Think Piece: The Ethics of Art Museums and NFTs | Arts


Imagine a world where you carry multi-million dollar works of art in a digital wallet in your telephone or even own a Colour.

This is the world of NFTs.

The term “NFT,” or “non-fungible token”, refers to proof of ownership of a digital asset on the blockchain, either art, music, videos, a tweet or even a memes. Each of these assets has its own unique digital footprint: they cannot be replaced, broken down, duplicated or falsified. Currently, most NFTs exist on Ethereum block chaina digital public ledger used to record all cryptocurrency transactions Ethereal and other smart contracts.

NFTs have become an incredibly innovative way for artists to share, sell, and distribute their work online. They create scarcity in a realm where it hasn’t existed before, enabling the ownership of digital objects in a way that hasn’t been possible before. impossible. The artist not only reaps the benefits of the initial sale with NFT, but receives a cut each time their work is marketed hands. For many digital creators, NFTs are positioned as the perfect marriage between technology and art, a mediator between scarcity and the infinite reproductive capacity of the digital age. And now, the art museums want to participate.

Supporters of this merger claim that NFTs allow for the democratization of art, more funding for museums, and a new way to interact with 21st-century art while supporting living creators. And while one might be tempted to embrace NFT with all these revolutionary possibilities, at the intersection of art museums and the NFT art market lies a contentious ethical debate with costly and sometimes unknown risks.

On March 2021Christie’s auction house sold artist Beeple’s digital collage “EVERYDAYS: THE FIRST 5000 DAYS” for $69 million, making it the first major auction house to sell an NFT along with the artwork and Beeple in one of the three most valuable artists. alive. For comparison, a recent Van Gogh on the market sold for $35.8 million – only half of what was spent on “EVERYDAYS”. Following the overnight success of Beeple and Christie’s huge payday, it’s no surprise that art museums have started showing interest. The Uffizi Gallery became one of the first large-scale institutions to mint and sell an NFT from its collection in May 2021. Eager to repair the financial damage of the pandemic, the uffizi sold an NFT of Michelangelo’s “Doni Tondo” for $170,000. Two months later, the Hermitage Museum, one of the largest museums in the world, they sold their own NFT of works by da Vinci, Van Gogh and Kandinsky to raise money for restoration projects. By Septemberthe British Museum had minted two NFTs from Hokusai’s “The Great Wave” for a couple of lucky (and incredibly wealthy) people.

This is where things get tricky.

On the one hand, legal issues related to copyright and monetization of museum images, such as image licensing revenue, have yet to be resolved. Perhaps one of the most fascinating examples of this occurred around two weeks ago between the Congolese Plantation Workers Art League (CATPC) and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. After the VMFA continually refused to return a Congolese sculpture to the Art League museum and the people it originated from, members of CATPC pulled an image of the sculpture from the web and used it to mint and sell NFTs as a reappropriation form. causing a complex legal battle.

And while the financial benefits of selling NFTs for struggling museums are significant, the absurdly high rate of sales of digital art like Beeple’s has led some to question whether this market is a bubble waiting to explode. It’s too early to tell, but a “quiet shock” occurred in April last year when the average daily value of NFTs plummeted. 85 percent (although some argue this was simply the market correcting itself). Not only that, but valuable and easily transferable assets in the form of digital art could be used in less than legal dealings, a reality complicated by the fact that the NFT’s digital provenance would forever link it to the institution since it was created. sold out.

Beyond financial, legal, and logistical considerations, there are also ethical concerns. What art should be coined as NFT? Should a profit be made on art that is stolen or obtained through violent, often colonial, means? Is it right that museums, created for public access to art, sell NFTs that only a handful of the richest people can afford?

There is no doubt that NFTs have the potential to revolutionize the art world, attract a larger audience and create new sources of funding for museums. But there is also something worrying about interacting with art in a virtual world sustained by technology that destroys the physical. Although Ethereum is working towards greener technology, a single transaction on this blockchain requires as much energy as the average American household uses in a week: a carbon footprint equivalent to 140,893 Visa credit card transactions or 10,595 YouTube hours. Only Beeple’s “EVERYDAYS” produced the same amount of CO2 emissions as 13 households in a whole year. Other cryptocurrencies consume even more energy: Bitcoin, home to a handful of NFTs like those owned by artist Grimes, is estimated to have a carbon footprint greater than Argentina. While the meteoric rise of NFTs is certainly exciting, the cost cannot be ignored.

The benefits to museums of participating in the NFT art market are clear. But do they outweigh the responsibilities? As institutions created for the public good, it seems antithetical to allow a select few wealthy to own the NFTs of priceless works that exist only by consuming enormous amounts of energy. For better or worse, art museums have given legitimacy to a world with exorbitant prices and ethical challenges that have yet to be fully explored. Perhaps this is the future of the art world; NFTs are becoming more and more fashionable for both artists and institutions. Yet there is something deeply unsettling about the idea of ​​owning an NFT of Van Gogh’s beautiful cypress trees or Bruegel’s snowy landscapes and knowing that these same environments can be rendered unrecognizable by the destructive impacts of technology like this. As museums weather an increasingly erratic climate and works of art and culture deteriorate over time, these digital images will exist on the blockchain unscathed. Immortalized and untouchable art, perpetually accessible through brilliant screens.