The collision of NFTs and art is not, strictly speaking, new. One of the first people to inscribe art on the blockchain was Kevin McCoy, a digital artist who started playing around with the idea in 2013. “Coming from a digital art background, you saw these issues around markets, around ownership, around provenance — all the ways in which the digital way that you and your friends are working didn’t have a place inside the traditional art world,” McCoy recalls. “We raised some money — never enough — and built a set of tools that are similar to what’s happening now. We could get some traction on the artists’ side, but there was no market. People did not understand it.”
Most people still do not really understand it, but with the influx of cryptocapital into the NFT art market, all eyes are now glued to the possibilities of NFT art. “This whole mainstream sweep happened sooner than we anticipated,” says Jonathan Perkins, the co-founder of SuperRare, which launched in 2018. In its first year, it averaged about $8,000 a month in sales. By the second year, $100,000 a month. Last month — around the time it announced a series-A investment from the likes of Samsung, Ashton Kutcher, Mark Cuban, and Marc Benioff — $30 million a month.
These are not numbers that the traditional art market cares to ignore. Among critics, noses may wrinkle, but dealers, galleries, and artists are racing to find their way in. Christie’s became the first traditional player to have a blockbuster when Everydays: The First 5000 Days, a digital piece by the artist Beeple, climbed to a final hammer price north of $69 million. Sotheby’s found its own star in Pak, an anonymous digital artist, who created a set of NFT “cubes” that, over the course of three days, brought in more than $14 million. One of his works, Pixel — a single gray pixel — sparked a bidding war that lasted more than an hour.
All of this has set the stage for an us-versus-them battle: the traditionalists versus the digital upstarts; the art-historical canon versus an emerging digital aesthetics of 3-D renderings, game-worlds, memes, and LOLs; the ivory tower versus the cryptopopulists. But proponents of the world say the future is already here. Here, six of them, from top sellers to shadowy collectors, weigh in on the current boom.
“I’m like, Wow, I can fall in love again.”
The Swiss artist Urs Fischer is a model of success in the gallery system as we know it: He’s a Gagosian-repped star whose sculptures and installations routinely sell for six or seven figures at traditional auctions. When Loic Gouzer, the founder of the online auction platform Fair Warning, approached him about making a first NFT, Fischer agreed to try it. Never mind Larry Gagosian wasn’t sure what to do with it and declined to partner with the app to sell the series’ subsequent NFTs; Marc Glimcher of Pace, one of Gagosian’s top competitors, was only too happy to. Fischer’s first NFT, CHAOS #1 Human, a digital video of a disposable lighter spinning and colliding with an egg, went onto the virtual block on Fair Warning on Sunday at an opening bid of $1,000. The final price: $97,750.
It’s an old problem — how do you validate a digital file on a digital medium? For example, I make lots of drawings on the iPad. I go to regular galleries and say, “Can you just put that out and people could make a mural, a T-shirt, a cup — I don’t care.” It doesn’t have a physical way to be. And it’s always been ignored. For a long time, we’ve been scanning everything in my studio. It’s all digital anyway.
The way I approach NFTs is the same way I would approach a physical sculpture. For a physical sculpture, I would cast it and make sure that, if you put it outside, it doesn’t fall apart, that it can withstand the environment. For digital work, it’s about how you take care of your data, how you compress things.
Five years ago, the world was more interested in the philosophical question, Can you attach an image to a blockchain? It wasn’t about the visual art form, like, “This is very beautiful” or “Look at how this paint is applied.” But the aesthetic angles logically move in. I’m just exploring this, but at times I feel almost relieved. I’m like, Wow, I can fall in love again. There is so much out there, and it’s not defined yet. It doesn’t get rid of the old art world. It just makes the whole thing bigger.
Yesterday evening, I had a friend over — an older gentleman, early 60s, a curator for decades — and we had some conversation about NFTs. He didn’t get it. My daughter, who is almost 12, came out and told me that she had got some gems in a video game, that she went to some other place where you can trade them in, and she made a good trade for some gems. She was very excited. To her, this mattered more than getting something tangible. That’s where my friend understood what I tried to tell him the whole afternoon, the story of it all. It doesn’t matter where it takes place.