Around Valentine’s day, I saw an ad for a kind of mass-market NFT on Instagram: a gold rose. The advert’s colour scheme was black, gold, red and white. It featured a photo of a woman wearing a red, flamenco-style top and holding a gold foil rose. It was covered in patches of text of different colours, fonts and sizes, seemingly decided at random. The letters of “Treat your loved one”, for example, were white and then became red for “loved one”. A black stamp bore the phrase “We the best Roses!” in white letters, while a red one said “Not Another one!”. Elsewhere it said “NOTHING CAN MATCH THIS” in white.
It struck me as one of the ugliest things I had seen in a long time. It brought to mind the Crazy Frog ringtone, one lynchpin of a group of outstandingly ugly things which have stayed with me for their ugliness. Other examples include a birthday card I got one year depicting a pink cartoon roller skate adorned with glittery laces and bearing the message: “Happy Birthday Skater Girl” (roller skating has no personal significance to me); a body spray called Charlie Red that we used to wear and spray all over the locker room when I was at school, which came in a red sparkly bottle and smelt like car air freshener mixed with window cleaner.
Then there is the giant ornamental frog I once woke to find towering over me. It was ceramic and painted metallic green, almost gold, with shiny black eyes. I was staying over in a friend’s family home and had gone to bed drunk and somehow not noticed it. It was around 4ft tall, stationed on a wooden plinth and made to look like it was mid-dive, its arms extended above its head; disgustingly realistic ridges stood up on its back. Another example is my grandma’s nativity scene: a plastic model farm with a built-in recording of an American newsreader voice announcing the birth of Christ as if it’s a recent news event, rigged up so sensitively it is almost impossible to walk past it and not trigger the announcement.
These are all things that you can’t interact with without thinking: why does this exist? Or maybe that’s just me. Either way, the sentiment “why does this exist?” is fitting for the NFT world at large, not just the gold rose. Lots has been written about the aesthetic defects of those NFTs which are marketed, bought and sold as art (the gold rose was clearly not aspiring to that). “NFTs are the human capacity for visual expression as understood by the guy at the vape store,” writes Dan Brooks, in an endlessly quotable piece for Gawker. “It is art for people whose imaginations have been absolutely captured by a new kind of money you can do on the computer.”
Really it seems as though something which, on the face of it, appears to be very stupid, is happening in the NFT art world almost constantly. A few weeks ago, for example, Sotheby’s was set to host an auction billed as “the first NFT and cultural event of its kind”: a single-lot sale of 104 cartoon images known as CryptoPunks acquired at the same time, and in the same blockchain transaction, by a collector who goes by “0x650d”. NFTs have sold at auction before, but selling 104 images with shared provenance (i.e. acquired simultaneously in a singular blockchain transaction) as one unit seemed to be the innovation here.
CryptoPunks are algorithmically generated pixelated cartoon figures. They all have the same basic outline – a human face – and are made distinct from each other by alternating a range of cosmetic features. A woman with white skin, blond hair and glasses whose hair is made black becomes a new punk. No glasses makes a new punk again. Cycling through every possible combination of the available features (some make the face of an alien or animal) makes 10,000 distinct punks. The faces in this lot make up around 1% of the total punks. They look like pixelated versions of the members of the band Gorillaz: not good. But that’s sort of beside the point. As with all NFTs, it isn’t really the digital image you are buying or the copyright to this. Anyone can reproduce this group of 104 punks for free.
The lot was expected to sell for $30m. In the end, 0x650d pulled it as the auction was starting so we’ll never know if anyone really would have paid that for it (NFT art is a sort of sophisticated pyramid scheme, but that definitely doesn’t mean nobody would buy it.) But Sotheby’s text advertising the lot did a heroic job of trying to justify its value. One section read:
“Created by Canadian software developers Matt Hall and John Watkinson, CryptoPunks were originally free to acquire for any ETH wallet holder. This was a true testament to the community-orientated and collector-lead approach of the avatar […] and a notion that resonated highly with the hacker spirit that populated much of the early experimentation across Bitcoin and Ethereum.” (Italics mine.)
There is lots to unpick here. There is a profound sadness to the references to community and “the hacker spirit”, with its connotations of freedom, which evokes a banker acting out his mid-life crisis in the VIP area of Coachella. To me, the most interesting part is that the fact that CryptoPunks were originally free is framed as a key selling point, the thing that makes them radical and subversive. If something is essentially cool and interesting because it was free, that seems to be undermined by the act of paying millions for it.
In a way, though, the NFT art world and all the millions involved is sort of less interesting than the advert for that gold rose NFT I saw on Instagram: an ordinary ugly object aimed at normal people. The thing is that people with a lot of money do spend it on stupid, gimmicky things: Fabergé eggs, bright yellow luxury cars (as if to make a joke out of owning a Ferrari), monogrammed airplanes. The money has to go somewhere. Something kind of stupid that costs $30m might not really be selling anything other than the opportunity to spend $30m.
The gold rose caters to a purer instinct: it offers the opportunity to join in with something new and exciting. To be a part of the buzzy, slick computer invention. To taste the future. It’s aspirational, in a way: they sell NFTs in galleries and, here, you can buy one off Instagram. The Crazy Frog was sort of like this too: a bold announcement that you were involved in the world of mobile phones, in on the joke of funny ringtones, the brashness of the modern world. Some of the other members of my “normal people ugly things” category remain a mystery though. The 4ft tall frog statue, for example: what was all that about?
Rachel Connolly writes about politics, culture and technology.