Unpacking the art world’s latest debate – who knew Nyan Cat was worth £430k?
“But you know, if this becomes a bigger thing, I’m moving to the countryside to grow sunflowers,” my artist friend told me as we were discussing the recent $69m (£50m) Christie’s sale of a JPG file. “Holy fuck,” wrote Beeple (aka Mike Winkelmann), now among the top three most valuable living artists, who created Everydays: The First 5000 Days (2007-2020) and set a record for a work that exists in only the digital space. “It’s the catalyst for a generation,” asserted Pablo Rodriguez-Fraile, digital art collector and co-founder of the Museum of Crypto Art. “My art history degree didn’t prepare me for this,” I thought.
If this sounds like too much of a grey area, it’s because it is. A few weeks ago, the art world became enmeshed in some quite conflicting views (which is, I guess, in tune with the Zeitgeist). The rapid rise of crypto-art collectables, known as NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, caught many of us off guard. And many of us, truth be told, are still trying to understand the concept. According to a survey conducted in March, even the art world itself is not entirely sure what this is all about: only 53% of 1,000 art collectors have a vague understanding of the technology, while 37% admitted to having “no clue” whatsoever. I’ll try to explain.
NFT’s are unique, digital files with verified identity and ownership that have been around since 2017. They’re recorded and stored on a blockchain (such as Ethereum) that holds value as a form of cryptocurrency (Bitcoin, we meet at last). When someone buys a work of art authenticated by an NFT, like Everydays: The First 5000 Days, they acquire proof of authenticity and ownership rights, meaning that they are the sole owner of the work even if it’s reproduced multiple times. Screenshotting it doesn’t then count as stealing it, although the attempt might be worth it if you’re into some art heist vibes.
The marriage of art and technology isn’t an entirely new concept. Since the 1960s, artists have relied on new technologies as a medium or a means of documentation, and produced many fascinating works, from Andy Warhol’s eclectic films to my friends’ engaging and interactive digital animations. When our whole life has moved entirely to cyberspace – and rightly so, how else would we communicate with each other, work, and study, not to mention, enjoy art – all previous innovations appear like the calm before the storm. As I’m writing this, the previously niche market of crypto art is exploding. Fair enough: the works embody the current state of affairs to the best possible extent.
Considering all the controversies, it’s unclear whether crypto-art is just another trend among art collectors seeking new opportunities to invest, the catalyst for change in the art world and the world in general, or hype that will, at some point, calm down. While some rage about its ecological cost, not to mention its monetary value, others embrace it as a way “to support good causes.” In either case, the amalgamation of cryptocurrency and art understandably causes a furore. Are we completely losing touch with the physical world? Is this digital distribution sustainable long-term? Who will benefit from it?
The argument that digital creators can use NFT’s and such platforms as SuperRare, Nifty Gateway and Rarible to tokenise their works and sell them without fear of copyright infringement is, of course, a valid argument. The technology offers the opportunity to produce digital artworks with some peace of mind and, just as importantly, to earn money. However, with such names as Damien Hirst increasingly venturing into the crypto art market, how are the emerging artists supposed to take advantage of it? Especially if the debut in question consists of 10,000 works (accompanied by its NFT’s), each priced at $3,000 (£2,100).
Blake Gopnik, a contributor to The New York Times, exuded optimism when the past year’s report revealed that gallery sales dropped by a third due to the pandemic. He stated that “the big problem is that this crazy art market has helped a tiny, tiny number of artists, many of whom are vastly mediocre. But it hasn’t done any good for your average mid-career artists. Quite the opposite. They’re the ones who’ve been slammed.” The drop in sales, he thought, would serve as a reality check for the crazy art market. With a growing number of crypto artworks by big-name artists up for grabs, the door for the emerging artists might as well remain closed.
I’d like to believe that Gopnik doesn’t completely err on the side of optimism. Yet, when I hear about the crypto-art rendition of the Nyan Cat gif being sold as NFT for $600K (£430K) or Jack Dorsey’s first tweet for $2.9m (£2.1m), I find myself having a visceral reaction to the whole industry. The war against the commodification of art and the mainstream art market has been fought for several decades, and it’s still going with no end in sight. I’m not an artist, but I see why the thought of moving to the countryside to grow sunflowers is so tempting. Maybe we all should consider it.