In the News: Cracking the Code of NFT’s

Jenna Gilley, Curatorial Assistant

An NFT by Beeple, a collage of images.
Beeple’s collage, Everydays: The First 5000 Days, sold at Christie’s. Image: Beeple.

Browsing through my email this morning, a heading from Artnet caught my eye: 28 lots of NFTs sold for $17.1 million at auction, with one single CryptoPunk avatar (the heading photo, just a digital image of a pixelated blue man, below) fetching $11.75 million. This comes just weeks after digital artist Mike Winklemann, known online as Beeple, sold a collection of digital prints for $69 million through Christie’s as the first purely digital work of art ever sold by an auction house. Beeple, who previously never sold a print for more than $100, is now positioned as among “the top three most valuable living artists”, according to Christie’s.

An NFT showing a blue man with a brown cap wearing a face mask.

Larva Labs, CryptoPunk #7523. Sold for 11.75 million in June 2021. Image courtesy Sotheby’s.

Ridiculous? I thought so, too. I nave seen news of this mythical new cyber art form for months, but couldn’t wrap my head around it. Why would someone spend thousands, even millions of dollars, on a piece of code, an image that could still be downloaded by anybody? Isn’t one of the main perks of buying artwork the physical, unique pleasure of seeing it, coveting it, having the only one? I was baffled. These questions have turned the art world on its head too, wondering if this is the future of art collecting. Indeed, NFTs are the prime modern iteration of a debate at the core of art history—what is art? I finally decided the time had come to jump in and crack the code on NFTs.

First of all, what the heck is a NFT? Going in, I had no idea how minting or cryptocurrency works. After all, there’s a reason I dedicated my life to protecting hand made things! From my research, I discerned that at its most basic level, an NFT is a piece of digital art that has its own unique bar code, which serves as a certificate of authenticity. “NFT” stands for “non-fungible token”, which means, unlike other assets, it can’t be traded or exchanged for something else of equal value. A $20 bill can be exchanged for two $10 bills, but an NFT is one of a kind. This uniqueness makes it similar to a physical artwork, where collectors see the piece as a valuable original.

But here’s the rub: buying an NFT does not give the owner exclusive rights to the image. Technically, the image could still be found on the web, right clicked, and downloaded to one’s computer. From there, it could be plastered anywhere. Some might say this is the equivalent of reproducing prints of a piece of art, but because the work is digital, the copied images are IDENTICAL to the original. There are no tell-tale trademarks of an artist’s style and technique, no pentimenti revisions, and no scientific testing on materials to prove an original is the real deal. There is, however, a database that if curious, one could look up an image and see who owns it. So, the reality becomes: art from a NFT standpoint is about clout, bragging rights, and the investment. The visual specialness of owning an original for its artistic value is null and void.

The Arnolfini Portrait is believed to be a wedding painting, as it shows a couple holding hands in their bedroom, a dog at their feet. Upon close inspection, the mirror behind them reflects another person in the room, possibly the preacher.
Pentimento, or an alteration, made by Jan van Eyck in his famous Arnolfini Wedding Portrait, shown with detail of X-ray. Hallmarks like this ensure that an artwork is authentic, which cannot be applied to digital NFTs. Photo courtesy of Principal Gallery.

While this may seem like a scary new development, art has actually been heading in this direction for a while. Think of Marcel Duchamp’s infamous Fountain, who’s only difference between being an artwork and just another urinal is the artist’s signature. Andy Warhol, too, who used a team of artists to produce his works, claimed he wanted “to be a machine”, removing the hand and the artist from his work. Is it the art that we covet, or a remnant of the artist who we laud as genius? Contemporary and conceptual art have pushed this further. A Felix Gonzalez Torres piece is just a pile of candy—until you know the weight is equivalent to his lover’s before contracting AIDS. In this case, it is the idea that is bought. Performance art, too, has sold to collectors, sometimes coming with a prop or regulations for its display, but often with just a certificate claiming that you, in fact, “own” the work.

An installation art piece of a pile of candies.
Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), 1991, multicolored candies, ideal weight 175 lbs., dimensions variable © The Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation.

Until now, digital art never received this kind of attention—even in competitions for young artists, digital art is considered a new category. This most recent sale is one of hundreds in the last year, organized by the most reputable art auction houses including Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Billionaires like Shark Tank’s Mark Cuban have already invested millions in NFTs, and urge their elite clients to follow suit.

NFTs do have their perks! Artists like this new method of selling their art because it allows them to skip the middleman and sell directly to collectors, opening the door to the art world like never before. Selling an NFT is extremely easy: one just has to answer a few questions proving the piece is original and upload an image to an NFT marketplace. The often grueling classist art system, where many creatives toil for years for recognition, can therefore be completely bypassed. Globally, digital artists like Beeple are finally able to profit off their work.

NFT proponents also tout democracy for art collecting, but I find this a little harder to swallow. While the medium might draw a new, young group of collectors, very few have the kind of money (in cryptocurrency, mind you) to drop on an intangible piece of art. After all, few are able and/or willing to buy physical art in the first place; but, with culture becoming increasingly dominated by social media and one’s image online, perhaps status will be enough to perpetuate the trend of NFTs. In a less cynical view, if the market expands and prices are lowered, maybe NFTs will be the new way to support digital creators.

That being said, what is the future of NFTs in relationship to museums? As one might imagine, the prospect of digital collecting is scary for many museums and dealers. People flock to museums to see originals of master works, the majority of visitors to the Louvre make the pilgrimage to see one painting: the Mona Lisa. Will anyone travel from another country to see a digital artwork printed out, framed, and hung on the wall? When the intellectual prestige of correctly identifying and holding “real” artworks fall by the wayside, since NFT’s provenance can be easily tracked from the moment of their creation, people may not want to pay an admission price. How would NFT’s even be displayed if collected, on computer screens or printed and framed? Then there comes the issue of preserving the art. As an NFT only exists as code, as time evolves, the technology needed to store and access them might become obsolete. Already NFT’s are receiving an F from environmental groups because of the amount of energy the computers hosting them utilize; what infrastructure might museums have to invest in to maintain a permanent collection with NFT’s?

We are left then with one final question: is the decline of museums and traditional art forms eminent? I don’t think so. Call me old fashioned, but there’s something about physical art that appeals to audiences. For thousands of years, before language or written history, humans have been drawn to creating. It is an urge inside us. Ask any artist—many will say they are called to make (it is one of the reasons why we revere them). In turn, people are drawn to owning physical art: for its prestige, beauty, craftsmanship, and remarkableness. I believe it is the tangible embodiment of thoughts and emotions, not just the prestige, that allows art to transport us to different times and places, to transcend our world. Perhaps NFTs will continue to grow in popularity, as digital art has; after all, these new artistic developments are a reflection of the values of our age, like any other art form. But, just as French artist Paul Delaroche lament’s “painting is dead!” did not come into fruition after the creation of photography, technology does not kill art, it only urges its evolution and adaptation. Physical art and museums will never become obsolete so long as they, too evolve and adapt to the changing times to remain living keepers of history.

2 Replies to “In the News: Cracking the Code of NFT’s”

  1. Very nice article, it was good to hear more about NFT’s from an art professional’s perspective! I appreciate your insight and skepticism on the question about democratization of art collection. Another question concerning democracy in the future market for NFTs that is worth considering is, what is the implication for private, intellectual property (or other kinds of) rights associated with owning them? What does it mean when individuals or, say, investment institutions are able to own art, or really just code, identifiable and quantifiable down to the last pixel? What would it mean for the public commons if digital art can be catalogued and restricted in such a fine manner? I don’t know much about NFTs and art curation, but this situation seems a lot to me like the early days of the stock market being on the internet when activists had pipe dreams of the democratization of capitalism. Decades later, and investors always tend to consolidate ownership of assets; I wonder if it would be the same for NFTs.

    1. Thank you! Those are some great points, and we’ll definitely be watching to see how things progress over time. It’s anyone’s guess right now!

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