Non-Fungible Tokens (NFT) and Values

trees hanging over a river

“I have always believed, and I still believe, that whatever good or bad fortune may come our way we can always give it meaning and transform it into something of value.”
| Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha

I feel like a person from an old time. With an old soul. These days more than ever. I am tired, overwhelmed, sad, and angry. 

Do you know approximately what the following words mean? Cancel-culture, airdrop, gas fees, minting, alt coins, dApps, DeFi, DLT, ledger, segregated witness, opensea, greenwash or etherrocks (if you can’t wait, you can sneak peek for their definitions here)? Then you probably feel similar like I felt. Some years ago, I wrote my university diploma thesis in cryptology, and read a lot of science fiction literature about cyberpunks over the years, for example, Norbert Wiener’s classic book „Newromancer“. But I don’t hide at all that I feel overrun by the movement, speed, and penetrance of the NFT movement in the landscape photography community and the art worlds in the last weeks. I have so many questions in mind that are yet unanswered. How am I able to decide whether to use this technology for selling my art when I cannot find answers to these questions. I just feel very insecure. 

To say it upfront, my position on NFT is neither completely against nor in favor of using them. I am somewhat standing in the middle.

In consequence of this described insecurity, also on my own position as an artist, my needs, values, and positioning, I have reduced my activities from all social platforms, have not published a newsletter, and have not updated my own personal website in the last few weeks. This was for many, varied reasons. Why should I say something when I have nothing to say? Why should I post pictures if I don’t have any or don’t feel like it?  These reflective pauses are important to me, where I can retreat, reflect and create. They are the source of power to meet with my inner self, the engine of my progress in my personal development, but they are also important to observe and create. I have been doing all of this over the past few weeks.

I have been very active working on my book project, developing my ongoing photography projects, am in the process of creating a tutorial, but I have also just been observing what is happening around me.

It has been an absurd year full of contrasts, a break out of common and known patterns, an attempt to find a foothold in a changing world, but most of all it has been a critical reflection of my own values. In a sense, this blog post is about values. I’d like to describe in this short article why I feel tired, what makes me feel sad, what open questions I have, and how I am trying to grow further as an artist.

The Emergence and Impact of NFTs

It sounds almost cynical to me that in a year marked by COVID, floods, bushfires, and other natural disasters, a gold rush is breaking out that has people seemingly blindly following a movement. Non-fungible tokens, or NFT for short, have swept the art market at a speed that makes me giddy. They have democratized and disrupted the art market for the moment. Currently, a lot of cryptocurrencies are being invested in and passed around NFTs. Investor communities of NFT investors, collectors, artists, and fans have formed and are actively exchanging and cheering each other on to new heights as if in a gold rush. Consequently, two camps seem to have formed in the landscape photography community: Those artists who use, create, promote, and perhaps have already made money with NFTs, and those who reject NFTs – mostly for sustainability reasons. There also seems to be a third group of people: The procrastinators. Those who are not sure, who reflect and carefully weigh their behavior. Perhaps they are risk-averse, or perhaps their values are more important to them than money made quickly. I personally count myself among this latter group.

Much has been said about NFTs. For example, about their financial value on BBC, or in the New York Times, about their future potential in the Times magazine, about their environmental impact (ex1, ex2, ex3), about calculating the carbon footprint of any NFT artist. On the other hand, we may also found critics on the criticism. In contrast, however, there is almost no open discussion, too little reflection, and too little discourse in the landscape photography field – to my own humble perspective. Matt Payne’s podcast episode about NFTs with Brynn Alise Schmidt, Alex Noriega, and Alex Nail is a laudable exception. What I appreciate about this one is the calm, constructive discourse with which they address the topic, the self-reflections but also insights about their own insecurities. This seems to be an honest and good way to approach the subject. Nature First also created a statement on their position towards NFTs. They call out all photographers to get involved with discussions about NFTs and their environmental impact. Nevertheless, in the long run, NFTs are developed to stay and they will influence the whole art market. In one way or the other, we may all be confronted with them in the future. But exactly in what ways, that’s my question.

Much has already been said about NFTs. However, I have many questions. Questions that long for a discourse.

Some of my Open Questions on NFT

In the following, I collect a shortlist of open questions that I have when reflecting on NFTs. Some of them may sound rhetorical, others, cynical. In any case, they are subjective and represent my own thought process.

– Why, and when do I sell my photographs and to whom?

– Would I sell my photographs to anyone who has the money to buy it?

– Do I perceive my photographs to be a financial, tradable asset of art that might be used as a commodity of trade? 

– Do I care if the buyer of my work cares about my work and appreciates it?

– Do I care where the money comes from that is used to buy my work?

– Am I willed to follow investors I don’t agree with and involve myself in their universe to praise my work and increase chances for their purchase?

– As an artist, am I willing to do everything myself to sell my art? Where is the difference between marketing your products and selling your soul?

– Aren’t the initial NFT investments not just feeds of the cryptocurrency and platform creators to nourish their own wealth development?

– Am I able to create a piece of digital art on the costs of high CO2 consumption?

– Am I able to continue being a member of Nature First and Leave No Trace when I create NFTs?

– Even if I offset the CO2 consumption caused by the NFT creation, don’t I still advertise and support the NFT world continuing that path?

– How will you offset nature damage, when there are no more forests existing?

– What happens to young artists’ reputations when going NFT too early?

– What happens to their soul after being successful in the beginning, when investors move to other fields and shift their interests?

– Can I still look at myself in the mirror and honestly tell myself that I have always been true to my values in my life?

– And the final, and important question: If you erase all monetary value from the art, can it still retain its importance and say something meaningful?

While I don’t have initial responses to these questions, I am reflecting on them and may conclude already, that for me finding answers, has to do with my own personal values and how I value my values.

Values and NFTs

Human values are guiding principles in our lives. Values are abstract orientations that guide us and help us to understand, explain and evaluate the attitudes, preferences, opinions, and behaviors of other people, groups, or organizations. Well-known values include peace, love, loyalty, honesty, authenticity, fairness, friendliness, or openness (for a more comprehensive list click here). Values are formed through our early childhood upbringing, but also through our experiences. They influence and are influenced by our culture, religion, society, and by social, political, or economic changes. In research, we also work with human values and mainly work with Schwartz’s Theory of Human Values.

Why are values helpful? Especially in times of uncertainty, dynamics, rapid development, or critical issues, values provide a backbone to lean on. They help you to look at yourself in the mirror at any time, to recognize and accept yourself and your behaviors.

Why are values helpful with NFTs? Because values may help to position yourself into the spectrum of new development and to guide your own future behaviors.

James Carner, the author of Atomic Habits suggests that you pick five values of his list from 50 that you want to focus on, that are most important to you and that you would like to preserve in all your behaviors. So, who are you, what is important to you, what are your own favorite values, and do you behave consistently to them?

Against the backdrop of my own values and the bit more knowledge I have today about NFTs, would I mint the NFTs again? Probably not (today), at least not on the platforms that are available today. Nevertheless, I do believe it is important to stand up, show your own vulnerability and inspire a discourse.

A Manifesto in Uncertain Times

If we look back into history, artists have often written a manifesto in times when they were unsure about their own values. A manifesto does not have a fixed, universal definition. It is rather a kind of public announcement of goals and intentions. I invite you to watch the 2015 film “Manifesto” by Julian Rosefeldt, which provides insight into a wide variety of artists’ manifestos, such as Dada, Dogma, and Fluxus.

The current situation and strong discussion around the use, environmental friendliness, and sustainability of NFTs have shown me how important it is for me to write down and record these goals. They serve as guidelines in an uncertain world that I want to come back to, work with, and live with on a regular basis. So in my next blog post, I will try to write down my own Manifesto. Maybe it will be a stimulus to enter into discourse and think about your own values. I would be happy, it would inspire other landscape photographers.

Thanks for your interest!

Further thanks go to Kai Hornung and Geoff Franklin for giving me feedback on an earlier version of this article.

 

Disclaimer:

Out of reaction to this NFT gold rush described above, I also launched three NFTs in July with the title “Gold”. In my blog article “A Tryptic in Gold” I describe my thoughts on this.

 

References:

Barber, Gregory (2021): NFTs are hot. So is Their Effect on the Earth’s Climate, on: Wired.com, 03/06/2021.
Carner, James (2021): Core Values List, www.jamescarner.com.
Chow, Andrew R. (2021): NFTs Are Shaking Up the Art World—But They Could Change So Much More, on: Time.com, 22/03/2021.
Choe, Jacqueline ‘Jisu’ (2021): Debunking EVERYTHING About NFTs — The Controversy, Technology, and How They Affect Artists, 20/03/2021.
Cryptocurrency Definition, https://decryptionary.com/dictionary.
Nature First – The Alliance for Responsible Nature Photography.
N.N. (2021): Nature First and NFTs, 13/08/2021.
Offsetra (2021): Carbon.fyi.
Payne, Matt: F-Stop Collaborate and Listen Podcast.
Payne, Matt (2021): A Panel on NFTs – A Fair and Balanced Perspective, on: Patreon, 10/08/2021.
Qui, Jiahui (2021): What Are NFTs, And What is Their Environmental Impact?, on: Earth.org, 20/04/2021.
Schwartz, Shalom H. and Bilsky, W. (1990). Toward a Theory of the Universal Content and Structure of Values: Extensions and Cross-Cultural Replications. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58, 878-891.
Sterlin, Crispin (2021): NFTs and Crypto Art: The Sky is not Falling, 22/02/2021.
Thaddeus-Johns, J. (2021): What Are NFTs, Anyway? One Just Sold for $69 Million, on: NYTimes.com, updated 12/08/2021.