The art world’s governing systems inculcate the notion that expressing one’s experience artistically is an endeavor too noble to require something as grubby as being paid. The result of this conditioning is that artists, critics, educators and curators don’t learn how to be confident at expecting fair compensation from a system that relies on flagrant devotion extortion to plunder their talents. Instead, cultural laborers toil at the base of the economic pyramid making the products which fuel it. Some of those objects and ideas pass through galleries, collections and museums, accruing value. Most will languish unseen, along with their makers, who typically must take on alternative employment that stymies creativity. But what if there were a way to break this intractable cliche?
NFTs (non-fungible tokens) offer art workers the tantalizing prospect of earning income from their practices. For artists, that could mitigate pinning their economic hopes to the extreme unlikelihood of gallery representation, which is a carrot that’s rotten even before it is dangled. Since their emergence in 2014 NFTs have become ubiquitous and controversial, largely due to instances of multi-million dollar sales, and awkward media attempts to grapple with these enigmatic commodities. With their strange lexicon, NFTs can seem overwhelmingly confusing; but they needn’t be. So what are they, and why is there such hostility toward them?
Of the vanguard technologists who are forging the ideologies and platforms that support NFTs, Katie Geminder is particularly empathetic to the needs of artists. A product strategist who has worked in e-commerce since its inception, including at Facebook, Amazon, and Apple, she is adept at recognizing complex computer systems and translating them into accessible, entrepreneurial models. It’s an ability that she is now applying to her driving belief that workers across the arts should be able to make a livable income from their creative labors—part of a conscientious capitalist philosophy that she adheres to. Compelled by the straitened finances of artist friends, Geminder—with Cameron Hejazi—co-founded Cent, a socially interactive community where creators can set their own terms for selling NFTs. She cuts through the jargon to offer a disarmingly simple explanation of what these processes mean:
“One day my mother asked me what I was working on, and I thought, ‘as a user experience person, if I can’t explain this to my mom and get her to understand it, then I have a problem.’ So, I figured out an analogy using Amazon—where I had worked for six years; where I had cut my teeth. I said, ‘mom, when you go to Amazon and you search for a 12-pack of toilet paper, what do you think about? You don’t think about how the search query is processed, or how the database is structured, or what language they wrote the code in for the search service. You just think, ‘I’m searching for toilet paper.’ That’s the same with the blockchain. The blockchain is powerful and it represents a tectonic shift, but you don’t think about it when you’re using it; same with Amazon.
Then you click ‘add to cart’ and you’re going to complete your order. So you have to decide how you will pay—your visa, your Amex, your Amazon points? That’s the same as cryptocurrency. It’s a payment type. It’s an option. It’s not an option right now in the same way, but in the future it will be.
Then, you click ‘confirm’ and you get an email with an order ID. That order ID is the same thing as an NFT. An NFT, to my mind, is a digital receipt for a transaction that happened. That transaction could be for physical goods, or for an event, or an experience. Bottom line, you get a transaction ID and that transaction ID lives on a public ledger—the blockchain—not one that’s just owned by Amazon.
And so, this is the challenge with how people are talking about NFTs right now. They are equating them to a specific type of art, and that’s the origin story, but it’s not the long-term narrative arc. We’re all discovering what NFT’s can be, what they can represent; what this new ecosystem can do, not just for creators, but for anyone, any business, anything. That is how I try to demystify something that is otherwise represented as very complicated.”
An NFT—that digital receipt that proves purchase and provenance—stores information (transaction history, dates, buyer) and is often allied with a smart contract that states (and later actions) an author’s terms for sale, resale, and future royalties. Each time an NFT-asset is sold, the transaction is logged as a new block of data and added to the incontrovertible chain. It actually provides a more transparent timeline of a crypoartwork’s journey than the nefarious histories of many famous paintings.
The uniqueness, and therefore value, of whatever is sold as an NFT proceeds not from the item itself—electronic files can be endlessly reproduced—but from the non-exchangeable certificate, the NFT, that is spliced to that particular version of an asset. That generates “digital scarcity,” or collectability—the difference from any other copy, version or publication of that file.
Digital art is the most conducive and prominent NFT art form, but any item only becomes cryptoart after it has been minted. That’s the process of creating the NFT. Minting can be executed with a click on cryptoart platforms which, put simply, function a bit like Instagram, if Instagram operated more like eBay and bids could be placed on your posts.
What makes NFTs seem like exotic matter that we need Stephen Hawking to explain, is that they can represent absolutely anything. A meme, an animation, a conversation, an article, a music clip, a dinner date, or the stains of collapsed rainbow on a painter’s studio floor—can all be digitized and sold as NFTs. Even physical objects can be attached to them. It’s this metaphysical fuckery with our sense of reality and even matter itself, that lends NFTs their science-fictional bent. But their capacity to activate billions of actions, gestures and pieces of information as monetizable, is wildly intriguing, if for many, suspicious. For artists, this is sizzlingly new territory, and perhaps intimidating, but it doesn’t require a degree in astrophysics to navigate it.
In the case of Cent, when a community member sells an NFT—not the work’s copyright—the platform takes only five percent, with ninety-five percent going to the creator. While it’s not directly comparable to the gallery system—overheads and long-term investment in an artist are costly—it’s still a staggering difference to the fifty percent that galleries typically take. Cent even enables users to pay others for comments that they deem helpful, which is a modest yet profound tweak to social media culture. But Geminder isn’t interested in replacing the art world’s abusive economic apparatus. Rather, Cent and other sites, each with their own traits and mechanisms, such as Superrare, Infinft, and Open Sea, offer an alternative choice to it, or more accurately, an expansion of it.
Why would someone buy an NFT that cannot necessarily be displayed on the wall? Perhaps for the same reason that Jack Dorsey’s first NFT’d tweet sold for three million dollars. Why does anyone buy anything? It holds value in the buyer’s eyes—and that can be the genesis of new worlds.
Dorsey’s twitter message is only the progeny of what came before it on the trajectory of technological progress—the pattern is ancient, even if the wrapping is new. The first Penny Black stamp, for example, (printed in 1840) will soon be offered at auction for seven million dollars. Sothebys describe it as representing, “the very dawn of social communication, and this stamp was a game-changer, allowing people to communicate from all levels of society and business to flourish.” Sound familiar? These sales represent historical precedent that a buyer can own a piece of. Certainly the wealthy stamp collector will have the original object, but objecthood is diminishing stock as we move toward a metaversed existence. Digital experience and confirmation will increasingly become an acceptable alternative. It’s something that ABBA fans will discover when they see their idols on stage next year in London, knowing that the band’s human members won’t actually be there.
NFTs do present a tricky issue that artists—ever-vigilant of how they are perceived by peers, collectors and dealers—may need to think about. While some cryptoart sites do curate content, there isn’t the rigid visual control over some of those portals that is exerted over physical galleries and their websites—or we are just unaccustomed to a style of curation that has adapted to new art forms. For some, that egalitarianism will be disqualifying. Does it dilute an artwork’s quality, or ding an artist’s reputation to be seen onscreen next to images that might be rejected from the contemporary art scene? Perhaps. But if it does, why the loyalty to the dictates of tastemakers managing a system that doesn’t care back, if it even notices an artist at all?
In fact, NFT sites potentially connect creators to a much larger pool of bidders, increasing distribution far beyond an artist’s usual rarified and tiny audience. This isn’t possible in traditional art settings which keep the uninitiated public at so many arms’ lengths it makes Hands Across America look underpopulated. Taste is merely what an individual likes, and as cryptoart expands the parameters of what’s on offer, might that democratizing—that opinion equity—worry cultural gatekeepers whose dictates could be swept away?
There may be resistance too, from art world inhabitants who have committed so earnestly to a place still anchored in the physical. Despite Covid and Instagram, art scenes still revolve around studio buildings, galleries, art schools, fairs, museums, and the very substance of most art—corporeal medium. But blockchain and NFT technology represent only the latest art-making crucible, not a replacement of what is already there. Museums and galleries are unlikely to disappear. They are revealing possibilities hitherto unimagined, expanding opportunity rather than narrowing it. How much creative by-product integral to a creator’s process, and often discarded—preliminary notes, performative detritus, rough drafts, sketchbook excerpts—could be utilized to help sustain the practices of art workers.
Of course, this technology—still in its infancy and rapidly evolving—is unlikely to be a fix-all for the majority of contemporary art workers, not least because of concerns over its energy consumption and environmental consequences. Others won’t be interested in turning their every move into currency, or will be unable to cleave themselves from the falsehood that pursuing a respectable creative income damages their monastic purity. Nor can we know if the fullest potential of cryptocurrency and NFTs will be realized, or if it will dissipate. But for now, even if you still think of the entire enterprise as the emperor’s new clothes, why not try them on—they might fit. Despite personal, professional and ethical considerations, NFTs are revolutionizing aesthetics and commerce, and have already ignited a digital Big Bang that renders concepts of what art and value can be, limitless.
Madina Stepanchenko is a journalist, art writer and documentary filmmaker. She is based in New York.