Art, Politics & Society

How NFT and Digital Art can make the art world a little bit less white and male

For years, decades, even centuries, the upper echelon of the art world is filled with a certain type of demographic: almost always men, white, and most importantly, incredibly rich. The most expensive artwork sold to a living artist is Jeff Koons. The next few names that follow him are all white males: David Hockney, Gerard Richter, Lucian Freud, Peter Doig, and Damien H. But even way below their 8 digit prices, the artists being regularly auctioned are overwhelmingly male and white, though there are signs of the wind changing

For the past few decades, a different generation of artists is using everchanging technology to create not just a new type of art, but a new type of artist. Unlike the very homogenous club of the traditional art world, the digital art world is incredibly diverse, with all sorts of people, of all shapes and sizes, from all corners of the world.

Why is that?

Vakseen, "His Royal Highness", 2021.

Art, or how most of the world thinks of art, is incredibly expensive to learn. The prices of paints and canvases are expensive. Good brushes that last are priced highly but cheap ones become worn and worthless faster, which might make the end cost higher than the expensive brushes. Lessons are also expensive and being self-taught means you might waste materials trying to experiment. And when it’s all said and done, the resulting art takes up space, which is a prized commodity.

Then came digital art. Unlike the traditional art world, anyone can make any type of digital art with any sort of monetary investment. A cheap smartphone with a free drawing app can make art that’s almost indistinguishable from one that came from a high-end computer and drawing tablet. A smartphone photo is just as good as a professional DSLR camera. Everything can be stored on the cloud or even on social media, meaning little to no cost to store any of your art.

Unlike traditional art, anyone in the world is free to create any type of art. They are not dictated by what art institutions say is good art. They let the people decide the worth of their work, not a gallery or a museum and certainly not collectors. Artists like Nick Davis and CJ Hendry got their start on social media before moving on to “real” exhibitions. Especially in the case of artists like Nick Davis who started by creating digital art, their careers would not exist without the existence of the digital space.

Digital art was ready to be the equalizer of the art world. Except for one problem. Since the creation of the first digital art, many still considered the medium as not worthy of being called art. It makes it very difficult to make a living out of making digital art or be recognized as an artist. Despite the enthusiasm for the new, exciting technology, there is nothing physical to sell. How do you auction data that can easily be replicated and shared? Because of this, many turned to more traditional art-making to be considered legitimate artists, both commercially and academically.

And then 2021 happened. The world was hyper-focused on a man that goes by the name Beeple and how he just sold a piece of digital art for $69 million at the art auction house, Christie’s. Suddenly everyone became aware of NFT and by proxy, digital art. While Beeple was not even close to being the first artist ever to use NFT or any sort of blockchain technology to sell unique artworks, he is notable for being the first that was legitimized by a centuries-old institution. Suddenly, digital art, made unique through technology and often traded with cryptocurrency, is the hot new item traded with and by a new generation of art collectors.

Similar to the low entry cost of digital art, anyone can make an NFT without a high investment. Anything digital can be turned into an NFT. A tweet? An article? A procedurally generated avatar? A meme that has circulated through the internet for decades? They have all been turned to NFTs already. Any digital (sometimes even non-digital) asset can be turned into an NFT.

The ease of entry is highly attractive to many artists that have been struggling to make money off of their art. In addition to this, the relative anonymity of being online makes things slightly less biased. Artists often used online monikers instead of their offline names and used avatars instead of their photos. While it’s still possible to look up most of these artists online to find out about their backgrounds, there is no longer a subconscious bias towards non-male, non-white artists. 

Artists now no longer have to be of a certain background living in certain countries to get their work seen. An artist from the Philippines can make art and get paid for it without ever having to leave their house. Nigerian artists can showcase their art to an international audience. Where an artist is born, where they live, or what they look like matter less in the virtual world of digital NFT art. While white, male artists still make up the majority of digital artists making and selling NFT art, the numbers are continuously changing. These technology and innovation are slowly, but surely, leveling the playing field.

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