Header Image: Escapism by Lethabo Huma
When Christie’s, an auction house that has existed since 1766, sold a digital artwork by Beeple for the price of $69 million, the world took notice. It’s not just the art world either that paid attention. The cryptocurrency folks also paid attention. And thanks to that 8-digit price, even those who weren’t part of any of those two circles began asking questions.
The definition of NFT, or Non-Fungible Token, seems to change depending on who you’re asking. Some liken it to a trading card, while others look at it more like a certificate of ownership or authenticity. Whichever definition they took, what was starting to become abundantly clear is that almost everyone either really loved NFTs and see it as the future we’re heading towards or hated it for its money-hungry motives and negative environmental effects.
Like most innovations in history, there’s a pros and cons list that goes with it. Does the benefit outweigh the cost? Or are its negative impacts too much for us to bear, no matter what positive benefits it might have? Let’s take a look at both sides to get a clearer picture.
There’s one really big plus to NFTs, and it’s the reason NFTs even exist, to begin with. Because of the nature of the digital space, it’s easy to make a copy of any sort of digital item. Anyone can screenshot a page, download an image, and re-share those digital works wherever they want. When this keeps happening, two things happen: digital property starts to lose any value because of the almost infinite copies you can make, and artists often quickly lose ownership.
Though digital art has tremendous potential as it literally can do things our physical world can’t, this loss of ownership and value is what makes many artists fear stepping into the digital realm. That’s exactly what Kevin McCoy and Anil Dash set out to do in 2014. McCoy is an artist who manipulates technology to create thoughtful works about our relationship with media. He knows full well what the digital space can do, but he also is intimately familiar with how quickly he can lose ownership of his works once it reaches the internet.
McCoy, together with technologist Anil Dash, would create the first iteration of a unique digital means of asserting ownership of over digital work. They called it monetized graphics at the time. As Dash recalled it, the name “prompted knowing laughter from an audience wary of corporate-sounding intrusions into the creative arts.”
As silly as the name coined by Dash and McCoy might be, the idea is still sound. Blockchain has been used to authenticate physical artworks for many years now. It was only a matter of time that it would be applied to digital art, too. Now, artists can have ownership again over their digital art.
Admittedly, digital artists have been creating NFTs of their works for years before Christie’s ever sold Beeple’s work for $69 million. There’s one thing that this sale did that years of digital artists creating NFTs and digital art couldn’t do, and that’s legitimizing digital art.
Any sort of non-traditional artwork is difficult to sell. Photography, having existed for centuries, still struggles to fetch the same price as other more traditional mediums but its acceptance at art auction houses and influential art institutions gave the medium more leg in the race. Christie’s, with its 2.5 centuries’ worth of clout, has now basically told the whole world that digital art was, is, and always will be a legitimate form of art that any collectors worth their salt should get.
In a world where digital artists often get the worst end of the stick, NFTs have the potential to level the playing field. How many times have we seen stories of artists getting their works stolen by other parties for profit? Too many to count. By having a digital way of tracing and authenticating digital artworks, artists can not only make their work profitable but can claim ownership better than they can now.
There are so many exciting things that NFTs can offer, but the biggest benefit is what they can do to legitimize digital art. It’s no longer a worthless endeavor for artists that wish to experiment with this medium. NFT makes digital art profitable and that’s always a good thing for artists.
But with every innovation, there is always a downside. In the next article, we’ll be exploring some of the negative impacts this new technology has and how we can mitigate some of the worries.