I tried to find out what all the fuss was about NFTs and the art world...
Have you ever noticed how you come across something for the first time and before you know it that same thing keeps popping up in other and unexpected places?
This is how I first became aware of Non-Fungible Tokens, NFTs or "Nifties" as they are mostly referred to, and I realise that once one has viewed something online those pesky ‘cookies’ go to work and before you know it not a day goes by without similar content appearing, but NFTs have even popped up in random unconnected conversations this past week or so, such that I swear my phone is somehow listening in. Seemingly as well, all the references to them had a bearing on a sphere much more relevant to me, namely art.
So, what is an NFT? Well at this point it’s probably important to mention I’m not the most tech savvy and what I discovered when I started looking into NFTs, is that it all gets VERY technical, but after a bit of unpicking of the various articles, here’s what I think I learnt. In its simplest sense an NFT is akin to a certificate that gives the holder ownership of a piece of blockchain technology on which a piece of coding has been applied to a digital file/image that is unique to that file/image. Once created the blockchain cannot be modified or altered and It can contain any amount of information that is attached to it for example, who created it and when etc. In their application to the art world which has recently hit the headlines, at face value this appears to be not dissimilar to a Certificate of Authenticity that you might get when purchasing a piece of original physical art and I guess in that context then it makes sense. It provides the purchaser with a guarantee and traceability of the artwork and if any of you, like me, enjoy ‘Fake or Fortune’ on BBC then we all know how important that guarantee and traceability is.
The difference however, between the digital and the physical is that when one purchases an original physical piece of art, one is purchasing exclusive access and accessibility to that art and ownership of the only example of that piece of art. Only you can decide who gets to see and share the experience of viewing that piece of art. Even if the artist has chosen to produce prints of the original there will still be a distinct difference between the original and those prints.
With a digital artwork, the moment that it is uploaded onto the Internet, control over access and accessibility is lost, and whilst you may own an NFT for that work, so may others. The creator may, for example, have chosen to assign numerous numbered NFTs to a file (like a Limited Edition). It may also be that before the file was assigned a blockchain and NFT that it had already been shared widely on the internet,(will go on to that in a second). This surely makes owning an NFT fundamentally different from owning an original physical piece of art, with or without a COA, because whilst you may have ownership of the NFT, it is possible you won’t have any control over access to and accessibility of the work that is attached to it.
What may seem strange is that this lack of control over access and accessibility seems to have no bearing on the value placed on NFT’s, indeed it would seem that the wider circulation of a digital file may lead to a greater value and desirability of it. The most sought atter NFTs are generally ones that are the most shared on digital platforms such as ‘Nyan Cat’ or ones that are associated with already well-known public figures.
And what appears to be turning the art world on its head is the phenomenal amounts of money that is being paid for NFTs currently. As an example, it has been reported recently that Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter, auctioned his very first tweet as an NFT with bidding closing at $2.9million (he’ll be donating the money to COVID-19 relief in Africa).
Even the auction houses are getting in on the act and on February 25th Christie’s launched an online auction of an NFT- based digital artwork by the artist Beeple, ‘The First 5000 Days’ (2021) which sold for an eye-watering $69.3 million setting an all-time record for a digital artwork.
That is not to say that the more run of the mill digital files/images are not also popular and there are numerous sites springing up dedicated to selling NFT’s such as Crypto Kitties and Nifty Gateway. I guess people are speculating on what may become a popular image.
I have to confess when I took a look at the Crypto Kitties site I really did begin to think that the world had gone mad and I am truly still struggling to get my head around that one not least because they appear to trade entirely in a cryptocurrency called ‘Ether’ but that’s a whole other article.
I guess that part of the reason for the growing popularity of NFTs is that we have all been living in this virtual World for most of the last year and become used to viewing art in that way. Most exhibitions have happened online, we even took part in an online art fair with a large focus on digital media - CADAF 2020. Weirdly, I don’t recall coming across NFT’s at that time, but some of the speakers did talk of their digital collections of art, and their preference for it over the physical.
In summary the concept of being able to authenticate a digital file/image is a good idea, not least because of the protection that it gives to those artists working in digital media and that it also allows for royalty rights and other ongoing benefits for the artist to be added should the piece be sold on. For the buyer it plays into that desire to own something that is unique which mirrors the reason that some people choose to buy a piece of original physical art, ownership of something that no-one else has, albeit with the differences as mentioned earlier in respect of NFTs. But the volatility of the cryptocurrencies that underpin them not to mention the enormous energy consumption involved in ‘mining’ cryptocurrencies and ‘minting’ NFTs is a cause for concern and in these days when we are all more environmentally aware may well lead to their demise.