As technology advances, our social fabric transforms, and the art world continues to evolve. Albeit an unspoken consensus of the existence of an art world, there are many different interpretations of what constitutes art and the art world. A culmination of interactions, the art world encompasses activities within the arts, including the production, dissemination, preservation, critiques, and transaction of art. While critics and theorists often define art as being part of artistic theory and discourse , at the same time, new theories emerge to take into account art forms that no longer fit into older theories . Prior to 2021, no one (except a handful of pioneers) would have thought of associating non-fungible tokens (NFTs) with art, yet after its exponential growth in 2021, many now regard it as the new frontier of the arts . Not only can blockchain technology be used to establish provenance, uniqueness and ownership of digital art, artists are utilising the technology to establish new communities and interactions, changing the dynamics of the art world in unprecedented ways. How theorists will define NFTs’ role in the art world is still to be discerned but what’s certain is that NFTs are now part of a canon of art history, and will remain immutable on the blockchain.
Quotes and conversations from this article is from Digital Art Fair Xperience 2022 panel discussion The Transformation of the Art World. The full recording is available to watch below or directly on Digital Art Fair's Official YouTube channel.
NFTs and the Art Market
2022 marks an enduring year for global markets, the U.S. stock market has decreased over 15% in value, bond markets decreased over 20%, and crypto markets fallen over 50% from 2021 where cryptocurrencies market hitting market cap of US$ 3 trillion. In 2022 we witnessed an environment of tightening monetary policies, implosions of projects, and the downfall of major CeFi and crypto companies. In spite of a tumultuous year for crypto and the global markets in 2022, NFTs are undoubtedly a new disruptor in the art world. Overall NFT sales volume in 2022 is on par with the 2021 peak, generating around US$ 24.7 billion across various platforms and marketplaces. The number of active NFT buyers and sellers continues to grow, making it more than a niche interest. Central and Southern Asia is also amongst the top for NFT transactions . While not all NFTs can be considered as art, their utilities are increasingly prevalent in the art world as a way of transaction, a storage of digital content, an artistic form and medium, as well as certificates of authenticity and proof of provenance.
The Changing Notion of Value
“With the advent of NFTs, a whole different community, a whole different vibe, a whole different infrastructure, a whole different market and economy has come.” says Jehan Chu, Co-Founder and Managing Partner, Kenetic Capital. Since the historical sale of Beeple’s Everydays: The First 5000 Days, NFTs are no longer a niche market but recognised by the mass population and the art world. “Many millions of people now were interested, asking questions, buying”, says Steve Sacks, Founder of bitforms gallery. Not only does NFT provide transparency, proof of ownership and provenance, NFTs can be accessed by a global community from a range of global NFT marketplaces. Artists are also now directly connected with their collectors, contributing to the viral communities and dialogues between creators and collectors. The sentiment around the crypto community also encompasses a spirit of comradeship, with the community coming together to challenge the status quo. Like art, the evolution of technology is reflective of the changing needs and desires of societies. Not only is our technology changing, it is also enabling a new form of system, and changing the way of interactions between artists, galleries, collectors, and institutions. Take social media as an example, it has reframed the traditional roles, artists are now disseminating, promoting and selling their own works as they get discovered by the masses on social media. Collectors are now double acting as curators, gallerists, trendmakers, with mass following and influence. The power of social media and audience consumption has also shaped the way we associate value with artworks. “I would say one of the biggest thing that's changed in in my world was that prior to this NFT becoming hugely successful and popular, a collector that owned a file would actually protect it and not want to show it in a public way, where in this case for NFTs, the more popular, the more people that see it, the more value.” says Steve “ popularity became what was creating value.”
New Art World Dynamics
Social media and the evolving dynamics with the audience has also led to new web3 collectives and digital art collectives, where artists would curate among themselves. The emphasis on community building and the microcosm of conversations are forging new ways of curation beyond the traditional white cube model. “Instead of an audience or a public we have to consider them as a user, as an active participant in the creation process. It also allows for the artwork to not only be this kind of frontend final static thing, but a process […] that we move from an object oriented society, to a systems oriented society.” says Eva Jager, Curator of Digital at Serpentines Galleries. One such example is Beeple’s Human One (2021), an ongoing artwork as an object and as a system. Sold at Christie’s for over US$ 28M, the kinetic video sculpture will be updated by the artist throughout his lifetime and will continue to evolve as an ongoing dialogue with the collector. Currently presented at M+ in Hong Kong, Human One is an example of “the changing relationship between the artist and the collector and the idea of trust and responsibility” says Beeple, “this is an artwork that will continue to change over the rest of my life. It’s an ongoing conversation and finite statements frozen in time.” Distinct from generative art, Human One is a dynamic work that will be changed by the artist, forging a new dialogue and deeper relationship between two human beings.
Started as an idea, a thought, and manifested in the digital form, digital works of art are also demanding physical presence as the digital and physical merge. With an audience that is increasingly digital native and artworks that are no longer confined by physical means, the way we present art and curate exhibitions also calls for fundamental changes. Exhibitions no longer just showcase artworks, but provide wholeness to the works through physical presence and interactions. Take Daniel Canogar’s Abacus and Daniel Rozin’s Selfin Gene Mirror as examples, both works are digital in nature but their real-time generative nature requires physical interactions in order to be complete. While there are many types of digital art, generative art has certainly captured the attention of the art market in 2022, whether it is generated through machine learning, and/or blockchain-native randomness, it addresses complex relationships between the artist, the machine, and the audience. That exciting element of chance, surprise, and being part of the creative process is what makes generative art so appealing, especially to a digitally native audience.
Cultural Productions and Institutions
While NFTs and generative art is leading to a greater appreciation and accessibility of art, as gatekeepers, museums and institutions are treading carefully into the world of NFTs and digital art as they validate or invalidate different market dynamics. As we continue to explore the shifts and changes that are necessary to cultural infrastructures in the 21st century, it will be interesting for institutions to look beyond the art but also explore the underlying technology and decentralised ethos of web3. “For us what we stand to gain from this crypto web3 space is actually the kind of nascent logics that lie within them around how to decentralize power, how to share resources, how to build interoperable infrastructure, and it's those logic systems that we're looking to reproduce not the actual works itself.” says Eva Jäger, Curator of Arts Technologies, Serpentine Galleries.
In early November 2022, Art Basel announced the launch of Arcual, a web3 company that enables galleries and artists to apply blockchain technology to the art ecosystem. Whilst utilising the blockchain technology to support royalty sharing, efficient payments, and immutable digital records of authenticity, the traditional art world anonymity remains protected where artwork costs, collector names and locations will remain encrypted. Dissimilar to the open and transparent ethos of web3, perhaps it is a necessary step for the traditional art world to transition into web3, utilising blockchain technology within a familiar model.
Whilst no single answer would satisfy all. Whether pro NFTs or not, it is undeniable that blockchain technology and smart contracts are transforming the art world in unprecedented ways, from an artistic production level, a transactional level, or a systemic, organisational level. The NFT art community is also continuing to grow with a digital native network of creators, collectors, and fans who prioritises connections over physical material possessions. As the multiple intersecting worlds of art and technology collide, more infrastructures for the art world will emerge and we look forward to seeing the implementation of blockchain technology in the creation of new and exciting works of art, increased efficiency in the dissemination and transaction of the art market, and a fairer art world where artists and early supporters are remunerated through royalties - that is a new chapter for the art world.
Written by Joyce Li
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