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

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Imagine a world where you carry millions of dollars worth of artwork in a digital wallet on your phone or even own paint.

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, be it art, music, video, a tweet or even a meme. These assets each have their own unique fingerprint – they cannot be replaced, dismantled, duplicated or counterfeited. Currently, most NFTs exist on the Ethereum blockchain, a digital public ledger used to record all transactions of cryptocurrency Ethereum and other smart contracts.

NFTs have become an incredibly innovative way for artists to share, sell, and disseminate work online. They create scarcity in an area where they didn’t exist before, and enable ownership of digital objects in ways that were previously impossible. Not only does the artist reap the benefits of first sale with NFTs, they also get a cut every time their work gets hands on. For many digital creators, NFTs are the perfect marriage between technology and art, a mediator between scarcity and the infinite reproductive capacity of the digital age. And now art museums want to get involved.

Proponents of this merger claim that NFTs enable the democratization of art, more funding for museums, and a new way of interacting with 21st-century art while supporting living creators. And while one may be tempted to welcome NFTs 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 unknowable — stakes.

In March 2021, auction house Christie’s sold artist Beeple’s digital collage EVERYDAYS: THE FIRST 5000 DAYS for $69 million, becoming the first major auction house to sell an NFT alongside the artwork, and Beeple becoming one of the three most valuable living artists. For comparison, a new Van Gogh on the market sold for $35.8 million – half of what “EVERYDAYS” fetched. After the overnight success of Beeple and Christie’s massive payday, it’s no surprise that art museums have started to show interest. The Uffizi was one of the first major institutions to mint and sell an NFT from its collection in May 2021. To repair the financial damage caused by the pandemic, the Uffizi Gallery sold an NFT of Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo for $170,000. Two months later, the Hermitage – one of the world’s largest museums – sold its own NFTs featuring works by da Vinci, Van Gogh and Kandinsky to raise money for restoration projects. By September, the British Museum had minted two NFTs of Hokusai’s The Great Wave for two lucky (and incredibly wealthy) people.

This is where it gets sticky.

On the one hand, legal questions about copyright and the monetization of museum images such as image license income still need to be clarified. Perhaps one of the most intriguing examples of this occurred about two weeks ago between the Congolese Plantation Workers Arts League (CATPC) and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. After the VMFA repeatedly refused to loan a Congolese sculpture to the Art League Museum and the people who created it, members of CATPC pulled an image of the sculpture from the internet and used it to describe NFTs as a form of reappropriation to mint and sell. trigger a complex legal dispute.

And while the financial benefits of selling NFTs are significant for struggling museums, the absurdly high rate of digital art sales like Beeple’s has led some to wonder if this market is a bubble just waiting to burst. It’s too early to tell, but a “silent crash” occurred in April of last year when the average daily value of NFTs plunged 85 percent (although some argue that this was simply the market correction). Not only that, but valuable, easily transferrable assets in the form of digital art could be used in less-than-legal deals — a reality complicated by the fact that the NFT’s digital provenance would forever tie it to the institution that is it was sold.

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

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

The benefits that museums derive from working with the NFT art market are clear. But do they outweigh the liabilities? Since these are institutions created for the common good, it seems contradictory to allow a wealthy few to own the NFTs of priceless works that exist only by consuming vast amounts of energy. For better or for worse, art museums have brought legitimacy to a world of exorbitant prices and ethical hazard that have yet to be fully explored. Maybe this is the future of the art world; NFTs are becoming increasingly popular with both artists and institutions. However, there is something deeply unsettling about the thought of owning an NFT of Van Gogh’s beautiful cypresses or Bruegel’s snowy landscapes, and knowing that those very environments could be obliterated by the destructive effects of technology like this. As museums face an increasingly volatile climate and artworks and culture degrade over time, these digital images will exist intact on the blockchain. Immortal, untouchable art, constantly accessible through glowing screens.

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