I’m no linguist, but I imagine emerging-tech terminology is an area ripe for research. When ideas are still in their infancy and the public is acclimating to brave new worlds, catch-all terms reign supreme. Over the last year, “NFT” has certainly fulfilled this role — referencing a unique digital artifact issued and tracked on a blockchain.
This article contextualizes the growth of crypto art in the past year. I don’t subscribe to a strict definition of “crypto art,” but for the sake of clarity and feasibility I analyze works that I consider to be most emblematic of it. I personally view crypto art as a specific category of NFTs, issued on platforms that emphasize curation, careful exposition, and single or limited editions. Collectible items comprising large sets of ten thousand or more similar NFTs with varying traits and characteristics, in my view, demand an alternative category. This is not to deny the contribution of CryptoPunks and Bored Apes, for instance, to the aesthetics of crypto art, but simply to demarcate a field that most closely approximates art as we knew it.
This study focuses on artist and collector data for SuperRare, Foundation, KnownOrigin, MakersPlace, and Art Blocks. Additional platforms certainly fit under my description of crypto art, but to feasibly and properly analyze the artist and collector data in depth, I have selected these Ethereum-based platforms (data as of December 31, 2021).
The Creators: Artist Data
Thousands of new artists were onboarded into crypto art in 2021. All of the tracked platforms recorded massive growth in new creators, as shown in the charts below.
Each platform employs some form of white-listing: Artists must be accepted before being allowed to offer works to collectors. This onboarding process differs from platform to platform, with SuperRare seemingly adopting the most curated approach. By contrast, Foundation, which launched in February 2021, currently allows any existing artist with at least one work sold to send out creator invites. This helps to explain the starkly different trend in the number of artists permitted on its platform.
As the number of artists rose on these platforms, so did the total amount of crypto art. Across the five platforms, a total of 342,000 artworks were created in 2021, 80% of the 422,000 total created to date.
Given the pseudonymous nature of Ethereum addresses, it’s hard to discern from the on-chain data (i.e. data stored on the blockchain) who all these new artists actually are: Their background, geographical location, as well as the nature of their artistic training. All we can know for certain is the type of art they are creating and their style of choice.
This information can be observed from the metadata of an artwork. In the context of NFTs, metadata generally refers to a file including information about the digital artifact associated with a token. This data is generally stored “off-chain” rather than directly on the blockchain. The exact storage location varies by NFT project, but many use InterPlanetary File System. (See here for a helpful introduction to IPFS).
The metadata for SuperRare and KnownOrigin are especially information rich, including detail about when a work was created, a description of its subject matter, and the tags (or “hashtags”) associated with the work. By way of example, I’ve included here the metadata for Inside (2019), a work for sale on SuperRare by Argentinian generative artist Manoloide:
Although metadata is not stored on-chain, it is easy enough to access via the crypto art platform’s smart contract(s). To get a sense of the type of works being created on SuperRare in 2021, I pulled down each tag from all 13,697 SuperRare artworks minted this past year. There were a total of 13,974 unique tags used by artists on SuperRare to describe their artworks in 2021. Below is a word cloud showing the most popular tags. The top five most frequently used tags were: “3d,” “surreal,” “animation,” “abstract,” and “illustration.” A total of 4,933 works minted on SuperRare in 2021 used “3d” as a tag and 3,943 works were tagged with “surreal.”
Below is a random sample of some of the artwork created by SuperRare artists in 2021, exploring a few of the most popular themes.
I also collected each tag from the 9,978 KnownOrigin artworks minted this past year (v2 contract only). Artists on KnownOrigin used a total of 6,269 unique tags in 2021. The top five most frequently used tags were: “abstract,” “art,” “digitalart,” “cryptoart,” and an eponymous nod to “knownorigin.” A total of 2,548 works minted on KnownOrigin in 2021 used “abstract” as a tag and 2,310 works were tagged with “art.” Interestingly, “abstract” was the only tag that was in the top five for both SuperRare and KnownOrigin.
Crypto art platforms have recently experimented with offering artists more autonomy over their work. In August, SuperRare launched SuperRare 2.0, which decentralized curation powers and protocol governance to artists and collectors by distributing a new SuperRare $RARE token. SuperRare also created “Series,” which offered artists like Kid Nimbus their own custom smart contracts. Works minted under the “Series” contract, like Nimbus’s “KÜMO” Series, are tokens that are associated with unique contract addresses rather than SuperRare’s own contract 0xb93…fb9e0. They are specially demarcated by SuperRare’s discovery engine, allowing artists to better control artistic categorization.
In a similar fashion, Foundation launched “Collections” last September, giving artists the ability to mint works with their own unique smart contract address and token name. KnownOrigin has also recently announced its support of composable NFTs on the platform, allowing the creation of assets that blend non-fungible ERC-721 and fungible ERC-20 tokens based on the ERC-998 standard. An example is the creation of a Bitcoin-themed artwork that includes wrapped bitcoin (WBTC) inside. The implications of this decision are vast, opening the door for artists in 2022 to test out new approaches built around novel crypto-economic primitives. Or in other words: Incentive mechanisms that are uniquely enabled by tokens.
The Collectors: Patron Statistics
On the other side of the equation, a wealth of new collectors entered the crypto art market in 2021, with the number of unique owners accelerating across all of the major crypto art platforms.
While the growth in aggregate owners is impressive, there are some important caveats. For one, a single Ethereum address does not necessarily mean one human being. One individual might control multiple addresses for privacy or security purposes, while many individuals can control one Ethereum address on behalf of a DAO, fund, or other institution. There are also a large number of overlapping owners between projects. The venn diagrams below visualize the 1,417 addresses that owned an artwork from both SuperRare and Foundation as of December 31, 2021.
The number of unique addresses that own at least one work from one of the five platforms is a little over 60,000 today — a community equivalent to the weekly attendance at a large football stadium. Is crypto art simply a niche arena of crypto natives? Not based on the data, which points to a burgeoning ecosystem of artists, collectors, and curators that is just starting to ripen.
While the crypto art community may seem small in size, market data from cryptoart.io tells us that collectors spent $1.8 billion in 2021 across the five platforms considered. Art Blocks secured $1.4 billion of sales — indicative of generative art’s growing popularity — while SuperRare recorded $208 million, Foundation $141 million, MakersPlace $35 million, and KnownOrigin $10 million.
When set against the traditional art market, these sales figures remain impressive. Christie’s auction house recently reported a record $7.1 billion in art sales for 2021, while fellow giant Sotheby’s also set its own record of $7.3 billion. At $1.8 billion, these five platforms achieved approximately 25% of Christie’s total. It is a staggering feat that crypto art platforms that did not exist before 2018 recorded total sales figures in 2021 at roughly a quarter of the total volume handled by auction houses founded in the 18th century. Whatever your perspective, crypto art is now impossible to ignore.
On SuperRare, six works sold for 1,000 ETH (roughly $3.2 million) or more in 2021, with the artist XCOPY responsible for five. Art Blocks also exploded in popularity over the summer, with particular interest in projects like Tyler Hobbs’s “Fidenza” (2021). Given the large number of editions in certain collections (“Fidenza” comprises 999), generative art platforms like Art Blocks blur the line between crypto art and collectibles. Yet Art Blocks maintains a high degree of careful curation and has been one of the most significant generative art projects to date. That it has proved so successful over the past year relative to other markets also suggests we are witnessing the dawn of the algorithm as a lucrative means of expression.
Reflecting on the data, it’s clear that crypto art took a great leap forward in 2021. But why has it been so successful?
Every artist and collector has their own reasons for supporting the crypto art movement, but I’d like to offer some thoughts focused on the importance of analytics and data accessibility, informed by my own experience working with data from both the traditional and crypto art worlds.
I first emailed Jason Bailey about his Artnome project back in 2018, interested in applying my love of economics and art history to solutions in art and technology. Between 2018 and 2020, I wrangled nights and weekends with mostly incomplete, scattered data from auction houses in an attempt to build out novel analytical tools for the art market. Based on data obtained by Jason, together we illuminated Vincent Van Gogh’s shift in color palette, establishing that the works he painted in sun-soaked Arles were his brightest and most yellow. At its best, good data equips us with the ability to tell compelling stories and uncover new insights. Unfortunately, the fragmented state of art world data is undermining such novel analysis. Provenance has become especially difficult to trace, in contrast to the reliability offered by a distributed ledger.
There are many real-world consequences of a lack of good data, not least the “algorithmic violence” done to those missing from a dataset. As far as art is concerned, missing data is currently impeding access to the most basic information regarding art history. This is no longer acceptable. Until recently, a simple question like: “How many paintings did Mark Rothko create in his life?” would return the following on Google:
Information is gradually digitizing but answers remain scarce — spread throughout disparate sources stored away in book stacks (if stored at all). But with the emergence of crypto art, we now have unprecedented access to a rich dataset of collector activity, provenance, and price transparency, not to mention a complete catalogue raisonné of living artists. Nor is this limited to crypto art — anyone can query the distributed database that is the Ethereum blockchain (and other blockchains with crypto art activity as well). This opens up all sorts of new insights and opportunities.
I believe that when you support an artist you are creating a connection between yourself and that artist. Historically, the network of artists and patrons was highly opaque, lacking in rich data and structure. But with the completeness of crypto art data, it’s now easy to develop network graphs that visualize the social aspect of art and its collection.
Ultimately, a world in which we are better informed about cultural artifacts is a world with better engagement, discoverability, and appreciation for the creators themselves. Emergent crypto art platforms are now realizing the promise of digital creativity even while the terminology is still in flux. But whether it’s “NFTs,” “CryptoArt,” or “artist-signed tokens,” I’m happy to bear witness to the artists, collectors, and all other contributors currently shaping new worlds of experience.
Kyle Waters is a Research Analyst at Coin Metrics, a firm specializing in blockchain analytics and intelligence. He co-authors the Coin Metrics weekly newsletter “State of the Network,” alongside other long-form research content spanning the crypto-sphere. He is a Data Science Contributor to ClubNFT and has been contributing to the art and technology blog Artnome since 2018.