THEOn March 11, one of the most iconic moments in the art world that you can believe made headlines around the world: an exclusively digital artwork sold for more than $ 69 million, the third highest price. high ever paid for a work of art at auction. It was a digital collage by artist Mike Winkelmann, known as Beeple, who as of October had never sold a print for more than $ 100.
This sensational auction came on the heels of growing interest in “non-fungible tokens,” or NFTs, which finally made it into the annals of art auction houses. NFTs are unique assets verified by blockchain technology; As with cryptocurrencies, a record of who owns what is stored in a kind of decentralized public ledger. Therefore, NFTs function as a digital certificate of authenticity that can be attached to all kinds of things, virtual or physical. Mostly now, they are used to monetize digital assets like audio files, videos, Gifs, tweets, and even virtual versions of sneakers; 621 of them recently sold for a $ 3.1 million combined.
It’s worth noting: buying an NFT doesn’t necessarily mean you’re buying the copyright to something, or even the only digital copy; many NFTs are coined for videos or images that can be easily accessed elsewhere on the Internet. (Even images of Beeple’s record-breaking work are visible all over the web.) But an NFT confers a particular type of property rights: it is like buying not a particular thing, but ownership of that thing.
The NFT-meets-art-world craze is the latest in a series of blockchain-backed experiments around property authentication and digital art on the internet. NFTs are a way for artists working on new technologies to earn money in a space that has historically been difficult to monetize. Seen less generously, the whole ordeal is a fad for the wealthy, who are speculating with cryptocurrencies about things that no one needs or perhaps even really wants, possibly as a way to quickly trade assets for more crypto. Or, as Jacob Silverman put it in the new republic: “[NFTs] they are title deeds to increasingly useless shit. “
The NFT craze strikes me as fascinating primarily as a continuation, in a new form, of the strange practice of collecting in general. The collector is fetishized in the art world, and in art literature, as a disciplined figure with a keen eye who can spot beautiful things before anyone else, someone who is both a connoisseur and something of an entrepreneur. Collector drives drive many of the mechanics of what we think of as “the art world”: auctions and sales, fairs and biennials, loans and donations to museums. In fact, much of the world’s art is in private collections, although we have no idea how much, or how to begin to tell it. Collectors hoard their treasures of paintings, sculptures, and photographs for all sorts of reasons: love of art, love of the game of collecting, love of money. (Art is often talked about as a good investment, one that you always appreciate.) And perhaps the most crucial aspect of collecting is possession: the feeling that you are buying something that is yours and yours alone.
The concept of property has become so ingrained in our conception of the work of art that the idea of digital “collecting” has long been controversial. Is a digital collection just a series of inline, pixelated image files? Couldn’t someone easily “steal” your Jpeg just by downloading a copy elsewhere? Does it make any sense, if you can’t display your precious painting on your physical wall? NFTs hardly answer all of these questions, but they do manage to provide a clear enough articulation of digital property to pique the interest of curious collectors and speculators. This new concept of digital possession, murky as it really is, is worth a lot of money.
Thus, the collector’s drive has finally found its way into the virtual realm, now that the point is less the virtual objects themselves and more ownership of them. Some people buy for the crypto profits, some for the novelty, and perhaps some for the art itself. Artists will have the opportunity to experiment with new forms, and perhaps even poke fun at the absurd dynamics of the market. (It would hardly be the first time: I’m thinking of Yves Klein, the French artist and stunt master who sold documents certifying ownership of part of the Zone de Sensibilité Picturale Immatérielle, or empty space, in exchange for gold; then, if the buyer wished, they could burn the check and Klein would dump half the gold into the Seine).
But in my opinion, what’s interesting about the dynamics of NFTs in the art world is that, so far, they don’t represent a huge departure from big business as usual. NFTs allow the mechanics of the art world to shift once again to collector drive. More than art or virtual object or thing, possession is the point.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism