The NFT Has Changed Artists. Has it Changed Art? – The New York Times
The other week, I went to a nicely renovated house in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, to meet with McCoy, 55, and his wife, Jennifer, 53, who have been partners in life and art since 1990. McCoy explained that, back in 2014, he was looking for a way to assert authorship, and to transfer ownership, of the digital creations that he and his friends made and mostly failed to sell. After all, a digital file, whether a video or a JPEG like the ones made by Beeple, can be endlessly and perfectly copied — and maybe should be, if artists want their ideas to have the widest impact.
What was needed was a way to make a few of those copies “authentic,” different enough from all other copies. McCoy realized that blockchains could function as a kind of virtual vault. Put the deed to a digital artwork in that vault, as an NFT, and a collector suddenly has something fixed that can be owned and traded.
The McCoys said that by giving digital artists a way to sell art objects with some of the ease that painters and sculptors have always had, the new token Kevin designed would help them, and their art, survive and thrive. “You could actually feel like you had free space to think,” Jennifer said.
Eight years later, the idea has finally paid off for the McCoys. That first NFT that Kevin created, which he’d attached to a modest digital abstraction titled “Quantum,” sold last June at Sotheby’s for $1.4 million.
But NFTs aren’t doing as much for most artists. I asked the economist Ethan McMahon of the analytics firm Chainalysis to crunch some numbers, and they showed that about half of all NFTs that sell go for less that $400 — hardly enough to cover the blockchain costs when a creator “mints” an NFT, let alone the costs of maintaining a digital studio. (And that’s not counting the untold number of NFTs that don’t sell at all.)
Yet those needs — for community, for ownership and its power, for social validation — reveal the truly artistic potential of NFTs.
“Art exists in a world where one is always making political choices about one’s relationship to economics,” said Amy Whitaker, who teaches art-world economics at New York University. The way NFTs have been bought, sold and admired automatically raises issues of ownership and its meaning. Issues of generosity (in that NFT’d images are supposed to circulate freely) and greed (in that they are mostly bought to make the cryptorich richer). And issues of community in the making of NFTs, which can be a group act, and of individualism, often, in who gets the money for any one creation. With NFTs, Whitaker said, such social “incidentals” take center stage, whereas it’s just about possible to see a work of conventional fine art in glorious aesthetic isolation.
But those links to social and economic factors have in fact been central to the fine art of the last few decades at its most novel and challenging. Take the genre known as “Business Art,” where the act of buying and selling, in all its cultural complexity, has been turned into the work itself. The genre was pioneered some 60 years ago in projects by Yves Klein, Andy Warhol and various 1960s conceptualists, and then took off in the 1990s in work by Damien Hirst.
Last summer, when Hirst moved into NFTs — one of the first art stars to do so — he called his project “The Currency”: He offered NFTs that corresponded to 10,000 of his Spot paintings; one year after a purchase, a collector would be given the choice between keeping the blockchain token and watching the corresponding canvas burn, or keeping the canvas and giving up the NFT. Hirst, the Business Artist, was staging a fight between market forces and aesthetic delight. Produced with HENI, an art services business, the project grossed about $18 million from the initial sale.
NFTs by the digital native known as Pak can also be placed in the Business Art tradition: He has offered digital images with the barest visual interest — riffs on a minimal cube such as any designer could make — but which get lots of impact from the bizarre way in which they are sold as NFTs. They are offered to the public for just minutes at a time, and the total number you buy affects the kind of NFT’d image you get. If we’re looking for true “NFT art,” where the NFT-ness itself is at issue, then Pak’s digital Business Art qualifies.
And then there’s the even more slippery genre known as “relational art,” whose goal is to cast light on human interactions by triggering new ones. Back in 1992, the Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija crafted the classic example: He began to cook and serve curry to museumgoers, not for the sake of gastronomy — he started out as a pretty weak chef — but to put a spotlight on what it means to make such an offer.
Where Tiravanija experimented with food and generosity, CryptoPunks, some of the earliest of all art NFTs, can be thought of as an experiment that puts a spotlight on the act of collecting, and what it means.
CryptoPunks were born in June 2017, when the programmers Matt Hall and John Watkinson used some basic code to generate 10,000 cartoonish pictures of different human heads, so pixelated that you can only just make out a few identifying features — a purple hat on one, red hair on another. They were free for the asking when first NFT’d, but because of their variety, and their limited supply, they became some of the most collectible of collectibles, and can now trade for millions of dollars each.
In late February, Sotheby’s was about to sell a single lot of 104 CryptoPunk NFTs for as much as $30 million, when the collector who consigned them pulled out at the last minute. “People were extremely upset,” said Kent Charugundla, an NFT collector who was at the canceled auction. The problem, he explained, was that the surging market for the collectibles might begin to sputter.
That explanation shows how even when the new art puts NFT-ness on the table, in all its social and economic complexity, it can’t escape the rapacious capitalism that has come to be at its heart. Speaking over Zoom from Buffalo, Tina Rivers Ryan, a curator at the Albright-Knox museum who showed early interest in NFTs, said that if digital artists see NFTs as promising a rich future for their neglected medium, the new world of tokens may instead bring about “an impoverishment — and not just of digital art, but of art full stop, because it reduces art to being a frictionless commodity.”
This content was originally published here.