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NFT Art has been growing. What does this mean? Although we see NFTs as a unique phenomenon, the trend is not a completely new one for the Art World.

Related articles: The Big Controversy in the Art Market: NFT Art - NFT'S in the Art Market - New frontiers in the art market: Christie's and crypto art

The days when a painter would create in their own Atelier have gone. Society has changed, the way we all communicate has become faster and far more dynamic. And of course, along with Society, Art has changed as well.

Nowadays we look at NFTs with the same resistance with which Photography was seen in the past. It is easy to just disregard everything new and different as dangerous or bad but there is more to NFTs than the shock factor. 

To fully understand the new technologies like NFTs, we have to step back and look at what they mean for Art, artists and the Art World. There is much more to this art form then what reaches the headlines.

Fashionable NFTs

Arriving with a big roar online, NFTs are digital files – Non-Fungible-Tokens. Simply artworks in a digital and not a material form.

They are stored on the blockchain, a database. The blockchain keeps the artworks secure through a continuous chain of encrypted codes. It is as if it was a safe, with new combinations created every second in order to make it unbreakable. This is what also keeps track of the provenance of the artwork, tracking it from the start of its life as an NFT.

Digital artworks become NFTs in exchange for a crypto ‘gas fee’. Once they are NFTs on the blockchain, the works can be bought in exchange for Ethereum, a crypto currency. Then, access is given to the collector who can download and view the artwork as it came to the world – without losing any quality (unlike copies). 

Every sale of the work is traced back to the artist thanks to the trace of ownership. Thanks to this, the artist earns a percentage on every resale.

Because of the digital and token nature of NFTs they are sold mainly on online platforms. There are many of these platforms but the most well-known are those which give artists the most visibility. Among the hundreds on the web, some of the most well-known platforms are Nifty Gateway, Opensea, SuperRare, Foundation, Rarible and Makersplace.

NFTs are also entering the institutions of the Art world. Specific sales are being organised by the major auction houses Christie’s and Sotheby’s, and Galleries have also started to host exhibitions dedicated solely to NFT crypto art. Indeed, the echo of the NFT roar can be heard in every corner of the Art World.

In answer to this startling new fashion there have been many strong reactions. The unsustainability of NFTs is the main problem with this type of art. In fact, blockchain technology requires an enormous amount of energy to function. Unacceptable, given the climate emergency we are in.

However, although the way NFTs work today is extremely worrying, it is the trashy and superficial aspect which has caused the outrage. But NFTs are not the first example of new technology which has overthrown the Art World.


Galerie Nagel Draxler, ‘Breadcrumbs’ exhibition opening announcement, 2021, Courtesy of Kenny Schachter.


Other Scary New Technologies 

We have always questioned what mechanical and technological techniques imply for Art. Whether a new medium or tool actually makes an Artwork weaker - more of a ‘craft’, ‘means of entertainment' or simply a ‘game’.

Understandably, change comes as a shock. The stability of our very idea of an ‘Artwork’ is threatened. It changes the way we see, engage with and relate to the artistic object.

The invention of Photography is probably one of the first extremely innovative techniques which caused a division. The ease with which photographs created lifelike images makes this practice ever so different to oil paintings.

Film, with its appeal to the masses, has always been seen primarily as a form of entertainment – even though there are definitely some masterpieces out there. Indeed, German critic Walter Benjamin even described this medium as overwhelming for the audience. It was classified as a form of distraction which totally absorbed the viewer, rather than a real artwork.

Nowadays we are more familiar with innovative technologies. Even museums have started using digital tools to store artworks, computers and databases to catalogue them and (for the more financially secure ones) robots and virtual reality to increase accessibility or appeal to their younger visitors.

Nevertheless, there are still controversies surrounding the use of the latest digital techniques to make Art. In fact, more recently, virtual reality and robotics have caused a troublesome response in the Art World – just like Photography and Film.

Jordan Wolfson’s ‘Real Violence’ (2017) is a memorable example, shown at the Whitney Biennial that very year. It was described as ‘shocking’ and ‘gut-wrenching’ in some headlines.

Looking back, it is obvious that the scandal and controversy surrounding NFTs is not a complete novelty. It has rather been a constant for the Arts which has just accelerated in recent years. In the light of this, it is fundamental to consider how these technologies influence artworks today.


Kenny Schachter, It all makes sense, trust me, 2021, Courtesy of Kenny Schachter.


The Age of ‘Digital Production’

In 1935, German Jewish cultural critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’. He looked at Lithography, Photography and Film trying to answer a crucial question: ‘What makes a work of art authentic?’.

The German critic wrote in his famous book that “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space”. The original artwork has a quality which will always distinguish it from the copy.

This is what makes an artwork authentic. The ‘presence in time and space’ is what gives a piece its ‘unique aura’. Somehow this ‘aura’ makes the authentic artwork powerful in the eyes of the viewer. 

This was far before the digital era, but this is what NFTs are all about. The ‘aura’ of the original file has something more than the practically perfect copy one can access online – and the fact it is retraceable makes this possible.

‘Owning’ the artwork itself gives the collector access to this special quality which can only be attributed to that original piece, never to its copy – whether the differences between the two are perceptible or not. The detailed trace of provenance, which the digital piece comes with, gives proof of just this.


Kevin McCoy, Still from ‘Quantum’the first NFT ever minted, 2014, Courtesy of Sotheby's.


While many other technological innovations have only been about copies, like with photographs, films or VR, the recent artistic revolution has been all about reassigning that special quality to the artist’s work. Indeed, the NFT artists produces a unique digital work.

Still, with NFTs the artwork cannot have a physical presence; it carries a ‘digital aura’. The experience is most definitely less intensely sensorial. In fact, the ‘presence’ is mitigated and filtered by the inevitable presence of a screen.

An NFT artwork is authentic, yet absent of the material and sensorial ‘essence’ which Walter Benjamin saw so interconnected to the real thing. Whether it could have the same effect and importance as a material artwork is something we are far from understanding.

However, as Benjamin explains so well: “The manner in which human sense of perception is organized, the medium in which it is accomplished, is determined not only by nature but by historical circumstances as well”. From this perspective, today it is extremely necessary to have digital art in a greatly digital world. It reflects the culture in which we are immersed.


Robness Virtual, Still from Master of Confirmations X (MC AJ COLORES), 2021, Courtesy of the artist.


A life made of Pixels

Even the less informed about NFT Art have seen the colourful, pop and strong pieces which have been sold recently. Beeble’s piece which sold at Christie’s was the first one which caught the general attention, and soon many other works appeared.

Many NFTs focus on digital communities which evolve around gaming culture, symbols and the technological aesthetic of sharp shapes and strong colours. Another trend which dominates this type of Art, is that which creates soothing publicity-like videos which are on a continual loop.

The game and advert-like characteristics has caused many to despise these new artworks. The superficial nature and bold aspect of NFTs seems far from the researched and traditional artworks which we are used to seeing in museums.

In the face of the democratic, varied and immense collection what we have to remember is that these works represent a digital realm with distinct references and traditions. As such, digital pieces cannot be anything like material works.

The tools are different. What can be achieved is different. The way artworks are seen are different. Even, the effect it has on the viewer is, and should be different.


Osinachi, Becoming Sochukwuma, 2020, Courtesy of the artist ©2021 Osinachi.


Leading Digital Artists

American artist Kevin McCoy and his collaborator Anil Dash (CEO of Glitch, and advocate of more humane inclusive and ethical technologies) were the first to use blockchain technology to codify the provenance of an artwork. Their scope was to protect artists with proof of authenticity.

The first NFT is attributed to McCoy. He is classified as a New Media artist and his work has been exhibited in many important institutions such as the MOMA and the MET of New York, and the Pompidou Centre in Paris.

Kevin McCoy’s work, the first NFT, ‘Quantum’ was created in 2014. It is a unique piece in the recent history of Contemporary Art, which represents a very strong and optimistic idea of digital art. An important moment. A hallmark - and ironically, time is what characterises this piece.

This is what marks the origin of NFT Art. Since then NFTs have exploded and with this recent eruption come the consequences. Unfortunately, the enormous number of junky works produced, the creation of NFTs without artists’ permission, the flashy celebrity turn, and the unsustainable nature of this art form make it difficult to actually appreciate the opportunities and possibilities NFTs can have.

For this reason, a closer look at the most innovative artists of the contemporary NFT art scene can help see more of what this art form can offer, and how they can move beyond being a ‘fast fashion’. In fact there are some artists who have been creating works which point the ‘new media’ in curious directions.

British artist and researcher Anna Ridler is worth mentioning. She has been working with artificial intelligence (AI) and generative art. As a digital artist, she has often used databases to create pieces which integrate the natural, history and mechanisms of exchange. 

In collaboration with AI researcher David Pfau, Anna Ridler created the piece ‘Bloemenveiling’ (2019), an auction of AI-generated tulips. This artwork refers to the Tulip Mania of the 17thcentury. During this period in Holland, tulip bulbs were sold in actions because of the incredible popularity of the flower. Demand succeeded supply, and prices skyrocketed.


Joanie Lemercier, Pointcloud (Neurath_01), 2021, Courtesy of markersplace.com


‘Bloemenveiling’ (2019) has nothing to do with the ‘pop’ character commonly associated with NFTs. In fact, it has a great historical and cultural depth unpicking the way technology and scarcity influences economic dynamics and the desire to own the tulips.

Another artist who brings more to NFT Art is Osinachi. The Nigerian artist works mostly with Microsoft Word and processing software. The resulting artworks are bold and strong, overthrowing societal expectations. The topics are relevant, and definitely not superficial.

Like in ‘Becoming Sochukwuma’, created in 2020, the central theme of Osinachi’s work is always connected to the ideas of freedom, protest and identity. The absence of eyes underlines the necessity to not judge who someone is, and how they chose to express themselves.

The study of the aesthetic opportunities that NFTs offer represents another path of exploration. The opportunities of using the digital in such an experimental way could even inform the material. 

American artist Robness Virtual explores the visual quality of NFTs. Starting from another crypto artist’s work, the artist created a ‘psychedelic fondu’ in his piece ‘Master of Confirmations X (MC AJ COLORES)’ (2021). 

This is also something which appears in the piece by the Daniel Arsham Studio ‘Eroding and Reforming Bust of Rome (One Year)’ (2021). The aesthetic quality is central, but the spotlight is on the concept of time.

The work explores the seasons and passing of a year. Time affects an ancient bust and the virtual surroundings. The changing and ephemeral character of the work is on repeat, isolated in the digital but reflecting the course of time in the real world.

If these artists all seem to overlook the consequences of the pieces they create and the carbon footprint of the new digital market, we have to note that this is not true for all NFT artists. Some have taken a clear stand against the continual energetic consumption of the blockchain.

In fact, French artist Joanie Lemercier’s relationship with NFTs has been very different. He has become known as one of the first NFT artists to actually look into the environmental consequences of this artform by calculating the consumption of his NFTs.

An activist as well as an artist, he calculated the impact of his artworks and then pulled back from creating any more NFTs “if things continue like this”. His position is strong, especially if we consider it is coming from someone who comprehends the artistic and social possibilities of the digital works.


Anna Ridler & David Pfau, Bloemenveiling, 2019, Courtesy of the artists.


What should we consider in the light of NFTs?

Overall, NFTs are potentially extremely interesting, both for artists and Art in general. Like other technologies introduced in the past, it is a powerful medium but is also one we are not accustomed to as viewers, artists or institutions.

The introduction of digital tools could potentially expand the accessibility and possibilities of artworks in the future by helping artists earn directly from the digital process with which many engage. Exactly like Kevin McCoy and Anil Dash intended.

Nevertheless, optimism should not cast a shadow on the problems which NFTs bring. In fact, although this art form opens up numerous opportunities, it must be developed in a way which in sustainable, durable and ethical. 

NFTs must be explored, the boundaries reached and analysed critically to decide the future of this art form.


Danial Arsham, Still from Eroding and Reforming Bust of Rome (One Year), 2021, Courtesy of Daniel Arsham Studio.


Cover image: Robness Virtual, Still from Master of Confirmations X (MC AJ COLORES), 2021, Courtesy of the artist.

Written by Zoë Rivas Zanello

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