Originally Submitted 8th February 2022
“Imagine walking into the National Gallery,” a digital artist recently told me, “with a bunch of people who’d never even seen a painting before. Auction off the artwork to them. What they’re happy to pay won’t depend on preconceptions they had coming into the gallery, but on what they like, and what others around them like”. The young and rapidly rising digital art market, he was intimating, operates in much the same way.
In theory, it should make no sense that non-fungible tokens (NFTs) should be such a popular commodity, yet their increasing use attests to the artificiality of everything we place value in. For those who have managed to remain ignorant, NFTs are digital assets based on blockchain technology, much like any cryptocurrency. However, unlike cryptocurrency they are non-fungible: unique, and unable to be exchanged for an identical item. They often take the form of digital artwork, be it a picture, a video or a GIF. By buying an NFT, you don’t own intellectual rights to it, but you receive a unique ID—a sort of certificate of authentication—which you can add to your digital wallet. If the Mona Lisa were an NFT, the unique ID would be like its signature. Whilst I can print a copy of the Mona Lisa and hang it on my wall, this doesn’t mean I own the painting. My copy has no real value. Artists, much like printmakers, can ‘mint’ dozens, hundreds, even thousands of NFTs of a single image; what’s important is that the items are regulated in number and each can be confirmed as genuine.
A point often made in support of NFT artwork is that it democratises the medium. Gone, it seems, are the venerable institutions, the exclusive galleries and the expensive colleges which govern the regular art world. Artists sell predominantly on the same site, OpenSea, a sort of eBay for digital art where works are traded or exchanged for cryptocurrency. Once you’ve paid your ‘gas’, a fee of around £100 (it fluctuates wildly), you’re in (though OpenSea extorts further gas fees for buying, selling, transferring, or even cancelling a bid). Once you have ‘minted’ an NFT and listed it on the market, it could theoretically fetch millions. Digital artist Beeple hit the headlines last year when Christie’s auctioned his NFT ‘5000 Days’ for over $69 million.
Naturally, however, the NFT market has begun to establish its canons. Much as country houses boast their Titians and Van Dycks, successful collectors will treasure their Beeples or their Paks. Ed- ward Snowden sold his first NFT for $5.4 million last April. Popu- lar memes from yesteryear are being sold as NFTs by their creators. More recently, Gucci, Rolex and Louis Vuitton have been making some typically uninspired entrances into the market. In a way, the existing model of big brands is well suited to the digital art market; if I’m only buying a Gucci bag for the name, why not also a Gucci NFT?
Perhaps this paints too negative a picture of NFTs. Beyond the humdrum of hype and commercialism operates a quietly busy net- work of artists producing some genuinely fascinating work. The possibilities of digital art stretch the mediums which constricted Titian and Van Dyck; artists create highly imaginative and beauti- fully rendered works worthy of any gallery, and the rather anarchic digital markets reward creativity and innovation. There’s also a thriving system of mutual aid, and it’s not uncommon for established artists to gift gas money to help aspiring newcomers into the business. The market is certainly democ- ratised insofar as it is globalised. With no logistical difficulties to contend with, a digital artist in Somalia can sell to a collector in New York as easily as to his next-door neighbour.
In practice, there’s nothing too new or unusual about the selling of digital assets between individuals. Readers who have done a lot of online gaming may appreciate the value that digital assets can accrue, emotionally and financially. A gaming account in which someone has invested a lot of time and effort can fetch a high price on online markets and has done for many years. It’s unsurprising, then, that the NFT world has much to gain from the rise of metaverses. One of the major constraints of NFTs as a commodity is their lack of physicality, but this concern dwindles if we spend less of our time in the physical world. In the metaverse, digital land, buildings, clothes and accessories are all already sold as NFTs; prize real estate is being scooped up for prices as high as $4.3 million.
However the impact of the metaverse on artists specific-
ally is not necessarily a positive one, a local NFT investor tells me. “It is dependent on who builds the said metaverse. If we consider Meta’s [Facebook’s] plan for a metaverse, it is likely that they will heavily central- ise any NFT marketplace, and may claim certain usage rights over any NFTs minted/traded on their platform. In saying this, there are also other metaverse firms which aim to be entirely decentralised, such as The Sand- box or Decentraland”. As for encouraging digital artists, some metaverse platforms allow you to display your NFTs on the wall for your digital guests to admire. “It’s easy to say that,” my investor friend cautions me, “but just like art in real life, it’s used less for decoration and more as a means to store value”. With this in mind, I politely beg to differ from the opinion voiced at the beginning of this article. Certainly the NFT mar- ket has shaken up the art world, but what seems to attract value is still the hype and name recognition which governs more traditional markets.
Image ‘VeKings’ by ‘RingrEven’ is licensed CC0 1.0