March 18, 2022

Are NFTs the First Truly Global Art Movement?

Jason Bailey speaks to Aparajita Jain, founder of terrain.art and Director at Nature Morte Gallery, about how NFTs can unleash the creator economy in India
Credit: Kodanda Rao Teppala, Dream Wing - 3, 2016-2020. Courtesy of terrain.art
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Are NFTs the First Truly Global Art Movement?
This conversation is also available as a podcast.

Jason Bailey: Where shall we start?

Aparajita Jain: I think that discourse is critical. I had an interview for another magazine today, with a journalist who was very anti-NFTs, who asked “how are they democratic?” And I said that when any new technology appears in the public sphere, one always has a number of deviants who are going to try and spoil it, or try and take advantage of it for the dark side. But the majority, even 85% of people, are benefiting from it. So to not allow the 85% to benefit while we’re trying to resolve the 15% of deviance would be a tragedy. So is it a perfect space? Perhaps not. But is it important and critical? Yes.

JB: I agree. Whenever we introduce new technology that challenges the status quo, people get anxious, and rightfully so, because there’s always a percentage of bad actors. But why do you think people are particularly mad about NFTs? 

AJ: I think the right question to ask would be, who is getting more emotional and angry with this? Is it the web creator, who’s making money? Hell no. Is it the fine artist? Yes. Is it the traditional gatekeepers? Yes. So the people who are angry are the ones that have something to lose. If it’s environmentalists, then that anger is justified, but it’s often people who just don’t understand it. 

So I think the question to ask is really: “Who is getting upset about it?” And then trying to understand why. Is there plagiarism? Yes, a lot of content is rubbish. But hello, what about the fact that we finally have methods of certification and provenance and security? What if there’s a real way of obtaining royalties? What if there are new creators able to become artists? To me, these are so much more compelling as questions.

Aditi Aggarwal, As We Rise 2, 2020. Courtesy of terrain.art

JB: I think it changes who can participate too. Perhaps it’s not as fully democratized as people wanted, and maybe it’s a smaller star system, but the people being elevated are emerging from different routes: Not the Ivy League schools nor the gallery system in the US or Europe. I know you’re highly respected in the traditional art world given your background with Nature Morte Gallery, based in New Delhi. But why is it that you don't feel intimidated by this new movement when perhaps others do? 

AJ: I am a firm believer in the technology of the NFT, or blockchain. And I’m a firm believer that for the art industry to be scaled we need transparency. So I do feel that the technology itself is audacious and important. And the time has come. Can it be better? Of course, everything can be better. I mean, that’s what humanity stands for, right? We’re always wanting to do better.

First of all, technology isn’t easy. Learning how to code, for example, is very prohibitive, innovative, confusing, and scary for people. Having said that, a lot of the fear is simply based on a lack of awareness. There are some artists who are afraid because, take Beeple’s Everydays (2021) for example, why should it command $69 million when they have spent years working without commanding even a million, thinking that they’re the gatekeepers of art. So who is defining what art is? 

Amrit Pal Singh, Daft Punk Toy Face II, 2021. Courtesy of terrain.art

The truth is that, with democracy, comes demand and supply, both of which are in question here. So when a bunch of people say: “I like this more,” who am I as a gallerist to say “this is not good enough”? So the traditional gatekeepers are a bit afraid right now. And that’s okay, because fear involves asking the right questions and coming up with solutions. Do I think that the bulk of the content that is being NFT’d is good? No. But I think that a new level playing field will emerge in the digital sphere as well, which I think is necessary. 

JB: I was always taught that if you let average people dictate what is art and what isn't art, you end up with kitsch. So historically there has been an idea that we need an elite class of people that is trained to decide what is and isn’t art. But I feel like our social norms have changed in the last twenty years to become more inclusive so that this kind of cultural elitism isn’t acceptable anymore. 

AJ: Honestly, I don’t see it as a case of either or but rather both and. I think both will exist. I think finally, you have the multimillionaire who can afford a million dollars for a fine art sculpture, and that’s okay. And then you have a Bitcoin miner who wants a work by Beeple, who doesn’t get canvas. It doesn’t make either wrong, it just means that there is more to satisfy different palates. Not everyone has to like the same thing.

Karthik KG, (Still from) Deep-Time Conspiracy, 2021. Courtesy of terrain.art

JB: So perhaps it’s not a zero-sum game, but a lot of the folks I’m talking to are saying they’re not seeing traditional collectors of painting and sculpture move over into NFTs. What we’re dealing with is a new class of collector who has maybe made some money in tech, or specifically in cryptocurrency, and feels more comfortable in this space. Is that what you’re seeing?

AJ: What I’m seeing is skepticism. NFTs invalidate the insecure traditional collector, which means that their entire collecting ethos and their intellectual one-upmanship with others is suddenly in question. When the very wealthy collect art, it’s a way of differentiating their status from that of someone else. The moment the world presents another technology and other kinds of art, it invalidates them if they so choose to feel invalidated. Because now they live in a world where a certain artist is commanding upwards of $20 million, which they simply can’t understand. But that demand is based on a new kind of buyer. 

I think it’s going to take a while for these two kinds of people to meet. But eventually they will, because I think the world is heading towards digital art. These days we are very impatient. And because we don’t deep dive anymore. We want it all quick, and movement is more highly coveted today. And moving art will be more coveted. And I think experiential art will be more coveted. So I think that we’re going to see a shift between kids who are earning money now and what they’re going to demand of their art world.

Khyati Trehan, Ecotherapy II, 2021. Courtesy of terrain.art

JB: I would agree with you that things are going much faster, not just in art but in general. What do you think are the key things that we lose and what do you think are the things that we gain when things start accelerating? Who stands to lose the most, and who stands to gain?

AJ: So I think the person who stands to gain the most is the customer, because they have a lot of variety being offered to them. But artists also gain by receiving royalties, which they haven’t had access to in abundance previously. I think that the many artists who don’t wish to understand NFTs stand to lose the most. Because they won’t be early adopters and will therefore struggle to get into the game.

JB: One of the big criticisms of NFTs is that they commoditize or commercialize art. Do you think that’s fair, that it’s happening at a faster rate than it was previously? Was there really some kind of purity about the old art world?

AJ: I think that the traditional art market is also all about the money. It’s all about the big galleries. It’s all about the museums that want that money. It’s about the auction houses. There’s a lot of money riding on it all. So if anybody tells me that it’s not about the money, I think it’s a bit of a lie. It’s just that they’ve hidden it under puritan garb. 

Prerit Jain, (Still from) Rage Against the Screen, 2021. Courtesy of terrain.art

JB: Can you give me a little background on Nature Morte Gallery versus terrain.art? How do they differ?

AJ: They differ completely. Nature Morte is a separate company, separate from terrain’s management, except for me. I’m the common factor in both. Nature Morte for me is the gatekeeper gallery. It’s about the top 1%. And I’m really happy about that. For me, terrain is about all my learnings from Nature Morte being adapted to help the other 99%. 

None of the collectors are the same. None of the artists are the same, which for me, is really fascinating. Because suddenly I have contracts with 40 artists in terrain, with many more waiting to join up. The problem is that people think that there is a small pie, and everything is coming out of that pie. What I believe NFTs have done is increase the pie to four times the size. 

JB: So is it fair to say that NFTs are opening up entirely new opportunities for artists who couldn’t participate in the old system? 

AJ: I believe that 100%. I really do believe we’re at the beginning of the Age of Aquarius in a certain sense.

Installation view of Terrain Offline including work by Karthik KG. Courtesy of terrain.art

JB: With terrain, is it all NFTs or a blend of physical work and NFTs?

AJ: There’s a lot of both physical and digital work because, for me, 80% of an NFT is the fact that it can certify something, the fact that it can transact something. Whether that’s a digital work or a piece of music or a collectible or a metaverse avatar, what it is, is not the focus. 

JB: So you lean towards the work as a certification. 

AJ: All the works on terrain are NFT-backed.

JB: What's NFT adoption looking like in India at the moment?

AJ: I think we’re very far behind. I think there’s a lot to happen. And I think, slowly, it will happen. I think that the size of the country is massive, with huge opportunities, which is why I have put in so much work, with two companies to run, because I believe in it so much that I’m willing to risk it.

JB: Outside of the high-net-worth individuals, what does art collecting look like in India? 

AJ: The market in India is not very mature, even for traditional art. So I think we have a long way to go. But I think that the problem has been the quality of supply. And I think that India catches up very quickly. I think that we will see a tipping point, maybe in a year or two. India has to play to its strengths, which is its numbers, not its spend per-person. 

JB: So you’re saying that, with the sheer size of the population, if you can engage with that population in the right way, then the outcome could be enormous?

AJ: Exactly.

Installation view of Terrain Offline featuring work by Khyati Trehan. Courtesy of terrain.art

JB: I’d argue that what we’re seeing with NFTs is maybe the first truly global art movement, right? Where people are participating from all around the world. As you know, I’ve been collecting since 2017, and my very first NFT was by an artist whom I would never have found via a gallery, named Moxarra, from Mexico. And I bought his work on DADA.nyc as more of a technology experiment because, as you know, it hadn’t caught on yet. And immediately he connected with me on Twitter, and we’ve become good friends. And now fast forward four years, and I’ve got friends all around the world and we are becoming more of a global community. I do think that NFTs have a sort of cultural global exchange baked into them.

AJ: We’re in this unique position in the world today where there are many more people who can participate in this movement and can actually earn something from it. My next effort is to get Indian tribal art from truly rural areas. That for me is very exciting because I see democracy as taking everyone along, not just a few. 

JB: Some people think NFTs are a bubble. Five to ten years from now, how do you see the space being different? 

AJ: I think that what we’re going to see is a lot more induction of the metaverse into our lives. And I think that NFTs will be the only way you can transact there. I think that we’re going to live in two parallel worlds: The physical world and the metaverse, and the metaverse will become sexier and more prominent, and I think that escape that we give to Instagram and Facebook will go into the metaverse. That’s what I feel.

I think that there’s a toxicity that’s coming through social media. And I think people want to socialize. But I think people are forgetting how to socialize physically as well. So I think there’s some amount of twistedness that’s going to come into our lives, which I think is inevitable. But are NFTs a fad? Hell no. 

Kodanda Rao Teppala, Dream Wing - 3, 2016-2020. Courtesy of terrain.art

JB: Sometimes I wonder if people think India is behind on art or technology, but I think Nature Morte were one of the first to exhibit AI artists using GANs [generative adversarial networks].

AJ: We were the first in the world to showcase it as art. What people don’t get is that, while India might be a late adopter, Polygon comes out of India — an entire protocol. So when acceleration happens, it will happen at a speed that is breathtaking, because we have 1.4 billion people and the digital imprint in this country is huge. 

JB: I say we have more people interested in collecting art than we’ve ever had in human history. But I also believe that art is a way to humanize us and pull us away from sheer sensation, even as it has become a bit of a trophy. I’m not sure if that’s too lofty.

AJ: I think art was always lofty. It is about transcendence. I think that the fact that more people can access transcendence is fantastic. What that transcendence is, we’ll see. I also believe that, with AI automation, we are going to see a lot of people who are going to look at transcendence as their reason for life.

JB: Are you suggesting that, as AI takes on a lot of the work that we used to do, we’ll have more free time, which will free us to be more creative? Because the creative work is really the only work that we can’t automate, right? 

AJ: I’m absolutely saying that.

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Aparajita Jain is a leading entrepreneur and philanthropist based in New Delhi. She is the founder of terrain.art, India’s first blockchain-powered art platform, and has been co-director of Nature Morte Gallery since 2012. Jain was a founding member of Harvard University’s South Asia Arts Council, established to connect South Asia’s curators, museum administrators, artists, and art educators with Harvard faculty. She was awarded Entrepreneur of the Year by FICCI FLO in 2019 for her contribution to the field of art and is currently on the advisory board of ICCR. She was also recently inducted onto the Board of Trustees of the International Sculpture Center. In 2010, Jain founded The Saat Saath Arts Foundation (SSA), envisioning it as a not-for-profit initiative to foster creative dialogue between Indian artists and the international art world. SSA launched India’s first international Sculpture Park in Jaipur in 2017 in collaboration with the Government of Rajasthan.

Jason Bailey is the creator of the art and tech blog Artnome.com and founder of GreenNFTs and ClubNFT where he serves as CEO.