Non-fungible tokens and the nature of art

The Tigray War happening in Ethiopia; Why I think NFTs aren't the future of digital art

Welcome to the Hat Tip! Sorry for the delayed newsletter. I try and stick to a Wednesday evening schedule but this week I’m a bit late. This week —

  • Big News: The Tigray War

  • Considering: Non-Fungible Tokens and the nature of Art

  • Curious: Smartphones and Potatoes


Big News: The Tigray War

The most common answer to the question “Why isn’t the media covering this?” is the media didn’t report it because it didn’t happen in the first place. The second most common answer, of course, is that the media is reporting it and that’s how you know about it. And it’s hilarious on Twitter when someone asks “Why isn’t the BBC covering this?” with a link to a story from… yup, the BBC.

There’s still something to the question though, especially with online news where there’s no newspaper to read cover to cover, or broadcast to watch beginning to end. Unless promoted, stories can still fall between the cracks. But sometimes it’s not the media’s fault. There are stories that are being well reported, but nobody’s listening.

I guess that’s how I feel about what’s happening in Ethiopia right now. It’s something I should have known about for a few reasons: Israel is pretty near to Ethiopia, for one, and there is an Ethiopian Jewish population living here. Asylum seekers into Israel in the last decade have mainly come from Sudan and Eritrea, two neighbors of Ethiopia. And, finally, it’s been in the news. But I didn’t notice it until this week.

In early November Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister and winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for ending the Ethiopia/Eritrea War, launched a military campaign against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in Tigray Region.

The TPLF were a leading part of the Ethiopian government for 30 years, but didn’t want to merge into Abiy Ahmed’s new party, preferring to maintain their ethnic identity and organisation. They continued to lead the regional government in Tigray Region.

Over the summer, Ahmed cancelled the planned general election, citing Covid-19. The TPLF objected and held their own regional elections, declaring the federal government was now illegitimate. In turn, the government declared the Tigray election illegal.

Things got violent; the TPLF attacked military bases in Tigray, and the Ahmed announced a 'military confrontation’ to bring the province into line, backed by the Amhara region (Amharic and Tigrinya are Ethiopia’s two major ethnolinguistic groups).

Thousands have been killed; the TPLF claim over 100,000 casualties which seems unlikely, but human rights groups estimated around 2500 civilian casualties from November to January, including several accounts of massacres.

One particular incident happened around the Maryam Dengelat church during a festival. CNN reported this week on the November 30 killings

The soldiers went door to door, dragging people from their homes. Mothers were forced to tie up their sons. A pregnant woman was shot, her husband killed. Some of the survivors hid under the bodies of the dead.

The mayhem continued for three days, with soldiers slaughtering local residents, displaced people and pilgrims. Finally, on December 2, the soldiers allowed informal burials to take place, but threatened to kill anyone they saw mourning…

"Their hands were tied ... young children ... we saw them everywhere. There was an elderly man who had been killed on the road, an 80-something-year-old man. And the young kids they killed on the street in the open. I've never seen a massacre like this and I don't want to [again]," Abraham said.

That’s a report of just one massacre by the Ethiopian army against ethnic Tigray. There are many more. At Aksum, reportedly 750 were killed, with the military joined by an ethnic Amhara militia.

And there’s an international aspect. The Ethiopian military is getting help from its enemy-turned-ally, Eritrea, and there are reports of Somali involvement.

Ethiopia has also attacked and killed Sudanese troops in a border region, with each side claiming that the other is occupying its territory. More than 61,000 Tigray refugees have also fled to Sudan.

So it’s bad, but it has the potential to be worse. This whole conflict started because Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed wanted to move past the era of ethnic-controlled regions in Ethiopia. By bringing Amhara militias alongside the official military, though, he’s fuelling that same ethnic tension, and we’ve seen how that can end.

Add in the risk of wider regional conflict, and this is certainly a story that deserves more attention, both from reporters and readers.


Considering: Non-Fungible Tokens and the nature of Art

This week everyone’s been talking about non-fungible tokens (NFTs), a crypto-token that lets you sort of ‘own’ a digital artwork.

Artists have started to sell NFTs that make the buyer into the ‘owner’ of pieces of online art. Think of it like a certificate of ownership and authenticity all at once. So, for example, the sole NFT for this short video art below ‘sold’ for $6.6m.

Yes. Anyone can view it, save it, download it. But you’ll never own it like whoever paid millions of dollars for it does.

Everyone’s getting in on it. Grimes. Logan Paul, selling NFTs for videos you can literally watch for free on YouTube. This piece in the Verge explains it well.

NFTs for art is one of those things that’s both not as dumb as it sounds and actually dumber than it sounds, all at once.

It’s not as dumb as it sounds because we’re kind of used to the intrinsic value of art being very divorced from its financial value.

If I used the world’s best scanners, printers and some laser tech to create perfect replicas of Van Gogh’s Starry Night, 3D paint swirls and all, I’m sure I could sell them for a few hundred dollars each. But the original Starry Night is worth hundreds of millions, maybe even a billion dollars. Which suggests that the vast majority of an artwork’s value doesn’t actually come from how good it is, or from the owner’s ability to exclude other people from enjoying it. My copies would be just as good as the original. So those extra millions of dollars in value are coming from somewhere else.

The NFT people, both sellers and buyers, presumably think that ‘somewhere else’ is some notion of scarcity and ownership and investment that can be re-created for digital objects, which are inherently non-excludable and non-rival. Anyone can view any copy Logan Paul’s YouTube video. But with an NFT, only one person can say it’s theirs.

I don’t think that’s enough. The connection between these art NFTs and the digital art itself is essentially arbitrary. The original NFT collectable were CryptoKitties, where each kitty is stored on the Ethereum blockchain. But at least the kitties were the tokens themselves. In these NFT art deals, the NFT is just a number somewhere that someone decided means “you own this thing”. But the only thing owning an NFT lets you do is to sell that NFT to someone else!

The missing piece from the Starry Night value puzzle is surely in the physicality of the real painting. When I touch an old book or look at an old map, there’s a thrill, and that thrill comes from the history of the object itself. Digital art is amazing, but it doesn’t have this thrill, and creating an even more remote digital token isn’t going to give most people the connection to the real and the physical that gives original art its value.

So I struggle to imagine that NFTs for digital art will become a big thing, at least in this form. Yes, some people are gambling otherwise, buying up NFTs like any other art speculator. And maybe someone will find a way to use NFTs to connect to the physical. Until then, I’m not buying any tokens that tell me I own a YouTube video.


Curious: Smartphones and Potatoes

I watched this and ended up in fits of laughter. Audio very necessary.

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