NFTs: The future of art today or just another cash grab?

27/02/2022

Maya Bewley and Jack Barton debate whether NFTs put artists back in power or exploit them

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Image by Dylan Calluy

By Maya Bewley and Jack Barton

It’s near impossible to have avoided the digital footprint of NFTs over the past year. From headlines to timelines, they’ve circulated the internet and found their fair share of controversy in the process. Auction house Christie’s has dubbed them “The next chapter in art history,” while artist David Hockney labels them “silly little things”, “for crooks and swindlers”. But before we enter our own debate, what exactly are NFTs?

NFT stands for non-fungible token. In this case, it refers to a unique set of data stored on a blockchain – a digital record of financial transactions. This unique set of data can then be used to verify that you own a file. Like collecting physical artworks, NFTs are sold to show that you own a digital piece of art – such as a photo or video. Sounds respectable enough, right? Except, this is also where most of the controversy surrounding NFTs lies. If you buy an NFT, you’re only really buying proof of ownership. It doesn’t stop any humble internet-user from simply screenshotting the same piece of art. NFTs have also been critiqued for the colossal amounts of energy taken to produce them.

On the other hand, NFTs can drastically increase or decrease in value. And as it turns out, there’s a lot of money to be made. Famously, artist Beeple sold their NFT Everydays in 2021 for $69.3 million dollars. Hence, the NFT craze we’re experiencing at the moment. From John Lennon’s son to Paris Hilton herself, everyone wants a (non-fungible) piece of the pie. Since NFTs remain a hot topic, we decided to have our own debate on whether or not they are beneficial for the art world

NFTs: Putting The Artist Back in Power? - Jack Barton

Firstly, to address the carbon sized elephant in the room, NFTs won’t be as bad for the environment as we think. The vast majority of NFTs are built off of Ethereum, the second biggest cryptocurrency, and therefore over the next year or so NFTs energy usage will drastically decline.

The massive amount of energy used by cryptocurrency is through ‘mining’, where vastly powerful computers have to put in a large amount of ‘work’ for a chance of receiving a chunk of crypto. Ethereum is now moving away from mining towards ‘staking’, where people lock away little bits of Ethereum for interest, in order to run the network. This move will reduce energy usage by 99.95 percent, making it use only 11 percent of the energy of Visa for the same number of transactions.

Like what Soundcloud did for musicians, digitalising art significantly lowers the barriers for entry. The art is not gatekept, and they can avoid the hassle and upfront investment to physically shift thousands of pieces. I could make a lovely piece of art on my laptop in the morning, and have it sold by the afternoon without any extra fuss. This immediately opens your work to a global market where anyone can see your art, not just those in your area. NFTs therefore provide a secure, transparent avenue for original creators to get a fair price for their art.

I think the best implementation is having an NFT be tied to a physical piece, giving a further layer of security, but also providing financial clarity that would greatly reduce fraud. This would ensure all artists get resale royalties and would know who owned their work and how much it sold for; creating an art world led by transparency and fair use.

NFTs: Is This The Best We’ve Got? - Maya Bewley

Look, I don’t believe that in ten years time we’ll all be paying for our mortgages and meal deals with the money made from some kitten photos we sold online. But what NFTs do reveal is an ugly truth about the art world: that it has always revolved around money.

Take a look at the highest seven day sales for NFTs on non-fungible.com and you’ll start to notice a trend. The most popular collections aren’t exactly intricate works of art. They’re usually relatively simple iterations of the same formula: some kind of character with randomised traits. For example, NFTs by the Bored Ape Yacht Club are literally just thousands of cartoon monkeys decked out in party poppers and sailor hats. But due to their extreme monetary value, they’re being bought by the likes of Justin Bieber for millions of dollars. CryptoPunks, Cyberkongz, LazyLions galore - all share the same, dismally predictable format.

Of course, there are many artists who use the tokens to sell ownership to more complex work, and art is, after all, subjective. But my point is that the kind of art being produced by the current NFT fever are pieces where simplistic aesthetic value acts as a barely stable affront for the colossal amounts of money it intends to generate. Why else would fine art auction houses Christie’s and Sotheby’s sell NFTs that are more Moshi Monsters than Monet?

The contemporary art market has been critiqued as a way for the uber-rich to consolidate their wealth by spending ridiculously large sums of money on artwork as an investment. And although anyone can technically buy them, the digital world of NFTs is no different. The supposed future of art just rehashes the same problems as before – the irony being that you don’t get anything physical to show for it.