Opinion: Why doesn’t Wikipedia classify NFTs as art?


Key points to remember

  • Wikipedia editors removed Pak’s NFT art from the site’s list of the most expensive works of art by living artists.
  • The publishers state that they made the switch because the work was sold infrequently and due to a lack of secondary sources.
  • The decision caused an uproar in the NFT community with many prominent figures opposing the move.

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Wikipedia does not want to recognize NFTs as art. Join Crypto Briefing as we dive into the reasons behind the controversial decision and the reactions and counter-arguments from the NFT community.

Wikipedia fades into NFT art

A fierce debate rages at the bottom of Wikipedia’s countless articles and stubs.

The editors of the world’s first online encyclopedia have weighed if NFT artwork such as Beeple’s Daily: first 5,000 days and that of Pak Merge should be on the site’s list of the most expensive works of art sold at auction by living artists.

Beeple, the pseudonym of digital artist Mike Winkelmann, put NFTs on the mainstream map in March 2021 after his collagic Daily: first 5,000 days sold for $69.34 million at a Christie’s auction. More recently, Pak, another digital artist credited with giving Beeple his first introduction to selling NFT, broke his student’s record by selling an NFT work called Merge for a total of $91.8 million via digital art auction platform Nifty Gateway.

“Merge” by Pak (Source: Clever gateway)

Although Beeple and Pak are widely recognized as digital artists, there is much debate over whether their NFTs should be considered art. “I think they shouldn’t. NFTs have their own list,” said an editor who goes by the name Jonas. Several other editors agreed, citing a lack of secondary sources and the fact that not all existing NFTs are not sold as art.

Others pushed back. A user posting as Hocus00 pointed out that several major publications such as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Timesand Forbes all referred to Beeple’s NFT sale as the third most expensive work by a living artist ever sold at auction. As editors have often pointed out in discussion, Wikipedia entries should aim to be based on multiple corroborating sources, not the personal opinions of its contributors.

Some users have approached the issue from a more fundamental point of view. “If we agree that Beeple and Pak are artists, why wouldn’t their sales count on this list?” wrote an editor who identifies himself as Pmmccurdy. “I don’t understand the logic here.”

However, as the conversation progressed, the messages became more and more opinionated. New contributions to the discussion sounded like heavily loaded tirades. A user called FibrielSolaer wrote:

“Buying via NFT is in no way buying art; buy NFT pretend to buy art. NFT is a trendy new scam that targets people unable to distinguish reality from ideals, such as young children.

The crux of the argument against NFT artworks seems to boil down to how the underlying technology works. Several publishers have disputed that the lines of code on a blockchain that represent digital property are not the same as the artwork they represent. Additionally, many NFT artworks are digital only, with no corresponding physical copy. It also seems a point of contention that some contributors believe that NFTs are not “real” works of art.

After weeks of publication, five out of six editors discussing the issue reached a consensus; Beeple’s Every day would remain on Wikipedia’s list of the most expensive works of art by living artists, but with a caveat. The editors attached a note describing the sale as “a promotion to increase the value of Ethereum.” However, Pak Merge would be removed, primarily because the only source currently citing the sale as an NFT artwork was Nifty Gateway, and because it reached such a high value by being sold in fractions to multiple buyers. Buyers could purchase tokens starting at a unit price of $575, which increased by $25 every six hours. It should be noted that the visuals of Merge are generated on-chain, making the technology behind the part an integral part of it.

To the biggest enthusiasts in the NFT community, the decisions surrounding Beeple and Pak’s work seem arbitrary. As editors continue to dispute the finer details surrounding NFTs, one message has come up repeatedly: Wikipedia shouldn’t decide what counts as art or not, it’s up to the public to decide.

Public reactions to Wikipedia appeal

Believe it or not, refusing to accept new forms of artistic expression as “real” art is not a new phenomenon. The pseudonymous Twitter user @punk6529, who has become something of a thought leader in the NFT space, underline that NFTs could be the next in a long line of emerging art forms to be ignored by existing artists. They said:

“If you’ve read any shred of art history, there’s a standard pattern that every new art movement is declared ‘not art’ by the incumbents.”

In the 19th century, the Impressionist artists the world boasts of today, such as Renoir and Manet, were often considered amateurs by art critics and the public. This refractory attitude to new forms of artistic expression did not stop with Impressionism; over the next two centuries, nearly every major art movement, from Kandinsky’s Surrealism to Pollock’s Abstract Expressionism, was first written off and separated from pre-existing conceptions of art.

Another NFT collector who goes by the name @nfttank compared with the work of prominent artist NFT XCOPY to contemporary modern artists whose work is currently classified as art by Wikipedia.

Among the programming is that of Marcel Duchamp Fountain, an inverted white urinal first created in 1917. Ironically, while Fountain is now widely recognized as a major landmark in 20th century art, it was somewhat snubbed at the time of its creation.

When comparing attitudes towards the art of Duchamp over 100 years ago and NFTs today, there are striking similarities. Both occupy a new medium that was not traditionally considered art. Duchamp used everyday objects, while NFT artists use blockchains.

Moreover, Duchamp’s art was initially understood only by those who had a deep appreciation for the contemporary art world of the time. Likewise, the most ardent proponents of NFTs often have in-depth knowledge of blockchain technology that the average person does not.

While many pointed to the hypocrisy of Wikipedia’s rulings, others pointed to the potential negative effects of separating NFTs from art. Nifty Gateway co-founder Duncan Cock Foster took to Twitter following Wikipedia editors’ decision to voice his thoughts, indicating:

“Wikipedia operates on precedent. If NFTs are classified as “non-artistic” on this page, they will be classified as “non-artistic” on the rest of Wikipedia. Wikipedia is the global source of truth for many people around the world. The stakes couldn’t be higher!

In the past, while critics often snubbed emerging art forms, a single person’s assessment was not definitive. This allowed other players in the art world to change their minds with solid arguments. Over time, attitudes towards these art forms became less conservative, resulting in their eventual acceptance.

However, in the case of Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia prides itself on being an authoritative source of knowledge. If publishers are willing to set a precedent on such a subjective issue, it could cause years of damage to artists exploring NFT as a new medium for art.

Thankfully, it seems the uproar from the NFT community hasn’t gone unnoticed. Wikipedia editors have agreed to revisit the conversation about whether NFTs should be classified as art later, leaving the door open for further discussion.

Disclosure: At the time of writing this article, the author owned ETH and several other cryptocurrencies.

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