This month’s Frame: Walter Benjamin, NFTs and ownership without objects
A framework for thinking about the distinct form of value created by digital assets.
The rise of non-fungible token (NFT) art has been characterised by a tone of self-interested inclusivity.
Every day, groups of NFT early adopters publicise the latest run of (often simplistic, lo-fi and accessible) artworks to prospective buyers, encouraging others to participate in their shared project.
It’s a model popularised by CryptoPunks: 10,000 unique punk characters algorithmically generated in 2017 that are now traded for millions. Today, buyers speculate on everything from Crypto Baristas to Doge Pound Puppies.
What’s clear is that most NFT buyers are less interested in owning something in particular, than in participating in the future value of anything. Value doesn’t emanate from the thing itself, but the social and economic benefits bestowed by ownership.
Value without objects
Walter Benjamin would have struggled to explain the NFT phenomenon. In his theory of art, he obsessed over the “aura” created by original artworks; an aura diminished by reproduction.
Benjamin’s idea that artistic value resides in authentic objects is deeply ingrained in our culture. It has become a cliché for non-believers to make digital copies of NFT artworks; to joke that there is no distinction between their copy and the original.
And the non-believers are right. NFTs are tokens: they tell you that you own the legal rights to an artwork, not that you possess the original version of it. Because the idea of an original canvas or artefact is meaningless in a digital universe of 1s and 0s.
But this critique rests on the wrong assumptions. Incredulity with the NFT art market is underscored by the belief that value is fixed to finite physical objects. And yet within the world of NFTs there are no objects, so how do you explain value?
For Benjamin physical artworks are imbued with traditions and rituals that are recognised by society. Ownership is meaningful because the artwork is traceable back to a single authentic object, with “its unique existence in a particular place”. Owners bask in the reflected glory of the traditions and rituals the object embodies, but ownership is rarely valued in its own right.
Unlike physical artworks, NFTs are not reducible to an object. But they do have something in common: they are reducible to an owner. Their value must therefore reside in the fact of ownership. So what is it that makes ownership valuable? To reapply Benjamin’s same terms: the traditions and rituals associated with ownership that are recognised by society.
In short, the value of an NFT rests entirely on the market recognising ownership as, in itself, valuable. This explains the success of projects in which thousands invest in limited runs of works that are slight variations on the same theme. Recognition is baked in: first as part of a community of owners, second in the attention that the community can generate in the wider market. Thus the skill of an NFT investor is not in judging the art, but in judging who is “behind it”, in evaluating the social dynamics at play.
Using the framework
It is only when you consider what NFTs enable owners to do and be that the significance of this disaggregation between object and owner becomes clear. As this HBR article notes:
“NFTs can function like membership cards or tickets, providing access to events, exclusive merchandise, and special discounts — as well as serving as digital keys to online spaces where holders can engage with each other. Moreover, because the blockchain is public, it’s even possible to send additional products directly to anyone who owns a given token. All of this gives NFT holders value over and above simple ownership — and provides creators with a vector to build a highly engaged community around their brands.”
In this sense NFTs reflect a wider trend of culture away from the sovereign “artist” towards the plural “creator”. Physical art is impermeable, the concrete instantiation of artistic self-expression. Owners play the role of proud custodians. Digital art is porous: it signifies a starting point, an invitation from the creator for others to collaborate and contribute. Owners become participants.
Ultimately, then, the real draw of NFTs extends beyond speculation to the promise of recognition: as the original object recedes the owners take centre stage.
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