In a world where Damien Hirst can present a shark suspended in formaldehyde as art, or Rachel Whitehead can offer up the concreted interior of a demolished house as sculpture, it is fair to say that we have moved on a bit from oil paintings and carved marble. Art is what you make of it and in this digital age the term ‘abstract’ has taken on an entirely different meaning. The latest craze to hit the art world has been the creation and sale of NFTs or non-fungible tokens. An NFT is a unique piece of data, which cannot be edited or changed in any way, and resides on the blockchain. Yes, that’s right, the same blockchain of cryptocurrency fame; in fact, many NFTs are hosted on the cryptocurrency Ethereum’s blockchain.
An NFT can be something visual, like a drawing or a video, it can be music, or it can be a piece of writing, like a Tweet. It can be anything, really, as long as that thing can be stored in a digital format. These digital artforms can then be purchased and ‘owned’, though perhaps not in the traditional sense. An NFT of a music video, for instance, doesn’t stop the general public from watching that very same video on YouTube for free… but they don’t own the individual NFT of it. When Jack Dorsey sold the very first Tweet ever to exist (his own), it doesn’t mean that it vanished from the Twittersphere to be locked in a collector’s vault somewhere. Confused? So is everyone, but that’s half the fun.
Although this is still an emerging discipline, NFT artworks are already bringing in the big bucks. For example, the artist Beeple recently set a world record by selling his work ‘Everydays – The First 5000 Days’ as an NFT for an incredible $69 million. He is now named as one of the top three most valuable artists alive today.
However, because of this art industry shake-up, the question of what exactly qualifies as art has once again reared its head. As much as the concept has been challenged in the physical realm, it now must contend with the digital. The sale of internet memes as NFTs has picked up recently, giving those who featured in or created the original content some way of monetising their global celebrity. Whereas viral content or memes generally earn no direct income for their creators, NFTs could be the way in which this all starts to change. Classic images such as ‘Disaster Girl’, ‘Bad Luck Brian’ and ‘Overly Attached Girlfriend’ have all been sold as NFTs at auction, netting the people whose images feature in the original content hundreds of thousands of dollars in one fell swoop.
Alongside this phenomenon, high profile model Emily Ratajkowski recently sold an image of an image of an image of herself as an NFT in a public statement about the ownership of one’s image, and the unauthorised redistribution of that image both on the internet and in the physical realm. It’s a fascinating and labyrinthine world but one that is capturing people’s imaginations.
So, can anyone buy an NFT? Well, yes, if they have the requisite funds and a compatible digital wallet in which to store it. The 21st century is moving closer and closer towards a digital frontier that is changing the very world that we live in. The online emigration of pretty much every service on the planet has, so far, shown just the tip of the iceberg in regards to what could be possible. We are now very familiar with accessing five star entertainment options through websites like Netflix, PokerStarsCasino and StreamSquid, rather than visiting a cinema, a brick-and-mortar casino or a record store. So, what’s next?
The invention, distribution and resulting popularity of both cryptocurrency and NFTs has shown us the next step in the digitalisation of our society. In regards to art, the possibilities are limitless, dependent upon the imagination and know-how of modern artists. The sale and ownership of digital art, particularly that disseminated on the internet, has long been a sticking point, as it cannot be handled in the same way as physical pieces traditionally are. The rising star of NFTs offers a way out of this bind, handing some of the control back over to the artists and reducing the possibility for theft of their intellectual property.
Rather than relying on the reposting of their social media content, artists can sell the digital ‘deed’ to their original data, and stop worrying about the decreasing value of their work through repetition and lack of appropriate referencing. Whether these artworks will still be around to view and enjoy in 500 or 1000 years’ time remains to be seen, but this movement is just getting started.
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