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Digital Art Revolution: will NFTs become the driving force?

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The world’s leading Digital Artist, David Hockney, dislikes NFTs. “What is it they’re owning? I don’t really know,” he remarked in a 2021 interview with The Sunday Times art critic Waldemar Januszczak. I couldn’t help but find this a little baffling. I, with my naive presumptions of Digital Art and the NFT assumed they were similar, if interchangeable. And so, when The London Centirst’s editor asked me to write on the topic—specifically, on the differences between them—my presumptions were quickly shattered. No longer could I pillory NFTs in half-drunken conversations, feeding my vanity in a pseudo-intellectual manner. Now—how shocking it seemed!—I would actually have to learn something about them. 

The excitement over NFTs is the inevitable result of their seismic influence on the auction market and the Art World over the last few years. The excitement is so great, in fact, that ‘NFT’ was the Collins Dictionary’s word of the year. Pak’s ‘The Merge’ sold for 91.8mil$ (albeit, to 30,000 collective owners) whilst Beeple’s ‘The First 5,000 Days’ sold for 69.3mil$ at Christie’s. After such staggering fees, excitement was inevitable. So too, was misconception and criticism. 

As I see it, the one major misconception of NFTs: many in the Art World tend to see the NFT as either a medium for art, or else as a movement/group of artists. Those people, when they hear ‘NFT’, tend to think of the sterile, low-brow, pound shop-Surrealist dreamscapes of Beeple—lacking, as they are, any trace of artistic feeling—or else the nostalgic, pixelated Cryptopunk figures. The ‘Art’ which heretofore has been sold as NFTs is often the Nerd’s nostalgia for the early noughties: for stubble, smoking weed, slobbering on the sofa and watching cartoons. For that once interminable stasis which occurred before the Nerd’s ascendance during the Technological Revolution. 

All of these—Beeple, Bored Ape Yacht Club, CryptoPunk—could, loosely, be described as Digital Art, but they are by no means representative of the highly vague and varying word. Digital Art is, in effect, any artwork which makes use of any digital technology in its creation and/or presentation. So why, then, does someone like David Hockney—who’s spent the last several years drawing and painting mostly on an iPad, who’s helped drive the digitalisation of Art—criticise the inevitable next step: a viable, relatively secure method for digital ownership of such works. Perhaps it’s because he dislikes exhibiting on screens? 

Generally, the excitement over NFTs is to do with their being Non Fungible Tokens; their uniqueness is guaranteed by the blockchain. Yes, you can copy or reproduce a digital file as many times as you like: even if it’s an NFT. What’s unique is the ownership of the artwork: in terms of physical art, it could be compared to the way that I own a print of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, but the Uffizi owns the real thing. So someone might have a ‘digital file’ of the artwork, but only one person/group/organisation can own the real NFT. 

Most of the NFT’s critics—the likes of Hockney and Januszczak—tend to dislike the aesthetic of many of the artists who have heretofore used the platform to sell their artworks. And so they consider NFTs to be yet another vanity project for the likes of Christie’s and Sotheby’s: yet another attempt to extract money from the super-rich, which is, evidently, so incredibly easy. But what I feel that the Art Establishment—not so much the auction houses, but the critics, academics, and artists themselves—must realise is how excellent a platform the NFT is for the dealing and ownership of digital works of art. 

As the Digital Revolution snowballs, more works of art will be produced digitally. Surely, an increasing number of these will be presented and exhibited digitally, thus the NFT seems the most feasible platform for the sale and the ownership of these.

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