“To the Arch-Enemy, to the Liar, to the Teacher – to them swear inextinguishable hatred!”
Robby Rackleff, “Commencement speech”
The life of an artist is made of compromises, big and small. Every step of the way you submit yourself to exploitative systems, and the higher you get, the harder it becomes. You're a cartoonist? Wanna draw some comics? Welcome to the Big Two, where your dreams become propaganda for the American Military Complex. Don't want to participate? Don't want to go corporate? Good luck with those “below average” page rates. Do a Patreon, or a Kickstarter, maybe even an Onlyfans. Look closely at these platforms, and see the predatory practices they are ready to unleash on you – all in exchange for a modicum of “making a living” with your art. Of course, you’re “living” in fear of becoming too broke, too insecure, too dependent – and those anxieties remain easy to exploit. But no matter how bad it gets, at least you are lucky enough to belong to one of the most harmless vocations on our poor planet Earth, right? There’s no healthcare, of course. But at least that's something.
Hey! What's an NFT?
Folks, now I'm gonna ask you to imagine me speaking in the best Adam Curtis impression possible (with no crude Russian accent at all!)
This is going to be An Emotional History of Cryptoart World (As Seen by a Comic Artist).
(Already a bit confused? This couple of articles (1, 2) should be helpful with explaining the mechanisms of NFT technology and all the controversy surrounding it better than I possibly can. When you're done, come back for my personal take on the existential horrors of this damn thing!)
The creation of a “Cryptoart” piece is the simple act of providing a glorified label to a cryptocurrency token of a narrow variety; one of the useless overinflated pogs traded by the spoiled rich kids behind the school. It is also the act that is said to uplift individual voices and emancipate (or “democratize”) Digital Art itself, but in reality, seems that it will only multiply our grief and make the sum of all our labor even cheaper, as has happened again and again before. I’m not a musician to tell you stories of how Spotify has gradually ruined and “democratized“ the musical field with algorithms and procedurally generated products, but this is what happens every time with digital startups led by Elon Musk-type guys dead-set on commodifying a creative space.
What I am is an artist, and I'm about to dive into the damage that this has already dealt to my community.
Ah, and also – just like almost any other cryptocurrency, Cryptoart is a motherfucker when it comes to chugging down our oxygen with unimaginable greed and desperation.
When trying to understand the unnecessary emission of CO2 generated by (or, if you wish, “assigned to”) each Cryptoart transaction (“minting”, listing, auctioning, selling and re-selling), it is maybe best compared to a common Mark Millar trope: every time Nick Fury or Reed Richards need to do something stupidly impressive, their single press of a button burns billions of dollars (and thus, energy) on the other side of the globe. Here are your nine second of invisibility, Nick! Now go ahead and whack Colonel Gaddafi. And just like that, selling art through NFTs is not really the said revolutionary and healthy alternative to the Fine Arts world it’s been promoted as; it is literally the exact same circle of gatekeepers, speculators, fake experts, ruthless opportunists and straight up thieves – but now when you sell your "painting" to a "gallery", you need to imagine that you’ve hired a special transport company that then escorts your painting via a convoy of 20 off-road vehicles, each farting away colossal amounts of exhaust while skirting the planet in the opposite direction from the shortest route, for SOME reason. (But don't you worry! The technology is about to go “green” pretty soon – maybe by 2040?)
Since Cryptoart really went public in late February, the discourse on environmental impact of it was very quickly drowned in mental gymnastics and whataboutisms: "I do not use a car, I do not plan to have children and I do not eat red meat, so it must mean that in my 30 years on the planet Earth I have earned a right to cash it all out!" or, "Oh! You talk about how our use of this one piece of technology is disproportionately and unreasonably harmful to the environment! However, you are writing this message from an iPhone... How curious!"
The esoteric and everchanging research into the exact impact of NTFs on our planet (known in the Crypto circles as "the art of cooking numbers and shifting accountability") was pushed to the background, giving way to the question of individual compromise: are we ready to rationalize the harm that we are suddenly able to inflict on the environment by making some money? How willing are we to accept the responsibility, and how deep will our denial go?
This question was forced on pretty much every single unprepared member of the global art community, and I don't think we’ve even had the proper means to quickly rationalize the measure of our personal responsibility here. The "numbers" and "math" affecting our brain are simply unprecedented. It breaks our thinking because the disproportional amount of damage we're talking here is somewhat unfathomable. You can’t reach those levels of excess even by eating a thousand steaks or driving a thousand miles in a day. And that is why reflecting on complicity with Cryptoart is so frustrating. Talking about it feels like constantly spreading grief in an attempt to ease the pain on yourself.
Artists live in countries that get set aflame every year now, we all know that “there is no ethical consumption under capitalism”. Thinking about our individual environmental impact can feel painfully pointless. The so-called diffusion of responsibility, effectively enforced on us by the structures that surround us, dulls our feelings and attention; even when we become aware of the possible magnitude and absolutely disproportional damage dealt by NFTs, a palpable powerlessness can become a source of anxiety, depression and denial. And then there’s the fear of missing out, the artificially planted feeling that Cryptoart might just be the "last resort" for us starving artists. It instills pornographically vivid images of poverty that await everyone outside of the crypo bubble. You are now trapped inside your own mind, and you are the guy wearing a barrel with suspenders around the town. It’s pure Brechtian imagery, cynically appropriated by the ruling class and aimed at exploitation and commodification of your labor. And the ease at which they exploit those images, exploit your worst fears or even factual reality of your ill-being, is the most heartbreaking and cruel part of the whole NFT ordeal. Those technocratic pigs are getting better and better at co-opting us into their schemes, by making us choose ignorance, or – even more sinister – forcing us into FULL rationalization of WHY we are going to agree to participate in those destructive mechanisms. Because at the point of absolute insecurity and fear – say, after a full year of a little thing called a “pandemic” - so many artists are willing to compromise, to be cynical again. It’s better to be nihilistic than pornographically poor, right?
But if something looks like a cult, sounds like a cult, and smells like a cult then it's probably a cult, right?
And what a bizarre cult it is! Cultivating all the worst thoughts and feeling, pushing you to adopt the whole subculture, to act immediately, to partake in the grift for 24 hours a day, to dedicate your whole being to being An NFT Adept. Any hustle you must endure when promoting your work on other digital platforms pales in comparison to seeing the deceived amateurs and desperates trying to snatch a piece of a NFT pie. To support the facade of overwhelming positivity, something known as “love bombing” quickly became a thing – once you get your first NFT marketplace invite, pay your first fees (or even have a good hearted Samaritan pay them for you!), crude Potemkin villages are hastily built all around you: an echo-chamber of NFT neophytes, nameless Collectors of Digital Arts and straight up bots who will soothe you in oceans of crypto-love. You are your own Elon Musk now, so why should you listen to those losers who are missing out on such great prospects?
And it is because of those kinds of practices that it became even more obvious that the environmental impact of NFTs is far from the only problem here. There’s art theft, now known as “tokenization”. It’s the shakiest stances on copyright and platform responsibilities so far. It’s “Crypto advisers” replacing agents and art reps. I've seen successful NFT artists bundled together in “collectives” and moved to a same hotel so they could “farm” their “art” out under the wise supervision of their benefactor – with a generous supply of free champagne sweetening the deal. Becoming a living asset, an accessory to capitalistic schemes is even more of a problem now than ever before. All those previously known and familiar issues (many from the fine art field, others from the tech industry) were pumped full of heavy steroids and launched right into the stratosphere. It’s the next stage of the commodification of art, as grim as ever before.
At least at THIS point some artists are able to deploy the same nihilistic pragmatism that others use to rationalize NFTs; the last few weeks have seen some acknowledge how toxic and overblown the whole things is. They notice how thousands of young newcomer artists are flocking to the NFT temple in complete delirium caused by the “one in a lifetime chance” expectations, how quickly they are turned into pathetic bottom-feeders at the service of the Cryptoart Church and its high-ranked pundits.
Me using a lot of harsh words here makes it sound like I'm trying to blame the pawns in the scheme for perpetuating it; I am not. I have endless sympathy and compassion for those who will lose weeks, if not months, chasing the highs of Cryptoart. For those broken by the cruel compromises.
The ones to blame here, to bully and to held accountable are the “pundits”. They are probably the most important figures of the pyramid; Big Industry Names, who are practically guaranteed success on any platform they come near to. It is no surprise that the current flood of Cryptoart began with people in positions as art directors in large game-developing companies and their close circles of friends and colleagues (arguably the most well-set people of the art world right now). From there, the movement continues to grow exponentially. Beloved by millions already, those digital artists legitimize NFTs by lending their names and careers to the cryptomoguls. They show us that the new art bourgeoisie has earned its place under the sun by walking along the thorny path of Creating. And after that, manipulative propaganda will convince you that there could be a tiny spot in this world for you, too. All you need is to soak in the profound irony of Cryptoart and do the daily job or putting your soul through the meatgrinder.
And the profundity of the art they create (or rather “rebrand”, as there are rarely any new pieces of art being created here) and sell is at true parody level. James Jean, who was one of the first big names in comics to dabble in Cryptoart and sold his old drawing as an NFT for quarter of a million dollars, described the piece as “representation of my creative struggles, as the target of my ambitions requires an element of self-sacrifice and mutilation.” Pussy Riot, the heroines of Russian culture revolution, carpet-bombed NFT market with several clips from their recent music video. The video in question, and I shit you not, asks the viewer to “watch how kawaii and healthy world with crystal clean air is dissolving into a dystopian toxic nightmare”. And this language, completely poisoned by irony and prevalent in NFT vocabulary, is trying to convince you that acknowledging the controversy is somehow enough to avoid the moral compromise. Just another safe haven for one's conscience.
Which, I guess, finally brings us to the recent developments in the comics part of Cryptoart scene. Recently, the acclaimed writer Matt Kindt announced an upcoming NFT drop of a comic he specially made for testing Cryptoart grounds. The marketing shtick here is pretty similar to infamous Wu-Tang Clan/Martin Shkreli “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin” deal. The future buyer, you see, will be absolutely free to keep the comic all for themselves – or share it with the world! Avid Kindt-heads immediately launched a GoFundMe to raise the funds needed to partake and hopefully win in (at the time not even properly launched) auction; Kindt himself in his “mission statement” proclaimed that he wanted to explore “the nature of belief and the value of ideas and their intangible nature as a way of exploring the idea of NFTs.”
Sure. He also promised to plant some trees to make up for any possible environmental damage. The same gentleman, by the way, served as the writing talent behind a Kickstarter for the action-packed Boom!Studios phenomenon BRZRKR, starring no other than mister Keanu Reeaves himself as the titular lead. The first issue of this book sits at the mark of 600+ thousands copies printed at the moment, I think? A movie adaptation of it (starring Keanu, of course) was announced by Netflix the same day that Kindt decided to announce his complete moral bankruptcy—because gentrifying a whole crowdfunding platform by turning it into a large corporate publicity stunt (while actively making it worse for everyone who actually relies on that platform) is simply not enough for getting a good footing in the industry.
It’s no wonder the Big Two comics and some of the bigger original comics art sellers are already circling waters around NFTs. To my knowledge, for now only the industry titan Essential Sequential went for a full dive into the shit-puddle, dragging all their artists along with them (the struggling indie comics darling Adam Kubert among such). Why? Because now original comic page could just be a bonus for an NFT token, and sold for ten times more money than before. Do we really expect those cartoonists to push back against the initiative?! They see it as a payment that is due for their entire body of work, one way or another. This is not about specific pieces of art, industry standards, or any forms of ethics. It's simply a lifetime achievement award.
So of course DC partnered up with a shitty crypto-startup for a run of exclusive digital Batman Black & White statues attached to NFTs! What else could they do? They used drawings by late Darwyn Cooke for one of the “statues”, too, because of course they did. And when Darwyn's own widow asked them to stop using Darwyn's art and name to promote this sweet, sweet NFT drop, no response had followed (at least as far as I know).
Will any of Marvel/DC writers, artist and editors react to this debacle (as well as the already foreseeable wave of other NFT exclusives) in any tangible way? Do they even have any sensible leverage over their employer here? It would be nice, of course, to see a bigger, stronger, industry-wide reaction to Cryptoart's simpering attempts to poison our small world of The Ninth Art. But I somehow doubt that it's possible. If anything, the last few years showed us that the The Old Guard – the same people actively participating in comic NFTs now, or just cowardly covering for their friends doing it – will gladly put up a good ol' Struggle Session for any artist or journalist who dares to disrespect a colorist, a letterer, or – gasp – an artist; they will be there when someone vocally dislikes a Tom King comic, or some other book about a sad guy named Eddie.
(Anyway, I've heard that Matt Furie was about to launch an NFT for Pepe the Frog, too, but then he simply deleted his twitter. Now how the hell am I even supposed to feel here? Matt Furie?!! Maybe the ONE guy in the entirety of modern comics to whom some sort of reparation is actually, probably “due” for what we all and the world itself have done to the guy?)
In his neat little book on hyperobjects Timothy Morton argues that global warming (or "climate change") as one of the titular "hyperobjects", so colossal in size that we are simply unable to see it in its entirety and realize the full scope of it. We were never ready to meet it, and the speed of its development exceeded any possibilities of human imagination, so, when faced with global warming on rational level, we can only resort to postmodernist irony, denial or hypocrisy.
At the same time, according to Morton, if we were to step outside of our apartments and feel the rain on our faces, we would experience not just the rain, but the hyperobject itself - the combination of all the factors that lie between the melting of glaciers and those cute little droplets plopping on our hapless heads.
Scaling this analogy down a bit, from now on, every time I open a 3D program to make it easier for myself to work with drawing references, I will think about all those talented 3D artists from games industry and how eager they were to become members of a destructive eco-terrorist cult. When using Patreon, I will reproach myself even harder for allowing myself to be drawn into all those smaller exploitation schemes. And when remembering the James Jean covers for the Umbrella Academy comic, I will think about how easily that boy with the slingshot smashed the entire creative legacy of this artist.
As for all the artists who are still doing NFTs... Congratulations on your “Get Rich Quick” scheme! Here’s a “Die Bitch Soon” card.
I rest my case.