Nft in the Age of Digital Capitalism

Fırat Arapoğlu

by Fırat Arapoğlu

Published April 9, 2023

We use NFT as a word for every digital production, but a significant part of NFT sales includes digital works of art. Recently, we have witnessed how pseudo-works of arts, which at first glance seem to have no depth, have been sold to high prices. In such a situation, we see that collectors or holding companies want to take their place in the financial speculation of the art market. Accordingly, artists also integrated into the NFT trend. NFT is both about the possible future of art and is an output of the market. If art and culture cannot avoid commodification, everything can be bought and sold in the capitalist market for profit. Whether an artist produces an NFT is produced as a work of art or not, it may also appear as an enterprise that does not require human creative labor.

NFT is defined as a unique digital “nonfungible token” stored on the blockchain and in this definition, there are no words cultural value or work of art. However, today, there is a considerable production of surplus value in the digital world. This abundance, in essence, erodes the feature of “uniqueness” used to define art while at the same time destroying the discussions of “digital freedom” put forward against the commodification of art. If the excess production of digital products reduces the average labor time, it is naturally expected that the prices of these products will decrease. Is this determination correct?

If there is no pressure on supply in the market, the abundance of information in a free-market economy reduces prices. That is why the market wants to control the flow of information in the digital world. Before the digital economy, people thought that a person with a computer or a smartphone would have free access to information. However, the NFT’s limitation of the number of presentations of a digital file is to create precisely the kind of printing mentioned. This kind of limitation means blocking creative activities and social progress.

The realization of the possibility of opening digital art to the market through NFTs has enabled them to be sold at high prices. Sometimes they even are sold for high prices than works of contemporary art. NFT buyers think that digital images will increase in value after a specific time. From their point of view, these images – for most of them – are not purely artistic value.

On the other hand, the ability of NFTs to be a reliable commodity is still being determined. A painting or a sculpture can be stored at home or in a secure place. However, the fact that NFTs need some websites and transit routes on the Internet carries the risk of disappearing into an access problem. So, will there be NFT files that are no longer accessible in the coming years? In this case, what will it mean for a collector to own a non-existent work of art?

NFTs are more about economics than art. The production of NFT, of course, requires particular artistic practice and technical knowledge. Nevertheless, the special issue is that they are commercial commodities produced to make a profit. Put differently; the problem is that they are starting to be seen as an object of buying and selling rather than aesthetic production. Many artists who produce NFT see it as a source of income, not to increase the artistic value of an image they produce. The fundamental question is: can an NFT be raised with its own value or as an investment value?

NFTs do not yet have an intrinsic value. Despite this quality, they are active in the art market and offer a different way of buying and selling digital art. Many institutions related to digital art have been trying to popularize this art form for many years. Success has been gained through the use of cryptocurrencies.

Capitalism is an economic system based on the production and exchange of commodities, and in such a society, the majority of productive activity is done for profit, not for need. This, in turn, creates a “commodity fetish” in society. In other words, every commodity can be sold on the market, including things with no use-value, such as NFT. In the context of NFT, buyers invest in a product that the public agrees is “unique” rather than a mass-produced object. In such a case, art becomes an investment object, regardless of how it is produced and its content. About a work, whether it has a good or bad reputation, what is essential is its value for speculative investment. NFTs are on the market in an environment of artificially created scarcity, and like stocks and real estate, they have become an effective speculative investment in the global crisis environment.

NFTs have been one of the current moves in the speculative and profit-oriented art market. It is true, but the way for the art market to reach this level has been prepared much earlier. The mainstream art world has been putting art to the market for a specific time and wants works of art to be evaluated only on sales prices. So much so that for some artists, the criterion of success has been only manipulation, and the gap between their talents and their market value is too big. The name value of such artists is created by market demand, regardless of the value of the works themselves.

The same determinations are valid to a certain extent for the digital art world and NFTs. NFTs are becoming widespread, and for example, Beeple, one of the wealthiest digital artists, considers its buyers more as investors than collectors – this, of course, also applies to the world of contemporary art. As always, there is much talk in art, but very little is written. If an artist – whether he produces an NFT or not- convinces an investor to invest a large amount of money, he/she is considered a real artist.

Art is one of the vital productive activities of civilizations, and therefore, it is expected to be exhibited on a platform accessible to the whole society. Nevertheless, the digital capitalist system distorts art to a certain extent and turns it into a commodity that belongs to the highest bidder. Art should be free from the economic forces that have turned it into a speculative commodity because the complete liberation of art from private ownership and the market will ensure that its value will be revealed clearly.

(Post-Scriptum: One of the crucial issues in this context is the need to take a critical distance from art history books and museum catalogs written for advertising purposes, which create the basis for transforming art into a speculative commodity. These publications do not give information about individual or collective genius. Their purpose is to advertise the products on display or in the collection).

Fırat Arapoğlu: Asst. Prof. Dr. (Altınbaş University), Art Historian/Art Critic/Curator. For communication: