August 17, 2022

Will NFTs Unite the Art World?

Jo Lawson-Tancred assesses the ongoing attempts to bring crypto and contemporary art together
Credit: Jonas Lund, MVP (Most Valuable Painting) #146 Dashing Program (detail), 2022. Courtesy of the artist and Aorist
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Will NFTs Unite the Art World?
Cryptocurrency has a struggle of purpose and aesthetics. How do you make it hot? The NFT is the beautiful merger solving these two problems in one. (Jonas Lund)

The mainstream contemporary art world was quick to capitalize on the NFT explosion of 2021 in the hope of onboarding new collectors. At the same time, crypto artists have shown themselves to be open to the rosy glow of the establishment by agreeing to participate in a number of high-profile auctions. For all parties involved, the potential to win big remains high even in a crypto winter.

Art Basel’s recently published report, The Art Market 2022, found that 74% of the High-Net-Worth collectors surveyed had bought NFTs in 2021, with 88% interested in buying NFTs in the future. Yet much of the mainstream art world remains undecided. Of those surveyed, galleries and dealers showed a particular reluctance, with close to half admitting that they had not sold any NFTs and had no interest in doing so in the future.

Jonas Lund, MVP (Most Valuable Painting) #511 Blue-Eyed Measure, 2022. Courtest of the artist and Aorist

The marriage of convenience between crypto and mainstream art worlds therefore remains dysfunctional. Each has something to gain from the other — on one side, critical approval, and on the other, a new community of collectors. While crypto has shown a willingness to compromise on decentralization, its demand for transparency and a minimum 10% resale royalty distinguishes it from the opaque operations and established practices of the legacy market. 

Of course, as an umbrella category of digital goods, NFTs make for an attractive — and adaptable — sales mechanism. Yet crypto art’s hybrid aesthetics, born in part of its distributed community of digital outsiders, remains a bridge too far for many traditional collectors. 

After the hype of 2021, this year has seen the emergence of new technical and critical infrastructures, especially around the Tezos blockchain, that stand to reposition the NFT space on more sustainable foundations. Ethereum’s long-mooted “Merge” to proof-of-stake consensus may also usher in a new acceptance of the NFT space as a greener place to do business. Recent months have already witnessed new attempts to bridge the crypto and contemporary art worlds — from the Art Blocks-Pace Verso alliance to Marina Abramović’s wholehearted embrace of the Web3 community, which reflects the power of NFTs to commodify experiential art. 

Yet the earliest architects of “the bridge” are arguably those artists who have been engaging with blockchain as a medium since the very beginning, a number of whom have recently been longlisted for the inaugural Lumen Prize NFT Award. Their approaches are to be distinguished from early crypto art projects like Rare Pepe Wallet (RPW), for which the token was the art and the image simply what the token looked like. While RPW helped to inaugurate the concept of utility — of art as a “VIP pass” — artists working with the blockchain as a medium have tended to adopt a conceptualist lens, therefore tying it back to familiar histories of art. 

Addie Wagenknecht, (Still from) Believe Me v1.1, 2017/2021. Courtesy of the artist

In 2018, the artist Addie Wagenknecht began working with Casey Reas, Rick Silva, and exonemo to develop a2p — a performance piece in the form of a platform for trading digital art that paved the way for Feral File. The project adopted an “artist-to-artist” model that allowed its artists to share their work with the community independently of the market and with provenance recorded on the blockchain. Its principle, explains Wagenknecht, is that “we would be able to support each others’ practices through exchange and a more Commons [sic] approach.”

As NFTs have catalyzed a new creator economy with a different set of norms, even artists who have long engaged with the blockchain as a medium have been forced to adapt. For Wagenknecht, who now mints NFTs to accompany her painting projects, this has required transitioning from in-person talks and publications — historically the province of the gallery system — to active engagement on Twitter and Discord. 

“Artists are using Web2 mediums to reach Web3. I think that’s partially a result of us just not having the tools yet to communicate in new ways.” 

For the artist, this extends to the production of art on proof-of-work chains like Ethereum, where large files are more expensive to mint: “A lot of artists have been optimizing or creating lower resolution works as a result, to save hundreds of dollars.” According to Anna Ridler, who recently participated in NFT sales at Sotheby’s and Phillips: “The automatic assumption is that if you’re a digital artist you can just put your piece on the blockchain. But that doesn’t always make sense, […] everyone is driving for stuff to be minted to latch onto this wave of money.” Ridler herself has long preferred to write her own smart contracts onto the blockchain and has therefore found the typical NFT marketplace to be a space of confinement: “It’s a kind of walled garden, so you can’t change things or interact with it. It’s more geared towards selling than doing anything under the hood. I always like to have my own code even if I’m not doing anything with it, just to see how it works and what I’m signing myself up for.”

The one-size-fits-all approach may limit the potential for creative coding, but it is also the reason so many artists have been able to mint NFTs in the first place. For Ridler, working with the blockchain has been hugely labor-intensive and minting a fraught process. “It feels so eternal. Outside the blockchain there’s always the chance to iterate and make changes. On the blockchain, you have to be so certain that the work is finished, which I find an incredibly stressful process. It’s when you bump up to those things that aren’t working or work differently that it becomes interesting.”

Anna Ridler, (Still from) Anno Oxypetalum, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

A general interest in time as a social rather than scientific construct has driven Ridler’s curiosity about blockchain time, where it is measured in blocks rather than seconds. Her work, Anno oxypetalum (2022), explores “some of the follies of time” by merging the natural chrono-biological clocks of plants with those of the digital world. Another artist examining Web3 technologies as art media is Jonas Lund, who sees NFTs as an opportunity to continue his long-standing investigation into how humans create value:

“Art is whatever the art world says is art and, by extension, good art is whatever the art world says is good and relevant art.” But as the art world expands to include the vast community of previously ignored digital creators, so must the vernacular of art assimilate the language of new media.

Regardless of how willing legacy art curators and critics are to partake in this process, top-down approval is no longer required to prove the value of NFTs, which, until recently, was driven as much by hype as by critical appraisal. 

Lund’s recent participatory generative art project, MVP (Most Valuable Painting) (2022), is a series of 512 NFTs whose compositions are influenced by those that have already proved popular. Measured according to metrics like clicks, engagement, and “attention-grabbing potential,” more than any other project, MVP  seeks to understand the inner workings of the hype machine. By manipulating the processes of value production, Lund hopes to “question and explore the fundamental truths of value and the distribution of power and influence in global network systems.” His interest stems from his reading of Douglas Rushkoff’s 2010 book Programme Or Be Programmed, which sought to achieve a greater understanding of technical systems, algorithms, and automated decision-making. 

“I think it applies to the NFT space too,” says Lund. “If you understand it, then you can understand the limitations of the technology, […] what’s different about it, what it enables and what’s interesting from a conceptual point of view. [...] Or, you can just do Bored Apes, but then you need to network a lot.” For Lund, it seems, it is beholden to digital artists right now to engage in the wholesale critique of NFTs as a transparently financialized art form.

Installation view of Jonas Lund, MVP (Most Valuable Painting) at W1 Curates, 2022. Courtesy of the artist, Aorist, and W1 Curates

Despite the runaway success of PFPs (Profile Picture projects), many traditional art collectors still crave the stamp of art world approval, delivered in the familiar language of International Art English, whose opacity is purposely designed to preserve art as an asset class apart. This community tends to value NFT projects by established artists, billed as a safer bet than crypto art even if they are less commercially successful than blue-chip collectibles. “I’m sure the art world will try to inject all the old structures back,” says Lund. Though he is unconvinced it will prove successful: 

“There’s a different audience, different incentives and different movements.” Even “NFT art” is an ambiguous term. “Is it a JPEG, which, by the way, could be amazing? Or is it an illustrative work from DeviantArt? Or is it a really strong conceptual work that doesn’t engage visually?” Given that crypto art reflects the vast community of digital creators, its eclectic aesthetics likely aren’t going anywhere. If the legacy world wants to impose structure, it will first have to learn its way around an unfamiliar landscape.  

For Lund, “There are many NFT projects that will never qualify as being art. The art world does not recognize them as art because they don’t have intentionality or contextualization.” But the artist is skeptical of such lofty complacency, not least from a community that, while it seeks to enforce critical standards, is happy to promote the likes of KAWS or Takashi Murakami for the sake of financial gain. If the legacy world is uncomfortable with the rapid rise of NFTs, maybe it is starting to feel the heat. Lund speculates that Beeple would never have qualified as contemporary art before Christie’s auction in March 2021. “But $69m can’t be wrong. So now, all of a sudden, Beeple has shows everywhere. How rigid is this art world, really, when it comes to contextualization and art?” 

Addie Wagenknecht, Night to Morning, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Bitforms Gallery

One thing the legacy world is reluctant to admit is the transparent relationship between art and money, even in an age of financialized capitalism. In his 2018 book, Art After Money, Money After Art, Max Haiven observed: 

In spite of the fact that art is becoming more financialized and money is becoming more “cultural,” these myths seem stronger than ever.¹

For Addie Wagenknecht, “There’s a huge [number] of collectors who collect art for the sake of asset diversification and hedge those purchases for the possibility of flipping them later. That’s very unsexy and people don’t like to acknowledge that within the art world.” Confidentiality also gives galleries greater control over their artists’ standing. Where digital art might once have been sold using a private certificate of authenticity, sales data — including unflattering floor prices — are now public for all to see. “If not already crypto-fluent, [...] collectors are essentially trusting the galleries and auction houses to do the due diligence on what’s considered institutionally valid or will hold up to art canon,” says Wagenknecht. Even for the most intrepid collector, NFTs can be overwhelming. “Crypto is inherently obfuscated and highly technical,” she adds. “People are still trying to understand what a blockchain is so there is this huge gap of knowledge that has to be obtained.” Since the majority of NFT collectors are crypto natives accustomed to operating without brokers, it remains to be seen what the art world gains from courting this new community.

“I have direct access to the person who is collecting my work,” says Ridler. “I can see their wallet, I know who they are and they normally contact me on Twitter or Instagram afterwards.” 

Installation view of Anna Ridler, Mosaic (Virus) at Center of Contemporary Art, 2019. Courtesy of the artist

For artists, the one metric that does curry favor with collectors on both sides of the divide is social media following. According to Lund, “If you do not have social capital, it’s much more difficult to have a ‘successful’ NFT project, if by ‘successful’ we mean making huge profits by selling a lot of pieces.” In this respect, the crypto and contemporary art worlds have more in common than they care to admit. But if making money and promoting talented creators are fundamental principles for all collectors, what is the problem? 

Beyond the structural difficulty of repurposing a centralized regime of power, knowledge, and entrenched practices for a new creator economy, the real problem right now is the lack of a common language. This is further complicated by the radically decentralized, extitutional principles on which crypto art was founded, whose global community of artists are finally receiving the royalties they always deserved. In the early twentieth century, the artists of Die Brücke set out to “bridge” the past to the future by reimagining the artist as a prophet. It is time to acknowledge the artist’s new iteration.

🎴🎴🎴

With thanks to Alex Estorick.

Jo Lawson-Tancred is a writer and journalist covering art, its market, and its relation to technology. She contributes to Artnet, Apollo, and the Financial Times, and is currently a part-time Research Associate at the Vasari Research Center for Art and Technology, working on a machine learning project to produce a text-to-image generation model trained on the digital collections of a major UK museum. 

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¹ Max Haiven, Art After Money, Money After Art: Creative Strategies Against Financialization, Toronto: Pluto Press, 2018, 17.