation1 has to do with art at all, certainly in the 21st century generally - and 2022 in particular, with the hope of a new year and a new beginning; but actually I would argue that liberal and visual arts are currently at the sharpest-end of a current cultural assault. I state this given the focus on the pandemic and domestic political pocket lint, not many people are even noticing. And of course, it’s not really news is it? Art has always been weaponised; by Religion, by Nazism2 and Anti-Fascism3, by Communism and by the rich and powerful, so what’s new.
What’s new I suggest, is that for the first time, art is being weaponised against itself by the establishment and the market with the unquestioning cooperation of a new generation of artists who care about money and celebrity more than art. A damning accusation I know, but amidst the NFT torrent threat, I am indirectly referring to, mark my words that, in less than 10 years’ time, Banksy will be revered as an old master from a bygone age when art was seen to have had content, integrity, ethics and social conscience.
I am suggesting that dark forces/malevolent actors are absolutely, currently at work in undermining the bastions of liberal culture, freedom of expression, research ethics, real information and creativity as we have come to recognise them through the manifestation of western art of the past two millennia. The alleged state actors targeting symmetrical notions of ‘truth’ are well-rehearsed: North Korea, Iran, Russia, China, etc. and the weakness of any liberal regime, of course, is also to allow internal dissent, opposition and more recently these seem to manifest as increasingly outlandish departures from common sense. The dark forces that really threaten art as we know it, and the possibility of art that dissents probably lies in the unholy and largely invisible alliance that is being formed and refined by partners in cybercrime; cryptocurrency miners, money launderers, organised crime and the auction market are all teamed-up and busy exploiting the blockchain aesthetic. Outlandish and unfounded I hear you protest. Jacob Chansley’s materialisation as the QAnon Shaman in the US Capitol Building siege in Washington DC on 6 January 2021 epitomised societal confusion on the one hand, and the grim and corrosive effects of orchestrated denial and misinformation on the other. Do not think for one moment that art is somehow exempt from the same leanings, distortions and denials as ‘everything else’.
Recently I wrote, with some skepticism, about the ‘true’ worth (value) and potential volatility of NFT’s as art. The true coup d'état here is that finally, the market, cryptocurrency miners and the dark web have finally found a way to reduce art to ‘pure’ replicable image tokens4. Finally, a way to denude art of meaning by promoting the signs of art, (and art as signage for itself), over any sense of its symbolic meaning or significance. I am not talking here about art for art’s sake, but something far more concerning in terms of the instrumentalization of the functions of art by reducing its meaning rather than its means. In the 1960’s and ‘70’s Minimalism offered us the realisation of architect Mies Van Der Rohe’s vision of simplicity, of art and architecture with ‘less is more’ at the core; minimal means to achieve maximum effect. But NFT’s offer true minimalism, with the perverted core sentiment reading ‘less is less’, with a key value for the art being in its potential to be transacted. The revolutionary nature and challenge of NFT’s is being feted as something for us all to literally ‘buy into’ as the next thing for the visual arts. In some ways, the media hyperbole and broadsheet rhetoric remind me of the press commentaries around the challenge to the establishment/status quo presented by the emergence of classic Conceptual Art and Pop. Big bucks NFT artists such as ‘Beeple’ (real name Mark Winkleman), and Vhils are now being mentioned unflinchingly by Art Monthly, Sotheby’s and the FT as being in the same financial league as Hockney and Koons. Don’t get me wrong, I like and admire the work of Beeple and other amazing NFT artists, they are star producers and producers for the stars, but I doubt the ready and regardless commodification.
Here, I would highlight a couple of drivers for classic Conceptual Art that are mistakenly attributed to NFT’s: The first is the erroneus notion that NFT’s are a similarly democratising market influence, promoting wider public access (visible and understanding-wise) to the arts. Conceptual Art and its artists reacted angrily against the product-based, cognoscenti-driven art market of the 1950’s and ‘60’s and sought to create works that could not easily be owned or bought. For example, one could not own a walk by Richard Long, or a ‘happening’ by Yoko Ono. This was a calculated moral position taken against what was perceived to be the pernicious ‘contamination’ of art making by the confluence of critical and market forces. Strangely, the reaction of LeWitt and Weiner to Greenbergian formalism, and Greenberg’s take on the Avant-Garde and Kitsch resonate even today5. Any notion that NFT’s occupy a similar moral stance to ‘production’ is entirely coincidental. Conceptual artists, were, on the whole, idealists who challenged the notion of ownership by the elite and of cultural approval powered by a cognoscenti.
I also suspect that very few of the investors into art NFT’s really understand the nature of the commodity that they are ‘buying’ when they acquire an NFT as an artwork: Given the market clamour and substantial price tags of ‘blue chip’ NFT’s, these effectively add to the inverted ‘snob value’ of being able to pay a high price not to own ‘the work’. To reiterate, NFT’s can be bought (and sold) but are never really ‘owned’ in the traditional sense as they don’t ontologically ‘exist’ except as digital tokens/images of themselves. The terminal velocity of the duplicitous logic here effectively asserts that NFT’s ‘exist’ in much the same way that God ‘exists’, though I suspect that this is not a sales line that the auction houses push6.
Perversely, the objective of NFT art traders is to transact, and I hope that the intentionality here helps contextualise my earlier foray into the existential God/Art argument. In my view, and this may, of course, be controversial, NFT artworks are antithetical in that they encourage the elitism of pure money, literal tokenism and an almost complete absence of potential for conceptual owner insight. In returning to my titular assertion, I would further argue that NFTokenisation of art is in fact the weaponisation, (by tokenistic monetisation), of art against art, and against the medium and long term interests of most existing artists and artists to come. Please note that I haven’t even mentioned counterfeiting, artificial pricing, Internet fraud and the frighteningly massive carbon footprint of NFT’s.
Now you may think this is all a bunch of hokum and pessimistic conspiracy theory, but for me, there has been one artist who anticipated this whole shooting match and the seismic premise shift of art beyond view; Lawrence Weiner. Weiner sadly passed in late 2021, but I believe his legacy and particular his Schema helps us make sense of what is really going on, at least conceptually, with NFT’s.
From 1968 onwards Weiner's sited statements, books, posters and records were augmented by this written text that was intended to characterise the options for the production and distribution of art:
- the artist may construct the piece;
- the piece may be fabricated;
- the piece need not be built.
Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist, the decision as to condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion of the receivership.
And at this point, I rest my case.
1 Mark Galeotti, The Weaponisation of Everything: A Field Guide to the New Way of War. Yale 2022.
2 In September 1933, the Reichskulturkammer (Reich Culture Chamber) was established, with Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's Reichminister für Volksaufklärung und Propaganda (Reich Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda) in charge. Individual divisions in the Chamber of Culture for the Reich included: "press, radio, literature, movies, theatre, music, and visual arts. The purpose of this chamber was to stimulate the Aryanization of German culture and to prohibit, for example, atonal Jewish music, the Blues, Surrealism, Cubism, and Dadaism."
3 See for example John Heartfield and the Berlin Dada Club 1917; John Heartfield and the Agitated Image: Photography, Persuasion, and the Rise of Avant-Garde Photomontage, Andres Mario Zervigon.
4 See for example: “Jailed Dark Web Marketplace Founder Ross Ulbricht to Auction NFT Artwork, Proceeds to Fund His Release Efforts: The NFT collection is titled “Ross Ulbricht Genesis Collection” which will include writings, artworks, and animation with a voice-over by Ulbricht. Gadgets 360 by Radhika Parashar. Updated: 1 December 2021.
5 “Kitsch, using for raw material the debased and academicized simulacra of genuine culture, welcomes and cultivates this insensibility. It is the source of its profits. Kitsch is mechanical and operates by formulas. Kitsch is vicarious experience and faked sensations. Kitsch changes according to style, but remains always the same. Kitsch is the epitome of all that is spurious in the life of our times. Kitsch pretends to demand nothing of its customers except their money – not even their time “. Greenberg, Clement, Avant-Garde and Kitsch. Partisan Review. 6:5 (1939) 34–49.
6 To better unpick my semantic point here, for ‘God’ read ‘Art’: Atheists deny the existence of God but understand and recognise the concept of God. Agnostics believe that the existence or nature of God, is unknowable; then of course there are true believers. The notion and acceptance of ‘God’ as a concept varies, but the ‘God idea’ is recognisable.