Can NFTs Benefit Digital Abstract Artists?
Mar 24, 2021
Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs) may be just another artistic medium, but as intangible instruments of questionable cultural and economic value, their embrace by mainstream culture could transform the way audiences interact with abstract artists and their works. An NFT is a unique digital file—it exists as a coded series of 1s and 0s, just like any image file, word doc, or website. Except NFTs also exist on a virtual ledger known as a blockchain. Blockchains record the details of who created something, along with every transaction related to the item. According to the designers of the technology, blockchains are secure and reliable because they cannot be forged, altered or duplicated. Yet, blockchains are as inherently intangible as any other digital asset—if electricity went away, blockchains, NFTs, and every other completely virtual asset would go back to only existing in our imaginations. An NFT artwork can manifest as an image, an animation, audio, text, a hologram, or as any other digital embodiment of the creativity of the artist. NFTs can also be programmed to interact with actual reality. They can interact with augmented reality (AR) cues implanted in the real world, or be triggered to change in response to news events. They can even be programmed to reproduce, or self-destruct. But a painting can also incorporate AR or other multi-media elements, or self-destruct (see Banksy). If you are the type of artist whose ideas are guided by the specificities of a particular medium, NFTs offer an idiosyncratic type of inspiration, but so does clay. If you are the type of artist for whom ideas are more important than whatever material form they eventually take, NFTs are just one more ultimately inadequate medium from which to chose, or not choose. Nonetheless, even if they are just one more medium in a field saturated with mediums, NFTs do have the potential to change the abstract art field, if only by normalizing the ability of people to value something they do not understand.
Meaning and Lasting Value
The first known paintings by humans are recorded on the walls of caves, and date back more than 60,000 years. They are interesting not because they demonstrate artistic mastery, but because they are so old. They offer us a tangible glimpse of a moment in time to which we have few other connections. Some small part of me compares every artwork I see to the cave paintings, because I believe it is the job of every artist to be a representative of their time. In preparation for this article, I spent a week browsing anything tagged with the words abstract or abstraction on Rarible and OpenSea, the two primary online marketplaces for NFT art. I found the experience to be excruciatingly boring. Without exception, every artwork I looked at was derivative of existing real world artworks. I could not imagine why anyone would buy one of these gee-gaws, unless they were swindled into believing the pyramid scheme stories in the press about the early investors who have recently been cashing in.
Beeple, Everydays – The First 5000 Days. Sold for $69,346,250 at Christie's
But like all artworks, NFTs are subjective. Evidently some people find meaning in these works, and are willing to pay money to secure their ability to interact with them whenever and however they want. Is that any different than buying a painting to hang on your living room wall? Yet, beyond their ability to generate enough interest with audiences to be bought and sold here and now, I wonder what their long term value is going to be. Take it from me, they are no more masterful than those 60,000-year old cave paintings, but do early NFTs capture enough of a glimpse of our time that they might one day be useful or inspiring for future civilizations? If I knew, perhaps I would invest.
Embrace the Intangible
As someone who writes about it for a living, I can say without a doubt that the biggest stigma abstract art has always had is that certain people cannot fathom what they are supposed to think or feel in its presence. Not knowing what to say about an artwork makes some people feel stupid, which in turn makes the art seem pretentious. Even to people who love it, abstract art exists in the realm of the intangible. When you enter a Turrell installation, or stare at an Agnes Martin grid painting, can you really describe with words what is it that you experience? I once walked around a draped Sam Gilliam painting for half an hour, hardly even looking at the composition, just trying to smell the paint. I have no idea why, but it remains one of the most memorable aesthetic experiences I have ever had. While I was doing it, I heard another viewer say they thought “those hanging curtains” were “hideous.” I pitied them for not being able to embrace the intangible layers of meaning and feeling embedded in the folds. Maybe an NFT of Gilliam making and hanging a painting would help that viewer connect with the work.
Robert Alice, Block 21 (42.36433° N, -71.26189° E) (from Portraits of a Mind). Sold for $131,250 at Christie's
As an economic instrument, NFT artworks and collectibles are as legitimate as any other digital assets. Their value is as subjective as that of an Ed Clark painting or a Breanna Stewart rookie card. Similarly, as an artistic medium NFTs have as many ups and downs as their competitors—they are as archival as videos, as ephemeral as works on paper, and as deceptively hard to master as watercolors. And even if we can only speculate as to the longterm cultural value of NFT art, what, after all, is the longterm cultural value of most of the non-NFT art being made today? I still believe, however, that even if no artist ever makes a great work of NFT art, the medium has the potential to transform the abstract art field specifically, if only in terms of public perception. Anyone capable of seeing the potential of an NFT to add meaning to the human experience is on the road to embracing all of the ethereal and intangible things of this world.
Featured image: Pak, Metarift. Sold for $904,413.47 at Makersmarket
All images used for illustrative purposes only
By Phillip Barcio