What exactly is an NFT, and why are they being touted as a tool for New Media artists to drive change in the art world?

Sarah Roberts  |  Ed Cristina Brooks  | 4 May 2021

NFT is a buzzword that most of us have probably heard by now. With the pandemic leading the way in remote auctions and new ways to engage with the market, cryptocurrency and New Media works are getting more attention than ever before. The art world has been humming with talk of graphic artist Beeple becoming the third most expensive living artist to sell at auction, following only Jeff Koons and David Hockney, when his work Everydays sold for $69.3 million. It seems everywhere you look, the news is cropping up of the latest artist ‘drops’ of NFT works- the term for releasing NFTs for sale.

Beeple, Everydays: The First 5000 days, 2020. Digital Collage, Non-Fungible Token Artwork. @beeple_crap. Courtesy of Beeple and Christie’s Auction House.

While some claim the crypto bubble will burst any day, the seller of Beeple’s Everydays,  Pablo Rodriguez-Fraile, is adamant NFT’s are more than just a hyped-up craze. He told the online publication, The Verge, that they are “a catalyst for a generation.” To understand what Rodriguez-Fraile meant by this, it’s vital to understand what an NFT is and how they are being used to sell Digital Art. NFT stands for Non-Fungible Token, but for those not well-versed in economics and blockchain, that definition doesn’t exactly clear things up!

Non-fungible refers to any unique asset and cannot be traded like-for-like, e.g. you cannot exchange your house for just any other house because it possesses qualities that make it different from others. A Non-fungible Token is a file that lives on the blockchain and allows you to verify the ownership of an asset. The NFT isn’t necessarily the artwork itself, but it can function as a digital certificate of authenticity for the work. The NFT allows a creator to name a rightful owner of a file, giving them the rights to present, access or resell it. 

In the Digital Art space, this is beneficial technology. It allows the purchaser a guarantee that they are the owners of a one-of-a-kind digital asset. For those who are more sceptical about adding New Media works to their investment portfolio, this opens up the possibility of certifying proper ownership over the work and claiming genuine “scarcity”. This reassurance could help digital artists break into a market that relies on originality and authenticity.

Wait, can’t you just copy and paste a piece of Digital Art and claim ownership? Technically yes, but the argument for NFTs is that they enable artists to verify originality. You could download a picture of the Mona Lisa on your device, but the painting that hangs in the Louvre is still worth millions. In the art world, owning the real thing still holds value.

Ethereum is the most widely used blockchain for the release of NFTs. According to the website of the nonprofit Ethereum Foundation, a huge selling point is its financially decentralised nature. Ethers (ETH) are a currency traded outside the control of large corporations, banks and governments. These technologies can help those who have limited access to banking or traditional credit benefit from investment opportunities in the right hands. 

While big auction houses like Christie’s have been jumping on the NFT bandwagon, blockchain can also create opportunities for artists who reside outside traditional art world hubs like Paris and New York to gain recognition in the arts community.

In Seoul, NFT art agent Numomo connects artists in the crypto-community and enables them to navigate the blockchain. In a conversation with Agora, they described how they support artists networks via social media. The direct-to-user nature of NFT sales means that artists can get real-time feedback from the market on their work. For emerging artists who are looking to build up a base of support from local and international collectors. The opportunity to adjust to the market can save vital time and resources and pocket profits without the need for a middleman.

Artist Nigel Fogden also tells Agora writer Francesca Miller about the opportunities NFTs can create for underrepresented groups such as women artists, giving them a platform for direct audience engagement. This helps them break the glass ceiling in a market that has long overlooked and undervalued their work. 

Even beyond the visual art world, Russian collective Pussy Riot also claims that NFTs can be a force for good in the music industry, organising a four-part NFT drop on platform Foundation to accompany their music video. They donated the proceeds to a women’s shelter to help protect victims of domestic abuse. Musician, designer and founding member Nadya Tollonokova told online magazine TechCrunch, that for her as an activist, “it’s really exciting to see a tool that’s not controlled by any government.”

Pussy Riot, PANIC ATTACK ¼ Terrestial Paradise (2021), Animation, Non-Fungible Token artwork. Courtesy of Pussy Riot and Foundation.App

However, despite talks of a more equitable Digital Art world, NFTs aren’t necessarily a one-stop train line to utopia. In an exposé written for ArtNet, critic Ben Davis claimed that an analysis of the individual artworks which are assembled, pixel-like, within Beeple’s Everydays: The First 5000 Days (2021) brought up disturbing results. The work consists of 5000 unique images produced daily for 13 years, including hand-drawn satirical cartoons before Beeple became a New Media artist. At its worst, these older artworks are thinly drawn racial stereotypes, misogynistic captions and pornographic imagery. While the shock value hasn’t left Beeple’s work, the political commentary is perhaps a little more nuanced in his 2021 technology-fuelled dystopian images, created using digital illustration techniques. 

The buyer was later revealed as a Singaporean investor and blockchain entrepreneur, Vignesh, AKA Metakovan. Despite the questionable content of Beeple’s images, Metakovan told CNBC that he plans to display crypto works online through a “meta-museum” — instead of purchasing tickets, users would buy digital tokens that act like shares in the work. A spokesperson for Sundaresen said this was “decentralize and democratize art so token holders everywhere can share a piece of history and share the wealth”. Is Sundaresan’s move potentially altruistic, or potentially a scheme that puts control over images and profits solely into the hands of private investors? Time will tell.

Perhaps the most considerable controversy surrounding NFT works right now is their colossal carbon footprint. According to calculations, the average carbon cost of an NFT is around ninety times higher than the emissions resulting from printing and shipping a print the old-fashioned way. Canadian musician Grimes made headlines when she made $6 million of album sales through blockchain sales, generating the same amount of carbon as powering the home of an average EU resident over 33 years. 

These detrimental impacts have left NFT artists scrambling for alternatives such as carbon offsetting. Grimes digitally auctioned off 10 crypto artworks earlier this year via the platform Nifty Gateway. The works, entitled War Nymph, form part of a planned universe of NFT works featuring Grimes’ digital avatar. The video features cupid-like animated figures floating over an Arcadian landscape that looks like a fantasy of planet Mars. The artist donated profits from the sale to carbon offsetting collective @Carbon180.

Grimes, War Nymph Collection (2021), Video and Digital Animation. @warnymph, Courtesy of Grimes and Nifty Gateway.

There is money to be made in the NFT art market, but at what cost to the environment, and who will benefit the most? Cryptocurrencies, like Ethereum, may be seeing exponential growth right now, but traditional investors are still hesitant to trade in these unregulated currencies. With decentralisation comes the side effect that they lack government regulation and may be vulnerable to legal disputes, fraud and even cyber-threats. 

Auction houses are slowly responding to Digital Art sales in blockchain, but according to Artsy, they still insist on traditional currency for payment of a fee. This potentially limits investments from more diverse, younger collectors. Still, there are reasons to believe that once environmental questions have been answered, and the initial NFT bubble has burst, NFTs will nonetheless have a long-lasting impact on the arts and represent a turning point for inclusiveness in Digital Art.

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