Even if you don’t know SF artist fnnch (pronounced “finch”), I’ll bet you’ve seen his honey bear stencils all over the Bay Area. For some, seeing them everywhere from the SF Ballet to your Marina neighbor’s window represents how well a “street” artist can make it big. For others, like his Mission District neighbors, the bears are gentrified graffiti; symbols of faux-wokeness bandied about by the very SF imports pricing out natives and long-termers.
Having achieved such mainstream appeal, perhaps it was inevitable that he’d dive head-first into the trendy new waters of NFTs. He recently netted $64,000 by selling a honey bear based on, and authorized by, the quintessential SF gentrifier: Mark Zuckerberg. fnnch isn’t the only SF artist to hop on the bandwagon, but only the privileged types like him actually made any money from it.
For clarity, let me to simplify some terms you’ve probably heard lately:
- Web3: first came the World Wide Web, then social media and direct apps were called “Web 2.0.” Now, “Web3” is essentially “all blockchain all the time.”
- Blockchain: an environmentally harmful digital network that aims for “decentralized” peer-to-peer digital exchange. Think trading on Napster instead of buying from the iTunes. A popular blockchain is Etherium, whose users self-identify with “.eth” handles.
- Cryptocurrency: A blockchain-based exchange medium using funny-named “currencies” for transactions, despite no tangible value (think legal Monopoly money). It’s like trading stock, except there’s no actual “thing.”
- Non-fungible token (NFT): frequently used for digital art, an NFT is a kind of “digital receipt” verifying exchanges made through the methods above. You don’t get a copy of a thing “bought,” just a non-exclusive paid link to show that someone made a thing. The link eventually expires, leaving the buyer with nothing.
You’ve probably heard hyperbolic tech bros and paid celebs like Matt Damon refer to one or all the above as the next big thing. They claim it’s super secure and that one should get in now whilst the gettin’ is good. That’s what they said last decade about cloud computing, one of the most hilariously vulnerable technologies around.
Web3’s image of security appeals largely to three types: Dark Web criminals seeking anonymity; right-wing nut jobs like the January 6 insurrectionists; and owners of new cryptos who get rich off early investors. The anonymity is a pipe dream, as proven by the recent doxxing of the NFT firm Bored Ape Yacht Club. The investment part is, as experts have pointed out, indistinguishable from a Ponzi scheme.
The reason “Bitcoin billionaires” like the Winklevii do well is because they’re coasting off the money of all the new investors, not because of any increase in product value. “Normal” people aren’t so lucky. (Like all Winklevoss ideas, this one was ripped off by Zuckerberg, whose Facebook cryptocurrency, Libra, was recently abandoned due to backlash.)
None of that even covers how environmentally disastrous Web3 is. I’m talking burn-a-forest-down levels of disastrous. Every time some well-meaning adopter claims that crypto will help fund green initiatives, I’m reminded of one of my favorite bumper stickers: “Bombing for Peace is like Fucking for Virginity.”
What the hell does any of this have to do with SF’s eclectic art scene? Well, as an SF native who’s been creating and critiquing Bay Area for over two decades, it’s clear that NFTs are a false bill of goods. NFTs, through blockchain, purport to allow one to post something digitally with a “sure fire” way track both who posted it and where it went. We used to call that Tumblr. How’d that whole thing turn out?
Mind you, I get NFT’s appeal, I really do. I know how pull-your-hair-out frustrating it is to scrounge for funding, especially in a country that doesn’t financially support the arts the way its peers do, and after the previous presidential administration tried to eviscerate the NEA. If you aren’t sponsored by an organization that regularly pulls in millions during annual funding, your work gets lost in the shuffle. So, when you hear about folks selling NFTs for obscene amounts of money, you want to get in on that.
But imagine it’s 20-25 years ago and someone tells you to support your art by investing all your savings in Beanie Babies or Segways or in a website called Pets.com. San Francisco has told this story many times, and it always ends the same way.
NFTs aren’t liberation for independent artists. They’re a game for the super-wealthy who keep starving artists starving. As I type this, there’s an “immersive NFT exhibit” playing at the SF Mint. It’s produced by Non Plus Ultra, the same company that locally hosts The Unathorised Banksy Show, which was a complete and utter circle-jerk for the 1%. That those folks would host an NFT show tells you a lot about whom the format is aimed at.
For every fnnch or Quentin Tarantino claiming the tech will grant them greater control over their art, there are 100 independent artists who earn nothing absolutely nothing as the art they worked on is openly plagiarized by the very NFT system. Time and time again, struggling artists – an ever-growing population in the copyright-blurry digital landscape – have had to sit and watch as Web3 stole their work and cut the artist out of the profits. Yes, traditional art world gate-keepers are just as bad, but Web3 has exacerbated the process to a single click.
In fact, if you clicked any of the links in that paragraph, you may have noticed a number of them are BIPoC artists, the same ones hoping that Web3 would provide them the liberation promised them by Spike Lee. Instead, NFTs have quantum-leaped over “all inclusive” to going neck-and-neck with the traditional art world.
It was two years ago when the SFMoMA was called out by “[their] labor union, a former employee, and artists […] for engaging in subtle and explicit discriminatory practices.” They’ve now hired Christopher Bedford, formerly of the Boston Museum of Art, as their new director due to his commitment to diversity, but he’s still just another white guy. As that’s going on, a frighteningly high number of SFPD officers openly trade racist NFTs mocking George Floyd.
As the French say: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Another thing that makes me curious about Web3 is what its proponents think their intangible value will be worth in the long run. It’s no secret that crypto-bros are the same Silicon Valley millionaires who fancy themselves doomsday-preppers, a practice that only increased during the pandemic. Let’s say they’re right and the world does turn into the Mad Max-style wasteland they’re predicting. No matter how stocked up they are, eventually they’ll have to venture out of their bunkers for additional supplies. That same logic holds that there are bound to be other survivors with resources of their own. Which leads to my question: what do they plan to trade with?
Seriously, I’m asking: what Web3 commodity could possibly be bartered with in world gone tits-up? Do they think Immortan Joe will accept expired NFT links when he warns you not to become “addicted” to water? Will the blockchain get you to Dry Land with The Smokers in hot pursuit? Do you think the Water & Power will accept Bitcoin when they come after you and your kangaroo friends, The Rippers? Don’t bet on it, raggedy-man.
Hell, when Russia invaded Ukraine just last week, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense told the world that it legally can’t—and ethically won’t—accept crypto donations. Web3 and NFTs won’t just be worthless in the future, they’re worthless right now.
Although fnnch isn’t responsible (as far as we know), NFT enthusiasts recently took to the Mission to smear Bored Ape-inspired murals next to the neighborhoods traditional Latinx street art. It didn’t take long for the Bored Ape works to be vandalized. The vandalism actually did what NFTs claim to do: it gave the people a voice against a capitalist system that doesn’t value them, but wishes to profit off of them. NFTs aren’t granting freedom to SF artists, they’re another attempted form of erasure by the 1 percent.
If you don’t believe me about their lack of value, maybe you’ll believe Anil Dash. He’s the lauded tech guru who co-created NFTs back in 2014. He, too, hoped that they’d be a liberating force for artists often denied credit and profit off of their own works. Last year, Dash wrote an op-ed in The Atlantic lamenting the very creation he helped bring about.
Web3 is the digital equivalent of a trendy new diet like Atkins or paleo. But at least trendy diets often result in some nutritional transparency: the gluten-free diet exploited the very real condition of celiac disease, but it also led to food packaging explicitly stating whether or not an item had gluten in it.
With the pandemic having done irreparable damage to indie arts and art spaces, it makes sense that we’d look for any sort of life preserver to keep us afloat. This isn’t it. I’d call it the next “tulip fever,” but tulip fever never actually happened.
Still, at least I can find value and beauty in holding a tulip in my hands.
Charles Lewis III is a San Francisco-born journalist, theatre artist, and arts critic. You can find dodgy evidence of this at The Thinking Man’s Idiot.