By MIKE MAIZELS, June 2022
NFT NYC, which just wrapped up a few weeks ago, seemed like the end of some beginning. Amidst a crypto crash that threatened (as the joke went) to turn the conference into a food service job fair, everyone waited with bated breath. The Marriott of 45th was the site of desperate hope, anxiety, jubilation and only a few masks. Companies were launched, acquired and bankrupted. Ape Fest went off to fanfare and consternation. WAGMI looks precarious.
Many of us were left wondering if the roaring 20s ended before they got started. The pandemic hasn’t even fully receded— more than 2,000 Americans are still dying of COVID every week—and now our recovery is hitting significant (self generated?) resistance. Inflation is soaring beyond anything in living memory; the Fed is skirting the edges of causing a Recession on purpose; the crypto sector has collectively lost two thirds of value in six weeks. The right to privacy was overturned. A precipitous midterm election, plus God knows what other chaos, yawns between us and the next Art Basel Miami.
The political mettle of crypto-land will be soon tested. What constitutes a security, or an investment? To what extent do the rights of bodily autonomy and economic self-sovereignty co-produce one another? What good is decentralization if only those with edge-case technical skills are capable of participating? But within the more narrow domain of the market, the pervasive feeling is that ups and downs have come and gone before. If everything is accelerated in its Internet-based configuration, biannual Bitcoin meltdowns are akin to 15 year crashes on Wall Street. The hurricane clears out the rickety structures built on hype leaves behind what’s strong (or entrenched) enough to remain. HODL, as the saying goes.
Amidst the hurricanes, real changes are happening to the landscape underneath it. New sociocultural configurations are emerging, old ones are disappearing. Radical transparency around asset ownership, fund transfer and salary have become feasible through the public blockchain. Avatars and ETH addresses promise pseudonymous identity and a profusion of subject positions to follow. Non-local collaboration and connection have become the norm for work and leisure of the future. Crypto didn’t create any of these trajectories, but it has certainly accelerated all of them. They will inform the battle lines for the coming fights over women’s rights, climate action, and America’s place in the global order.
We in the art world should be better positioned than most to recognize and historicize these epochal changes. Artists have been agitating for radical egalitarianism, and new modes of identity and address for eons—this agitation has been at the heart of the avant-garde since the term emerged more than a century ago. We too have been living in the metaverse for longer than anyone can remember. Not the opportunism of brand partnerships nor the techno-fetishism of soon-to-be-immersive VR (always just a year or two away). Rather, the metaverse understood as simply a social world mediated primarily by telecommunications and uprooted from its own recent past.
More than eighty years ago, critic and theorist Harold Rosenberg cited the cosmopolitan nihilism of the Paris avant-garde as the ground zero of a new world culture. One that should resonate with the breathless rhetoric of the present Metaverse:
"Released in this aged and bottomless metropolis from national folklore, national politics, national careers, detached from the family and the corporate taste, these lone individual, stripped, yet supported on every side by the vitality of other outcasts with whom it was necessary to form no permanent ties, could experiment with everything that man today has within him of health or monstrousness…This is as far as mankind has gone toward freeing himself from the past."
What was Paris and then New York now lives (in part at least) on your iPhone. A world that understand itself to be detached from parochial, narrow-minded history; a world of polymorphous free association, garishly confrontational art, fever dream economics and promises that could never hold true in the long run. But promises earnestly made and performatively effective. The nighttime lights of the Cafe Metropol burn with a strangeness still illuminated in the impossible neon threaded messaging of Discord.
This is, no doubt, as it should be. The implications of all of this stretch far beyond the art world and its internal debates over how to engage with the NFT phenomenon. We’ve all been here before too. Should the museum collect street art? Or give a home to conceptualist non-objects? Or even, way back in the day, hang modern abstractions on the same walls as Old Masters? What is Jeff Koons even doing here?
These debates no doubt bear out real consequences but frequently distorts our perception of power beyond our niche. Power brokers in the art world mistake their ability to accelerate changes they like with an authority to prevent changes they don’t. Curators, museum boards and art historians have no more power to halt the advance of Web3 any more than they staunched the embrace of deskilling in the 50s, commercial imagery in the 60s, or bodily effluvia in the 90s. Welcome to the freak show that has always been the metaverse.
A freak show and a proving ground. Pictorial and personal possibilities too bizarre to be born anywhere else often hatch in the estuary of the aesthetic—some of these have gone on to changes fabric societal reality. People genetically identical to you and me argued about the legitimacy of paintings that didn’t look like the things they were supposed to be paintings of. And new ideas are today thrown up at the speed of Twitter and Telegram, not the hand-composed letter.
As such, new possibilities for social arrangements are being spun up at a dizzying rate. When young creatives come together to launch a new entity—a work, a game, a business, a huge joke—they do in teams working beyond geography and around the clock. They also frequently operate under the veil of pseudonymy—avatars and other modes of address mask the specifics of subjectivity. As a result, identity may become radically unfixed by body, gender and place. As thinkers such as Sarah Guo have demonstrated, no one can discriminate based on information they simply do not have. Artists will do great work here. And they will pick up the pieces after this explodes and rove into the perpetual elsewhere.
Some of us anyway.
Our artistic community is justifiable proud of destabilizing the membrane between image and truth (or art and life, site and non-site, place and simulacrum). But just beyond or shores, the aesthetic and conceptual liquidity we take for granted is being turned around to re-ghettoize artistic makers of a different kind of calibre. This is a bit of a left turn, but follow me for a minute.
Given his prominence in the art world just a few short years ago, surprisingly little attention has been given to the surprise arrest of rapper Young Thug, who is now facing a 60+ indictment count on charges including federal racketeering and murder for hire. The evidence against the genre-bending and gender-bending musician is voluminous, and much of it seems quite damning. He is alleged to have rented a car used in a drive-by shooting under his own name. Years ago, I heard rumors that his involvement in such dirt was an open secret it Atlanta. Turns out, there is no such thing as an open secret.
Which makes the recidivist use of his lyrics in the charging documents all the more galling. Delivering an 88 page indictment, Fulton County DA Fani T. Willis insisted that Thugger’s verses such as “I never killed anybody but I got something to do with that body” constitute evidence of a conspiracy. The claim that such poetry—whatever its own claims on a verism of the streets may be—can be removed from the stage of representation and mounted on the pike of evidence is simply astonishing. It no doubt ties back into questions of identity and race. A deep sociological literature exists here on the relationship between truth, crime and rap, but one can feel the absurdity with a simple counterfactual. Johnny Depp’s filmic depictions of pirates and perverts never once figured as evidence in his highly publicized trial.
Given their new legal attestation, I have found myself compulsively re-listening to the large body of music recorded by Young Thug and his codefendant Gunna over the last few years. Some of it is sterling, a lot of it is more than adequate driving music, some of it unlistenable. But an otherwise throwaway line from Slime Season 3 turned my head around after his arrest. Insisting that “you gotta free Meek though,” another formerly incarcerated rapper who has pushed to prevent the use of art as criminal evidence, Gunna hauntingly reminds his listeners that you “gotta watch out for RICO.” Now that is life imitating art.
And it turns the presumption of innocence on its head. Imagine, for a minute, that Gunna and Thugger are not in fact guilty of the many crimes they have been charged with. As Gunna insisted in a statement he released from behind bars “I am innocent. I am being falsely accused and will never stop fighting to clear my name! The picture that is being painted of me is ugly and untrue.” Isn’t this what we are all supposed to assume?
In this light, his warning of RICO wiretaps feel like prescience, or at least the observation of fated systemic racism. On some level, Gunna and Thugger sensed that rising to prominence under the flag of their own identities would eventually frame them as the orchestrators of organized crime.
It is by working against this doomed fatalism that, in my personal view, the novel identity mechanics of Web3 can do the most good. Of course, they cannot undo the pervasive traumas inflicted by a civilization built on exploitation (as arguably, all civilizations have always been). But the veil of ignorance thrown up by the anonymized profile picture can profoundly reshuffle the possibilities of lived reality. One can show up into to a new global culture—a metaverse, an avant-garde, a work-remote job—in ways that have little to do with the accidents of birth, geography or language. To what extent this constitutes justice is an unanswerable question, but as the philosopher John Rawls would have put it, it represents a huge increase in fairness. WM
Michael Maizels, PhD is an historian and theorist whose work brings the visual arts into productive collision with a broad range of disciplinary histories and potential futures. He is the author of four books, the most recent of which analyzes the history of postwar American art through the lens of business model evolution. He has also published widely on topics ranging from musicology and tax law to the philosophy of mathematics. He is currently the Head of Research at Abra, financial services and technology company based in Mountain View, and an affiliate at the metaLAB, a think tank and creative technology lab at Harvard University.
All views expressed are the author’s alone and may not reflect the views of Abra or of the metaLAB.view all articles from this author