NFTs feel alien. They feel like something so technologically out of our league that it is hard to come to terms with the immense impact they are having on the art market today. Nevertheless, it is important that we at least try to understand them.
NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, are units of data which can be used to represent unique digital items, such as art works. Photography, film and audio all suit the digital necessity of NFTs, but they can also extend to other mediums. Much like renting a house, where you pay to stay in the house until you no longer wish to live there, NFTs offer you the opportunity to have a copy of an original piece of art, without you owning it outright. If you ever wish to sell on your NFT, it has to go through the same digital blockchain that you bought it from, using the same crypto-currency (a digital currency whereby ‘coins are mined’ and records are stored on a digital ledger). Essentially, you can only sell back through the same letting agency. These transactions can all be performed by the artist/ creator.
Something that strikes a chord with me about this transaction is that it supposedly changes the power structure of the art market as it takes out the middleman and art is directly ‘sold’ to the collector. In this sense, NFTs seem somewhat rebellious; the artists and (indirectly) the collectors are fighting back against the galleries and auctions that have always been in control of the market. Yet, this kind of transition feels as if it is an inevitability within an increasingly digitised world. What seems clear to me is that there is no choice. A new kind of art market is being formed which we will all inevitably be part of – crypto is the new currency. This may all seem madness, but so did mobile phones in the 1980s. What’s to say that this isn’t the start of a new era of art, or currency, or money-grabbing?
Strangely, to convince the public of the importance of NFTs, certain individuals have employed humour. For example, Kenny Schachter, an art writer, curator and dealer, has recently made the news for turning his grandma into an NFT. By this I mean that he has uploaded a photograph of his grandma to a platform called OpenSea and sold the photograph for a couple thousand pounds through crypto-currency. This comical act cleverly highlights that NFTs are for ‘everyone’, even your grandparents. The parody that surrounds NFTs is the first nod towards their pending takeover; we are confused and dazzled all at once. NFTs have caused a digital explosion.
The paradox in this crypto-currency blow-up can be seen through the most recent Banksy scandal. A group of self-proclaimed ‘art enthusiasts’ purchased a $33,000 Banksy print at auction, only to then burn it for a video. The act of destroying the artwork’s physical existence has altered its reality and moved it onto the NFT blockchain. This act of destruction is actually a mind-boggling act of creation as the group ‘BurntBanksy’ increased the value of the print when they uploaded it to the digital realm. It sold for $900,000. This inherently rebellious use of NFTs reminds me of the scandal brought about when KFL (the British electronic band) burnt $1 million but more or less made the money back in screening the video of the act. Similarly, despite the apparent brutish act, ‘BurntBanksy’ were destroying money in order to make it. There exists an absurdity in the closeness between the art-making and money-making that cross paths and merge within NFTs; I believe this will shape the art world of 2021 and beyond.
Having both researched and interviewed people about NFTs, a clear focus on the buying and selling of them became apparent to me. The Syrup Room, specialists in design-based projects and fabrication, believe that NFTs are finally giving recognition to digital-based artists. But, they also admit that, “Anything that disrupts is significant but if that reason is for the monetary value attached to it then it may not be significant for the right reasons.” This point rang true when I thought about what my friends had equated NFTs to. The analogy is as follows: the digital piece of artwork (the NFT) is a Supreme jumper. Anyone can own an identical fake, but only a few have originals that can then be resold with little depreciation in value. Much like streetwear reselling, NFTs are the next big money-mongering game. You’re either in it or you’re not.