By Fatema Pittalwala
For many of us, the world of cryptocurrency and new-age tech-finance technology seem like something only understood by those who wake up in the morning and check the stock market and spend their evenings coding, or internet clans that worship the likes of Elon Musk. But with the shift to technological methods for, well, almost everything we do, more people are engaging with the crypto market as it becomes a popular new venture for those looking to join the digitised wealth train. Recently, the NFT craze has swept up the art world and made its way to the general public as the past months have seen digital images sell for a lot of money. Just last week, the girl pictured in the 2005 “disaster girl” meme sold the original photo for almost $500,000 through an NFT.
If you’re wondering what that meme is, look it up, and we’re sure you’ll go “half a million dollars for that?”
That girl might just have internet luck, but as often the case, things start to get more interesting when it starts to emerge as a pattern, not an anomaly. In short: people are making serious money using NFT’s. The digital artist Beeple’s NFT piece, “The First 5000 Days” recently sold for USD $69.3 million (Approx INR 504 crore) at Christie’s first purely digital NFT auction, bought by Indian origin Vignesh Sundaresan. His work is now the 3rd most expensive artwork ever sold by a living artist. Beeple’s real name, Mike Winkelmann, is the most high-profile artist on this platform. Beeple has built a huge community around him, around 2.5 million followers and he is famously prolific for his project called “Everydays”, Winkelmann creates and publishes a new digital artwork every day for the last 14 years.
So how do we make sense of this new financial-crypto-art-boom, and what are the potential uses?
What is an NFT?
NFT stands for “Non-Fungible Token”. These kinds of tokens are cryptographic assets on blockchain with a unique identification code. It records the transactions and gives buyers proof of authenticity and ownership. Non-fungible tokens are not interchangeable – each of these tokens is unique. The current NFT boom is mainly with digital assets which include images, GIFS, sports collectables, videos, songs, and tweets.
The technology has been around since the mid-2010s but went mainstream in late 2017 with CryptoKitties; it is a site that allowed people to buy and “breed” limited – edition digital cats with cryptocurrency. Each NFT represented a unique cat that was produced by a smart contract. If you think this is beginning to sound like a digital version of a beanie-baby so far, you wouldn't be the only one. But then NFT's met the art world, and things began to change.
The increasing use of NFT’s is a response to the art world’s need for authentication and provenance in an increasingly digital world, permanently linking a digital file to its creator. While anyone can see and easily download a digital artwork or video clip, they will have to purchase the individual, impossible-to-pirate, NFT version if they want to own the original collectable version.
How big is the market?
There are now there are plenty of illustrators, video and graphic artists selling their works at high prices. Pablo Rodriguez-Fraile, the collector who bought a Beeple work for $66,666 and resold it for 100 times the amount just four months later, started collecting digital art a year ago. He co-founded the Museum of Crypto Art in part to display his growing art collection, adding weight to the growing discussion that technology and transparency matters in the art world and that it is a true digital alternative asset.
Nadya Ivanova, chief operating officer of research firm L’Atelier, says NFTs are here to stay. According to the NFT Report 2020, published by L’Atelier BNP Paribas and Nonfungible.com, the value of the NFT market grew by 299% in 2020, when it was valued at over $250 million. But the first few months of 2021 have already seen astonishing sales, even before this auction. However, since mid-March 2021 the average price of NFTs plummeted almost 70% from the peak specifically in the art market for NFTs. Many say a price drop was a matter of when, not if. But NFT believers hold tight to the belief that the drop is not permanent.
Accessibility in the Art World?
There are always a few artists who bypass art world gatekeepers to establish huge sale prices. NFTs are a technology used to authenticate an artwork; whether a work is art or not is up to us as viewers. Those from a more traditional art background may be horrified by most of the “art” offered as NFTs. Garish, jaggedly drawn faces, cartoonish figures, cute kittens, images often derived from video games, comics or fantasy movies. The artists themselves are hardly traditional. But NFT’s have helped digital artists tremendously, pushing the boundaries of what is considered art by creating futuristic artworks. Or, as some may see it - reviving interest in an industry which has long been viewed as exclusive or elite, particularly in the West where the art world is often accused of having an Old Boys Club culture.
Notably, a number of women are successfully carving out a niche in the exploding NFT art scene. The decentralized NFT marketplace gives artists equal and direct access to collectors, side-stepping some of the traditional barriers that have historically disadvantaged female artists. But this utopian equity-based orientation may be short lived, as most of the artists making the biggest sales on the market are still predominantly male, and unfortunately, as the market has grown, the trend of male dominance has also become more apparent. Bloomberg Research shows that women make up only about 15 % of crypto users. The effect of this exclusion could be long-lasting, preventing women or other minorities from getting into this field.
Hope is to be found in the immediacy of community-based responses within this arena, with, women already creating communities to advocate for gender inclusivity and integrating a level of accountability in these infancy stages of the market. One such community is Women of Crypto Art (WOCA), formed in 2020 by NFT artists and collectors. WOCA is for women from all over the world to come together, share ideas and support women in the NFT space. Recently, there was an initiative on International Women’s Day, where artists like Bud Snow and Wildcat Ebony Brown launched their first NFT art sale. They are selling their work on Opensea.io, an NFT marketplace on the Ethereum blockchain. Each work comes with a contract ensuring that the artist will receive 10 percent resale royalty in the event that the artwork is later resold. The money raised through this sale will fund a public mural.
Another woman leading by example in the NFT space is Lady Phoenix, the founder and host of the virtual channel CryptoBasel. She organizes engaging Clubhouse salons to generate accessible and informative online sessions and is becoming a leading contemporary voice within the crypto space. In India, we have Terrain.art, India’s first blockchain-powered online platform in the art market by Aparajita Jain, who also runs one of India’s leading contemporary gallery called Nature Morte. She will be adding an NFT module to her platform this month. Terrain.art will focus on contemporary art in South Asia.
With women like this in the industry, the hope is that they continue supporting women in this community ensuring women become and remain a part of this new cultural movement. As long as NFTs revolve around art, a cause and legacy they are here to stay. It will democratize art buying, and create transparency, which will solve the issue with fakes, and not relying on middlemen is going to make NFTs attractive for collectors. However, there is a massive carbon footprint associated with crypto mining with huge amounts of power being burnt. We are definitely in for a bumpy ride, but ultimately digital ownership of assets will be the certain winner.
About the Author
Fatema's career spans in policy research, political consultancy, political data analysis and in Indian modern and contemporary art specialist. After moving back from New York, she was actively involved in the Indian Art Auction space where she worked at Pundole’s and Christie’s. She is the Founder of Pourmecoffee, a platform to bring together an eclectic mix of people to discuss varied subjects such as economics, politics, art, media and society and Art and Culture Talks, an instagram page that is a curated guide to all art and cultural talks @artandculturetalks. She currently works with the Reliance Art Foundation as their Art Curator and Assistant Art Adviser.