Speaking Truth to Power
Art punches up, never down.
By Beatriz Helena Ramos
This article is the second of a series on issues that affect the crypto art community today.
Read: Don’t Stay In Your Lane
I look at recent issues in the crypto art ecosystem as a social phenomenon from which we can see patterns and derive useful insights. These are my observations as a visual artist and as the founder of a crypto art platform.
I’ll start with the assumption that art is deeply personal. It has nothing to do with cultural institutions, art academies, technology, or markets. There are no rigid standards for making or judging art, and while it’s very important to understand its historical context and cultural significance, any attempt to explain it or influence it should be seen just as an attempt, while we should always remain open to diverse ways of perceiving art.
The art world crowd was not impressed at a recent panel in which several founders of crypto art platforms showcased art. A Dr. Something wrote rather condescendingly in the chat: “Not all digital images are art!” as if one needs a Ph.D. for such clarification.
We must be doing something right: every major art movement in history has been shunned by the art establishment.
The art world completely misses the point about the incredible amount of experimentation and co-creation that is happening in crypto art. This is raw creative energy that continuously transforms itself without control. To me, it is incredible that we are able to witness a collective artistic process happening before our eyes in real-time.
What I love about crypto art is its immediacy. There are no art standards; everything is valid. Everyone is free to mint their most meaningful work, half baked ideas, or fun experiments, even those made with one click. And why not? We have a wide array of the soulless yet technically impeccable, the derivative and trite, the profound, the provocative, the beautiful, and of course, the satirical and dank. Each of these kinds of artworks could resonate with someone who may want to collect them, and this is amazing.
Sadly, money and speculation are powering the toxic acrimony that is muddying the otherwise open and collaborative ethos of this community. Interestingly, in the decentralized world of crypto art as soon as conflicts arise, people look for central authorities to intervene and sanction others.
Platforms are in a tough position. We are all small, overworked teams working tirelessly to build and maintain our communities. We want to be decentralized but we are still highly centralized. For good reasons; it is responsible to create the right conditions first, then transfer control to our communities progressively. As conflicts emerge, we feel forced to intervene, sometimes without knowing how to do it. But if we are centralized it is our responsibility to do so.
Establishing guidelines about art is complicated. Let’s not forget that almost none of the platform founders with decision-making power are artists, nor do they have a deep understanding of art. This is probably true about the so-called whales as well. Hence, I don’t think founders alone should be responsible for deciding the boundaries of crypto art. Nor should they cave to the pressure exerted by the wealthiest collectors or the best-selling artists which they happen to support. This is all new territory, and it requires a community effort.
Setting community guidelines about unacceptable behavior is different from setting guidelines about what’s unacceptable in art.
General community guidelines are the same for all platforms. Thou shall not harass, bully, wash trade, etc. Art guidelines are much more tricky. We need to discuss them, name them, identify them, even invent them.
I personally think platforms should do everything in their power to protect artists and collectors from plagiarism and harassment. But understanding the nuances of what actually constitutes plagiarism and harassment is crucial. There is a distinction between plagiarism and remixing art, between trolling and art trolling.
One of the most powerful collectors in crypto trolled and harassed a female artist, accusing her of being a copycat for remixing work. When an artist he supports, who, ironically, is a collage artist herself, publicly lamented that another artist had remixed her work, he went as far as to use NFTs to send the other artist various vicious messages. This is wrong on so many levels.
We can discuss the merits of remixing art as a medium of expression, understanding that no one has the final word on remixing. But as a community, we should all find it unacceptable for a powerful collector to troll an artist. Punching down should never be tolerated.
On the other hand, I find the so-called trash art movement very thought-provoking. These trash artists are using art to troll people who are perceived to be abusing their power.
Unfortunately, and perhaps inevitably, there is an elite in the crypto art community which I myself am part of. Elites hold power, and power comes with privileges and responsibilities. I believe that some of the merits for which one becomes part of this elite are justified and others are questionable, but this is a subject for another article. However, what we do with our power is relevant to this discussion.
Founders who vet and ban artists may be abusing their power, even inadvertently. Artists who are making around six figures in sales, who do not give back to the community but try to enforce sanctions on others are abusing their power. Whales who pressure platforms to accept their dictates, usually based on mercenary ideas about art, and motivated to protect their own interests, are abusing their power.
If we haven’t allowed the art world’s Ph.Ds to dictate what is crypto art, we shouldn’t let a few dudes with money or influence to do so either.
I’m not endorsing trolling. But we must recognize where art trolling comes from. Trash artists are irreverent, satirical, and unapologetic. They carry the legacy of the beginnings of crypto art which started with the Rare Pepe memes. They are punching up as an act of protest.
Like any other major art movement since the Impressionists, crypto art was born to subvert and resist the kind of censorship, elitism, and exclusivity we are seeing in our own community today.
Of course, we are all free to run our platforms however we please. Artists and collectors are free to leave if they don’t like them. We can be cynics and just let the markets decide or we can rise to the occasion, come together as a community and discuss these hard issues in depth, and try to understand why it is that we ban artists that punch up yet give a pass to wealthy collectors that punch down.
Art speaks truth to power. I personally expect the Trash Art artists to troll me if I’m ever perceived to have abused my power and influence. And I hope that I can then justify my power because if I can’t, I don’t deserve to hold it.
Our new RxC task force dedicated to crypto art starts on Thursday, September 10 at 2 pm EST / 8 pm CEST. We’ll be discussing some of these issues in the context of The Invisible Economy which explores and challenges the belief systems behind these problems. If you are interested in participating, drop us a line here or on Twitter @powerdada