Since our ancestors first drew stories on cave walls, art has been an integral part of our lives. Throughout history, art has undergone numerous changes driven by the invention of new artistic movements and the adoption of technologies. One significant milestone that’s revolutionized how we engage with artworks online is the emergence of non-fungible tokens (NFTs), impacting not only the technological sphere but also the artistic landscape.
Let’s delve deeper into the world of art, learn more about the challenges faced in the past, understand what NFTs stand for, and examine how they have precisely reshaped the way people perceive artworks today.
From The Dawn of Time to the Digital Age
For a long time, artworks were considered exclusive assets accessible primarily to the upper classes, such as the aristocracy or at least wealthy merchants, who could afford to commission artists and purchase materials. Moreover, most people would think of art as tangible objects like paintings, statues, mosaics, or similar items that could be owned in the physical form. The exception at that time might have included forms of art such as songs, poems, and other artistic expressions perceived through sounds. However, until the overall democratization of the industry, art remained primarily characterized by traits such as exclusivity, tangibility, and physical limitations.
When we think of art collecting in the past, private collections like the one formed by Archduke Leopold are often the first to come to mind.
With the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century and the emergence of the digital age in the 20th century, the art industry became significantly more accessible. Artworks were not only attainable for the general public in terms of status but also no longer required months or years to traverse the globe. Moreover, this marked the starting point for a completely new digital medium. From that point forward, tangible assets such as paintings or drawings could exclusively exist in the digital realm and still be regarded as genuine art. For many people, it was a revolution that allowed them to join the ranks of artists or at least get familiar with art from across all human history.
However, although the digital realm uncovered new opportunities and provided diverse functionality for people regardless of their status, wealth, or location, quite a few challenges emerged in front of digital artists. Among the more common issues that remained the same for digital artworks, there were also a few specific to the digital space like:
- Digital ownership: Artists often struggle to enforce their rights to intellectual property and receive proper compensation for their work. For example, some criminals use digital artworks in commerce, while their rightful owners remain oblivious to this fact, as tracking media can be a time-consuming and complex task.
- Counterfeiting: As drawing software has become accessible to the public, some artists have started tracing the works of more popular or professional creators to boost interest in their own works. Thus, they not only unlawfully leverage the works of others to their advantage but also fail to compensate true artists.
As a result, many artists have started looking for options that could have helped them deal with these issues, and that’s where non-fungible tokens first appeared on the digital landscape.
The Dawn of NFTs in the Art Industry
Non-fungible tokens, more commonly known as NFTs, are digital assets that represent physical items such as paintings or photos, providing proof of authenticity through blockchain technology. While NFTs use blockchains like Bitcoin and Ethereum, they differ from cryptocurrencies in two key ways: firstly, they are unique and non-fungible assets, making them irreplaceable; secondly, as mentioned earlier, they do not function as a currency but rather serve as representations of existing assets. Think of them as add-ons to your digital collectibles that provide valuable features.
The foundation for NFTs was laid in blockchain technology, which gained prominence with cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. At that time, blockchain offered a decentralized and transparent ledger, making it suitable for recording ownership and provenance.
In the mid-2010s, a community of digital artists began exploring the idea of using blockchain technology to create unique digital art pieces. Early experiments with crypto art gained attention, but it wasn’t until around 2017 that the concept started to gain traction. During that period, Bitcoin was the most popular blockchain. Although it was a powerful technology, it had limitations that prevented it from becoming the primary platform for popularizing NFTs.
In late 2017, CryptoKitties, a blockchain-based virtual collectible game built on the Ethereum platform, introduced the ERC-721 token standard. This standard finally enabled artists to create the NFTs we know today, as it provided a more flexible system for recording, storing, altering, and tracking new digital assets. However, the CryptoKitties project wasn’t enough to ignite the interest of the masses and make NFTs a hot topic among artists.
The breakthrough moment came in March 2021 when the digital artist Beeple sold a digital collage titled Everydays: The First 5000 Days as an NFT for $69 million at a Christie’s auction. This marked a turning point in the history of NFTs, attractingglobal attention to these unique digital assets. Following Beeple’s record-breaking sale, many artists began exploring NFTs as a new way to monetize their works. Galleries and museums were not left behind, opening new NFT art exhibitions and transitioning their real-life assets into digital formats.
Sold at Christie’s, Beeple’s collage became a spark for the popularity of NFTs on the market. (Image: Beeple)
Since the initial hype, the NFT art market has continued to evolve. Artists have kept experimenting with interactive and generative NFT art, while more platforms and marketplaces have emerged to facilitate NFT transactions. Nowadays, the industry remains a dynamic space for artists and collectors to explore new business opportunities, ensure authenticity, and protect their intellectual property in the turbulent world of the digital realm.
What Makes NFTs a Driving Force in the Art Industry
Although tokens faced a backlash, they still managed to secure their spot among the art community. As we previously discussed, today, there are massive events, public support, and broad adoption among art institutions. However, none of this could have happened without genuinely valuable features such as:
Provenance tracking: In an environment where artworks can be easily duplicated and circulated, creators need a tool to track their works. NFTs provide a robust and transparent system that records assets on the blockchain, tracks them, and can prove their authenticity. As a result, artists and collectors gain confidence in their purchased assets.
Monetization for Digital Artists: Before NFTs, many digital artists struggled to monetize their work effectively. Aside from receiving donations through platforms like Ko-fi and Patreon, artists primarily relied on commissions for income. Nowadays, by leveraging NFTs, artists can sell their digital creations directly to collectors, eliminate expenses associated with intermediaries, and even receive royalties from secondary sales, marking a significant departure from traditional art sales.
Global Accessibility: NFTs have a global reach, engaging anyone with an internet connection. This significantly democratizes the art market, allowing artists from diverse backgrounds to showcase their works and opening the door for a wide range of collectors to enter the sophisticated world of art.
Interoperability: NFTs are not limited to a single platform or ecosystem. They can be bought, sold, and traded across various NFT marketplaces, applications, and even in the real world. This interoperability drives adoption and further enhances prospects for artists.
Nowadays, NFTs have become an invaluable source of income accessible through various means, including public marketplaces like OpenSea and more specialized organizations for high-end art like Digital Basel. While some may feel daunted by the prospect of entering this field, the benefits for galleries, collectors, and artists should persuade you to take this leap forward.