NFTs in the art world: A revolution or ripoff?



Non-fungible tokens(NFTs) are digital objects that represent something else, such as a work of art, a video or even a tweet. They certify the existence and the ownership of this item through a data recording on a blockchain (a distributed ledger technology).


Since the emergence of NFTs in 2016, many artists have experimented with this new digital device to market their creations. NFTs are most often bought and resold via auction sites, where payments are made in cryptocurrency (such as ether currency). It is this notion of a certificate registered on a blockchain that distinguishes an NFT from a standard digital work.

The public and media discourse about NFTs is polarized: in the eyes of their strongest enthusiasts, NFTs represent the future of art, while their detractors consider them a vast ripoff and waste of energy.

How can this NFT phenomenon be characterized? To what extent does it challenge the established codes of contemporary art?

As a researcher specialized in media studies and sociology of culture, I am providing a brief overview of the situation.


Crypto-evangelists and crypto-skeptics

On one hand, there is the camp that can be described as crypto-evangelists: they adhere to a discourse that present NFTs as a radical revolution that will change everything.

This is precisely the discourse surrounding the sensational 2021 sale of a work by the artist Beeple (a collage of vignettes created by digital software) at the prestigious auction house Christie’s for nearly US$70 million. According to the two main buyers, the purchase was “emblematic of a revolution in progress,” and marked “the beginning of a movement carried out by a whole generation.”


On the other side, there are the crypto-skeptics. This is the position of Hito Steyerl, a widely recognized media artist. She believes that NFTs are the “equivalent of toxic masculinity,” and owe their development to “the worst and most monopolistic actors” who are “extracting labour from precarious workers” and “take up way too much attention and use up all the oxygen in the room.”

This polarization means that the real potential of NFTs, as well as their flaws, which are also very real, tend to be overshadowed by caricatured positions of principle. However, within this ecosystem of NFTs, there exists a set of rich and plural artistic practices.


Emerging creative scenes

The NFT format definitely represents a new type of object being traded. It is based on a new type of contract (known as “smart”), which is itself the result of the innovation of blockchain technology. In this way, the NFT format has given rise to the emergence of a new creative scene. Or, rather, scenes, in the plural, which are characterized by a great effervescence — but also by certain contradictions.

The “native” scenes of the NFT format, that is to say, those born with the invention of this format, are characterized by a strong media visibility, a volume of far-reaching financial investment, and, for some of its actors, a will to reshuffle the cards of the art world by criticizing its established order.



A large portion of NFT creators come from a practice of 3D modelling, graphic design, animation or video game design — in other words, from the creative industries sector. In recent decades, this sector has generated a very large pool of skills, whose creative surplus finds a mode of expression in the NFT format, but also a source of additional income to cope with the often precarious conditions of creative work.

Many figures of the native NFT scenes are, to use the expression of the sociologist Howard S. Becker, outsiders (neophytes) in comparison to the established art world. That is, they socialize in circles other than those of the institutional art world, and they transgress its rules in many respects.

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