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For art’s sake: How NFTs are changing the way we appreciate art

Sonya Ribner discusses the current state of blockchain art monetisation and the valuation of aesthetic goods.

CHAOS. Or maybe that’s every new beginning? Non-fungible tokens (NFTs) are a game-changer for asset ownership. Now, the purchase of any digital asset – a music album, a tweet, a never-before-seen section of the Pulp Fiction screenplay – can be recorded on a blockchain, a ledger that gives original works in the digital space a guarantee of authenticity. The blockchain’s immutable signature also provides provenance, enabling content creators to be recognized for their work. NFTs have taken commodities markets by storm, but no system has been rocked like that of the art world. Toeing the line between commercialization and creativity, NFTs pose the fundamental question: what is the value of art?

Beeple’s EVERYDAYS: THE FIRST 5000 DAYS sold at Christie’s in March for $69,346,250. The high price tag of the purely digital work with its own NFT struck many as a bubble about to burst. However, this year, Hiscox UK, an underwriter of commercial and personal risk, published in their Online Art Trade Report that the shift to online is likely to outlast the pandemic with 56% of art buyers and 65% of online art platforms stating the switch to digital sales will be permanent. Most of these sales can be attributed to NFTs in art: an estimated $3.5 billion of NFT crypto art and collectables were sold from the beginning of January to the end of September 2021 alone.

If brick and mortar galleries were slow to embrace digital art creation, they’re getting the picture now. At Art Basel, the Berlin-based Gallery Nagel Draxler sold an NFT by crypto-artist Olive Allen, Post-death or The Null Address NFT, for 8 Ethereum, about €25,000, on the exposition’s opening day. Loïc Gouzer, who famously set a record for the most expensive painting ever sold at public auction when he brought the gavel down on Salvator Mundi by Leonardo da Vinci to the tune of $450.3 million, left Christie’s to found Fair Warning, a members’ only online platform for art collectors. Gouzer firmly believes the future of art is digital: “The NFT sphere will be a catalyst that will give a voice to a new generation of artists and expand the palette of expressions for established artists that are not afraid to embrace paradigm shifts.” Indeed, the easily disseminated digital asset allows artists to keep up pace with the globalisation of visual media, a phenomenon expedited by social media.

When Lawrence Gagosian, world-renowned owner of Gagosian Gallery, stated he simply did not understand the new technology well enough to partner with Fair Warning for Urs Fischer’s CHAOS NFT series, Fischer went to Pace Gallery which has a newly minted platform dedicated to NFTs. Still, the fact that I can attach Urs Fischer’s CHAOS #1 Human and a link to the full animation (https://www.chaosoahchaos.com/1/) to this article is of itself the evident problem with NFTs for art collectors: if an image appears on your screen for free in the same way it appears to the buyer who paid nearly $100,000 for the animation based on a 3D-scan of a lighter encircling an egg, then why invest at all? 

In 1936, art historian and philosopher Walter Benjamin published The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction to grapple with how the innovations of his day, namely photography, would forever change the public’s appreciation of art. He used the term aura to define what even the most perfect reproduction lacks: unity of a specific place and time at the moment of creation. Therein lies the revolution of NFTs: every object has the same aura. Whether you have the psychic income of owning CHAOS #1 Human or happen to click on the URL that leads to the same animation viewed by the rest of the world, your experience of the work is the exact same. 

Debates surrounding whether the rising popularity of NFTs will eclipse the demand for “real” art (visual works that exist in the real world) critically take for granted the mediums in which the artworks are produced. Beeple’s JPG is not trying to replace da Vinci’s oil on canvas; the same system for evaluating the qualities of EVERYDAYS: THE FIRST 500 DAYS does not apply to Salvator Mundi. The appreciation of an artwork should consider the capabilities of the canvas. Jacob Barnes, gallerist and founder of Grove Collective, explains that “NFTs are simultaneously everything and nothing to the art market; they are never going to replace physical art in the way that ebooks have not replaced books, but they provide an opportunity for a completely ancillary market that can develop into something quite meaningful, both to art production and markets.” 

NFTs are not inconsistent with artistic creativity, rather, they are a vehicle for its democratization. Yet, certain projects such as “The Tarantino NFTs”, a collection of single iconic scenes from Pulp Fiction that feature personalized audio commentary by the acclaimed director, present a “choose your own adventure” approach to art sharing. Once a buyer owns one of these NFTs they “will enjoy the freedom of choosing between: 1. Keeping the secrets to himself for all eternity; 2. Sharing the secrets with a few trusted loved ones; 3. Sharing the secrets publicly with the world,” according to the website. The freedom to house a private collection on your computer or to turn the world into a museum adds a certain moral component to the ownership of NFTs that precludes the digital asset from being considered art for art’s sake. Additionally, the existence of a guarantee of authenticity responds to the art world’s need to monetise production and recognises creators of digital content. 

NFTs do challenge traditional conceptions of ownership. Urs Fischer’s CHAOS series examines how objects define people’s perception of the world and function as the building blocks of their own value system. When the human-object relationship is disrupted, chaos ensues. What better conditions for art to intervene? 

“People seem to fear art. Art has always been a word for this thing that can’t be rationalized; when you see or hear something that you struggle to explain,” Fischer says, “But that’s its strength, of course, that’s what the word ‘art’ is for.” According to the artist, the egg in CHAOS #1 Human symbolizes new beginnings and the lighter represents humankind’s most important discovery, fire. Using this frame of reference, the egg could also be seen as digital assets. NFTs may be a baptism of fire for the art world, but no one ever said creativity was easy.  

Image Credit: Urs Fischer

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