A pre-existing condition

A week or two ago I was listening to the Good Point podcast while making breakfast and the conversation inevitably turned to NFTs. Sigh. Rafaël Rozendaal tried to make a case that NFTs allow artists to work independently and circumvent galleries and other “middle-men.” I turned off the podcast and checked my email only to find a newsletter from Pace Gallery announcing their shiny new NFT platform. So much for avoiding the middle-men.

I think Rozendaal’s claim that selling NFTs can be an end-run around the gallery system fails to take into account that he’s already an internationally recognized artist. Books (good ones!) have been published on his work. Of course he can sell work independently and directly. He’s famous.

And of course major mega-galleries are getting into the NFT racket. There are just too many dollars to ignore. If I’m allowed to be cynical for just a moment, if you are in the business of selling multi-million dollar artwork to patrons who are primarily interested in tax dodging or money laundering, NFTs are the perfect crime, er, addition to your portfolio. You get all the financial benefit of trading art without having to pay for storage. Because really, if it’s all a scam, who cares if the linked JPG gets accidentally deleted?

While I enjoyed the emergent irony of consuming both of these ideas in rapid succession, it did get me thinking about the market for digital art and what that could actually look like.

NFTs sold as art are fundamentally fiction. The thing which is sold is a squiggly string of numbers and letters tacked onto chain of other squiggly strings of numbers and letters. The artwork isn’t in there. The only thing that is there is a URL pointing to something somewhere maybe. There’s no guarantee (and no way to guarantee) that the URL points to anything.

Now there are lots of fictions we agree to as a society. Like copyright and patents, we invent social agreements to protect the intellectual works we create.

If NFTs stick around–and sickeningly, they might–it will just be another fiction of intellectual property we more or less agree to.

However NFTs refer to or “authenticate” (lol) a piece of digital media - often a digital image or a short video. And the fundamental problem I have here, is that individual image files or video files are worthless.

Digital images or videos aren’t things, they are patterns of information. This is what makes them infinitely copyable and therefore incapable of holding value in and of themselves.

There is the potential for value in how that digital media makes you feel. It’s possible for you to look at digital media and have an aesthetic experience and that is the value.

Does it matter all that much if the media is on your phone or your TV? (I mean sure, a movie is probably better enjoyed on your TV than on your phone, but you get what I’m saying).

This somewhat strange metaphysical conundrum has a very clear parallel in the world of publishing.

If a author creates an exciting novel, a beautiful poem, or a thoughtful essay, the value is not stored in the ink and paper it’s printed on, or the HTML text displayed in your e-reader or web browser. The print or pixels are just a means of conveyance for the ideas the author is expressing. Note also that there’s no meaningful concept of “an original” here. Words are words. The “original” is in the author’s head.1

When we buy a book or pay for a subscription to a newsletter or a website, or just simply tolerate the ads, we’re not paying for ink on paper or pixels. We’re paying for access to the ideas.

This is already true for digital art in many forms. This very newsletter service, Substack, has a business model based upon the assumption that a lot of people will pay for access to writers they like to read. Patreon has musicians, photographers, models, and more charging monthly for access to their work.

The NFT world is trying to replicate the real-world practice of buying, selling, and trading physical objects by pretending that a blockchain receipt is somehow a certificate of authenticity for infinitely reproducible bits. It just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, unless of course you’re heavily leveraged in crypto and need to keep the scam train running and therefore need to believe.

However, in reality there is a quiet community of writers, artists, and creators out there making the publishing model work just fine.

I think this is the real future of digital art. The art is more or less free, but patrons and supporters pay for sneak peaks, exclusive access, and a view behind the scenes.


Sure there’s a collector’s market for first edition books and the like, but that’s an aberration and only comes to pass after an artist is very, very famous and usually very dead. And besides, while books are common and relatively cheap, they are still things and things have value.

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