Tue. Sep 26th, 2023

The gold rush following the auctioning of digital photographs as NFTs (non-fungible tokens) in the spring of 2021—notably, Beeple’s Everydays: the First 5000 Days fetching $69.3m at Christie’s—put the spotlight on digital art. For many reasons digital art has battled to garner adequate attention from the art world and market since the 1960s and is more than deserved of the rising interest. But the NFT boom and attendant hoopla greatly weakened both a grasp of what digital art is and how this art (or any art at all) is related to NFTs.

NFT Art Sales Mechanism

The phrase “NFT art” suggests it represents a medium like video art or performance art, although the great majority of so-called NFT art uses non-fungible tokens as a sales mechanism, not a medium. As non-interchangeable units of data recorded on a blockchain, NFTs ultimately are nothing but digital certificates of authenticity. They reside on a blockchain, but the assets they authenticate frequently do not.

The NFT boom has reduced the public image of digital art, which spans a broad variety of creative expression, to individual reproducible digital images, animated gifs or video clips—the usual forms of digital collectibles and meme culture. There may be a portion of the crypto community that, through NFTs, has found the depth and history of digital art and began supporting it, but that sector seems to represent only a minor overlap in the Venn diagram of traditional art collectors and NFT collectors.

Since the 1960s digital art has made advantage of digital technologies’ real-time, collaborative, generative and flexible properties, and pondered upon their nature and influence. Pioneers of this art style, frequently referred to as the Algorists—among them Harold Cohen, Chuck Csuri, Herbert Franke, Manfred Mohr, Vera Molnár, Frieder Nake, Joan Truckenbrod and Roman Verostko—created algorithmic paintings in which pen plotters wrote the output of artist-written code on paper.

In the subsequent decades digital art expanded into a number of forms, from interactive installations, software art and net art to virtual reality, augmented reality, artificial intelligence and the small proportion of crypto or NFT art that employs the blockchain conceptually as a medium. Digital art still lacks full integration into the mainstream art world, but has been supported by an increasing number of collectors and art organisations. The reproducibility and editioning of digital art functions similar to that of photography or video, and the documentation preceding the acquisition of digital art by an institution is frequently far more involved than the generic NFT smart contracts.

NFTs fill an authenticating function for a small proportion of digital art—digital images that “live” and circulate on the network. This ironically led to the now-common practise of artists and gallerists minting NFTs for stills or brief clips from more sophisticated, frequently generative and interactive digital artworks that are available for lower prices than the truncated images being provided as NFTs. Whether digital photographs benefit from the immutability afforded by NFT authentication is still another matter. In his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction (An Evolving Thesis 1991-95)”, Douglas Davis offers a case for the originality of the moment when we copy and revise digital images whose power often resides in the possibilities of remix and free circulation.

A More Complex Approach

Over the past year, hanging jpegs on the blockchain has been the norm in the creation and sale of NFT art, but artists have been laying the framework for more complex ways for almost a decade. In 2014 Kevin McCoy and Anil Dash exhibited a sort of proto-NFTs they named “monegraphs” (monetised graphics) at the New Museum during Rhizome’s annual “7 × 7” programme connecting seven artists with seven engineers. McCoy and Dash’s monegraphs were created to help artists and producers, based on smart contracts that incorporated royalties and permits for sharing and remixing. Support for creative practise rather than speculation was the goal. In 2017 the UK arts company Furtherfield, directed by Ruth Catlow and Marc Garrett, produced Artists Re:thinking the Blockchain, highlighting art that theoretically addressed the potential of organising natural and social systems using the blockchain. Artist Eve Sussman toyed with ownership in her work 89 seconds Atomized(2018), breaking the artist’s proof of her famous video 89 seconds at Alcázar into 2,304 individual collectible “atoms” or tokens that can be reassembled for a screening by a community of collectors. Jennifer and Kevin McCoy’s Public Key/Private Key (2019), commissioned by the Whitney Museum, examined tokenised donorship by gifting a work to the museum and, through an open call, selecting 50 persons who were able to take, exchange and transfer their donor title through their NFT. NFT works such as John F. Simon Jr.’s Every Icon (2021) set in motion a generative process, with the code saved on the blockchain.

The NFT gold rush has been investment-driven, with the art world following the economy rather than the other way around. To avoid the blockchain becoming digital art’s metaphorical ball and chain, the art community must embrace the art form’s rich history and its potential for artistically exploring the crypto space and decentralised distribution.

By Adam

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