The Work of Art in the Age of NFTs

Every time I see NFTs in the context of “making digital art unique/owning art”, I have to think of Walter Benjamin’s „The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” from 1935. TL;DR is you just need to replace „mechanical“ with „digital” and you’re done.

The context for Benjamin’s essay is the rise of photography. Photography had existed for a long time before, but in the early 20th century, it had started to become prevalent everywhere. Photography certainly is an art form on its own, but it’s got one problem:

There isn’t really an „original” photograph you can look at in a museum. If you want to look at it, you first need to make a photoprint. But the process of making just one or 100 is the same. Are they all originals? All copies without an original?

For traditional art, it’s much easier: The original, authentic artwork exists in the „here and now“, in one location and only once. And it has a history (who prayed to it/owned it/how it was used/…). Benjamin calls this “Aura”.

This Aura is what makes you want to go to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa from very far away. Benjamin compares this Aura to real life: Imagine sitting outside, mountains in the distance, leaves throwing shadows on your face and suddenly a squirrel hushes past you.

Now imagine the same thing in a movie or video game. The mountains are polygons, the squirrel no longer is chance, it’s scripted. Even the most perfect reproduction won’t have an Aura anymore. It may be immersive, but it won’t be authentic.

A manual copy of the Mona Lisa would simply be a fake, it had a much different history. But a mechanical/digital copy is different: It’s somewhat independent (you can crop/zoom to highlight parts), and it can access new places (ie your home).

When the original degrades (eg because I cut across it with a knife), it loses it’s authenticity and authority to the copy, eg a photograph: Suddenly you start looking at the copy and say “this is how this sadly destroyed artwork originally looked like”.

(This is where Benjamin has a very interesting detour to cult value vs exhibition value and how that’s shifted, I’ll skip it here.)

Anyway, NFTs. The big question is, can a proof of ownership restore the Aura of authenticity for digital art? The answer is a resounding “no”.

Just like a photograph, there never has been an “original”. Even if you’re the artist who saved the PSD half a second ago, you now have like 5 copies of it already: In your RAM, on your hard drive, in the CPU/GPU cache, on your screen, and if you do automatic backups, in a cloud.

The NFT’d artwork you buy won’t be in the “here and now”. It’s not with you, it’s somewhere on the internet, either as a classical URL or on IPFS. Copies, each of which as valid as yours, are sent to everyone who wants to see it.

Even if you somehow end up with no copies viewable to anyone else: Attach a second monitor to your computer and duplicate the display. Now you have two equally valid copies of it you can look at.

Owning a digital-art-NFT is very different to owning physical art. If anything, it’s as meaningful as getting copyright licenses, but even then, the TOS of NFT trading places give you rather crappy licenses.

FoundationApp for example forces creators to give up a “non-exclusive, world-wide, assignable, sublicensable, perpetual, and royalty-free license“

And if you buy it, you get a non-commercial „limited, worldwide, non-assignable, non-sublicensable, royalty-free license to display“

That’s right: If you buy an NFT from, you can’t even do with the thing as you please. They go on to allow you to share it to say “this is mine”, but you can’t use it in a monetized YouTube video or twitch stream. Buying NFTs is this useless.

Pro tip: If you want a digital artwork exclusive for you, commission an artist. With that, you get to be part of the creation of something truly new and support an artist both monetarily and in improving their skills, and you generally can use your commission however you want.