Should NFTs Be Classified as Art? Wikipedia’s Editors Vote ‘No’

Makers of the free encyclopedia spar over the categorization for non-fungible tokens, the relatively new phenomenon sweeping the digital art world

stock photo of colorful NFT logo
Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia curated by volunteer community editors, found itself at the center of conversations about whether to categorize non-fungible tokens as "art." Da-Kuk via Getty Images

Fans of the Instagram account @depthsofwikipedia know that Wikipedia editors have a passion for lists, be they precise charts of animal sounds or catalogs of ill-fated inventors. On the free online encyclopedia, teams of community volunteers work to curate reliable sources and occasionally engage in lengthy forum debates about the finer details of maintaining the site’s vast number of entries.

One such debate among editors attracted widespread attention in late December, as moderators on the Wikipedia list of “most expensive artworks by living artists” sparred over whether to include non-fungible tokens, or NFTs. The question hinged on whether an NFT, a relatively new digital phenomenon, could be classified as a work of “art,” reports Artnet News.

Earlier this month, five out of six community editors voted not to include NFTs on the most-expensive list, according to Brian Quarmby of Cointelegraph.  (These changes have yet to take effect; as Artnet News points out, as of Monday.)

Some users debated the results and cited examples of conceptual art to argue in favor of NFTs’ inclusion, as Radhika Parashar reports for Gadgets 360. Others argued that NFTs are still a relatively new phenomenon and therefore too difficult to classify.

“Wikipedia really can’t be in the business of deciding what counts as art or not, which is why putting NFTs, art or not, in their own list makes things a lot simpler,” argues one editor under the username “jonas.”

“NFTs have their own list, which should be linked in the article, and entries generally shouldn't be listed in both,” writes jonas.

Talk about NFTs flooded many corners of the internet early last year. Known as a form of digital “tokens,” they are unique and indivisible codes that indicate the authenticity of a digital file or piece of art. Systems for buying, selling and owning NFTs all take place online with the help of blockchain technology, used commonly in cryptocurrency trading.

Since then, NFTs of digital art have sold for unprecedented sums. A graphic designer, known as Beeple, sold Everydays: The First 5000 Days, an NFT of 5,000 of his daily sketches, for an eye-popping $69.3 million through Christie’s auction house in March 2021. And designer Pak sold an NFT, Merge, for $91.8 million in December. (Many economists interpret the sky-high prices of NFTs as result of a market bubble that will inevitably burst, similarly to the Beanie Baby craze of the 1990s, writes Emily Stewart for Vox.)

Beeple and Pak’s creations are two works that, if classified as art by Wikipedia editors, would rank third and eighth respectively on the most-expensive list, per Artnet.

Following the Wikipedia debate, some in the pro-cryptocurrency camp began to take notice. Duncan Cock Foster, a co-founder of digital art auction platform Nifty Gateway, took to Twitter to complain that NFTs’ exclusion from the most-expensive art list qualified as a “disaster.”

Speaking with Helen Holmes of the Observer, Foster added, “Anyone with a bit of common sense knows that artists who create NFTs are artists … [S]aying an NFT artwork shouldn’t be included on a list of artworks is just because it is an NFT is arbitrary and wrong.”

As Gareth Harris reports for the Art Newspaper, some museums have tentatively waded into the NFT frenzy. The British Museum (BM) in London put 200 NFTs of works by Japanese printmaker Katsushika Hokusai up for sale last year. The museum now plans to repeat the feat by selling tokens of works by Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner. Prices for Turner tokens start at about $912 (€799).

Jasper Johns, who sold Flag (1954-1955) in 2010 for $110 million, and Damien Hirst, who sold For the Love of God (2007) three years earlier for $100 million, currently top the living-artist list. Also on the list are sculptor Jeff Koons and painter David Hockney, whose 1972 work Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) sold for $90.3 million in 2018.

After Beeple sold 5000 Days for a record price in March 2021, Hockney criticized the work—and the NFT trend writ large—in a podcast interview.

“I saw the pictures,” says Hockney, referring to the mosaic of images that constitutes Beeple’s digital work.

“But I mean, it just looked like silly little things,” the artist adds. “I couldn’t make out what it was, actually.”

Even Wikipedia itself has signed on as a participant in the NFT trend. Last year, co-founder Jimmy Wales sold the site’s first edit for $750,000 as an NFT at Christie’s auction house, as Jack Guy for CNN reported at the time.

Per Artnet News, Wikipedia editors agreed to revisit the NFT conversation at a later date following the vote. Those interested can read the debate in full on the article’s discussion page.

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