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Will the Internet Democratize Art or Destroy It?


Two new visual books, “Internet_Art” and “The Story of NFTs,” explore the history and future of creative consumption online.

It’s been a tough year for physical art, with works by Frida Kahlo and Damien Hirst getting uploaded to the cloud, then incinerated. From the split-personality films of Lynn Hershman Leeson to Celia Hempton’s recent laptop-size canvases based on DMs from men, Omar Kholeif’s frantic INTERNET_ART (Phaidon, $39.95) explores how our cyberreality has shaped creative consumption since the 1960s. Alienation from the self, in Kholeif’s telling, is art’s new crisis.

A mock-up of the first page of the Artist’s Contract, written by the gallerist Seth Siegelaub and the lawyer Robert Projansky in 1971.Seth Siegelaub and Robert Projansky, via Rizzoli and Stichting Egress Foundation, Amsterdam, Estate of Seth Siegelaub and MarjaBloem. Photo: Nash Baker

As with anything online, you can’t truly own nonfungible tokens, the digital images that fetch millions at Sotheby’s yet can be downloaded by anyone for free. In THE STORY OF NFTS (Rizzoli Electa and MCA Denver, paperback, $32.50), Amy Whitaker and Nora Burnett Abrams want this new form of commerce to help artists earn fairer royalties while letting collectors buy shares in an artwork directly. The cigar-chomping art world democratized. But the book’s hopes that blockchain technology, by recording an NFT’s ownership history, will help African countries reclaim looted antiquities, or shore up a flailing democracy, sound like a joke.

A still from Elise Swopes’s “Where Focus Goes, Energy Flows,” 2021, an mp4 video made on an iPhone.Elise Swopes, via Rizzoli

Like a kneeling patron in an altarpiece, a name blockchained to a Frida Kahlo NFT signals bragging rights to the image more than it does piety to a decentralized market. I await Kholeif’s sequel 20 years hence, when the ego trap of such public ownership, this Sackler Wing for the everyman, will have given artists a whole new vista for techno-utopian satire.

Celia Hempton’s oil painting “Misha, Odessa, Ukraine, 8th July 2014,” 2014.Celia Hempton, via Phaidon and Southard Reid
Haroon Mirza, “Genzken & Richter (Solar Powered L.E.D. Circuit Composition 41)”; 2021.

Haroon Mirza, via Phaidon and Max Goelitz. Photo: Dirk Tacke.

A detail from Addie Wagenknecht’s “Rainbow Eugene Man” (2021), one of a series of digital “paintings” making use of sexually explicit direct messages received on Instagram.Addie Wagenknecht, via Rizzoli

Walker Mimms’s writing on art and culture appears in The Times, The Guardian, The New York Review of Books and elsewhere.

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