Part One: A Basic Explanation of NFT’s
You’ve likely heard the acronym NFT on the news recently and wondered what exactly this means. An NFT is a Non-Fungible Token. Fungibility is an economic term you may not be familiar with. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “replaceable by another identical item; mutually interchangeable.” So for instance, paper money is fungible — you can exchange ten $1 bills for a $10 bill. Cryptocurrency like bitcoin is also fungible. So a non-fungible item cannot be replaced or exchanged easily — if you own an original Salvador Dali painting, there is no equivalent exchange for that one-of-a-kind item.
We’re going to return to the physical art comparisons a lot because it’s just about the easiest way to define what is happening with an NFT. To buy an NFT is to buy a digital art piece, whether a picture from a local artist, a drawing from a website like DeviantArt, or even a video. In theory because you have paid whatever sum in cash or cryptocurrency, you are the owner of that piece of art, much like the person with that aforementioned Salvador Dali.
The reality of owning art is that the only way someone can steal the piece hanging in the wall of your living room is through a burglary or underwhelming recreation of an ‘Ocean’s’ film. But on the internet, having an art collection requires nothing more than a downloads folder and an operable mouse. Right click —> save as —>choose your folder. With the internet, stealing art is just two or three clicks away and now anyone can “own” a copy of the Mona Lisa on their PC — though as a worthless JPEG or PNG.
So why own an NFT?
Well, it gives you the ownership of a piece of art. Though the internet is not reality, it’s becoming more and more essential and integral to our reality and what constitutes art is changing — as well as how art is appreciated. Back in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, millionaires were buying up art pieces for their homes to the point that much of the amazing art we see in modern museums came from the estates of names like Rockefeller, Carnegie, Ford, and even Ringling. Art was a sign of wealth that has since devalued — especially because of how easy it is to access nowadays without going to an ornate marble hallway dedicated to a dead rich guy full of the statues and paintings made by dead poor artists.
But the thing is, ownership of a digital piece of art is tenuous and the majority of digital art holds no monetary value. The nature of the internet makes it near impossible for you to hold proprietary ownership of an image and keep others from taking it and using it elsewhere. The Mona Lisa is oil on wood meaning to have an exact recreation you would need not only the exact brushstrokes and composition as Leonardo but also the same paints a Florentine artist of the renaissance period would use and the same type of wood cut in the same way with the same grain. Any facsimile will not have the value of the original because the original cannot be duplicated.
But a file of an image is — well, just a file of an image. There is no physicality to it and that makes it impossible to value.
Part Two: The Modern State of Art as Related to NFT’s
From an art history perspective you could almost relate what is happening now to a digital art renaissance. During that period of time art proliferated, especially of course in Italy. A lot of that art was commissioned by the rich or institutions such as the Catholic Church. Art and artists were valued for their ability to beautify spaces as well as create portraits of those able to afford them or showcase the power of the Church as well as the glory of their God. That art has an enduring legacy, standing up to the pyramids and Greek constructions in the pantheon of icons to human creative achievement.
But now there are so many artists and art itself has been devalued to the point that anyone can commission anything they want drawn; from a portrait of their family, to a detailed picture of their OC (original character).
A bunch of factors have taken us to where we are now as far as art is concerned.
One is photography. Among my least favorite styles of art is the “still life”, in which a painter will arrange a bunch of items on a table and paint it. They’ve existed for pretty much the entire history of art and are usually used in painting classes to help students learn how to use shadow and light in compositions.
But who needs to paint a table of fruit when you can just take a picture of a bunch of bananas on a table and post it to Instagram, call it “Still Life of a Bundle of Cavendish Bananas” and have one like and two comments, one asking “Why are you posting this” and the other telling you “Those are plantains”.
Photography has made the need for most art, especially painting, pointless. And with phones, anyone can take a beautiful picture of a scenic landscape and even easily doctor it using Photoshop to give it a more artistic flair.
Another factor is that artists online are posting their work for free just to get noticed. There are thousands of great artists drawing, painting, or modeling original pieces or fan art and posting it to their social media or other platforms like Reddit or DeviantArt. Many do it entirely as a hobby; though some want to make money, whether through prints of their art or commissions.
The proliferation of art online means fewer artists get recognized. Prints can make you some money if your pieces are well-liked enough, and commissions allow fans of your work to get something custom made. But the stereotype of a starving artist is more resonant than ever.
On top of all of that artists now are creating art in the digital space, no longer even creating physical pieces. Digital art whether 3D models or 2D pieces made on a tablet, are the wave of the future. And that art isn’t saved on a physical piece of paper or canvas, they are files.
So if you are a master artist working off a tablet who created a gorgeous piece adored by thousands — does the original file hold the kind of value the piece would have had were it an oil on canvas?
Back to NFT’s.
Part 3: The Value of an NFT for an Artist
From the perspective of an artist or photographer who posts their work digitally an NFT provides a way for that creator to make money off their work in a way that they never could before. Selling physical prints can make you some money but that digital file can still be put across social media or even printed out using a quality printer.
The NFT copy of a work essentially creates, in the digital space, that original copy that would have, were it a physical piece, been what a collector at an auction wants more than any reproduction.
Local artists and photographers now have a file they can call the original and allow collectors to value. In many ways it’s revolutionary while in others it hearkens to the art collecting days I spoke of earlier. And those spending millions of dollars to amass a collection of NFT’s understand that. Some are collecting purely in the same way others collect Pokemon cards or Disney memorabilia. It’s creating a market for art not seen in many, many years and often more accessible to the average person than Sotheby’s.