Some 40,000 years ago, the first graffiti artists made outlines of their hands on limestone caves in Indonesia. Fast forward to 1917 and we’ve evolved to applauding Duchamp for his urinal creation entitled Fountain.
Now, art and pushing boundaries have often gone hand in hand. It’s not just about pretty pictures after all; it’s supposed to make us think and feel in ways we haven’t before.
Some movements (pun intended), such as Body Fluid Art, go hurtling past the point of stimulating thought and plummet straight into the realm of the shocking. Others are just laughable, like painting with body parts. The most notorious artists in this genre are Pricasso – I’m sure you can figure out what he paints with – and Morten Viskum, who is said to use a severed hand for his creations.
Weirdos and possible attention seekers aside, for the past few years there’s been a paradigm shift in the art world, thanks to our friend the blockchain. Known as NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens), they’ve taken the world by storm.
This marriage of art and tech has made ludicrous amounts of money for both serious artists and the man on the street alike. Let’s take a look at the zany, boho offspring of the crypto/DeFi/blockchain metaverse.
First things first: what are NFTs?
NFTs are digital assets that are completely unique and the authenticity of which can be verified on the blockchain. When something is “non-fungible”, it means that it can’t be subdivided.
So, what’s the big deal and why is the art world going moggy over these things? It’s quite simple, really. Art – in whichever form you chose to imagine it – has historically suffered from being plagiarized, copied, and stolen. Now with NFTs, there’s no way to forge someone else’s work.
Sure, people will be able to copy your stuff but that’s not going to change any time soon. However, it’s the authenticity that makes a piece valuable and collectible. So even if there were myriad copies of your collectible floating around, there would only be one original and you could prove that you owned it.
Punk’s not dead
One of the most cited examples of this new genre of art kicked off in 2017. CryptoPunk was an Ethereum-based project created by Larva Labs. They made some 10,000 pixelated, 8-bit avatars and the world just can’t get enough.
Celebs such as Jay-Z have bought into the movement (literally) and even the world of gambling isn’t immune. Evolution bought 4 of these CryptoPunks for $162,000 and integrated them into a slot game!
On 23 August 2021, Visa bought one and following that news, 90 CryptoPunks were sold in a single hour! The total sales generated thus far are estimated to be in the region of $20 million!
One owner has even turned down an offer to buy his CryptoPunk for an astounding $9.5 million. The man in question, @richerd, uses #6046 as his avatar and it’s become his brand identity, which he feels is priceless.
Moving on, in 2021, Everydays: The First 5000 Days by artist Mike Winkelmann (known as Beeple), sold on auction at Christie’s for a record-breaking ETH 42,329. Wanna know how much that is in fiat money? It works out to $69.3 million. As mentioned in this article, that’s $15m more than Monet’s Nymphéas racked up in 2014!
The cat that got the cream
Now let’s meander off the path a little bit and explore the truly bizarre. Enter Nyan Cat, which started life as a YouTube video of a cartoon kitty, with a Pop-Tart torso, which flies through the air leaving a rainbow trail behind it, to the soundtrack of a Japanese pop song. I’ll give you a bit of time to digest that one…
Making the transition from the Top 5 Most Viewed Videos on YouTube in 2011, Nyan Cat’s creator, Chris Torres, created an updated version and sold it as an NFT for ETH 300. That equated to $587,000 at the time.
It’s not just images and videos that are kicking ass and taking names, though. The music industry has seen its share of massive sales based on NFT technology. DJ and music producer 3LAU, for example, netted a massive $11.6 million in just 24 hours when he sold his crypto album.
Abel Tesfaye, a.k.a. The Weeknd, raised $2.9 million from his first NFT auction by selling a collection of music and art. Kings of Leon got in on the action when they released When You See Yourself in the form of a Non-Fungible Token.
There’s just no end to it.
But is it art?
But beyond the Midas-like cascade of money that’s being generated by NFT artwork, some concerns are being raised. CEO of Glitch, Anil Dash, wrote an article entitled: “NFTs Weren’t Supposed To End Like This: when we Invented non-fungible tokens, we were trying to protect artists. But tech-world opportunism has struck again.”
In it, he says that due to technical limitations, it wasn’t possible to store the actual digital artwork on the blockchain. They ran with a shortcut that’s still being used today by the popular marketplaces; namely that you’re really only buying a link to the piece.
This means that you’re relying on companies to stay in business in order to verify your art. He also adds that, “Many of the works being sold as NFTs aren’t digital artworks at all; they’re just digital pictures of works created in conventional media.”
Then there’s the business of the impact on the environment, with each NFT transaction requiring computing power to complete. More power = more resources consumed.
So, when we look back at this paradigm shift in years to come, how will we view it? Will it be seen as a time when tech was used to empower artists to better exercise control over their work, allowing them to sell more easily, without the fear of their work being appropriated? Or was it a modern-day gold rush where the only consideration was to suckle at the teat of commercialism? Only time will tell.